The weeks that have elapsed from the fall of Kabul have led to a remarkable surge in commentary – remarkable inasmuch as Afghanistan had generally disappeared from the front pages of mainstream media and even from the Washington think tank agenda in recent years. It was as if the Obama and Trump administrations had decided that we could somehow ignore Afghanistan and get on with other business, and only a very small and very wonkish group of experts would spend their time following the progress of the American experiment in Afghanistan.
But that has ended. In Washington, in policy circles, the debate over the American withdrawal from Afghanistan rages on (even if, pace Obama and Trump, the mainstream media has progressively lost interest in the details of what’s happening in Afghanistan, and in the region of South Asia generally).
Now, it’s a debate about us.
When officials are hauled before congressional committees, little thought is given to the future of the region, or even to the full geopolitical implications of President Biden’s decision to implement the agreement negotiated by his predecessor. In his testimony before Congress on October 28, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley called it a logistical success (that actual withdrawal of troops) but a strategic failure (the enterprise in general). No doubt experts will continue to swarm on the topic, but most of the American (and indeed, western) press has already moved on, accepting the premise that the twenty-year phase of policies loosely called the war on terror has ended and the new phase of great power competition – especially Sino-American competition – has begun.
But before short attention spans take us from the topic, let’s examine two elements of America’s departure from Afghanistan: the impact on how American foreign policy operates, and the impact on the situation on the ground in South Central Asia.
After Afghanistan: Americans’ Global Outlook
It’s hard to remember the fervor with which America, and its allies, went to war in Afghanistan after 9/11. It wasn’t just the sense of outrage at the attacks on the World Trade Center. It was also the event that focused a debate, in policy circles, about what America, the sole superpower at the turn of the century, would do with its might. The nationalists (such as Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) wanted to expand American power; the neoconservatives (such as Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith) wanted to transform the situation overseas to eliminate what they considered distortions that prevented a natural state of liberal democracy from flourishing. And the near unanimity of support for the Afghan war shows that this was not limited to Republican leaders but to Democrats as well.
Twenty years later, that set of assumptions – that America had the power to enforce its will, and that the assumption of the ultimate victory of liberal democracy – is no longer with us. More importantly, the context of the debate among Washington think tanks or the Council on Foreign Relations is increasingly of less interest to electorates than it once was. More often, public debate about foreign policy is seen as a part of domestic crisis; increasingly, rather than wondering about the mistakes of the past two decades in faraway lands, there is the common assertion that the Cold War is over, and the gangsters won. One need look no farther than the new book by Brookings scholar (and Trump administration survivor) Fiona Hill, which states clearly and passionately that the only way for America to compete world-wide is to clean up its act at home. And she is not alone in making this claim.
What, then, does that mean for the way America looks at the world after Afghanistan?
For one thing, we’re almost certainly not going to get involved in similar expeditions anytime soon. There’s no appetite for new wars in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or anywhere else. And yet we’ve built up a foreign policy apparatus that’s highly militarized, and the soldiers (and diplomats and other practitioners of U.S. foreign policy) are trained for and accustomed to a kind of approach to the world where a principal element of American presence is military. We don’t want to fight the wars of the last two decades anymore. But the structures of decision-making – the overwhelming role of military calculation in foreign policy and the exponential expansion of the partnership of military and intelligence assets – have made it hard for us to do much of anything else. Diplomacy has steadily weakened, as diplomats find it harder and harder to emerge from fortified embassies to gain an understanding of their host countries, and indeed, domestic polarization leads us to a situation where, of sixty ambassadorial nominations made by the President, only two have been confirmed.
My point is this: we may have decided we don’t want to continue to engage in foreign policy as we have for the last couple of decades, but we still have the structures and personnel and budgets and attitudes that we’ve used since 9/11. We may not be in Afghanistan anymore, but the way we were in Afghanistan (our massive embassies, our sprawling USAID programs, military efforts at state building) is still around.
So, to the first question, on the impact of the withdrawal from Afghanistan on U.S. foreign policy, look for disjuncture, at least for now. Our minds may be elsewhere, but our body is built for the approaches of the 9/11 era. The officers who run our military will, for years to come, have formed their opinions and had their experiences in wars like Afghanistan. The diplomats who will become the leaders of our foreign service will, for years to come, have formed their opinions and had their experiences serving alongside a much more powerful military. The debate may move on to new challenges. But the machinery will take some time to reshape.
After Afghanistan: What’s to Come in South Central Asia
Even as Washington struggles to move forward in a post-Afghanistan era, Afghanistan and its neighbors will not stand still. The Taliban’s return will not be easy. Those who remember Kabul in 2001 have images of a fairly bleak landscape that had been mismanaged in the 1990s. Kabul today is a much larger city of many millions, replete with everything from modern shopping malls to giant office buildings. It’s no doubt true that the way America transformed this city, and many other parts of Afghanistan, was not sustainable; western governments underwrote expansion that continued, to the very end, to depend on more outside support, thus providing educational achievements, improvements in public health, and business opportunities for the Afghan people. Skilled journalists have written in recent days of the complexity of the task facing the Taliban: on the one hand, in the countryside, many of the poorer communities are simply relieved that the fighting has ended and are thus likely to give credit to the Taliban for bringing peace even if they disagree with other elements of governance. But in the mega-capital, and in provincial cities like Herat or Jalalabad, holding things together will be more difficult.
And into this power vacuum will come Afghanistan’s neighbors. Pakistan has the greatest stake in Afghan stability, and its leaders are deeply worried that the satisfaction of seeing the war end (and the often-unstated pleasure of seeing America’s reputation take a hit) may soon fade if Afghanistan is ungovernable. Both Pakistan and Iran host millions of Afghan refugees, many of them displaced for decades, and neither country wants to see this burden increase. China, always cautious, may wish to see Afghanistan as a new pillar in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of infrastructure expansion. But the Communist Party of China and the Taliban are not exactly natural partners, and an unsettled country is a hard place to build power plants, pipelines, and railways. Russia, like China, would like to ensure that its own security is not threatened by a new and unstable Afghanistan, and may seek to press its Central Asian friends to prevent a rise of violence. But even these “friends” – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kirghizstan on the front lines – may not always see eye-to-eye with Russia, and have sizeable ethnic populations in Afghanistan itself, further complicating the picture. And India, which among regional powers had committed the most money and effort to support the previous Afghan government, has suffered a loss, and will back away from the new Afghanistan for now.
It may be fashionable for those who decry America’s withdrawal to portray a new Afghanistan as a potentially hapless victim of regional power grabs. But if you look at Afghanistan from the perspective of its neighbors, more often than not it is fear of chaos that motivates them, not hopes for easy victories. I recall, many years ago, when I was American ambassador in Pakistan, hearing from very senior Chinese officials that their nightmare was an American departure. “Who else,” they would say, “will protect our investments and keep radical Islam at bay?”
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An article such as this might conclude with the phrase “at the end of the day…” But we’re not at the end of the day at all. We’re still in the very beginning of seeing how the American withdrawal from Afghanistan will affect us and the region. Expect that the debate in Washington will continue, even if it slowly loses steam as other problems, domestic and foreign, take its place on the stage. Expect that the calls for new approaches to American foreign policy that move on from the last two decades will slam directly into the structures and budgets of the American defense establishment, because those who are called upon to face the new challenges are precisely those trained to face the old ones (with often tragic results).
And expect that the vacuum left by the American withdrawal may not simply be filled by others, but rather, with an even more complex phase in the future of Afghanistan, this most unfortunate of countries.