On 31 August, the United States ended the longest war in the history of the American Republic when the last US soldier left Afghanistan.
The moment was not one of jubilation and the declaration of victory, however, and nor was it one where moral and political courage commended the day. Instead, the world witnessed the sad ending of an overly ambitious US strategy of nation-building in Afghanistan.
The ones who celebrated were members of the very same politico-religious movement that the US had pushed out of power by the use of force 20 years earlier in October 2001. This year, the Taliban retook 90 per cent of Afghan territory, including the capital Kabul, in less than a month.
Other Islamist and terrorist groups in other countries joined the Taliban in celebrating the group’s victory. Calls for “jihad” have been heard across the Middle East, in the Sahel countries in Africa and wherever there are terror groups that want to replicate the example of the Taliban. All these groups have been inspired by recent scenes of Taliban leaders in the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul. If the Taliban persevered for 20 years and never laid down their arms, why should other groups not succeed in doing something similar, either now or in the future?
Probably this is the gravest consequence of the Afghan debacle. Regardless of what US officials have said in explaining and justifying the decision by the US to withdraw from Afghanistan and the way in which this was implemented, the fact of the matter is that a great power, the United States, retreated in the face of an enemy numbering some 75,000 fighters armed with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
The day the last US transport plane took off from the Hamed Karzai International Airport in Kabul, with pictures of this being splashed on the front pages of newspapers around the world, US President Joe Biden delivered remarks from the state dining room at the White House in Washington.
In a lengthy and a robust defence of his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, Biden stressed that he had had only two options: either to leave Afghanistan as promised or to stay and face the consequences, namely escalation on the part of the Taliban.
He had chosen to leave, he said, because staying any longer would not have served US national interests. He underlined the fact that his country had gone to war against the Taliban in 2001 because the September 11 2001 attacks on New York and Washington had been planned by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. He went on to say that US forces had killed the mastermind behind these attacks, Osama Bin Laden, in May 2011, and suggested that this act should have put an end to the US mission in Afghanistan.
Biden also said that the assumption in the US administration that the Afghan army, trained by the US and equipped over the last 20 years, “would be a strong adversary in the civil wars with the Taliban was not accurate”. Another inaccurate assumption was that the Afghan government would be able to hold on to power for a period beyond the military drawdown in August this year.
It is hard to imagine that a great power like the US after 20 years of boots and intelligence agents on the ground throughout Afghanistan could have entertained such inaccurate assumptions.
Two major points stand out from the remarks delivered by Biden. The first is that the US will not relent in fighting terrorism anywhere in the world and will do this by acquiring over-the-horizon capabilities. The second, more related to US global strategy in the 21st century, is that the threats to the US have changed.
Biden brought up the threats posed by both China and Russia to US interests in his remarks, stressing that the US was “engaged in a serious competition with China.” As far as Russia is concerned, he said that
Washington was “dealing with challenges on multiple fronts with Russia.” Other threats to US national interests include both cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation, he said.
Biden did not articulate a coherent strategy on Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan which has been a major strategic player in Afghanistan, and with the Taliban. If there is one country that can claim to have credible influence on the Taliban, it is Pakistan. But for tactical reasons Islamabad has always denied that it wields influence over the Taliban.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has created a serious power vacuum in South and Central Asia. Moreover, the fact that the economic and financial situation in Afghanistan is not promising for the foreseeable future does not augur well for security and stability inside Afghanistan and beyond its borders.
The most important question now relates to how the international community will deal with the Taliban and whether the leading powers will recognise the group’s rule. Many countries, including the US, have indicated that they will judge the Taliban not by their words but by their actions.
The UN Security Council convened on 30 August to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and went on to adopt UN Security Council Resolution 2593, which demands that Afghan territory not be used to threaten or attack any other country or to shelter or train terrorists. It reiterated the importance of combating terrorism in Afghanistan and noted the commitments made by the Taliban in this respect. It also reaffirmed the importance of upholding human rights, including those of women, children and minorities.
It called on all the parties in Afghanistan to seek an “inclusive negotiated settlement, with full, equal and meaningful participation of women that responds to the desire of Afghans to sustain and build on Afghanistan’s gains over the last 20 years in adherence to the rule of law.”
The resolution provides a road map for the international community and the various political forces in Afghanistan, principally the Taliban, to manage peacefully the difficult period of transition from 20 years of some form of US protectorate over the country to a functioning state and government such that the country does not relive the insecurity and instability that predated the US war in Afghanistan.
At the time of writing, Germany is to host, on 8 September, a ministerial meeting on Afghanistan that will be attended by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and European foreign ministers. This will be the first international meeting on Afghanistan after the US withdrawal from the country. It is expected to reaffirm a commitment to UN Security Council Resolution 2593.
As far as Egypt is concerned, there has not been any official reaction to the events that unfolded in Afghanistan last month. This wait-and-see attitude could last for some time. For the time being, I would think that Egypt supports UN Security Council Resolution 2593, with a special emphasis on two principles.
Firstly, Afghanistan should not become a safe haven for terrorist groups or a launching pad for terrorist attacks against foreign countries. Secondly, it should not welcome leaders or members of the Muslim Brotherhood who will leave, or have already left Turkey after its rapprochement with Egypt.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.