Eyad Abu Shakra

Lessons Learnt From Afghanistan

Within few hours both Herat and Kandahar fell to the Taliban. The fall of Afghanistan’s third and second most populous cities, respectively, meant that the fate of the capital Kabul would not be different.

As expected, the first reaction from the major Western powers, which had troops and civilians in Afghanistan, was to evacuate them. Indeed, Washington announced urgent evacuation plans, including sending troops to help in this effort.

Theoretically, and for the time being, there is no need to explain what has happened in Afghanistan in terms of gains and losses. Moreover, if we recall that Western foreign policies are often based on costs rather than principles, we may find some ‘wisdom’ in the decision taken by US President Joe Biden, and his predecessor Donald Trump before him - in addition to several Western governments - to withdraw from a ‘troublesome’ country that may be easy to conquer but impossible to control.

Recent examples included the setbacks suffered by the British, then the Soviet Red Army, and last but not least, the US and its NATO allies after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Afghanistan was actually an excellent ‘blackmailing asset’ successfully exploited by Washington, which turned it into a battleground pitting ‘Political Islam’ against a tired and confused Moscow during the last years of the Cold War.

This strategy was carried out by Washington while abandoning its old and loyal ally, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and letting him fall when confronted by the Mullah’s ‘Revolution’. Soon enough, the Mullahs repaid Washington by achieving what the Shah proved unable to achieve… crushing the then powerful Iranian Left.

Of course, a lot of water passed under the bridge since the Soviets’ withdrawal from Kabul in 1989, then, the victory of the Afghan Mujahideen over the Moscow-backed Leftist government in 1992. However, infighting would soon plague the Mujahideen; ending only after a hard-line Pashtun militia formed by former student of Pakistan-based religious schools, called the ‘Taliban’ (Students or Seekers) prevailed in 1994.

Later on, regional and strategic interests – including oil pipelines – helped the Taliban to ‘unite’ Afghanistan by force. Thus, the Pakistan-backed Taliban became the ‘legitimate’ government in 1996 despite Western criticisms to its policies and practices.

The situation did not change until the attacks of September 11, 2001, when Washington considered Taliban as associates of Al-Qaeda whose members were accused of carrying out the fatal attacks. Subsequently, Washington took the decision to invade Afghanistan, topple the Taliban regime, and install a moderate one instead.

Supported by military forces from NATO, the American occupation of Afghanistan has lasted 20 years, secured by around 150,000 troops and personnel. One American source estimates human cost of this uneasy occupation since 2001 as follows: more than 47,000 civilian casualties, 72 journalists and reporters, 444 relief workers. As for the military causalities, there were between 66,000 and 69,000 Afghan troops, 2,442 American troops, 1,442 from allied troops, and around 3,800 from US special security firms.

In addition to the above, around 2.7 million Afghans were displaced and fled to neighboring countries, and further 4 million displaced inside Afghanistan.

On the other hand, the financial cost of the occupation reached around 2.26 trillion USD; and according to a Pentagon report in the late 2020, the operational military costs was around 815.7 billion USD.

No doubt these are very high costs, but haven’t there been also high political costs for the US withdrawal, as Washington claims it has to prepare itself for the changing priorities of strategic conflicts?

What is declared is that Washington was ‘scaling down its burdens’ in the Middle East in order to concentrate on more urgent priorities, including China’s rise in east and south Asia, the ever expanding Russian challenge from the Middle East to Africa via the Mediterranean.

In the course of this ‘scaling down’ process, Washington has highlighted the necessity of containing Iran’s threat through negotiations, in order to deal with the priorities of dealing with Beijing and Moscow. This was what prompted Barack Obama to strike the nuclear deal with Tehran, which is the deal Joe Biden is returning to, after been shot down by Donald Trump. In principle, there is no problem with such logic, but there are important factors that should not be overlooked, like:

- Afghanistan shares borders with former Soviet republics which retain strong ties with Moscow. Hence, a Taliban government in Kabul may push the leaderships of these republics to seek even stronger ties with Moscow.
- Afghanistan is a country with a complex ethnic and linguistic mosaic that across its political borders with the aforementioned former Soviet republics; namely, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Thus, if Taliban’s victory stirs up tensions with the Afghani Tajiks, Uzbeks or Turkmens or causes a civil war, the repercussions may not be contained within Afghanistan borders.

- Through the Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan has a narrow strip that is in touch with China; and actually, the Taliban succeeded in controlling the corridor even before taking over Herat and Kandahar.

- China has ambitious projects in west and south Asia as part with its ‘Belt and Road initiative’; and just like China has recently secured a new deal with Iran, it has its presence in the Pakistani port of Gwadar, which may be vital to the land-locked and Pakistan-friendly Afghanistan.

- Iran, Afghanistan’s western neighbor, has been fighting a real war against Sunni Balush activists in the frontier Iranian Province of Sistan and Baluchestan. An interesting fact is that the Balushs inhabit a vast area spreading across eastern Iran, southern Afghanistan and southwest Pakistan.

The significance of Afghanistan in the above-mentioned intersecting interests and considerations; and given Washington’s unclear intentions towards Tehran in the thick of the JCPOA talks in Vienna, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the tacit approval of a Taliban government, would only make the Middle East political scene more complicated.

What, is assured, however, is that the Ibrahim Raisi presidency in Iran, along with the declining trust in Washington if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, do not bode well for the future.