For centuries, Afghanistan has been seen as the last untamed frontier. From the geopolitical struggle between Tsarist Russia and the British Empire in the 19th Century, to the long drawn out struggle of the Soviet Union against the American-backed Mujahadeen in the country during the 1980s, the so called ‘Great Game’ has continued to be fought out in Afghanistan. As a result the country has earned itself the title of the Graveyard of Empires.
The final withdrawal of American and Operation Resolute Support (Formerly ISAF) troops in September this year will mark the defeat of yet another power that has gone in to the mountainous Central Asian country seeking to restore order. However, this time the stakes are higher than ever before. The Western withdrawal from the country will not only mark the end of a twenty-year engagement in the region, but also be a sign that America is yet further shrinking away from the world stage.
Whilst many in the United States have long awaited this day, with Presidents Obama, Trump, and now Biden all having made commitments to end US involvement in Afghanistan, the atmosphere in Kabul is one of foreboding. The withdrawal of allied troops removes the last obstacle to a full Taliban takeover of the country.
Rural areas of the country have been falling under Taliban control since the mid 2010s, with urban areas only spared because of the presence of allied troops. With all of these troops now heading for the door, there will be very little to stop Taliban forces from pushing in and retaking the rest of the country.
The Afghan National Army, whilst reasonably well equipped and western trained, stands little chance against what is ultimately one of the wealthiest terror groups in the world. Least of all because the Taliban has had the better part of a decade to regroup and reorganise in those areas that the West has dared not to enter.
In the eyes of many in Afghanistan, the cost of US withdrawal isn’t just the risk of the Taliban unseating the current western-backed government, but will be measured in the loss of life that follows the takeover. Anyone who is known to have worked with the US and western powers in Afghanistan will immediately become a target. Already a number of Allied powers have set out strategies to offer asylum to interpreters and their families in the West, however that says little of civil servants, soldiers, and politicians who will also have targets painted on their backs.
The campaign of terror carried out against these people will only be a side show compared to the inevitable regression that we shall see in wider civil society. The rights lost, in particular by women and girls, will drive the country back to Medieval times. There’s equally no telling what sort of arbitrary system of law will be brought in – especially given that much of their support in the countryside is already driven by anti-judicial sentiments.
All of this pales in comparison to the threat that the country will pose to the stability not just of the region, but of the western world. A new migration crisis, a new rogue state, and a new base for terror organisations to thrive. Afghanistan falling to the Taliban will only exacerbate pre-existing problems in Europe and the West.
The Taliban government will become a destabilising force for its neighbours – returning to the base for Islamism that it once was during the 1990s, allowing a new generation of jihadis a place to train before carrying their message with them across Southern and Central Asia, and working their way into the Middle East and then Europe.
The withdrawal of western forces from Afghanistan is a short sighted move. Whilst it is understandable that politicians want to end what Joe Biden described as America’s ‘Forever War’ – the chances are that by leaving the West risks going back to square one.