New winners in the war America lost
The end of an era looms in Afghanistan after 20 years of a costly and tumultuous war. What began as a counterterrorism campaign to degrade Al-Qaeda soon morphed into what should have been an enduring nation-building exercise. However, the numbers of dead, injured, and displaced will continue to increase, especially among Afghans, as the Taliban persists with its lightning offensive to take advantage of America’s retreat.
The US intelligence community estimates that within six months the Afghan government could collapse. Most of the countryside is already under insurgent control and major cities are surrounded, boosted by armored vehicles and weapons stockpiles abandoned by Afghan government troops who either surrendered or simply fled.
Despite repeated warnings, the Biden administration appears determined to adhere to its Sept. 11 deadline for the withdrawal of all remaining US forces. A muted departure, with neither pageantry nor fanfare, now marks the effective end of what should have been a celebrated conclusion to America’s longest conflict. It now stands as a stark symbol of a lost war, and Afghan officials must now manage the all too clear aftermath of America’s hasty retreat.
It is too late to lobby the White House and undo the withdrawal agreement reached by the previous administration. The clock has also run out on amending that deal to include more stringent terms and credible commitments by the Taliban. Extending the stay for coalition troops would have bought time for a round of multilateral engagements, focusing on proactive regional players with greater influence in Afghan affairs than Washington.
March conferences to advance the Afghan peace process, with officials from Pakistan, China, Iran, and Russia, failed to make a material impact, but follow-up summits convened by the US could have madeprogress. After all, the US had leverage — a quick exit would plunge Afghanistan into yet another civil war, imperiling regional stability and thus threatening Russian, Chinese, and Iranian interests. An extended stay would have been risky since the Taliban was likely to step up its attacks on coalition troops and bases, but a a continued US-NATO presence would have been a deterrent to the Taliban's now all too apparent ambitions. However, that is now gone save for a few troops to protect the US embassy.
Washington’s political calculation appears suspect. Granted, by bringing the troops home, the Biden administration will be credited with ending one of America's two “forever wars,” which could help in the mid-term elections next year. However, the White House now owns the consequences of its hasty departure, andthe escalating violence and unchecked Taliban blitz are a glaring indictment of the shortsightedness of its gamble.
The White House now owns the consequences of its hasty departure, and the escalating violence and unchecked Taliban blitz are a glaring indictment of the shortsightedness of its gamble.
Worse yet, the Biden/Blinken axis frequently professes its preference for multilateral, US-involved (not necessarily US-led) efforts to resolve conflicts and longstanding regional challenges. Unfortunately, before sufficient progress could be made from a multilateral approach to Afghanistan's woes, featuring regional players with shared interests in a stable Afghanistan, America chose, instead, to simply vanish. With more time, ideally a year to 18 months from now, a multilateral coalition bound by mutual interest could have formed and grown sufficiently decisive to quell the potential of another civil war and police Afghan acquiescence to a negotiated settlement, the Taliban included.
What remains is yet another vacuum in a part of the world where three of America's geopolitical rivals appear active. At the core of Iranian, Russian, and Chinese interest in Afghanistan is ensuring a stable Afghanistan as a matter of their national security, fearing a spillover of religious extremism, drug trafficking and surges at their borders as Afghans flee violence. In addition, however, there are specific interests that will see these three countries, as well as Pakistan, play a more active role in post-US withdrawal Afghanistan.
For China, Afghanistan is a crucial node in its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which also boosts the economic corridor with Pakistan, and links Beijing with its $400 billion ambitions in Iran. Afghanistan itself also has vast mineral resources, such as oil, and the second-largest undeveloped copper deposit southeast of Kabul, which China is interested in exploiting, provided there is long-term stability, allowing for investments in developing critical infrastructure and transport networks.
Russia’s interests in Afghanistan align with its ambitions in Central Asia and parts of the Middle East where its military presence is growing in the shadow of America’s withdrawal. Establishing a presence in Afghanistan will also meet a strategic objective to project power abroad and cement its role as a self-appointed and nimble powerbroker, capable of working with all belligerents.
Iran, an influential regional actor, remains a peculiar player in Afghanistan. Most of its activities are limited to potential transnational threats and the use of soft power to spread its ideology. The US departure will come as a relief. Without opposition, Tehran’s ambitions can grow in Afghanistan and beyond into Central Asia. Out of the three competing and cooperating regional players, Iran is the most likely to dispatch troops into Afghanistan to defend its interests as seen with its active support of the Hezbollah Afghanistan proxy. However, Tehran is least likely to utilize economic inducements like Beijing, or settle for the role of elder statesman like Russia, to further its interests in Afghanistan.
All three countries’ strategic interests, in and beyond Afghanistan, will be better served with greater cooperation and revitalized partnerships. Formal agreements will also serve as a check on each other's growing influence in an Afghanistan likely to be overrun by the Taliban, and only marginally answerable to Islamabad.
The post-US withdrawal landscape is likely to be chaotic in the next few months as the Afghan government and the Taliban clash. Long-term, it is an unlikely coalition between Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran that will come to define Afghanistan’s power dynamics, revoking US influences and transforming the country into yet another venue for strategic rivalries. The sole beneficiary of the now uncertain future that awaits Afghanistan is the Taliban and, as always, the greatest costs will be borne by civilians.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell