There are some images that stay in the mind, some photographs that really do say more than a thousand words. For example, for many people America’s arrival as a military force in the Far East was announced by the iconic picture of six US marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima in the early stages of the 1945 assault on Japan, and the ignominy of their departure 30 years later was summarised by the pictures of people desperately trying to get onto the evacuation helicopters on the roof of the US embassy in Saigon as the city fell to the North Vietnamese.
As yet, no single all-encapsulating picture has emerged from the scenes of the latest American retreat, from Kabul earlier this month, to match that Saigon image. But the similarities with the fall of Saigon and the desperate attempts of people to get out before the incoming forces took control are clear, and many commentators have wasted no time in making them. We do not intend to repeat these assessments, or echo the many lengthy reports from Kabul on the drama of the last week or two; much of the analysis has we think been somewhat simplistic and keen to paint events in a very one-dimensional manner – “a defeat for the West”, “a disaster for Afghanistan”, “a victory for the Taliban”, “a gift for China” and so on – and it has concentrated almost exclusively on looking back and laying blame.
While there is certainly room for reflective and backward-looking pieces, we prefer to look forward, to consider what the events of the last few weeks might mean over the longer term for various actors in the region and beyond. And, with apologies to our international readers, we will start with what it means for the UK – not least because we think the analysis for the UK is relatively straightforward compared to the scenario facing some other nations.
For despite the sound and fury in the House of Commons debate, and the many criticisms levelled against Boris Johnson and his government, especially his hapless Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, the blunt truth is that the UK was only a support player to the American presence in Afghanistan, and any thought that this was not the case, or that the British Army could unilaterally sustain a meaningful presence once the Americans had decided to leave, was brutally exposed as fanciful.
There remains in the media and in the House of Commons a reluctance to admit that the country is no longer able to consider any sort of serious overseas military mission without American leadership or at least an American presence (which largely amounts to the same thing – if the US are there, they lead). But the reality is clear.
The problem is that this awkward truth does not sit comfortably with the stated aim of Global Britain. The most recent government review of national security and defence, published less than 6 months ago in March, spoke of a vision of a post-Brexit Britain as a “force for good in the world”, and claimed that the country was both a “soft power superpower” and had “hard power”, ie globally deployable military capability, to go with it. Similar claims were made at the G7 and NATO summits in June, and it remains the government’s position today, but after the retreat from Kabul, these claims are less easy to justify and ring ever less true, and promises, offers and assurances to allies and partners are ever less convincing.
We suspect that the UK’s relative impotence, its inability to act unilaterally or independently, will not come as a surprise to most of the population. The British people seem by and large to have accepted the UK’s reduced status in the world rather more easily than the political class, and in particular have become immune to the Prime Minister’s extravagant claims for exceptionalism for everything, from the “world-beating” track and trace system he promised at an early stage of the pandemic to the “best in class” resettlement scheme he has now announced for those in Afghanistan with a call on the UK. Good luck to anyone who relies on that particular promise.
It is strange how difficult the politicians find it to admit to the electorate something most of the electorate already know and accept. If one outcome for the UK of Kabul 2021 is that a little more realism is injected into the discussion of the country’s place in the world – similar perhaps to the realisation after the Suez Crisis in 1956 that the country could no longer even pretend to itself to be a superpower any more – then that at least will be a positive.
If analysis of the UK’s position has been characterised by agonised soul-searching, the commentary, at least this side of the Atlantic, on the US’s position has been straightforward and blunt, and the criticism of President Biden and his decision to abandon Afghanistan merciless. We think this misunderstands both American politics and Joe Biden himself in particular.
As the saying has it, “all politics is local”, and nowhere is this more true than for the United States. Much as America’s allies may regret it, much as they rail against America’s decision, over which they were neither consulted nor even given any advance notice, the American electorate will neither notice nor care much what other nations think, and nor therefore will America’s politicians.
Instead Biden will have been noting the sentiment among the American people, and their frustration with the never-ending wars in the Middle East and the corrupt and ineffective government of former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. He himself certainly had no respect for the Afghan authorities, a position he has held and stated publicly without too much subtlety since his time as Obama’s vice president a decade ago: it was noticeable that when Trump decided to negotiate direct with the Taliban last year and exclude the Afghan government from the talks, Biden offered no criticism of what would in most circumstances be seen as a direct slap in the face for an ally.
This will have made it easy for him to act as he did, as he faced the position where his personal views coincided with his assessment of the public mood. Moreover even for a politician he has a thicker skin than most, and he shows no sign of being disturbed by the criticism he is receiving from some quarters. He seems comfortable with his decision to pull out, and we doubt he will suffer much electoral damage either from the decision itself, or from the precipitate collapse of the Ghani administration, or even from the chaotic way the evacuation has unfolded. Even the tragic loss of US military personnel in the bombing last week – in which ironically more Afghanistan-based US soldiers died than in the whole of the last 18 months – will we suspect be a short-lived story and will not impact on the mid-term elections due next November, far less the next presidential election in 2024.
