Cipher Brief Expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey served for over 27 years in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office where his focus was on South Asia and North East Asia as well as on the issues of terrorism, organised crime, insurgency and conflict resolution. He is a Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London.
EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — The misleading narrative of ‘endless wars’ has undermined Western resolve. In fact, since the end of direct involvement in combat missions, the cost of the Afghan war has been relatively small, has enabled the counterterrorism mission to continue, has prevented the return of the brutal Taliban to Kabul and (until last week) had not added to NATO’s harmful string of failures.
Still, President Joe Biden’s announcement that the United States will leave Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was hardly a surprise. In many ways it comes as a relief after 20 years of turmoil. There are six compelling reasons for taking the decision to leave.
- It makes little sense to have troops deployed in harm’s way when there is no coherent overarching strategy towards a political settlement in Afghanistan and no visible end-date.
- The Afghan government is stubbornly resistant to change and has suffered from damaged legitimacy ever since Hamid Karzai’s flawed election in 2009. Its writ no longer runs in much of the country.
- The rampant corruption in Afghanistan, originally fuelled by the opium industry, has got worse since 2001 and exploiting the vast amounts of aid money received from global donors.
- Whilst regional and interested countries all wish to see a stable Afghanistan at least three of them (China, Russia and Iran) are in no mood to help the United States exit with a successfully negotiated solution.
- In spite of its public relations efforts there is little evidence that the Taliban has improved since its appalling period in power between 1996 and 2001. In fact, its campaign of targeted assassinations since the Doha Agreement suggests it is still the same oppressive organisation that it was when it was founded in 1994.
- In spite of repeatedly implying otherwise, it is clear that Pakistan would still prefer to have the Taliban in power in Kabul than a government which is both friendly with India and suspected of providing sanctuary to terrorist groups operating against Pakistan.
And yet, in spite of these seemingly conclusive arguments, the US withdrawal is a bad decision. Although it is true that it has been a 20-year war, there have been three distinct phases where combat conditions declined.
- The first phase from 2001-2006 was a considerable success. Al Qa’ida was expelled from Afghanistan and decimated by (mainly) US counterterrorism (CT) actions often coordinated with Pakistan. 212 US troops were killed in these 5 years: an average of 42 per annum.
- The second phase, from 2006 to 2014, was the most-costly period when NATO forces became directly involved in the fighting against the Taliban. This period included the Obama surge when troop numbers (and associated costs) peaked. 2,045 US soldiers died during these nine years: 227 each year.
- The third (and we now know final) chapter was from 2015 to 2021 when NATO forces filled a largely advisory role to the Afghan National Army. 99 US servicemen and women have died (to date) in these 6 years; 16.5 a year.
For the United Kingdom the comparison of the three phases is even more striking; 5 fatalities in the first 5 years; 448 in the middle 9 years during the Helmand campaign and 4 in the final six years. So, we can see that the only genuinely painful and costly period for NATO was during the spell of direct combat activity.
Since the end of combat involvement, the NATO presence has been largely successful. The CT mission has continued both against Al Qa’ida and Islamic State (IS). NATO has served as an important material and psychological support for the Afghan Army. It has allowed important civil-society achievements to be largely preserved. For as long as NATO stayed in Afghanistan, there remained the chance of negotiating a broader settlement with Pakistan and neighbours by which the Taliban might have been brought into civil society in carefully regulated phases and perhaps given the opportunity to govern a southern province effectively before being permitted any role in a broad-based government in Kabul.
It would be wrong to blame the Biden administration for the decision to leave Afghanistan. Former US President Donald Trump had supported direct talks with the Taliban without Kabul’s involvement and had repeatedly ignored Taliban breaches of the Doha Agreement. Kabul was forced to release dangerous prisoners against unreliable US assurances that they would be prevented from returning to the front-line. Finally, Trump reduced troop levels to an unsustainable level, meaning that Biden would have had the politically difficult task of increasing numbers at a time when the ‘endless wars’ narrative had gained domestic currency. Biden’s one mistake was to support the Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s plan, which tried to bludgeon Kabul into a coalition with a Taliban movement which is clearly not fit for political office.
The Afghan government may be able to hold on to power for a few years as the Najibullah administration survived after the Soviet departure. However, there is a danger that there will be a sudden dam-burst in confidence with senior officials and politicians leaving en masse and hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing westwards through Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics. As the Taliban re-enter Kabul, we could see disturbing scenes of retribution and, in time, the return of Al Qa’ida figures from their hiding-places in the tribal borderlands in Pakistan. Only then will people re-examine this decision and recognise that the Afghan deployments since 2014 have not been that onerous.
There is a final point. By turning a difficult mission into yet another failure, the United States is signalling to potential adversaries that the West does not have resolve and staying power. China will be delighted to see the US depart from its western border and Putin, with his hitherto successful record of tactical interventions – which provide him with regional influence without clear outcomes – will note that NATO cannot handle ambiguity and is willing to concede regional influence. Important allies, particularly India, will make a mental note not to place too much reliance on the US and the West at a time when Biden hopes to reinforce alliances to counter Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Tim Willasey-Wilsey is a visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London and a former senior British diplomat. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent those of any institution.
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