Although the war and occupation are over and the dust is finally settling in Afghanistan, there is little clarity about what the future holds for the Afghan nation or for the main protagonists, the United States and the Taliban.
Judging from their initial official statements, both sides appear to be holding back their ambitions, lowering their expectations and moderating their positions after the 20-year war that followed another 20-year conflict, which left Afghanistan in disastrous limbo.
Despite America’s humiliating defeat, over the past week, President Joe Biden has insisted that withdrawing US and NATO forces was the right decision, ending Washington’s longest war.
He argues that Americans should not fight wars and die on behalf of those who lack the will to do so themselves, least of all on behalf of a demonstrably corrupt government that the United States supported in Kabul.
I guess better late than never. Or, as Winston Churchill observed, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing only after they have tried everything else.”
Well, not always.
But now that the curtains have drawn on the Afghan-American theater of death, what lessons has Washington learned from two decades of war and occupation?
In a scathing report, released earlier this month, the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has shown how and why the United States has been wrong in Afghanistan, from strategy, planning, and timing to spending and the supervision.
However, practically all the lessons proposed in the report are operational, useful mainly to better prepare for the next mission; or the next war. If the United States did not learn the lessons of Vietnam, it must learn the lessons of Afghanistan before embarking on another adventure abroad.
But that misses the most important lesson of all, namely, avoid “choice wars” entirely and at all costs.
Fortunately, Americans have grown weary of Washington’s wars and about 70 percent of those surveyed fully support the withdrawal from Afghanistan. In fact, the humiliating scenes from Kabul last week are expected to deepen public resentment for future world adventures.
Likewise, it appears that much of Washington’s foreign policy establishment is finally grappling with the idea that these exhausting and costly wars in the Greater Middle East are not only costly – $ 6.4 trillion and counting – but are They are also weakening the United States’ position in the world, especially vis-à-vis its strategic competitors, China and Russia.
Tragic as it may be, the Afghan disaster caused by the United States has become the butt of jokes around the world. As an online joke says: “If you feel worthless, remember that the United States took four presidents, thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and 20 years to replace the Taliban with the Taliban.”
That’s why the United States may want to avoid external entanglements at least for the foreseeable future, and instead try to regain some of its lost credibility by acting less recklessly when faced with similar security challenges.
But again, old habits die hard.
As Washington tries to steer clear of major troop deployments and nation-building missions, it is doubling down on its infamous “global war on terror” through drone bombing, covert operations, and the like. in the Greater Middle East and beyond.
In other words, the Biden administration could have relented on the counterinsurgency front, but it has not abandoned counterterrorism operations.
Quite the contrary.
In Afghanistan, it maintains the right to act preventively and at will against any emerging threat, real or perceived. Indeed, US officials have defended their withdrawal from Afghanistan on the grounds that they do not need to be on the ground to act when necessary, as they do in other parts of the region.
But to avoid unnecessary escalation, Washington will attempt to influence the behavior of the Taliban in a way that limits or prevents the emergence of future threats to US interests by working closely with Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Pakistan and Iran. and other regional players like Turkey. Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Despite its repeated debacles, the United States remains the richest and most powerful nation in the world with enormous influence at its disposal. To that end, President Biden is already convening a virtual meeting of G7 leaders next week to discuss a common strategy on Afghanistan.
But how receptive are the Taliban to pressure from the United States and the West, and how will they rule Afghanistan?
The Taliban’s initial statements and demeanor indicate a certain pragmatism, a willingness to compromise, and an understanding that the country, especially the capital, which has grown to five million inhabitants, has undergone somewhat of a transformation since 2001.
The Taliban leaders may have won a decisive victory, but they do not want to go back to being isolated as they were when they first ruled in the late 1990s.
That is why they have already opened dialogue with Beijing, despite its mistreatment of Uighur Muslims, to win their recognition and help. China is carrying out massive infrastructure works in Pakistan, Iran and other Asian nations, as part of its Strategic Belt and Road Initiative, to replace the United States as Asia’s leading power.
However, judging by their most recent statements and by their coordination with the US evacuation forces in Kabul this week, the Taliban leaders want to continue the dialogue with the US, seeking de facto recognition and perhaps recognition. help from western nations and institutions, knowing also good, the country cannot stabilize without outside help.
To that end, the Taliban have granted amnesty to all public officials and have called on the soldiers of the former regime to join their armed forces. Furthermore, their leaders are talking about forming coalition governments and allowing girls to go to school and women to stay in their jobs as long as they are covered with a veil.
Whether that indicates a real change of opinion or is merely a tactic to break isolation remains to be seen, though most remain skeptical that the conservative Islamist movement will accept Western dictates after its hard-won victory. It has certainly made it clear that democracy is not compatible with Sharia or the Afghan tradition.
If the Taliban fail to transform into a functioning government and instead rule as a vengeful armed uprising, expect countries like Iran and Pakistan to intervene directly or through disgruntled ethnic and tribal groups.
All of this will have major repercussions on other Islamist groups that have been inspired by the victory of the Taliban, creating a new vicious cycle of attacks and counterattacks.
In short, the war may be over, but the reckoning may begin soon in Afghanistan.
Likewise, the curtains may have been drawn on the US occupation of Afghanistan after 9/11, but they are far from closed in the post-9/11 era.
And the United States, the self-proclaimed “indispensable nation,” has proven once again, at great cost to itself and the world, to be totally expendable.
Twenty years after he invaded Afghanistan and later Iraq with the ambition to transform the entire region to his liking, one has to wonder who transformed whom.