WHAT’S HAPPENING?US troops have started to leave Afghanistan as part of an agreement struck with the Taliban.
– The US and Taliban have signed an agreement in Doha, Qatar aimed at ending America’s longest-running war
– The US has outlined clear commitments in exchange for weak promises about future negotiations that may never go ahead
– The withdrawal of foreign forces without a robust intra-Afghan peace process would represent a political loss for the US in the ‘War on Terror’ and a victory for the Taliban
– Great power competition in the Asia-Pacific is a greater security concern for the US than state-building in Afghanistan
– The agreement contributes to the continued erosion of the effectiveness of liberal democratic state-building efforts in the eyes of the international community
SHAKING HANDS WITH THE TALIBAN
US representatives and their Taliban counterparts have signed an agreement in Doha aimed at ending America’s longest-running war. Notably, the agreement includes a 14-month timeline for withdrawal of all US and NATO forces from Afghanistan and a guarantee from the Taliban that Afghanistan will not be used as a base to launch attacks against the US in the future. Negotiations between Afghan power players including the Taliban and the recently elected government are set to follow, but many observers and Afghans are wary of the consequences of US withdrawal from the country, especially the possibility of the Taliban retaking control; after the signing, Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar voiced his hopes that Afghanistan could now enjoy prosperity under an ‘Islamic regime’ without foreign forces in their lands.
Despite talks of peace and negotiations, the Taliban has staged attacks on local government targets, killing both security forces and civilians and prompting ‘defensive’ airstrikes from the US. Although Washington is trying to keep talks on track so that the withdrawal can go through, ongoing violence from the Taliban has complicated these efforts. Clearly, whether Afghanistan’s ‘Islamic regime’ will be a republic or an emirate remains a source of contention, one that neither side in the intra-Afghan talks may be willing to budge on.
LOOKING CLOSER TO HOME
Photo: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Department of DefenseThe agreement was motivated by the Trump administration’s often-stated desire to extricate US troops from overseas conflicts and end America’s ‘endless’ wars. This is a popular idea amongst the US public, which is unwilling to sustain the body count and financial cost to build democracies overseas. This is why promises to bring the troops home often feature in the political rhetoric of both Trump and Democratic presidential candidates. With the November election approaching, the timing of the agreement appears calculated, even though the 14-month window extends well beyond the date of the vote. Appearing to fulfill that promise now could serve to bolster support for Trump and take the wind out of the Democratic candidates’ own declarations of intent to end the war in Afghanistan.
Apart from domestic political concerns, Afghanistan arguably no longer represents the security risk that it once did to US policymakers. With Al-Qaeda only a shadow of what it once was, great power competition in the Asia-Pacific has become a far more tangible security concern for the US and one that plays better to its historical strengths. This shift in focus can be seen in the latest National Defense Strategy (NDS), which underscores ‘the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition between nations’, specifically Russia and China. Moreover, the firepower of the US military has not proved to be cost-effective against Taliban fighters dispersed throughout the inaccessible reaches of the country. Cognisant of this equation, Washington may calculate that potential investment in Afghanistan would be better used to maintain US influence in the Asia-Pacific, the world’s fastest-growing region.
The agreement is also reflective of the wider issues affecting US military power. Despite US technological and tactical superiority, many experts on US strategy have identified a trend since the end of the Cold War, and arguably even the end of the Second World War: the repeated US failure to achieve a victory that is decisive in both a military and political sense. This was seen in Korea, Vietnam and more recently in Iraq.
As for the Taliban, their motives for signing the agreement appear quite clear. Without a US military presence in the country, the fundamentalist group will exercise even greater authority across large swathes of the countryside, potentially paving the way for its return to power.
A CALM BEFORE THE STORM?
What will happen after the US withdrawal remains difficult to predict in a country with so many competing factions divided along ethnic and religious lines. However, a key question in any intra-Afghan talks will be the status of the Taliban leadership vis-à-vis the country’s secular leaders, namely who will really be in charge and in which parts of the country. How this can be done remains to be seen, especially when the parties represent such divergent political visions for Afghanistan.
Internal divisions in both the Taliban and the government could derail peace negotiations. This may prove particularly problematic for the secular leadership. According to a Congressional Research Service report, the Taliban under current leader Hibatullah Akhundzada is a more cohesive and effective force than it has been since the splintering of the organisation in 2015. Meanwhile, President Ashraf Ghani’s recent re-election has been met with protests from his opponent, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The dispute over the election outcome is so severe that the two men held separate inauguration ceremonies.
An ethnic Tajik-Pashtun, Abdullah Abdullah enjoyed a close relationship with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the former leader of the Northern Alliance that formed was at the heart of resistance to the Taliban, and he has threatened to form his own government in the north. Should Abdullah follow through on his threat, his action will strengthen the Taliban’s position in the south. A fracturing of the Western-backed government could provide an opportunity for the Taliban to expand their already significant hold over the country. Conversely, if Ghani and Abdullah can reconcile, a united government that is legitimate in the eyes of the population may serve as an effective bulwark against a Taliban resurgence.
Further conflict is probable. Insurgent attacks after the signing of the US-Taliban agreement have tested Washington’s commitment to leaving the country while simultaneously pressuring the Afghan government to make concessions early in the process, including meeting Taliban demands for the release of 5,000 fighters in a prisoner exchange. This would strengthen the Taliban position heading into the talks, something the government does not want to do; estimates of Taliban forces number around 60,000 full-time fighters. Already emboldened by its political victory in negotiations with the US, and driven by a hardline ideology, the Taliban is unlikely to pursue good faith, diplomatic peace brokering as a long-term strategy.
But if the Taliban wants to facilitate the US withdrawal, it will need to be careful not to give Washington cause to remain. Negotiating in bad faith could force Washington to stay, lest it lose credibility for abandoning the country. A change in administration could also lead to a change in policy if a new president wanted to project an image of renewed commitment to state-building and global leadership. Still, this remains unlikely. Former vice president Joe Biden has argued against this policy and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has stated that he would withdraw from Afghanistan even if Kabul fell to the Taliban. Furthermore, the willingness of Washington to enter into the agreement clearly signals a lack of commitment to providing the security necessary for democratic state-building efforts.
The agreement is indicative of Washington’s inability to win the political war against jihadist terror. John R. Allen, the former commander of all US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has contended that the US has outlined clear commitments in exchange for weak promises about future intra-Afghan negotiations that may occur. In all of this, the narrative of US global leadership is being challenged and the concept of state-building is proving too difficult and costly. Afghanistan is rife with violence despite continued two decades of effort to establish security. The recent agreement has already been met with scepticism amongst Afghans and has been labeled ‘disgraceful’ and a ‘full-retreat’ in a piece for Time magazine. This plays into the hands of organisations like the Taliban, which will capitalise on the agreement’s optics.
Washington’s commitment to state-building in Afghanistan will become more difficult to sustain as strategic competition in East Asia demands ever greater attention from policymakers. To that ends, the force modernisation planned for the US military will render it better equipped to face the challenge of a rising China. After that, the rugged mountains of Afghanistan and the hardy fighters who inhabit them won’t look very attractive to a military machine geared towards great power competition.
Josh is the Deputy Chief Editor and Analyst with the Analysis division. His key interests include war-fighting technologies and strategic policy.