Vultures circle over Kabul as America retreats
When President Joe Biden announced the US withdrawal from Afghanistan this year, few predicted that the Taliban would acquire vast areas of additional territories so rapidly. According to conservative estimates, a third of Afghan districts are now in Taliban hands and they claim to be in control of 85 percent of the country. If that’s not true yet, it will be soon.
Ken McCallum, head of Britain’s internal security agency MI5, warns of terrorist groups re-establishing training camps. “Extremists will seek to take a propaganda advantage from the situation in Afghanistan,” he says. The UN warns of “humanitarian catastrophe,” with more than half the population in urgent need of lifesaving support. At least 3.5 million Afghans are displaced, 270,000 have fled their homes since January, and Europe faces an influx of refugees.
It’s all very well that the US is offering a path to citizenship to its Afghan translators, but what about the millions of Afghans who staked their futures on the assumptions of security and freedom underpinned by Western commitments to the governing system they imposed? What about the millions of girls who may never get to finish their education? What about the millions of public servants who the Taliban consider traitors for serving the US-backed administration?
The Biden administration is reducing its commitments in Central Asia and the Middle East in order to focus more on threats emanating from China, Russia and Iran. But which three states stand to benefit most from Western drawdowns in these regions?
All three states have been maneuvering for maximum advantage in the post-US era, and have concluded that the Taliban will soon be their principal Afghan interlocutor. A Taliban delegation was in Moscow this month, while simultaneously no fewer than three Taliban delegations were in Tehran. Iranian state media sources are emphasizing how much the Taliban has changed after 20 years of insurgency, while the editor of a Chinese state tabloid declared that the Taliban saw Beijing as a “friend.” The Taliban reciprocated by pledging not to criticize the cultural extermination of the Uighur people, which it downplayed as Chinese “internal affairs.” Even Britain’s defense minister has expressed readiness to engage with the Taliban.
Under Obama, Trump and Biden, an unhealthy US foreign policy discourse emerged about avoiding “forever wars” and not having “boots on the ground” overseas. Yet if there aren’t Western boots on the ground in chronically weak states such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Kosovo and Syria, willing boots will hurriedly arrive from elsewhere. Russia, China, Iran and Turkey have adopted the same imperialist mentalities as European colonialists wielded over a century ago, and much of Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East are in imminent danger of falling under their authoritarian hegemony.
As the vultures circle over Kabul, it is clearly too late to hope that Biden will change his mind.
These states habitually exploit the fog of civil conflict to aggressively extend their influence. Hence, they are actively stoking low-level wars, which also benefit nonstate actors such as Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah and Daesh. While Russia noisily deploys armies of mercenaries and “military advisers,” China’s Belt and Road project enmeshes client states in murky long-term deals that can end up with bases, ports and infrastructure mortgaged to a foreign state.
Foreign policy officials in Washington, Paris, London and Berlin appear reluctant to acknowledge the terrifying direction in which much of the developing world is trending. Populist policies such as Britain’s massive foreign aid cuts, and drawdowns from overseas missions, have the effect of pouring gasoline on the fire.
This will create a chronically unstable and profoundly anti-liberal world in which unrestricted flows of refugees, weapons and narcotics increase tenfold —a world in which demagogues such as Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Matteo Salvini will thrive, capitalizing on racist policy solutions such as building big walls for protection against the “terrors” outside.
In a post-Cold War world, Western nations have grown so accustomed to absolute supremacy that they lack the imagination to comprehend what the world will look like after a decade of Sino-Russian expansionism, coupled with extremist groups carving out vast caliphates across the Sahara and other ungoverned spaces.
Stability, justice and competent governance aren’t the natural outcomes when developing regions are abandoned to survive on their own. Strong nations dominate the weak, and the most ruthless always rise to the top, unless there are robust systems of international justice and active multilateral support for fledgling democracies and emerging economies. Nation-building is like creating a garden that can be cultivated into something elaborate, stable and flourishing over decades of conscientious care and investment, but can be slashed and trampled into the mud in a single afternoon.
In weaker states, a Western force of a few hundred foreign soldiers can reap dividends in training local forces, capacity-building, containing extremist groups, and monitoring emerging threats. Afghanistan was progressing slowly in the right direction, as institutions, competencies and an administrative culture were slowly cultivated. Yet 20 years of effort, tens of thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars of investment will all have been for nothing.
Afghanistan for centuries has constituted a graveyard for imperialist ambitions, and Russian memories of these humiliations remain fresh. Iranian, Chinese or even Taliban aspirations to dominate this Central Asian corridor are fated to be no more successful than those of their predecessors. Their only legacy will be infinite human misery, suffering and destruction.
As the vultures circle over Kabul, it is clearly too late to hope that Biden will change his mind. However, this withdrawal must be accompanied by serious strategic thinking about the kind of world that is emerging from the rubble of Western hubris and broken promises.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.