The US withdrawal from Afghanistan: A catastrophic end or the beginning of a new disaster?

More than two months have passed since the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan. Mid-October the NATO defense ministers met in Brussels to reflect on what has happened in Afghanistan. During a press conference, the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that they “exchanged views on how to preserve the gains and ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists”. These goals seem extremely ambitious, and thus an analysis of the implications from the withdrawal might provide a better understanding of the feasibility of Stoltenberg’s statement. 

Figure 1: NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg at the press conference on October 22nd, 2021, in Brussels

Developments after withdrawal

While China, Russia and Turkey have kept their diplomatic representations in Kabul during the past months, the EU and most other representations have left the capital of Afghanistan. The EUplans to reopen their embassy in Kabul in the very near future. Negotiations with the Taliban on the security of these representatives have not come to an end yet. The EU clarifies that this step cannot be seen as a signal of acceptance towards the new Taliban regime. 

The end of the Afghanistan mission was perceived as very chaotic around the globe. In the US this had staff-related consequences. The special representative for Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, will be replaced by his deputy. Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan, led the negotiations about an ending of the US intervention with the Taliban under the Trump administration. Khalilzad was not the only one in charge who had to take personal consequences. After an assessment of the withdrawal from Afghanistan the Dutch minister of foreign affairs, Sigrid Kaag, stepped down in mid-September. 

Implications for Afghanistan 

An expected consequence of the Taliban takeover is the repression that women will face. Human Rights Watch talked to some women in Herat, who claimed that their lives have changed dramatically. In the past they were working, meeting friends and were actively participating in society. Nowadays, they seldomly leave their homes, some have lost their jobs and others even considered marrying as a last resort from financial and social insecurity. The schools introduced a gender-split system, under which only women teach girls and only men teach boys. The Taliban officially declared that a mahram -that is a man or boy accompanying women- is only mandatory for longer travels. In reality, the women in Herat are pressured to have a mahram also in their daily lives. A stricter dress-code was implemented and women showing too much skin were stopped on the streets by the Taliban. The Taliban collects lists with the names of former female activists and the women are afraid of what will happen to those on the list.

For Afghans, not only have their social lives changed, but their financial prospects are also much different. After the beginning of the US intervention in 2001, the economic situation in Afghanistan improved rapidly. The national GDP increased within 10 years from 4bn in current US$ to 20bn US$. Since 2012, the GDP has been fairly stable. The past two months were driven by a large economic downturn due to multiple factors. First, the public and private sector experienced a credit crunch. In reaction to the Taliban takeover the US froze Afghan reserves and international organizations like the World bank stopped their supporting programs. As the international community doesn’t recognize the new de facto government, the IMF doesn’t grant Afghanistan the access to funds anymore. 

According to the World Bank, the government revenue from customs almost halved since the Taliban takeover, compared to the 2020 levels. International transactions for companies have become limited, and the same applies to withdrawals of money from banks in international and local currencies. Furthermore, a drought had negative impacts on the agricultural sector which accounts for roughly a quarter of the economy. The COVID-19 pandemic and the global rise in energy prices put additional pressure on the economy. Afghanistan imports more than three quarters of its electricity consumption, and since the Taliban takeover, electricity doesn’t work most of the day. Prices and inflation increased because the supply of basic goods is hampered since the Taliban control the borders. The World bank’s outlook is even worse: inflation, depreciation, more poverty, increased public debt and an unsecured provision of food and basic goods. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN expects that more than half of the Afghan citizens will be exposed to acute nutrition insecurity from November on, and without major international support, one million children are threatened to die from hunger. Food insecurity does not just hit the rural population but also the cities. This year, Afghanistan faces the second drought in four years, which affects more than two thirds of Afghan provinces. 

Will the Taliban regime at least be able to guarantee safety for the Afghans? Their popularity was often based on that promise. In the past two months, multiple terrorist attacks have been reported. Terrorists attacked Shiite mosques during the prayers on two subsequent Fridays in October. In both incidents the suicide attackers killed about 50 people. The Sunnite branch of the IS claimed responsibility for the first attack. Together with al-Qaeda, they pose a threat to the Afghan regime. The most extreme Taliban members could defect to the IS in case the Taliban agree on compromises with the West, as some did when the Taliban entered into negotiations with the US. 

Figure 2: The scene after a bomb attack in Kandahar on Oct. 15. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Implications for the Middle East and Central Asia

On October 20th, representatives from Afghanistan, Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan, and other countries in Central Asia met in Moscow. Russia criticised the US for not attending the meeting, which was organized as an effort to integrate the Taliban to the diplomatic scene. The Russian minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, pledged for international humanitarian and financial aid for Afghanistan in order to avoid a humanitarian crisis that could cause massive immigration flows. Lavrov mentioned that terrorists could infiltrate other countries covered as refugees. So far, the EU has not detected any significant waves of emigration out of Afghanistan, but according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN 750,000 Afghans are predicted to be displaced in 2021. Another risk is the export of terrorism and increased drug trafficking to the region. 

