John D. Moore
While finger-pointing intensifies within and between Western capitals amid ongoing evacuation operations, Afghans on all sides along with regional countries are girding themselves for an uncertain future. Recent events do not reflect an intelligence failure, but one of politics, policy, and perspective. The continued focus by Western pundits on political score-settling and mythologizing the Afghan wars not only muddies understanding of the systemic and symptomatic dynamics at play but also stands to skew analysis of options going forward. Absent clear-minded consideration of mistakes made and strategic priorities, the further division between the U.S. and its allies risks eroding the trust needed to engage in a new era of great power competition while a new cycle of radicalization in the region and beyond may yet occur.
For those involved in Afghanistan before and since 2001, the period following the Taliban flight from Kabul were heady days indeed. Yet the contours of a troubled future were soon discerned. The original sin of basing the political as well as military approach on the flawed assumption that the U.S. would maintain Afghanistan as a core national interest, combined with shifting objectives absent a cohesive strategic approach, undermined the potential for sustaining gains once the West withdrew. America and its partners attempted too much, for too long, and with too little of the right resources. This was driven by a deeply flawed and ideologically driven understanding of foreign lands as well as the shifting sands of American politics. Opportunities to correct early mistakes were missed, sound advice was ignored, and a lack of political courage and imagination across multiple administrations led to the events unfolding now.
As seen in earlier periods of Afghanistan’s history as well as conflicts elsewhere, military operations and humanitarian and development assistance are not the keys to winning, or at least not losing. It is the battle to shape how local communities view the political space – in other words, who will come out on top, and who takes care of their interests – that is critical. As pointed out repeatedly by the Australian thinker and Afghan specialist William Maley, the West’s political and policy actions risked creating a strategic cascade wherein deterioration occurs quickly – potentially in days or weeks – should the sense of Taliban momentum and combat prowess advance. This has now occurred.
With the U.S. and NATO mission vacillating between counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and nation-building, the imposition of a presidential, highly centralized political system on what historically had been a deeply decentralized and localized system of governance set the stage for what came next. A new political landscape reshaped and heightened the effects of political competition while enabling mass corruption and a set of perverse impacts at the national, provincial, and district levels. The West’s portrayal of fraud-plagued elections as reflecting budding democratic pluralism further exacerbated not just what went wrong, but what could be done to address such errors. Poor policy and an unwillingness to correct mistakes by the international community enabled local elite capture of the post-2001 Afghan political and military structures, institutionalizing the corruption and political illegitimacy that enabled the counter-narrative by the Taliban and other extremist elements to persist.
Having initially executed a series of military actions that saw the Taliban withdraw from Kabul in 2001, American hubris followed by neglect set Afghanistan on its path. With the drums of a new war in Iraq beating steadily, in 2002 and 2003, Afghanistan became a secondary concern as the weight of America’s politics and military might refocused on Saddam Hussein. The rapid withdrawal south and east of Taliban fighters in 2001 saw key leadership flowing across the Pakistan border, basing themselves out of Quetta, Peshawar, as well as locations elsewhere across the country. Well away from the Pakistani military efforts in the tribal areas, these leadership cadres – protected by Pakistani intelligence at the same time Pakistani troops were dying at the hands of the Taliban’s Pakistani counterparts – ensured the necessary resiliency to sustain the Afghan Taliban for the stages of conflict to come. Taliban moves to capture, through a mix of deal-making and limited fighting, key provinces along Afghanistan’s northern and western borders that began years ago were enabled by the cross-border sanctuary. Central to the Taliban strategy was the shutting or limiting of access across these borders that had proved so critical in the past as points for anti-Taliban elements to source weapons and supplies.
