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Thursday, 23 September 2021

INTERVIEW: Accepting America’s defeat

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at US think tank the Brookings Institution, discusses the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan with Al-Ahram Weekly

Bassem Aly , Thursday 9 Sep 2021
Accepting America’s defeat
photo: AP

The recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan has been problematic for both the US and Asia as a whole. The success in its fight against the US military of the Taliban group, which hosted terrorist groups in Afghanistan before the US invasion of the country in 2001, has raised fears of many governments around the world about international security.

The heart-breaking scenes of people waiting to flee the country at Kabul Airport, where dozens were killed in terrorist attacks and thousands more were left behind by the US and other planes taking refugees out of the country, should be added to the list of concerns.

The way in which the US left the country after a 20-year presence in Afghanistan has led to questions on whether the departure could have been managed better by the US Biden administration.

Speaking to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology in the Foreign Policy Programme at the US think tank the Brookings Institution in Washington, Al-Ahram Weekly sought insight on these and other issues.

Felbab-Brown is director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors and co-director of the Africa Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution. She was a senior adviser to the Afghan Study Group established in December 2019 by the US Congress to provide policy recommendations that “consider the implications of a peace settlement, or the failure to reach a settlement, on US policy, resources and commitments in Afghanistan.”

The group’s findings were made public in February this year, with many of them subsequently ignored by the Biden administration. The group called for an immediate diplomatic effort to extend the May 2021 withdrawal date for US forces from Afghanistan, the creation of conditions for an acceptable peace agreement, and continued basic support, with other donors, for the essential institutions of the Afghan state, including security institutions.

To what extent did the Biden administration abide by policy recommendations provided by the Afghan Study Group on the US presence in Afghanistan?

I would like to make it clear that I am speaking as a senior fellow at Brookings and not on behalf of the Study Group. I don’t have a role as a spokesperson for it. The Study Group recommended that the United States stay in Afghanistan with a limited military force, but it outlined several other options. One of them was full US military withdrawal. Clearly, the Biden administration studied various options and decided to go with a full withdrawal, which in my view was the correct decision even though it would carry severe consequences like those we have seen in Afghanistan over the past few months.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan was seen as catastrophic by many, especially in terms of its strategic implications and the evacuation process. Could Biden have done it better?

It is important to separate the strategic question of whether the withdrawal was the best US policy option from the technical execution of it. Let me start with the strategic decision. As I wrote in [the US journal] Foreign Affairs, I believe it was right even though it was inevitable that the United States would lose the gains it earned in Afghanistan and that the Taliban would come to power. Essentially, the Biden administration, like the three former administrations, had to choose one out of various options.

The first was to stay with an open-ended commitment and continue to fight for four or five years, yet without any prospect of defeating the Taliban. In fact, since 2016 or 2017, it was clear that the Taliban were slowly but surely leading the battlefield and that the Afghan political leaders were indifferent to that and unwilling to make the necessary adjustments to how they were governing Afghanistan. This includes the Afghan security forces. The weaknesses of the Afghan security forces that we saw in July, although far greater than anyone expected, were exactly the same as those they had in 2013. This became clear even in 2015 when the Taliban captured the provincial city of Kunduz. The Afghan political leaders ignored such problems as they did with other governance problems because they persuaded themselves that the United States could continue to fight in Afghanistan for more years to come.

Biden could not leave 5,000 or even 2,500 troops beyond the deadline because the Taliban would eventually attack them again. Accordingly, within the coming years, Biden would have faced the same dilemma, which was withdrawing and seeing things collapse or staying for another five or 10 years at the cost of $10 to $50 billion per year. There was no way out of this dilemma: Biden had to accept the defeat now.

Yet, on whether the withdrawal could have been done better, a set of diplomatic mistakes was made by the Biden administration. Those mistakes did not change the outcomes, but they could have reduced the irritation of the US allies. I also think it was possible to negotiate with the Taliban on extending the withdrawal deadline to the end of this year. This would have given the Afghans a slightly better chance to get over the psychological shock of the US withdrawal.

I told my Afghan friends that they should start seeking immigration to other countries, including the US, because it was clear that the Taliban’s takeover would happen.

The troops were evacuated before making sure that all US civilians had left the country. Was this the right thing to have done?

