INTERVIEW: Afghanistan in historical context

Bassem Aly , Thursday 16 Sep 2021

Historian and Director of the Dale Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Mississippi Andrew Wiest explains his views on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to Al-Ahram Weekly

Afghanistan in historical context

Recent pictures of US troops leaving Afghanistan and desperate attempts to evacuate foreigners and Afghans from the country as they did so have not appeared unfamiliar to many as they revive memories of similar images that swept the world during the US withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s. 

Afghanistan in historical context
Andrew Wiest

Both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Vietnam are examples of asymmetrical conflicts that the US did not win. Al-Ahram Weekly asked Andrew Wiest, professor of history and founding director of the Dale Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Mississippi in the US, for his views on the Afghan conflict against the background of the conflict in Vietnam.

Wiest is the author of multiple books on modern warfare and particularly the US war in Vietnam, including Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam).

Could the Biden administration have withdrawn US forces from Afghanistan with fewer humanitarian and strategic costs? 

The evacuation certainly seemed poorly planned, with Biden officials expecting the Afghan government and Afghan National Army to persist longer, which would have allowed for a more orderly withdrawal of both US forces and the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who had worked with US forces over the last 20 years and thus found themselves at risk of reprisals from the Taliban.  

After so long in the country, promising to help modernise the nation and to provide for a more tolerant form of government, the US indeed owed a moral debt to those many Afghans who had toiled diligently alongside American forces and believed in US promises of a brighter future.  Instead of having time for a more graceful exit, the Biden administration badly underestimated the fragility of the Afghan government and military, leaving the US with only an extemporised and tardy operation to evacuate the many Afghan citizens who wished to emigrate from their homeland.  

That being said, though, the causation of the quick moving disaster in Afghanistan was set into motion long before Biden’s ascent to the US presidency. While US, NATO and Afghan troops won many battles against their Taliban foes, the strategy of the conflict was consistently well wide of the mark, leaving a fractured Afghan government and an atomised Afghan National Army that never really had hope for survival after US and NATO departure from the conflict. 

This faulty strategy, combined with the resiliency of the Taliban and the intervention of hostile regional powers, effectively doomed both the military and political efforts in Afghanistan – as most Western military leaders knew full well. As the US under three presidents, Obama, Trump and finally Biden, finally moved to disengage from the conflict, the die had been cast.  Without US support Afghanistan would surely fall. As with all insurgencies, the Taliban had time as perhaps their chief weapon, keeping their effort alive until the foreign powers tired of the conflict.  

The pivotal moment, perhaps, was Trump’s negotiated deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that announced a May 2021 final US withdrawal. That deal was signed without the assent of the Afghan government, for they would never have accepted knowing that the deal meant their certain demise. The situation was eerily reminiscent of the US withdrawal from Vietnam in which the withdrawal agreement with the North Vietnamese was negotiated by [then US secretary of state] Henry Kissinger without the assent of the South Vietnamese, who knew that it meant the death of their nation.  

With the agreement signed, the Taliban in 2020, like the North Vietnamese in 1973, knew that they just had to wait for victory. And the Afghan government and military, like the South Vietnamese before them, began to implode while awaiting the inevitable. In 1973, though, it took two more years of conflict before a stronger South Vietnam succumbed to history. A weaker construct in Afghanistan crumbled far more quickly. 

 In Vietnam, president Nixon was able to proclaim peace with honour since the South Vietnamese provided him with a “decent interval” after US departure – an interval long enough to make their collapse look like their fault to an American public which had already had its attention diverted by the next big thing. The fall of Afghanistan happened so quickly that the fickle US public still had its attention riveted on the spectacle, shining a bright light on the Biden administration’s tragically botched efforts at mass evacuation. 

Should Western governments isolate the Taliban or recognise the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan? 

Isolation is certainly one option, hoping that the resultant economic, cultural and diplomatic pressure perhaps results in a situation in which Taliban control crumbles in the face of a society risen against that control. That is, indeed, a potential scenario – but one that would almost certainly magnify the human cost of the Afghan conflict to a horrific degree.  

Isolation always focuses its cost at the lowest and most vulnerable levels of society, harming even further those the US and the West had once promised to save. Thus, isolation could, perhaps over an indeterminate length of time, serve to help cause an outcome that military force could not. But the cost would potentially be millions of lives lost or displaced added to the butcher’s bill of generations of conflict in Afghanistan. The end is possible, but is the moral price worth that end?   

But there is the chance that this Taliban government will be different than the one toppled in 2001. That government had taken over a state that had long since ceased to exist in war against the Soviets and then years of brutal civil war. The Taliban of the 1990s had nothing to inherit, and its reign provided a type of certainty where none had existed, leavening its brutality. 

