This week’s chaotic and definitive end to the US-led intervention in Afghanistan – two decades after George W Bush declared his “war on terror” – leaves a power vacuum in a deeply unstable country that is home to warlords and insurgents of various ilk.
The hasty withdrawal of foreign forces is also bruising evidence of the West’s failure to rein in Islamist extremism in the region.
The world witnessed harrowing scenes of Afghans clinging desperately to the wheels of US military transport planes as they departed Kabul Airport.
The US retreat following the Taliban’s astonishing takeover was described as “Saigon on steroids” – a reference to the end of the Vietnam War when the US-backed capital of South Vietnam fell the to Communist-ruled north.
The US State department retorted that Kabul was “manifestly not Saigon”.
Detractors of American foreign policy and opponents of US global authority in the post-Soviet era have praised the Taliban for “liberating” the Afghan people from the shackles of foreign oppression.
US humiliation in Afghanistan is the rule and not an exception:
Iran & Kuwait (Iraq)
Use of force is not just illegal, it is SUICIDAL.
High time to abandon the fallacy of “all options on the table”. pic.twitter.com/yYYuKC4qMC
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) September 1, 2021
US retreat the ‘will of Allah’
So what comes next for the jihadist movements celebrating the US’s shambolic pull-out? What happens to the Afghan “collaborators” who worked with foreign forces and took part in Kabul’s successive governments over the past 20 years?
Following the collapse of Western intervention in Afghanistan, the primal fear has been the extremists’ retribution against women.
Since the 2001 fall of the Taliban in the wake of the post-9/11 US-led invasion, women openly returned to education, international sports and public office. However the repression of women’s rights under the Taliban’s brutal rule left an indelible scar on Afghanistan’s traumatised female population.
Now jihadists from Mozambique to northern Nigeria, and from Yemen to Somalia, emboldened by the fall of Kabul, are hailing the US withdrawal as “the will of Allah”, and Afghanistan faces a very uncertain future.
Experts, however, have been quick to point out that the Taliban of 2021 are very different to the Taliban of 20 years ago.
“They now know how to fight politically, not just physically, but technically,” says Gérard Chaliand, a geopolitical strategist and author.
The Taliban has undergone a metamorphosis – not just over 20 years, but over four decades – steadily evolving since Chaliand himself first encountered the Mujahideen, or Islamic guerrillas, fighting Soviet occupation.
“I have known those who were called the Mujahideen in 1980, 81 and 82. They were courageous, but extremely primitive … they had no sense of organisation,” Chaliand explains.
Pakistan has been absolutely instrumental in giving them a solid formation, he adds. “They sent these ‘students’ – that’s what Taliban means – to be trained, to organise them, and give them advice.”
Although different in ideology, the Taliban have worked like Maoists, by recruiting from village to village, explaining who and why they fight.
When the Taliban explain they are battling a foreign occupation that is propping up a highly incompetent, highly corrupt and inefficient government, “it works”.
The nature of jihad, however, is malleable and can be adapted to suit the ideological requirements from one region to another. Jihadists are disparate groups, with conflicting interests, sectarian divides and internal power struggles.
But if and when a jihadist movement takes control, governing is a different matter.
For Chaliand, implementing a functional government is a big ask. “It’s easier to fight than to build,” he says. “This business of nation-building was a total failure for the US, but I’m not sure the Taliban are going to be successful, because there are conflicts of interest.”
Any revolution has two options: “Either you take power and then deceive most of the population. Or you establish the only important thing – economic growth,” he adds.
Chaliand points to China, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam as successful examples of building a bouyant economy from the ashes of war.
“Most so-called revolutions end as failures, dictatorships, despotic states, where you just have a little group of people pocketing the money”, he asserts. For revolutions to succeed, they must bring change and establish an educated middle class.
Amid cries of resistance and the return of ISIS-K can we expect a civil conflict in Afghanistan?
The recapture of Kabul by the Taliban also raises questions about regional stability, given the collapse of the US-led occupation of Afghanistan will have repercussions for neighbouring rivals Pakistan and India.
Chaliand underlines that, as nuclear powers, both Islamabad and New Delhi will have to react to the Taliban’s success reasonably. However for him, the winners are by far the Pakistanis.
“For them it’s a total victory. Their prime minister [Imran Khan] just said, ‘the fall of Kabul is the end of slavery‘. Quite fantastic.”
It would have been unimaginable for a Pakistani leader to use such rhetoric 10 years ago, he adds.
“For the Indians, it’s a big defeat … They spent a lot of money on Afghanistan’s infrastructure. They trained a lot of people.”
India’s ultra-nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who revoked the special status of Kashmir – is playing a dangerous game with Pakistan and Kashmiris, Chaliand warns.
“The Kashmiris will look at what is happening and say ‘this is not only jihad, this is our survival’.”
Despite the heightened tensions between the two nuclear powers, exacerbated by the Taliban’s victory, Pakistan and Indian will not fight directly, but by proxy, Chaliand maintains.
Opportunity for Ankara
Others, such as Turkey’s authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are also keenly monitoring events in Afghanistan – waiting for the opportunity to jump in and play mediator between the new regime in Kabul and the West.