Efforts to re-envision the Afghan way of war to mirror Western capabilities while committing conventional U.S. military formations to an inherently irregular battlefield further exacerbated the situation. It is important to recognize that despite suffering from poor senior officers and enlisted leadership in general, Afghan National Army and police elements did fight, often with a tenacity unseen elsewhere. Regardless, America’s focus on building local formations that reflected Western capabilities rather than the resource-poor and highly brutal local conditions imposed organizational weaknesses on Afghan troops. The nascent Afghan state was never going to be able to sustain, even partially, the financial and logistical burdens associated with American-style military operations. With a significant portion of international military assistance going to Western businesses and contractors tasked with helping deliver the train-and-equip mission, corrupt Afghan officials and their networks further diluted the impact of American and Coalition spending. At the same time, insurgents, criminal networks, and political elites – at times all working together – in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia enriched themselves as supply chains supporting U.S. and NATO efforts as well as development assistance programs demanded local payoffs to operate.
U.S. and European signaling of their intent to leave picked up the pace between 2010 and 2016. The Obama administration’s surge of troops in 2009 temporarily pushed the Taliban back, but a vacuum was again created once the surge ended. In 2014 – at that time a high point in bloodshed since 2001 – NATO ended its combat mission, transferring responsibility to the nascent Afghan National Army and police. As the Afghan military, police, and political structures proved unable to fill the gap, Taliban elements resumed efforts to build presence and set the stage for the moment when the West withdrew. Insurgent freedom of movement was not a symptom of popular support for a Taliban resurgence, but one calculated on pragmatic as well as political grounds. When faced with death for oneself and one’s family, choices are not clear-cut. Afghans will support those they perceive as winners to survive. Note this reflected what occurred in Kabul in 2001, as the Taliban did not stand and fight a protracted battle, choosing instead to withdraw and fight another day.
Given Washington’s intent to get out, the international community’s opening of talks with the Taliban and other extremist groups saw Afghan elites along with much of the population assess that the Taliban were gaining political momentum. The ill-advised and poorly crafted peace negotiations executed by the Trump administration further signaled Washington’s intent to exit, even if it meant sidelining the same Afghan government that America had spent so much political, military, and economic capital to install. With the onset of peace negotiations, it was clear that this was aligned with strategic thinking in Islamabad, within the Taliban shura leadership, and across the different Taliban groups on the ground. Unwilling to contemplate alternatives and having grown weary, America’s default back to a Pakistani-framed approach was seen as the best way to fill the strategic vacuum. However, the content and conduct of the negotiations undermined the potential to salvage a manageable way forward. With trust in the international community’s commitment frayed, and the Ghani government – like Karzai before him – having no credible links to the society it claimed to govern, the potential for rapid deterioration was significant. Afghan elites and local leaders moved to cut deals at an individual and group level as they prepared for the eventual withdrawal of the West. As noted in a late 2020 article by Seth Jones, the director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Taliban propaganda framed the February 2020 deal as a significant victory. With the Biden team choosing to adhere to the terms agreed by its predecessor, the unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops set the stage for what came next.
From a U.S. national security perspective, the immediate focus, once American troops depart, is to maintain support for humanitarian organizations remaining in the country along with support for Afghan refugees. How these immediate priorities are conducted will further determine how the West’s misadventure, and America’s standing on the world stage, are viewed. Longer-term priority issues revolve around the stability of Pakistan as a nuclear-armed state in parallel with the ability of international terrorist groups to use areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a refuge from which to plan, practice and launch strikes against U.S. and allied interests. Groups within Pakistan’s government have a history of nuclear and other weapons technology transfers as well as provision of aid to multiple international terrorist groups – including Al-Qaeda. Effects from events in Afghanistan on the radicalization of the Pakistani military and associated command and control over its nuclear arsenal along with nuclear technology proliferation is of critical concern. Pakistan, like all nations, pursues its own set of national interests with different organizations across the state and society having different conceptions of those interests. Focused on an Indian threat that may be as much imagined as real, Taliban dominance in Afghanistan has been part of Islamabad’s efforts since the 1990s to create strategic depth while managing Pashtun aspirations for creating a more cohesive ethno-political unit that could challenge existing borders. As such Pakistan is playing a delicate game.
