The US withdrawal from Afghanistan was an event of seismic proportions in international politics, which will have far-reaching consequences across the globe. Shorn of diplomatic niceties, Afghanistan was under the US military occupation since the overthrow of the first Taliban government in 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
The US, because of its enormous military and economic power, media outreach, and diplomatic clout, was able to provide a modicum of legitimacy to its occupation through the installation of an internationally recognised government of its choice in Afghanistan, following the Bonn conference. But this government which relied on the economic and military support of the West for its survival always carried the stigma of being the product of foreign military occupation and, therefore, was not able to win over the majority of the Afghan people.
Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British ambassador to Afghanistan, identified the main problem faced by the West in Afghanistan in the following words in his book ‘Cables from Kabul’, “… that the Bonn settlement that had followed (the overthrow of the Taliban government) had been a victors’ peace from which the vanquished had been excluded; and that the constitution resulting from that settlement could last only as long as the West was prepared to stay in Afghanistan to prop up the present disposition.”
By the time President Obama announced the end of the US combat mission in Afghanistan in December 2014, it was clear that the American domestic political support for its military misadventure there was fast dwindling. President Trump’s decision to sign an agreement on February 29, 2020 with the Taliban, which provided for the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan by May this year, virtually sounded the death knell for the US-backed Kabul regime.
When President Biden announced that the withdrawal would be completed by August 31, 2021, it was clear that the days of the Kabul regime, which had been fast losing ground in the face of the Taliban insurgency, were numbered. When the Taliban launched their final military offensive, the Afghan army, which had been trained and equipped by the US at enormous cost, simply melted away.
According to a study by Brown University, the US military occupation of Afghanistan since 2001 had cost over $2.31 trillion and caused the death of 164,436 Afghans including the military, Taliban and civilians, 2,442 US military personnel, 1,144 allied troops and 3,846 US contractors. And at the end of it all, the Taliban, whom the US had defeated in 2001, were back again in power with control over almost the whole of the Afghan territory. It is difficult to think of another US military intervention abroad with such high cost in blood and treasure, and with so little to show as its achievement.
America’s retreat from Afghanistan has driven home the limits of its power in the emerging multi-polar world. The US still remains the most powerful economic and military country in the world, but it is fast losing the capacity to force others to fall in line with its diktat. China’s phenomenal rise and Russia’s re-assertiveness have given strategic options to other countries facing unfair US demands and sanctions. As time passes, the US will have to place increasing reliance on persuasion, diplomacy and economic levers rather than the brute use of its military power in pursuit of its national goals.
The US would also be well advised not to rush into nation-building projects in foreign countries in the future. This is particularly true in those cases where the US has limited understanding of the local history, culture and social values as was the case in Afghanistan. In any case, positive social and cultural changes in other countries should come through internal social dynamics and education rather than being imposed on them through military occupation.
An America in retreat is in no position to impose its preferences, political or cultural, on a rapidly rising power like China which has its own unique history and civilisation. Washington’s attempts to do so through sabotage or subversion will merely accentuate US-China tensions and aggravate regional and global instability. China is too big a country economically and too powerful militarily to be dictated to by the US. A more rational course for the US would be to engage China in a dialogue to conduct their relations on the basis of mutual understanding and accommodation, while competing peacefully in economic, scientific and technological fields.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the collapse of the Afghan government have created a power vacuum in the country which, if not handled properly, can lead to a civil war and regional instability by sucking in regional powers – as happened in the 1990s. Ideally, the Taliban should make their government as broad-based as possible to minimise the chances of bloodshed. The interim government announced by the Taliban falls short of that goal. Pakistan should join hands with Afghanistan’s other neighbours and major world powers to encourage the Taliban to make their government inclusive, without interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.
The Taliban should also be advised by the international community to implement their assurances that terrorist outfits will not be allowed to use the Afghan territory for terrorism in other countries. Islamabad, in particular, should engage the Taliban in a dialogue to ensure that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is prevented from launching terrorist attacks in Pakistan from its bases in Afghanistan. The Taliban should allow women the right to work and to education in accordance with their assurances. Simultaneously, Pakistan should take steps to discourage religious extremism in the country to counter the possible negative cultural and social fallout of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan.
While China’s dramatic rise has posed a potent challenge to the US global supremacy and offered strategic options to countries like Pakistan, which faces the growing weight of the Indo-US strategic partnership, it would be unwise on the part of Islamabad to write off the US in its strategic calculations and planning. Our goal should be to build up our strategic partnership with China while maintaining normal friendly relations and cooperation with the US.
The writer is a retired ambassador and president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.
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