One year ago, Western forces withdrew entirely from Afghanistan, leading to the fall of Kabul into the hands of the Taliban. That was a mistake. Vladimir Putin saw this as a sign of American decline and invaded Ukraine, thinking there would be a limited reaction. That was also an error. NATO, led by the USA, is today stronger than it has been for at least 30 years. This, in turn, is sending a strong message to China and Xi Ji Ping, argues Sir Malcolm Rifkind.
Afghanistan had been deeply divided for much of its history. It still is. The civil war might have stopped, but large parts of the population are not reconciled to permanent Taliban control of the country. The Taliban draw their support mainly from the 42% of the population who are Pashtun. The Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks and others have their own leaders and culture and are demanding power-sharing; so far, they are not getting it.
Taliban power, which followed the American and Western exodus from the country last year, was intensely controversial and not just in the West. The Russians, Chinese and others, while enjoying American humiliation, were alarmed at an extremist, Islamist group taking power, again, in such a pivotal country. While the Taliban do not have much of an international agenda and are preoccupied with imposing their extreme version of Islam in their own country, they had also, in the past, showed a willingness to give comfort, support and refuge to al Qaeda. While they had denied that this would happen again, the recent American strike against al Qaeda leader, Zawahiri, living comfortably in a safe house in Kabul, demonstrated the hollowness of Taliban assurances.
The consequences of the withdrawal from Afghanistan are likely to have influenced Putin and his decision to invade Ukraine.
SUGGESTED READING The real reason for leaving Afghanistan By Hew Strachan While I shared President Biden’s assessment that the Afghan Government, even with US support, could not defeat the Taliban I, and others, believed that it was unnecessary and foolish to order a complete withdrawal last year. At that time there were only a few hundred American ground forces left in the county; they were not directly involved in combat and there were few US casualties. If they had been withdrawn that would have had minor military consequences. It was the cessation of US and NATO air support to the Afghan armed forces that was decisive. The Taliban had no air power. While they could not be defeated on the ground it would have taken them years to take Kabul and other major cities if US air power had been retained. This has now been demonstrated by the US use of air power to assassinate Zawahiri. The US is making it clear to the Taliban that it will not hesitate to use air power to destroy any al Qaeda base or safe haven in Afghanistan permitted by the Taliban.
What was also unforgivable was that the US had excluded the Afghan Government from the negotiations they were having with the Taliban prior to their withdrawal. This exclusion destroyed the credibility and the authority of the Afghan elected government in the eyes of their own people which turned the US withdrawal into a rout.
This presumption of American decline has been a serious mistake of Putin’s.
The consequences of the withdrawal from Afghanistan are likely to have influenced Putin and his decision to invade Ukraine. Putin and others around the world like to believe that the US is a declining power. The rapid exodus from Afghanistan gave considerable credibility to that presumption. Putin would have been especially conscious of how the comparable Soviet flight from Afghanistan in 1989 and the victory of the Mujahidin guerrillas, was an important contributing factor to the collapse of Soviet authority and the implosion of the USSR two years later.
This presumption of American decline has been a serious mistake of Putin’s. The Soviet collapse was not just because of its military failure in Afghanistan but because the Soviet Communist economic and political model had failed to provide economic growth and prosperity for its people compared to the capitalist West.
The United States, in comparison, remains the most powerful military and economic power in the world. Russian economic and military strength, apart from nuclear weapons, is far inferior. China, although a quickly growing superpower, will take years to catch up with the US. China’s per capita GDP remains far lower than that of Japan or Taiwan as well as the US. China is also not yet emerging as a financial power with its currency of minor importance compared to the dollar or the euro.
Xi Jinping’s plans for Taiwan are also likely to be revised. He must now assume that the Americans will arm Taiwan and might even intervene to defend it if they faced invasion.
Afghanistan and the forever war myth
By Philip Collins
Biden’s policy on Afghanistan, while flawed, correctly judged the success of the Taliban to be much less crucial to US national security interests than either Xi Jinping’s threats to Taiwan, or Putin’s ambitions to reconstruct eastern Europe and destroy Ukraine.
Putin fatally misjudged the significance of the Afghan fiasco for the USA’s resolve to remain the global superpower. NATO, under American leadership, is stronger and more united than at any time in the last 30 years. The US has been leading the West in providing the Ukrainians with the weapons and military training they need to resist Russian aggression. Sweden and Finland have abandoned neutrality and by joining NATO will make the Baltic Sea’s coastline overwhelmingly controlled by NATO member states. So much for Putin’s strategic brilliance!
Both Putin and Xi Jinping will have been surprised and concerned about the robustness and the strength of the US and Western response to the invasion of Ukraine. For Putin it is now clear that he can never expect to repeat the bloodless annexation of Crimea that he achieved in 2014. He is seeing the end of Germany and Europe as major markets for Russian oil and gas exports. His army has been seen to be so weak in trying to destroy Ukraine that any plan he might have had to attack NATO member states will have been abandoned.
Xi Jinping’s plans for Taiwan are also likely to be revised. He must now assume that the Americans will arm Taiwan and might even intervene to defend it if they faced invasion. Japan has also said it would treat any attack on Taiwan as a threat to Japanese national security. The Chinese need their export markets in the US if they are to achieve further major growth in their economy. The inevitable sanctions that would follow any military aggression would severely damage, severely, these markets
As regards Afghanistan, the immediate future will be grim for its people. The Taliban are showing their continuing support for al Qaeda. Their refusal to allow female secondary education makes the regime a pariah elsewhere in the Islamic world as well as in the West. Without major concessions, they will not have the means to rebuild their economy. That will lead to internal dissent starting with the small-scale insurgency in non-Taliban regions.
While the political isolation of Afghanistan is, sadly, unavoidable for the time being; much more strenuous efforts must be made to ensure food, medical support and other humanitarian supplies to its suffering people. Bilateral help from the UK and other Western countries to the Afghan Government is not possible at present. But multilateral assistance through the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and charitable foundations must be expanded well beyond the current limits.