First, let’s understand what happened in the past before we analyze what the future holds after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As detailed in the Hollywood film “Charlie Wilson’s War,” US involvement in Afghanistan began in the 1980s when Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson secured funds and arms to help the Mujahideen fight the Soviets. His efforts in this covert war were so successful that untrained Afghan fighters defeated the Soviet army, which hastened the fall of the USSR. Wilson made a deal with an Israeli arms dealer, and weapons purchased by the US were stored in warehouses in Egypt and funneled to Afghanistan by Egyptians, Saudis, and Pakistanis.
How the US went on to lose Afghanistan to the Taliban is a cautionary tale. After the rebels’ victory, Wilson advocated for American economic aid to build schools, hospitals, and infrastructure for the Afghan people, but Congressional leaders decided this was not a priority. The US turned its back on the Afghan people, and created an opening for Taliban extremists to take over.
President Biden and Congress would do well to remember this strategic blunder as America again leaves Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
Fast forward to Oct. 15, 1999, when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1267 to designate both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban as terrorist organizations, and imposed sanctions.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airplanes, crashing them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On Oct. 7, 2001, the US launched the war in Afghanistan under President George W. Bush. Two decades after UN Resolution 1267, the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban in Doha in a scramble to retain voter support ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Trump made the deal to withdraw troops from Afghanistan if the Taliban — still a UN-designated terrorist group — guaranteed Afghanistan would not be used for terrorist activities. The US signed this deal with the Taliban on Feb. 29, 2020.
On Nov. 17, after American voters denied Trump a second term, and before Biden was inaugurated, US Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller announced troops would withdraw from Afghanistan.
The next serious conflict will be a multifaceted political, economic, and security disagreement between Kabul and Beijing.
Dr. Zeyad Alshammari
No specific plan for withdrawal was offered by Trump. As his Twitter feed showed, the outcome of the election was a much higher priority than Afghanistan. Biden had no control or influence over this deal, since he did not hold public office then. Yet on April 14, 2021, President Biden moved forward with Trump’s deal to complete the military withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021. After being the first member of Congress to visit Kabul back in 2002, Biden advocated for an end to American military involvement. Now, Biden wants to create a “foreign policy for the middle class” driven by pragmatic priorities. Afghanistan is not a priority around America’s kitchen tables.
This war began as an emotional response from a nation physically and psychologically wounded by a terrorist attack. As war dragged on, Americans became weary of casualties and costs with no end in sight. Republicans, Democrats, independents, and most of the world realized there was nearly zero strategy at the war’s start, mirrored by nearly zero strategy for withdrawal.
The US was ultimately unsuccessful because it focused on military force, and war will never work in Afghanistan. This morphed into an attempt at nation building, but it was equally unsuccessful. Why? The absence of genuine diplomacy or understanding of the Afghan people.
Despite massive power wielded by, in turn, the British, USSR and US, none were successful because they had nearly zero understanding of Afghan culture or history, the deep significance of tribal culture in all aspects of Afghan society, languages and cultural assumptions, traditional aspects of Afghan life more important than religion, and Afghan priorities and power structures at the intersection of religion and today’s culture, informed by a millennia of civilization in a landlocked nation.
So the question is, what’s next?
My forecast is that the next serious conflict will be a multifaceted political, economic, and security disagreement between Kabul and Beijing.
Afghanistan has a unique geographic location which is strategic because it exists on major historic trade routes. It sits at the heart of Central Asia, shares an 80 km border with China, and has a unique combination of rare earth mineral deposits, rotating armed conflicts stemming from inconsistent leadership within the country, lack of infrastructure, and people exhausted from 40 years of wars.
China sees this as a golden opportunity.
The Chinese plan is to reinforce points of ancient trade routes, known as the Silk Road, which run from China to the great central asian cities like Bukhara, southeast into India, southwest into Iran, and westwards on to Turkey and Europe. Whoever controls Afghanistan economically will control the the Silk Road, as happened in 1300 BC when blue lapis lazuli stone was exported from Badakhshan in Afghanistan to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and around the world. In the 2nd century BC, the Chinese established relations with Northern Afghanistan to facilitate trade from China to the Greeks and the Roman Empire.
The US estimates Afghanistan has $1 trillion in reserves of rare earth minerals — including lithium essential for electric car and cell phone batteries — that make it strategically important once again. Lithium is key to reducing carbon emissions and combating climate change, and Afghanistan may have the largest reserves of it in the world. Although Afghanistan lacks extraction capacity, security, and infrastructure to exploit its mineral wealth, competition to extract rare earth minerals will be intense, with China at the forefront.
America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will end one armed conflict, but will be the beginning of a new conflict, with potential flashpoints for violence between China and Afghanistan. It is a natural stage for the Middle East to act out deeper fundamental conflicts between Islamic ideology, inevitable political disagreements, and billions at stake in trade on the Silk Road. The future will see the past 40 years of conflict repeated. Wars will return — and soon.
• Dr. Zeyad Alshammari is the co-founder and executive director of the Quasar International Institute in Washington, DC, and adjunct professor-political science and international relations at NOVA.