It is worth remembering that the post-Soviet jihad mantra of religiously inspired defeat of a superpower proved a powerful narrative that strengthened the call of Al-Qaeda and similar ideologies. Despite the battlefield defeats of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a similar post-American narrative may yet give rise to a new era of global jihad. Unlike in 2001, the current incarnation of the Taliban is even more connected to global jihadist currents as well as the means to propagate the jihadist message. This does not imply that the Taliban will necessarily look to conduct international terrorist operations, but rather serve as an example and inspire a fusion of its ideology, operational learning and tactics onto other groups. In parallel, the potential for foreign extremists to use Afghan territory remains. The Afghan Taliban are not of one mind; groups in remote areas may have a different view on whether foreign extremists are welcome. Many Taliban commanders are involved in drug networks and other gray and black-market activities that are connected to broader regional criminal and extremist networks. While the so-called Arab-Afghans of the 1980s were ridiculed by the mujahideen, Arab-Afghans – including Al-Qaeda – and other multinational extremist groups played an important role in the Taliban’s military operations in the 1990s, with such ties remaining. While the Taliban leadership will not want competing groups to gain ground at their expense, those assessed as ideological bedfellows, allies for use in inter-Afghan conflict, or as part of Pakistan’s efforts in Kashmir may be viewed differently. Recent reports of Pakistani extremists moving from Kashmir into Afghanistan underscore this concern.
What the future holds for Afghanistan and the region will take shape in the coming weeks, months, and years ahead. Whether the deals made that enabled the Taliban’s country-wide surge are sustained, and whether others – including those in the Panjshir – choose to fight, will be key determinants. Meanwhile, competition and deal-making within the Taliban will speak to their cohesiveness, capacity, and intent. For Pakistan, the future is also fraught, as Islamabad may rue the return of the Taliban should it inspire a new surge in domestic terrorism and give new energy to the Pakistani Taliban. The central Asian States with ethnic ties in Afghanistan also have multiple concerns while Russia, long a target of Islamic militants, is posturing about engagement but shares concerns about any impacts on radicalization plus expansion of criminal networks beyond its control. Meanwhile, the much-touted Chinese interests may be aspirational only, as Beijing’s ability to effectively engage, much less run extractive industries in Afghanistan, will be sorely tested at the same time it is concerned about radicalization within its own Muslim population. Iran views the Taliban warily, as the Taliban ideology views the Shia – including the Afghan Hazara – as heretical while Taliban-linked drug networks engage in cross-border networks that feed Iran’s domestic drug scene and routinely engage Iranian border force in running gun battles.
Regardless of what comes next, one thing is clear. The way the U.S. engaged in and now leaves Afghanistan, like its invasion of Iraq, exacerbated existing and created new risks while weakening America’s capacity to address regional challenges and engage in a new era of great power competition. Events in Afghanistan do not reflect an intelligence failure. Indications and assessments of the flaws, challenges, and missed opportunities abound. Afghanistan is a failure of politics and policy. The threat posed by events in Afghanistan, while of concern, never did and does not now pose an existential risk to the United States. Willful decisions across successive U.S. administrations before and after 2001 to not heed good advice, to not exercise sound judgment, and to not apply hard-earned lessons from past conflicts are all at play. Actions taken today, no matter how well-considered, have the potential to create a new set of unintended consequences. Whether Washington and its partners will find the necessary humility to learn and effect policies that are at once helpful and achievable, and that do not harm peoples far from their shores, remains to be seen. Good intentions are, absent informed and effectively executed strategy, certainly the pathway to hell. For the Afghan people that believed in the West, hell may yet again become all too real.
John D. Moore served with the U.S. Departments of Defense and State in the 1990s and supported various humanitarian, development, and private sector efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2002 and 2012.