Image: U.S. Army
Image: U.S. Army

Last Wednesday President Biden announced that the 2,500 American troops remaining in Afghanistan will be withdrawn from the country. The deadline has been set at 11 September, exactly two decades since the 9/11 attacks that brought American forces into Afghanistan in the first place. 

Since the US funds the lion’s share of the logistics which enable foreign military presence in Afghanistan, America’s  absence will also spell the end of NATO involvement. On 16 April, the Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter explained that Biden’s was ‘not a decision we hoped for.’ However the fact remains that the 750 British troops that remain in Afghanistan will trudge out in America’s footsteps.

Biden’s decision is not a bolt from the blue. Both the Obama and Trump administrations sought to ultimately end military involvement in the country. In February 2020, then-President Trump – a major advocate of Afghan withdrawalsigned a deal with the Taliban which set the deadline for American forces’ departure at 1 May 2021. Despite bipartisan resistance in the House and Senate, general political and social opinion seems to be that the days of American boots on the ground in Afghanistan are over. 

Biden acknowledges that Afghanistan mutated beyond the counter-terrorist campaign it was initially intended to be into a project to create a bona fide liberal democracy abroad from scratch. As well as free elections, an American University was even set up in Kabul in 2006 with support from Stanford University. Since 2002, the US has spent $143bn on reconstruction activities in Afghanistan.

All that cement never really hardened into solid foundations though. Such is the lack of faith in the Kabul government that the old Northern Alliance is rumoured to be remobilising. The Taliban currently hold around 20% of Afghan territory, and 50-60% of that remaining is fiercely contested between Taliban and government forces. In autumn 2020 the Afghan National Army (ANA) failed to halt a Taliban offensive only checked by emergency US airstrikes. The ANA on paper outnumbers the Taliban, but in reality now operates at 50-70% strength. Prospects are not rosy at all. Despite the $88bn ploughed into Afghan security forces during the US presence there, American intelligence has given the Kabul government a couple of years to survive if left to fend for itself.

A key element of the withdrawal agreement was that the Taliban would commit to entering into talks with Kabul. The presence of foreign troops delayed beyond the original 1 May deadline makes this far less likely. The Taliban itself is split between a delegation faction and a hard-line faction ready to push onto final victory. As military victory appears on the horizon, the hard-line faction will grow ever stronger and the Taliban ever more resolved. Spokesman Muhammad Naeem recently ruled out Taliban participation in any talks until foreign troops leave Afghanistan, at which point a Taliban victory would be far more likely. The determination to reject compromise and construct a Shariah state at any cost shows no sign of wavering. 

A renewed terrorist threat from Afghanistan is a very real possibility. The Taliban have continued refusing to disavow Al-Qaeda. Within years, we might be dealing with (to quote RUSI analyst Nick Reynolds), ‘a conservative theocracy uninterested in either development or human rights.’ But if Afghan affairs hurtle forwards on their current trajectory we will again witness – just like in 2001 – the birth of a terrorist state.

Consequently Biden cannot extricate the US from the region entirely. Another limiting factor is American credibility – its support cannot look fleeting, and the fate of the Afghan regime will reflect a great deal upon America as an ally. Therefore to leave Afghanistan, one commentator concludes, America must ‘withdraw without walking away.’ Drone strikes, intelligence gathering, and special forces activity will continue. However, the probable deterioration of Afghan security forces and imminent absence of NATO contingents to support them will significantly diminish intelligence-gathering capabilities

It also is uncertain where the US might actually stand once it “walks away”. Pakistan, a close ally of the US in some respects, is also one to the Taliban. Tajikistan is also a possible partner, but its links to Russia might be too close to facilitate a fully-fledged base-sharing agreement. Airbases in neighbouring Uzbekistan, or launching from carriers in the Mediterranean might present better options. So far, however, these costly long-term commitments have not been worked out. What happens after, it would seem, has not predominated in Biden’s thinking on Afghanistan. 

America’s changing priorities away from the Middle East towards the Indo-Pacific – a part of which is withdrawal from Afghanistan– will disrupt the power balance that obtained over two decades of NATO deployment there. Pakistan will likely attempt to expand its influence in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan: decades-old political links, as well as an Islamic faith in common, will come in handy. Pakistan and China are closely linked, so we might expect to see an encroaching Chinese influence in the region. Yet China’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghurs suggests they might not favour an Islamic theocracy in its sphere of interest. Russia’s active foreign policy in Syria could extend into a more general Middle Eastern stance, such as into a post-American Afghanistan. Iran also may have a hand to play, since Afghanistan’s Tajiks are ethnic Persians, their Dari language mutually-intelligible with the Farsi spoken by Iranians. There is no way to predict how other states will react to an American-sized hole in central-south Asia. This unpredictability makes Afghanistan’s future ever more volatile.

Many Americans will rightly sigh in relief for the end of the latest Afghan War that killed over 2,000 of its sons and daughters and injured around 20,000. Others have long forgotten about it. But the Afghans cannot do that, and neither should Biden. America and NATO now must struggle to adapt to a seismic shift, decades in the making, to the power balance in a region where great power competition and global terrorism collided. Arguably the most important – and intense – phase in the Afghan conflict is yet to begin. 

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Chris Conway

Chris is a Junior Editor in Global Affairs and a second-year historian at Magdalen College. He has his own blog (https://thearrow2021.blogspot.com/) focusing on defence, technology, and foreign affairs....