In 2021 the Taliban inherit a functioning state. Although ramshackle, there is an Afghan system; an economy (apart from the always certain narcotics economy); police; a banking system; schools; functioning roads; trade. This Taliban will actually have to govern something already governable, where the Taliban of the 1990s could simply rely on brutality to create order from chaos. If this Taliban is to govern instead of simply rule, interaction with the West might serve to lessen their potential privations in Afghanistan and push them towards a level of behaviour that is acceptable on the world stage and that includes decency towards all of Afghanistan’s people.  

Will the Taliban offer support to terrorist groups as they did in the past? 

This threat was made clear by the suicide bombing at the Kabul Airport on 26 August, which was carried out by a shadowy organisation often referred to as ISIS-K (the Islamic State Khorosan Province). Afghanistan is home to jihadists from around the world who have been attracted to the country in part due to the ongoing war there against the West, giving them a place to put their violent ideas into action. Playing host to so many violent jihadists and organisations certainly means that attacks against other nations could emanate from Afghanistan. 

However, there also appears to be some hope that the Taliban will work to stop such attacks from occurring. The Taliban had long been more of a nationalist organisation rather than one that attempted to found an international or global caliphate. The more limited ambitions of the Taliban set them somewhat at odds with Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda decades ago, and today often has them in violent disagreement with ISIS-K. The Taliban also have learned the fearsome price to be paid for harbouring and abetting such groups. While they have emerged victorious from their war with the West, that victory came at a great cost and nearly destroyed the Taliban.  

Allowing ISIS-K or other similarly-minded groups free reign to attack the region and globe with impunity would be to court disaster, and the Taliban knows that. So, in the end, there is certainly the chance that international terrorism once again emanates from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. However, natural rivalries between the Taliban and these more internationally-minded groups, plus the Taliban’s fear of a renewed attack from the West, could hold the threat in check. Perhaps the most dangerous scenario is that Afghanistan will dissolve into a civil war, leaving large areas of the country effectively ungoverned. Such a situation would provide ample chaos for groups like ISIS-K to survive and thrive.  

Will the US withdrawal facilitate greater Turkish, Qatari and Iranian roles in Afghanistan? 

It is doubtless that the withdrawal of US and NATO influence in Afghanistan will open the country to greater regional influence. Countries like Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia and Iran have long sought to impact the Afghan regime and its policies. The Pakistani influence is clear, especially along the long and porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s restive Tribal areas. And any gain made by Pakistan in its influence over Afghanistan will result in an Indian counter move in the ongoing and bitter rivalry between those two nations.  

Much the same is true in Afghanistan’s west, where Iran vies for influence, with each move checked by its regional foe Saudi Arabia. [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has also for years attempted to carve out a place for Turkey as a regional powerhouse, especially in regards to events in Syria and the Kurdish areas of Iraq. A Turkish move towards influence in Afghanistan could cement a role as an “honest broker” in Middle Eastern international affairs. 

As the US continues to move away from Afghanistan, it is only natural that Qatar’s role as intermediary and “honest broker” in the region will now continue to expand and thrive.   

A resurgent Russia certainly has reason to keep watch over its restive southern border. Troubles in Afghanistan, after all, could easily cross the border into Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, causing the Putin regime real trouble. Perhaps of more consequence is the notion of China’s expanding role in the region. Over the past decades China has been keen to flex its diplomatic and military muscles, seeing itself as a counterweight to the US. Stepping into Afghanistan in a meaningful way would seem a natural next step for the ambitious Chinese, in part due to their own issues with their own Uyghur Muslim minority. While both China and Russia have a healthy understanding of the military difficulties of intervention in Afghanistan, the temptation and need to attempt to control events there might prove too great to resist. 

Could the crisis in Afghanistan impact the outcome of the next US presidential elections? 

While the blame for the sorry situation in Afghanistan must be shared across several presidencies, it is the heat of the current moment that most Americans will long remember. America’s politics are sadly polarised at present, with many in the nation being bound to oppose Biden and the Democratic Party in the next election no matter how well he performed on the national and world stages.  

Due to how Biden handled the withdrawal, he will be punished by both Democrats and undecided voters. Dissatisfaction with events in Afghanistan could well dampen support for Biden among Democrats, leading to a more tepid voter turnout especially in the upcoming midterm elections and could well lead to less support for the Democrats among undecided voters. Republican voters will be galvanised by the way the war in Afghanistan ended. These factors combined could well lead to a poor showing by the Democrats in 2022. 

It is actually very important for Biden that the fall of Afghanistan took place in August of 2021, relatively early in his presidency. With the next presidential election not due to take place until 2024, the American voting public will have plenty of time to move on from concern over Afghanistan’s fate. One of the reasons that the war in Afghanistan lingered so long in the first place was a remarkable level of disconnect between the US public and the war. For two decades, the public heard little of the war, and the conflict in Afghanistan made little mark on the lives of everyday US citizens.  

Having failed to resonate with the public for years, the fate of Afghanistan will soon recede from the headlines.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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