What about the other actors? Much has been made of the fact that a set-back for the West must be a positive for Russia and China. But we think it is slightly too facile to see China and Russia as the unalloyed winners here. Of course they enjoy seeing the US humbled, and China in particular will be in an excellent position to access Afghanistan’s mineral resources. But both will be aware – Russia from first-hand experience – that Afghanistan does not submit to foreign oversight easily, and neither really want a new fundamentalist Islamic state in the region.
China in particular will be wary of the border Afghanistan shares with its Xinjiang province, and while Russian is geographically more distant, the Taliban have in the past supported Muslim fighters in Chechnya. And the race for influence in Kabul might even promote Sino-Russian rivalry. It will be interesting to see how the latest version of the Great Game plays out if so.
One country for whom events pose multi-layered challenges is Pakistan. The dominant security challenge for Pakistan is keeping India at arms’ length, and to do this the government in Islamabad has traditionally tried to keep the authorities in Kabul onside, to avoid facing threats on both borders. And to this end they made a public show of being friendly with the Ghani administration in Kabul. But it is clear that they did not trust its longevity and durability, reliant as it was on American support, and this lack of trust was repaid by Ghani, who made overt overtures to and built strong links with India. So Pakistan found it necessary to court both sides to hedge their bets – publicly supporting the Kabul government, thereby staying on more or less on the right side of the West, and privately supporting the Taliban with both funds and safe havens.
It might be thought that the triumph of the Taliban is therefore unalloyed good news for Pakistan: India’s ally has fallen, America has departed, and a friendly government will take office. As a result the need for hedging their bets and diplomatic deceptions has receded, and indeed the government in Islamabad has already publicly welcomed the Taliban take-over.
But Pakistan has its own trouble with Islamist militants, and their support for the Taliban has always been very clearly predicated on “no trouble our side of the border”. The Taliban’s triumph in Afghanistan opens up the prospect of a weak central government and rivalry between different groups to their immediate west – with the added complication that all the military hardware the Americans gave the now defeated and disbanded Afghan Army is available for the first terrorist group that can claim it. And it is some arsenal that the Americans have bequeathed – according to some reports over 200 aircraft and helicopters, 75,000 military vehicles, 600,000 small arms and in all about $85 billion of military equipment. The Taliban may well find that it is easier to win this prize than keep hold of it, and there will be no shortage of other players keen to claim their share of it.
And this brings us to the Taliban themselves, the last major player in the puzzle. For them, the moment of their triumph may be the zenith of their power, and consolidating their regime may prove challenging. Afghanistan is a notoriously difficult country to hold and defend; indeed arguably of no country is it more true that “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”, as Shakespeare wrote. The landscape is harsh and difficult to move large armies around, and offers many valleys and boltholes for resistance fighters. The various tribes that make up the population are difficult to meld into one people and seem often to have more that keeps them at each other’s throats than binds them together. The poppy fields and opium trade make it a magnet for those keen to earn money off others’ suffering.
On top of this they face financial sanctions (the central bank’s dollars have already been blocked by the US) and the suspension of the multilateral aid which for their US-backed predecessors was a major source of income. And the eyes of the world will be on them and assessing whether they have really changed from the extraordinarily harsh regime they imposed on Afghanistan and in particular its womenfolk the last time they were in power. Social unrest is not far below the surface and there are many non-state actors, from Islamic State and al-Qaeda downwards, who will be happy to meddle in Afghanistan’s affairs if the Taliban let them.
Given this it is not perhaps very surprising that the Taliban have been actively seeking the support and help of China. They sent a strong delegation to Beijing only a month or so ago, and the resulting accord looks to suit both sides: the Taliban get money and a strong international supporter, while China gets access to Afghanistan’s mineral wealth and can further rile the West while doing so.
But the Taliban need to be aware that China gives nothing for free; at the very least they will have imposed a blanket ban on any Taliban incursion into Xinjiang or support for their fellow co-religionists the Uyghurs. And as many other third world countries have found, China is a ferocious and unforgiving creditor, and falling behind in one’s debts to them is both unwise and uncomfortable in the extreme.
We have not even touched on the other possible actors, state and non-state. Of the former, both India and Iran will be wary about getting involved, but neither will want anyone else to end up in control of such a pivotal region. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, although some distance from Afghanistan physically, will be watching carefully and feeling that as leading members of the Muslim ummah they cannot stand idly by. And even the West will face consequences as the flow of refugees and migrants is unlikely to reduce any time soon.
One thing seems clear – Afghanistan, the crossroads of Central and South Asia and for so long a battleground of opposing forces and ideologies, is unlikely to see much peace in the immediate future.