An Afghanistan catastrophe Part 2 (of 2)

In Part One, I offered a view of why and when the occupation of Afghanistan failed. In Part Two, I explore the future implications.

The first shorter term problem is the evacuation.

It could be used as pretext to keep a contingent of special forces in the country, and keep the conflict going. Liberal Democrats have emphasised the need for a land corridor from Kabul to Pakistan, but this would require negotiation with the Talebs, as yet absent.

A further dimension to this is the wave of Western media stories about ISIS and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, despite scant evidence on the latter, and formal ‘Western’ reports dismissing scare stories on the former.

Some US military and security institutions have hinted at a Somalia-style bombing campaign in Afghanistan, to assassinate and create leverage. This should be strongly resisted on the grounds that it is likely to draw in military help from Iran, China, Russia, and Turkey.

One can only hope that attempts to ‘prepare public opinion’ for a re-invasion or attack is something of a last gasp.

Finance and aid is a key shorter term issue.

Aid is perhaps the only leverage that can be wielded to improve outcomes. A unified approach with both grant aid and IFI development finance, is therefore required. This leverage is however limited by any willingness of China, Russia, and GCC countries to provide development finance.

Is Biden to blame?

By 2008 the war was clearly lost… see Part One.

However, US military institutions were then hailing the success of the 2007 ‘Surge’ in Iraq, (the ‘success’ was a fabrication).

Nevertheless it was suggested that a similar ‘surge’ in forces would be successful in Afghanistan. The war continued.

By 2011 much of the US administration had concluded that the war should be brought to a negotiated conclusion. But the ‘surge’ argument was revived, and the war carried on. Then Trump promised a withdrawal, and was persuaded to drop his demand. Biden finally had the courage to draw the line. Military planning for the withdrawal was abysmal, however.

A key longer term issue is the approach of China.

China is likely to reopen the Wakhan Corridor into Afghanistan, despite Uyghur worries, for a direct route to its port at Gwadar. A new route to Iran via Herat may raise eyebrows.

However the bigger longer term issue is the approach of the US and UK after the Iraq and Afghanistan withdrawals.

Foes may be emboldened.

Will the US ever go to war again without clear aims and plans? What will happen to US and UK involvement in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Syria? Will NATO survive? These questions require long term thinking and consensus building.

In the media, the appalling treatment of women and girls, and executions of gay people, have rightly been to the fore. However, such issues never featured in military aims, and reforms have had mixed outcomes. In 2009 the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women declined to include spousal rape, especially problematic given the high rates of forced marriage and polygamy. The Personal Status Law said “It is the duty of the wife to defer to her husband’s inclination for sexual enjoyment”.

If the West goes to war on these issues now, will Saudi Arabia be next? In any case former Taleb practices are cultural rather than Islamic; twelve million Indian girls under ten are married, mostly Hindus, according to the Burgen project. In Afghanistan, cautious persuasion and incentives seem like the only way.

Finally, one should never forget the true outcomes of this unnecessary and futile war. The occupation saw 100,000 civilian deaths, and cost $70,000 for every man, woman and child in the country; some 30 times GDP. There were 500 UK military fatalities. We owe it to them to learn the lessons.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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8 Comments

  • Nigel Hunter 25th Aug '21 - 9:58am

    Rather than sulk about a ‘defeat’ we should be magnanimous in future actions.It is a poor country with lots of problems.One is crop failure where food production needs increasing. The West can give the ‘carrot’ of funding for this.If the country is more cultural than Islamist that carrot can be given to encourage cultural change.
    US Vietnam war ended and the Vietnamese got their country back and did not go on the rabid Communist direction.Is it not possible the Taliban have changed over the last 20yrs and just want to run the country peacefully (after putting the guns down).If the West wants influence in the future they will have to assist its growth.