This argument has validity. From the execution perspective, it would have been technically easier to transport the civilians out of Afghanistan to avoid the insecurity and trauma we saw at the airport. However, the issue that the Biden administration was struggling with was that if they initiated the evacuation quickly in June or July, this would have been an important signal that it was certain that the Ghani government would fall.

There was also a considerable byplay going on between the Biden and Ghani administrations. In April, after Biden announced that the US forces would be out by 11 September, there was a big political reaction in the US and demands that visas should be given to vulnerable Afghans, including translators who worked for the US military. The Biden administration began to intensely focus on this issue, but there was a tremendous outcry and pushback by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who was complaining that by focusing on the visa process, the US was undermining his forces.

Ghani was pushing back against any early evacuations because he feared the psychological impact on his troops.

Should the world recognise the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan or should it isolate them as was the case before the US war on Afghanistan that started in 2001?

I think there is a third option, and there are indications that many countries are heading towards it. This involves engaging with the Taliban without necessarily providing them with a formal recognition, while avoiding isolation and sanctions.

The Taliban apparently are under economic sanctions that have squeezed the economy in a country where one third of the population faces acute food insecurity and 90 per cent of the population live in poverty. If sanctions are to be applied, they have to be smart to provide bargaining leverage in talks with the Taliban over their most terrible policies. One of them is the policy to allow terrorism to flow out of Afghanistan. The Taliban understand that if they allow their territory to be used for terrorism anywhere, they will pay a heavy price.

They will not reestablish links with groups like Al-Qaeda: the cost would be very high for them. Another policy that I would like to see us using our leverage with is the Taliban’s ban on women not leaving their houses without their male guardians, which was part of their policies in the 1990s. The Taliban are speaking about this now again. They also have another policy of not allowing women to hold any positions outside the household.

At the same time, I don’t think we should rush into recognition because it carries many consequences, including the loss of leverage and giving room for governments to open embassies, and it is important for the Taliban. The Taliban is a brutal, authoritarian and religiously dogmatic group, and they will remain so. Bargaining over recognition and giving them access to their bank accounts will not transform the Taliban into a pro-pluralism and pro-rights entity.

Could Turkey, Iran or Qatar fill the gaps left by the US in Afghanistan?

I don’t think anyone can fulfill the US role as it existed. By that, I mean $4 or $5 billion dollars per year, funding and training the Afghan security forces and army, and providing millions of dollars for civilian assistance. Even China or Russia cannot play this role.

That being said, since Afghanistan now has a smaller share of US foreign policy than before, there is a need for neighbouring countries like China, Russia and Iran, and more distant ones like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, to step up.

Pakistan has played a significant role in Afghanistan, although it has supported the Taliban in the past 20 years. Pakistan has already announced that it will work with the Taliban to reform the Afghan security forces. I think that China, however, will be cautious in how it will engage with the Taliban. There is a lot of talk about the minerals that exist in Afghanistan and that are worth $1 trillion, which has been known for the past decade. But the extraction has never been done, and even countries like China that bought licences for it didn’t actually use them.

China is concerned about preventing terrorism leakage into its territories and any kind of Taliban support for its Muslim population. China’s relations, and also Russia’s, with the Taliban have improved considerably over the past several years. China and Russia did this a few years ago on the assumption that the Taliban would come to power. But they then hoped that the Taliban would rule through a coalition. They now have their embassies open in Afghanistan, and they recently vetoed a UN resolution on Afghanistan as part of their approach to keep their contacts with the Taliban.

But, again, I do not overestimate that. The Ghani government hoped that China would come in with huge economic resources or military forces in 2014 and 2015, but this didn’t happen.

The Taliban reportedly have American hostages, and dozens of Americans were killed in the airport blasts. Will the withdrawal affect the results of the next US elections, especially those for the House of Representatives in 2022 and the presidency in 2024?

I don’t think so. You are right that the Biden administration domestically has faced a lot of criticism over Afghanistan in recent weeks, particularly from the Republican Party and some members of Biden’s Democratic Party. However, by and large, the US population does not really vote on the basis of foreign policy. There are some exceptions, but they are very rare.

What will decide the outcomes of the midterms is the state of the economy, Covid-19 and social policies like abortion. Local issues will be far more important in the midterms than Afghanistan. Even, in the foreign policy context, issues like the flow of people to the United States from Central America will be more significant than issues happening in faraway places.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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