As the leader of a democratic Muslim country and a key player in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Erdogan has been actively expanding Turkey’s influence in the Middle East and Africa.
Chaliand highlights the ubiquitous nature of the Turks on the international stage.
“They are a NATO member, but they do things that NATO doesn’t appreciate – like procure weapons from Russia. On the other hand, they are intelligent … Erdogan is a remarkable tactician.”
Turkey gave drones and weapons to Ukraine during its conflict with Russia, which was very good for Washington, Chaliand says.
“They play all their cards at the same time. They are active in the Middle East. They are active in Africa. They have been an important player – until Afghanistan.”
Despite Turkey’s broad spectrum foreign policy, and playing the same game as his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Erdogan is “economically weak”, Chaliand adds.
“There is no investment coming in … Erdogan puts everything on military capacity, and he has that. That’s all very good, but he is poor.”
Migration & Populism
Macron and Merkel’s first response to the Taliban takeover was to call for a united European plan to manage a massive influx of migrants from Afghanistan. Some saw that as cynical in light of the desperate images of panic at Kabul airport. Yet Macron must serenade the right of the political spectrum ahead of 2022 elections…
The decline of empire
The Taliban recapture of Afghanistan on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was hugely symbolic. It also raises questions about the role of the United States as the world’s “terrorism police”.
EU nations at a G7 summit last week were forced to accept President Joe Biden’s refusal to extend a 31 August deadline to evacuate foreign nationals and Afghan citizens in need of asylum.
The discord has sent a ripple through transatlantic relations, which had been expected to heal after four years of hostility during the Trump presidency.
By digging in his heels and refusing to capitulate to America’s traditional allies, has the Biden Administration made it more difficult for the US and Europe to resume their friendship?
When dealing with the “old continent”, Biden is using an older vocabulary and an older style, but the message remains “America first”, says Chaliand.
“He’s using the Trump slogan, but in a different way …. He doesn’t ask the Europeans for anything, because he knows they are not strong enough to be influential in Afghanistan. So he makes the decisions alone.
“As far as the Europeans are concerned – after 60 years of post-war reconstruction – they have lost Britain.”
The EU, says Chaliand, was important when it was made up of 28 states, with the UK. However the bloc’s need to make unanimous foreign policy decisions has been its downfall .
A two-thirds majority vote should have been sufficient, Chaliand says, adding that Europe has no common security policy and no common defence policy: one of the aims at the outset of the European project.
“Europe has nothing. In fact, if the US was not present in Europe, the Turks could be in Vienna … who would stop them? Not Bulgaria, Romania or Austria.”
What lessons for France and deployment in the Sahel?
What lessons will France Take away from Afghanistan as President Macron plans to scale down & end Operation Barkhane in 2022?
End to French operation in Sahel?
African countries have been quick to call on France to reconsider its withdrawal of Operation Barkhane, an anti-jihadist intervention that has seen more than 5,000 French troops deployed to the Sahel since 2014.
France is the keystone in anti-jihadist operations in the region, and if it were to pull out its troops, neither the regional armies nor the UN mission MINUSMA would be able to hold it together.
Former Malian minister Zahabi Ould Sidi Mohammed, who heads Mali’s national disarmament commission, warned that if France pulled out “jihadists would take power without any difficulty”.
The Le Soir de Bamako newspaper headlined on Wednesday, 18 August: “Should we expect the same scenario as Kabul?”
And in the run up to France’s 2022 presidential elections, the issue of the country’s role in the Sahel will be a political hot potato. Speaking as recently as last Saturday, opposition Républicains presidential candidate Xavier Bertrand threw down the gauntlet: “Let’s not make the same mistake in the Sahel as the Americans did in Afghanistan.”
Lost cause of ‘nation-building’
Experts agree that foreign intervention in countries deemed to be “terrorist havens” can only succeed if stable, transparent and corruption-free administrations can be guaranteed.
Military intervention alone will never succeed – especially considering that Western democracies have problems maintaining these lofty standards at home.
So if the interventionist playbook isn’t revised or changed will the jihadists ultimately prevail?
Chaliand doesn’t believe so. Western powers will hit back and can still be extremely effective in fighting jihadists, he says – but the key is not to “occupy and impose”.
“The important thing is not to go inside countries and believe that we’re going to make nation-building changes”, Chaliand says.
Despite the chaos of the past few weeks, and the difficulties that lies ahead for Afghanistan, the US is still the world’s biggest superpower, he adds.
“It’s not the total hegemony that they thought they had in the 1990s. But things do change,” Chaliand says – even in Europe, which had been at the centre of the Cold War storm for decades.
After the 2008 economic crisis, we were told that China was number two in the world. “Who would have expected that in 1991?” Chaliand asks.
“And today Europe is not at the centre of anything … So the real contest is between the US and its allies, and China at the other end.
“Europe is still economically important, but we are finished militarily and we should accept that.”
Written, produced & presented by David Coffey
Recorded, mixed & edited by Laurie Plisson, Erwan Rome and Vincent Pora
Gérard Chaliand is a French expert in geopolitics who has published widely on irregular warfare and military strategy.