The Taliban’s Return to Power Is a Scathing Illustration of the Post-American World that Is Taking Shape
It took only ten days for the Taliban to regain control of Afghanistan and to celebrate in their own way the 20th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. This lightning recapture and President Joe Biden’s determination to withdraw American troops stunned the world. In reality, what we are witnessing here is the culmination of a decade of U.S. disengagement and a chronic decay of Afghan institutions, which have benefited the Taliban.
The Taliban takeover marks a geopolitical turning point: it is first and foremost a strategic defeat for the United States and its NATO allies, with long-term implications for their credibility and their ability to act elsewhere. It is also a scathing illustration of the post-American world that is taking shape, to the benefit of other powers, first and foremost China, but also Russia, Turkey, and Iran, which are imposing themselves on the ground and leading crisis diplomacy.
Biden’s fait accompli policy in Afghanistan also reminds the United States’ allies (from Europe to Asia, including the Gulf States) that they must assume their share of the burden of international security and not build their foreign policy by relying indefinitely on U.S. resources.
years of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, with the support of NATO allies, is a long journey of strategic mistakes that paved the way for the Taliban to take over.
Misleading Success Stories
The 20 years of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, with the support of NATO allies, is a long journey of strategic mistakes that paved the way for the Taliban to take over. The Biden administration underestimated their resilience and ability to regain power quickly, and it overestimated the Afghan army’s ability to defend its territory. The United States has spent more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan since 2001, including more than $83 billion to train the Afghan army. And yet, the Afghan army has rapidly decayed in the face of the Taliban. The brutality of the U.S. withdrawal has exposed the flaws in the regular Afghan army, which is plagued by corruption, poorly supplied, and lacking in air support.
These events raise questions about the effectiveness of military intervention and the security-forces training program in particular, and prompt a rethinking of the conditions of military disengagement, as well as those of military engagement. The main problem with these training programs is their purely military and apolitical approach, when the main issue is political: the lack of cohesion and the absence of allegiance of the Afghan army to a political authority recognized as legitimate, make these armed forces vulnerable and unreliable. Ethnic, tribal allegiances prevail and divide the security forces.
The 'Afghanistan Papers' released in 2019 transcribe these misleading 'success stories' that contributed to distorting the reality on the ground and leading to today’s chaotic situation.
In an effort to show quick results, U.S. policymakers have deliberately manipulated the statistics (number of trained Afghan soldiers, level of violence, control of territory) that are supposed to allow U.S. troops to leave. The “Afghanistan Papers” released in 2019 transcribe these misleading “success stories” that contributed to distorting the reality on the ground and leading to today’s chaotic situation.
Nation Building Without the Nation
If the initial objective of the military intervention in Afghanistan was the eradication of Al-Qaeda sanctuaries, it was amplified by a more complex undertaking to rebuild a post-Taliban state, including an Afghan army and police. This juxtaposition of missions has created confusion and blurred communication by Washington and NATO.
In December 2010, President Barack Obama refocused the strategy on the security imperative of the fight against Al-Qaeda and ruled out any “nation building” undertaking in Afghanistan, which had become a taboo concept. It is interesting to note that Joe Biden has also evolved on the subject: in 2001, when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he spoke in favor of a reconstruction project similar to the Marshall Plan, asserting that a “nation building” enterprise in Central and South Asia was the only long-term solution to the problem of terrorism. Ten years later, he insisted on a U.S. strategy that was no longer about nation building in Afghanistan but focused on the fight against terrorism, a position he now defends with firmness.
Contemporary political-military interventions are thus characterized by a paradox inexorably linked to the same repeated failures: guided primarily by their electoral calendar and the desire to withdraw their troops as quickly as possible, Western powers justify their interventions by displaying ambitious goals (eradication of terrorist groups, reconstruction, stabilization, democratization, training of security forces) suggesting a permanent presence of military forces, while they have neither the will nor the means to undertake these tasks. This discrepancy creates ambiguity as to the real objectives of the mission and makes the transitional nature of the intervention illusory.
The missions of “transition,” “assistance,” and “training” in fact camouflage an atrophy of the Afghan political space, which Washington has accentuated by conducting talks with the Taliban without the central government. “Afghanization”—that is, the increasing responsibility of Afghans in the use of international military and financial aid—allows the United States and its NATO allies to offload the burden of post-conflict reconstruction and to place the responsibility for failures in the fight against corruption or terrorism on the local authorities and forces.
With the military withdrawal, the United States is depriving itself of a lever to pressure the Taliban.
The exit strategy became the overall strategy from 2010 –2011. All the stages of the political process—holding elections, political negotiations—was aligned with the U.S. electoral calendar, making them meaningless. Nation building without the nation undermined any plans of state building and reconciliation. On the contrary, the acceleration of the timetable created additional tensions and frustrations, to the benefit of the Taliban. With the military withdrawal, the United States is depriving itself of a lever to pressure the Taliban. It is illusory to believe that Washington will be able to influence the trajectory of the political transition.
The Reversals of Buying Temporary Peace
For 20 years, the United States and its allies have tried different strategies to defeat the Taliban. Between 2001 and 2005, they relied on Afghan warlords, while the United States focused on Iraq. By 2014, support for Afghan militias and anti-Taliban uprisings had become key. Failing to restore security, the U.S. military handed out money in an attempt to “buy” temporary peace: the money provided to warlords and their militias in exchange for their protection of U.S. convoys, only served to weaken the already weakened central government. Reconstruction projects (infrastructure, schools) were often designed in a hurry, without ensuring that the government or local authorities would be able to maintain them once the international forces had left. The $145 billion invested in the reconstruction of Afghanistan did not prepare the country for a post-U.S. withdrawal.
The United States and its NATO allies are currently at a strategic loss, as evidenced by the reversals in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and the Sahel, the lack of European thinking on these subjects, and the inability of governments to explain the objectives of their military commitments to an increasingly skeptical public.
This impoverishment of strategic thinking on both sides of the Atlantic is partly attributable to the two decades of the “global war on terrorism” into which the United States plunged the world in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, hindering any form of serious reflection on the evolution of the contemporary strategic environment. The fight against terrorism has entangled the United States and its allies in perpetual wars, and diminished diplomatic creativity and the ability to respond to geopolitical changes.
The Accelerating De-Westernization of Crisis Diplomacy and Interventionism
By withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Biden wants to end the post-9/11 era and is pressuring his European allies to include the containment of Chinese power, especially technological power, as a priority in their foreign policies. This paradigm shift is reminiscent of the inflections given by his predecessors at the beginning of their term, from Clinton to Trump, who all wanted to refocus U.S. policy on competition with China and Russia. This vision was quickly overturned by the crises in the Middle East and Africa, mobilizing U.S. military power again and again. Because of its geostrategic place in the competition with China and Russia, and the risks of a resurgence of the terrorist threat, Afghanistan could be the subject of a tripartite dialogue between the United States, China, and Russia, which share the same interest in regional stability.
The end of the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan is another sign of the de-Westernization of interventionism, already at work in Libya and Syria. China sees Afghanistan in part through the prism of the Belt and Road Initiative. It has already built vast transportation infrastructure across the Central Asian countries north of Afghanistan and continues to do so at a steady pace in that region and in Pakistan. The United States must accept that, with its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is losing influence and de facto outsourcing the country’s future to regional powers.
This article was first published in Le Monde under the headline “La reprise du pouvoir par les talibans est une illustration cinglante du monde post-américain qui se dessine” on August 23, 2021.