  • Paul writes: “A key longer term issue is the approach of China. China is likely to reopen the Wakhan Corridor into Afghanistan, despite Uyghur worries, for a direct route to its port at Gwadar. A new route to Iran via Herat may raise eyebrows.”
    Iran has announced it will join the Shangahi Cooperation Organization https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2021/08/14/iran-to-join-shanghai-cooperation-organization/ joining China, Russia, Pakistan and India in the trade bloc.
    “Without Iran’s active presence and its role as the link between East and West in China’s plan, it will be difficult to achieve the goals of reviving the Silk Road, and China is well aware of this. Because in both land and sea routes, Iran’s geopolitical position on the Silk Road is vital.
    The plan, which includes two trade routes, the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, involves investing in the economic infrastructure of more than 65 countries.
    The “economic belt”, which covers the land route of the Silk Road and is the ancient route of the Silk Road, connects China to Eastern and Western Europe through Central Asia and West Asia, and the countries of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Turkey, Ukraine. It includes Poland, Belgium, France and finally Italy.
    The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road also connects China to Southeast Asia, Africa, and even Europe, such as Greece and Italy, north of the Mediterranean Sea by sea.”

  • President Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban. He agreed to withdraw. The withdrawal was well under way when President Biden took over.
    The Americans, and it seems everyone else assumed that they would hand over to the existing Afghan government and planned accordingly.
    The Chinese land trade route to Europe is now well established. There are regular trains from China to Duisburg in Germany.
    The Chinese have now built two railways into Tibet. This would enable them to move an army quickly to threaten India. Perhaps we should worry about that.

  • Paul Fisher 25th Aug '21 - 9:39pm

    France got their people out in July. I smell a plan!

  • In addition to the 100,000 civilian deaths suggested by Paul, the Washington Post estimates some 2.5 million refugees have left the country during the 20 years of occupation.https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/08/20/afghanistan-war-key-numbers/

  • The Talban will want to establish trade routes through its country to bring in some funds. Time will tell how its rules and laws will develop. Much will depend on which faction within the government gains control.

  • David Evans 27th Aug '21 - 4:39am

    I have found Paul’s two articles very informative and they raise the question whether the ‘Wellmeaning West’ had been thoroughly misled by others with a more cynical view of simply extracting as much personal benefit as possible (be it for military contractors, Afghan politicians or whatever).

    However, it also raises the question why were we there. Was it just to see off the Taliban and Bin Laden? Or was it to stop them coming back again? This leads to the one statement that I just can’t agree with, and that is when Paul says “By 2008 the war was clearly lost.” Quite simply it is not objectively true.

    As any chess player will tell you, the battle/war/game is not lost until you resign (i.e. chose to give up) or have been checkmated (i.e. crushed). And that was clearly not the case until Trump agreed to release thousands of Taliban terrorists, and probably not irrevocable until Biden chose to send his armies back home.

    Until then there was a lot of what could best be described as strategic manoeuvring – both sides looking for weaknesses in their opponents set up that they could exploit, but very little of battlefield importance happening. Casualties for the West had fallen to minimal levels, while the Taliban and Afghan forces were taking most of the losses fighting lots of small conflicts in order to maintain a sort of equilibrium.

    Now it is true that the original objectives of the invasion had been achieved – the Taliban had been removed from power, and Bin Laden subsequently killed, but this did not remove or even just significantly reduce the overall threat. What it did was remove their ability to plan, train for and commit their atrocities within a safe state.

    What the Western troops in Afghanistan did was make it massively more difficult for the Taliban to do this. Controlling Kabul and major provincial capitals made disruptive operations against any substantial Taliban build up very easy to implement. Now the nearest Western Base is thousands of miles away and any action involves flying over hostile states.

    Ultimately the war and the subsequent occupation kept a lid on things. Biden’s ill considered capitulation has sacrificed all that, and the West will be in much greater danger as a consequence.

    As for the poor Afghan people who believed in democracy, women’s rights and the west’s commitment to those values. Well that is just too sickening to consider.

  • Western troops in Afghanistan have ensured a stable country which has become the breadbasket of poppy production and the principal source of heroin on Europe. Big win that!

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