Afghanistan is estimated to produce more than 80% of the global opium and heroin supply. The drug export has been a key income source for the Taliban. In 2000 the Taliban tried to ban the poppy cultivation, but had to take it back since too many families depended on that income. The US efforts to fight the poppy production failed. It is very unlikely that the Taliban will ban it again and the production and supply of heroin and opium is expected to increase.  

Figure 3: Map of Afghanistan

What do the other countries in the region think about the Taliban? The Pakistani support for the Taliban is not a secret. The origin of the Taliban is in Pakistan and after the defeat of the Taliban in 2001 some went back to Pakistan to rebuild the terror organisation. The Pakistani intelligence service provides the Taliban with weapons and money. Pakistan’s enemy India, on the other hand, contributed to the international efforts to develop a democratic and stable government in Afghanistan. However, according to different perspectives in Pakistan, India helps the Afghan branch of the IS. The new Taliban victory could lead to more terrorist attacks in Kashmir, a region where territories from Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and India meet. 

Iran and the Taliban have common enemies. The Taliban fight the IS and the US, which is in Iran’s interest. Iran also supports the Taliban with money and weapons. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan reacted quite differently. While Uzbekistan reopened the borders quickly to reinforce the trade in the region, Tajikistan limits the exchanges at the border. Tajikistan is afraid that terrorism and drugs will enter their country. Furthermore, they hold repeated military manoeuvres with Russia. 

Implications for the Rest of the World

The whole world closely followed the developments in Kabul and Afghanistan this summer. Is the uncontrolled withdrawal from Afghanistan a symptom of gradual decline from the US as the global superpower? Is the US shifting its focus from the Middle East and Central Asia to interior problems or to the new rising global power China? Not surprisingly, China propagated the view of weak Americans, who left Afghanistan under chaotic circumstances. The Afghanistan withdrawal could be a signal for China that the US American time as a global defender of democracy is over. In light of the increasing tensions between China and Taiwan the consequences could be fatal. 

But even though the troop removal represents a dishonourable and unsuccessful end of the longest US intervention in history, it does not reflect a military defeat. The reasons for putting an end to the mission were purely political. The threat of Islamist terror is not sufficiently predominant in the US society anymore such that it justifies a mission with deaths on the other side of the globe. If the Chinese rise gave the US American public the feeling of being threatened, the situation could change and be the basis for a more active US approach to limit their power. Additionally, Biden assured to protect Taiwan if they were under attack from China. Biden’s statement is stronger than their former more ambiguous approach. The US has a contractual obligation to help Taiwan self-defend itself. 

When the US decided the withdrawal from Afghanistan independently, the European allies of America felt ignored. For instance, the G7 leaders’ plea to extend the deadline of the mission to rescue all their citizens and employees has been denied. Considering that the mission was initialized by the US and the NATO partners fulfilled their promise of collective support this behaviour was disappointing. Without the help of the US, the EU would not have been able to evacuate their soldiers from Afghanistan, which is another signal for the EU to become more independent. The US will only intervene when its interests are at stake and East Europe might not be a relevant geopolitical region for the US. Therefore, discussions about the EU’s ability to defend itself gain importance. Moreover, the quick reoccupation of Afghanistan by the Taliban casts doubts on the sense of the investments and risks taken. Ongoing military interventions abroad will be reassessed and further ones are difficult to legitimize.

Conclusion

Overall, the US withdrawal is the beginning of a new disaster for most Afghans. Even if they didn’t mind the Taliban ideology, the economic consequences will be severe and it is not clear yet if the security situation improves. The Middle East and Central Asia could be exposed to more terrorist attacks and drug trafficking. Nevertheless, some neighbouring countries have supported the Taliban. The withdrawal probably did not benefit China, since the US resources are now free to focus on East Asia. In Europe policies towards a more independent defence strategy are on the agenda. Military interventions become less likely and will only be conducted if national interests are at stake. For the US and Europe, the withdrawal represented the disastrous end of a long-lasting mission. 

What about Stoltenberg’s plans “to preserve the gains and ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists”? The efforts to educate the young and build-up an active democratic society will not be gone immediately. The Taliban cannot change mindsets as fast as they stop schooling and cultural activities. But without international organizations on the ground the gains in Afghanistan cannot be preserved in the medium and long term. The Anti-terror fight, on the contrary,  can be continued without troops on the ground via air-strikes. It is probable though that these air-strikes will be conducted by the US and not by a coordinated NATO mission. Of course, air-strikes are more limited and the likelihood that at least some terrorists will be trained and sent to missions in the region or around the world is very high. 

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