Afghanistan back into the shadows after 20 years

Lyndon Johnson had Vietnam, George W. Bush had Iraq, and now Biden will be remembered for Afghanistan. The first two were responsible for the wars waged under their watch, while the current US President will be in the history books as responsible for the disastrous end of America’s longest war. With a decisive, inexplicable move, Biden suddenly pulled the last troops from Afghanistan, after 20 years of military effort in the country. 

It was an operation that was begun in 2001 by George W. Bush, with Operation Enduring Freedom, right after the 9/11 attack by Al Qaeda. In this first intervention, American and British air forces massively bombed the area of Kabu, Kunduz and Kandahar, forcing the Taliban to relocate onto the mountains near Pakistan, where they started their reorganization. Once the Taliban forces were forced to leave the urban and strategic areas, the US and the Atlantic alliance moved to the second step, ISAF. The International Security Assistance Force was a NATO mission, authorised by the UN, to support the government of Afghanistan in the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, right after the overthrow of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. 

ISAF had four stages that aimed at reconstructing the country democratically, fighting the opium illegal market, and restraining new Taliban interventions. After 2014, when the ISAF final stage had been reached, the American forces remained to ensure that Afghan infrastructure and society were moving toward a new democratic beginning, until 2020. As a matter of fact, last year, former President Trump and the Taliban signed the Doha agreement, namely the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, that foresaw the total withdrawal of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan. The process should have been realised by the first of May 2021, but was symbolically postponed to the 11th of September of the same year until Biden specified that the withdrawal was to be finished by the 31st of August. It was a rocambolesque change of plans that anticipated the messy operations characterizing the retirement of the troops, and the immediate recapture of the territories by the Taliban.

Pragmatic Taliban and the decay of the democratic structure

As the withdrawal was realized and the Taliban arrived in Kabul, public opinion remained astonished by the quickness of their operations and the fragility of the Ashraf Ghani (former President of the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) government. As a matter of fact, the Taliban were quick, but not as fast as we might think. Their awakening happened in the month of May, while their operations were realized in more or less a week. In the mid of August, they took over the regions to the north, those more resistant to the Taliban forces, and then they descended to the southern regions and to the capitol. Their movement was wise, starting their conquest from the most resistant areas, eliminating immediately what later could have been an impediment or a front of resistance if they started the capture from the Southern regions of the country, such as Kabul and Herat.

The result has been the total seizure of the country in less than 10 days. But Ghani’s government attitude massively helped this process. As the foreign allies left Afghanistan, what had been constructed in 20 years fell in a week. Ghani fled to Uzbekistan, with the ironic promise that he’d be back soon to fight for democracy. The army bent to the will of the Taliban forces, a detail that characterized this coup for not having been a bloodbath. Analysts and journalists are still looking for new reasons to explain the submissiveness of the former Afghan government forces, but at the moment they believe that the high rate of corruption and the nostalgic sentiment of southern regions towards the Taliban created the current situation.

Economic and social cost

From this current situation, still developing, two main costs emerge. The most discussed is the economic cost. The United States spent $2.261 trillion in 20 years of the Afghan War. These enormous amounts of money won’t be used anymore to fight “others’ wars,” being used instead for national development. Moreover, after having chased Al-Qaeda, killed Osama Bin Laden and shown the capability of fierce American response, the US now leaves the hot potato — and strategic opportunities — of this part of the Middle East to Russia and China. We may watch as they reinvigorate the nation with economic growth, possibly leading to economic control by the Red Dragon. Also, Beijing seeks a good relationship with the Taliban Emirate in order to control possible activities between the Taliban and Uighurs, given the Afghan connecting border with the Kashagar prefecture. China will make sure that Uighurs will not receive hospitality in the close Afghan mountains, becoming a new Islamic hotbed at the door of Chinese territory. In any case, Afghanistan will see the end of an era in which America spent circa 3,7% of its annual GDP, $778 billion each year, and 39% of its global military spending. 

But that was Saigon too. What happened in Afghanistan should hint at the rethinking of the democratic process strongly wanted by the West for the rest of the world.  Democracy is beautiful, but it is not for everyone. A democratic culture and attitude needs supporting institutions, education, healthcare systems and economic paradigms that cannot become strong and independent in just twenty years.

On the other hand, the withdrawal of the troops had a huge negative impact on Afghan society. The hard reset that results from the re-establishment of the Taliban Emirate challenges all the achievements reached in the last 20 years in education and human rights, and particularly in gender equality and equal opportunities. The Taliban has made clear that the new Emirate will not be a democracy, but that, according to the Doha agreement, the condition of women will be taken into account — but under sharia law. That means that women’s status will likely jump back 20 years, as the Talibans are identifying single women across the country, banning their access to universities and restricting their job opportunities. 

The future for Afghan women is very uncertain. Most of them fear that they will be back to the period of terror that characterized the country from 1996 to 2001. Despite the Taliban spokesperson talking to international media agencies, something that we would never have imagined 20 years ago, ensuring that they will keep tolerable humanitarian conditions in the country, their forces are chasing those Afghans who worked with the West all over the country, already torturing and killing many of them. The promises of the Talibans are hard to believe, especially when considering the experiences of 1996-2001. 

Still, the new Emirate will have to evolve and adapt to what’s already a multilateral and globalist situation. If they show up and reveal themselves as the obscurantist they were in the early 2000s, they will lose their seat at the United Nations and face the risk of an international embargo. That possibility would ruin the country, but also the Taliban Emirate. After all, 18 million Afghans already live in a condition of extreme poverty.