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Endgame in Afghanistan: Should We Be Worried?

Endgame in Afghanistan: Should We Be Worried?
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography

Is it a case of "back to the future"? 

The Afghanistan that has just been reclaimed by the Taliban is not the same country it was when the latter first took power in the late 1990s. For one, the population has doubled since then, to nearly forty million. Cities and overall infrastructure have developed, with some of the country embracing this new modernity. Afghan girls were excluded from education when the Taliban arrived in the late 1990s, whereas today, nearly 40% of them are in school. Few in Kabul believe that their country would have been better off without the 2001 invasion. 

The current situation is obviously not a "success," but should the investment made by the international community over the past two decades be seen as a total failure? Perhaps not, but the primary problem is one of the huge costs in relation to results. With the disastrous collapse of the Afghan regime, everyone bears a share of the responsibility - the United States, Europe, neighboring countries (particularly Pakistan) -and the significant presence of NGOs and other international organizations, as well as their massive investments in the country, have themselves served to upset Afghan society. Afghanistan’s new and thoroughly corrupt political elite has also been involved in massive diversions of that financial aid.

A debate around the consequences for the world

There are two ways to assess the geopolitical consequences of Kabul’s fall.

The primary problem is one of the huge costs in relation to results.

In the prevailing narrative, the "graveyard of empires" has defeated yet another superpower, finally destroying any lingering fantasies of democracy taking root through the introduction of overseas forces.

Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, China, and Russia will likely carve up the carcass of Afghanistan, all of them reveling in the parallels with the retreat from Saigon and a similar hammer blow to U.S. credibility. It also serves to solidify Beijing’s view that the U.S. security guarantee granted to Taiwan is, in reality, of little to no value. According to this narrative, the fall of Afghanistan could truly be a decisive turning point for today’s world order.

Those who support withdrawal also have their arguments. The primary goal of the 2001 invasion was to prevent the creation of a sanctuary for international jihadism. It was successful in those terms, and it is doubtful that the Taliban will allow Al-Qaeda to reconstitute itself on Afghan soil, if only because this would jeopardize any prospect of international assistance (it should be recalled that the Emir of Afghanistan has traditionally held power over Al-Qaeda’s leader). Furthermore, failing to respect the February 2020 agreement under which the American withdrawal takes place would have put Washington’s trustworthiness into question. This is not the same as it was in Vietnam-the United States is not leaving Afghanistan exhausted and under duress. No new Guam Doctrine has been announced: the U.S. are not completely withdrawing from the region, although the drawdown of their forces does leave the Pentagon freer to focus on China. There are no major consequences to fear for America’s traditional alliances, which remain strong, based on genuine mutual interests, and generally backed up through treaties. As for Afghanistan’s neighbors, their priority is to avoid the spread of jihadism into their own territories, as well as attempting to establish their own power bases in place of the departing American ones. However, these neighboring countries have often played with fire in their support to the Taliban-one thinks in particular of Russian arms sales-and the backlash could be brutal. Privately, in fact, Russian and Chinese leadership are likely to be somewhat worried about the speed of the American withdrawal and would not welcome the resurgence of a fundamentalist emirate in what they respectively consider to be their own zone of influence.

So which view is correct? The next international crisis involving the United States and its adversaries could lead to both sides being proved right. One thing that is for certain is that any perception of a weakening United States will only embolden its enemies. For example, it is hard to believe that Obama’s last-minute U-turn in 2013 from striking against the Syrian regime over its use of chemical weapons in the civil war did not encourage Russian and Chinese adventurism. Thus next time, it is likely that Washington will react, perhaps brutally, if only to show that America is still relevant and hugely powerful. This next crisis could well involve Iran, China, North Korea, or Russia, or another actor.

France’s interests and the migration issue  

France has no reason to be ashamed of its recent policy towards Afghanistan. As early as last spring, it led the way among Western nations in anticipating the need for an orderly evacuation of its nationals and the need to begin processing legitimate asylum requests. Additionally, lessons will certainly have been learned from the events of the last few weeks with regards to France’s own ongoing engagement in the Sahel.

France led the way among Western nations in anticipating the need for an orderly evacuation of its nationals.

France will not entirely abandon Afghanistan, with which it has had ties for almost a century since it established diplomatic relations with Kabul in 1922. However, it will need to convince partners that often appear concerned only with their own immediate neighborhoods that Europe’s security is no longer separable from that of Asia. Failure to do so will lead to increasing waves of migration, an influx of heroin, and perhaps even a surge in terrorist threats and attacks.

The subject of migration was highlighted by Emmanuel Macron in his televised speech of August 16. His specific choice of words when discussing the need to "protect us against significant irregular migratory flows" may have been questionable. However, in substance at least, he was correct. Europe is indeed the primary destination for immigrants traveling from Afghanistan via Iran and Turkey-two countries with whom Europe has had difficult relations-and the country has for many years been among the main nationalities represented in the flows to Europe. In France, Afghans asylum seekers - 90% of whom are low-skilled males - account for around a tenth of all applications. This isn’t due to a particular affection for France, but rather because they have often been rejected elsewhere. Paris deals with these requests rather well and in July, as a precautionary measure, suspended the expulsion of those to whom it had refused asylum. There is little reason to expect a wave of similar magnitude to that from Syria a few years ago. In Brussels, however, the subject will remain sensitive due to the European Union’s ongoing efforts to reform its common policy in this area, and the issue of immigration is likely to become a particularly burning topic of political debate in those nations with elections in the coming months - first Germany, and then France.


Copyright: Hoshang Hashimi / AFP

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