The Implications of a US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

The United States (US) announcement of the ultimate withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan somewhat signifies the end of its global war on terror (GWOT). If the GWOT underscores the epitome of the US-led unipolar world order, its culmination marks the decline of unipolarity in international relations. The geopolitical consequences of the withdrawal will still be far-reaching regionally and globally for great power competition, the emerging role of middle powers, and terrorism. Fatigued by Covid-19 and its weakening economy, the US has lost its will to fight the war both politically and financially. In other words, the war in Afghanistan will continue without the US military presence, and Afghanistan’s geopolitical significance as a troubled hotspot will persist.

The manner in which the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan is irresponsible and self-serving, to say the least. The narrowly defined strategic narrative of downgrading the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan will only exacerbate the latter’s problems, not reduce them. One could argue that Afghanistan would have descended into a civil war, nonetheless. However, the manner of the US withdrawal and the diplomatic clout it creates or carries is critical to this outcome. If history is any guide, narrowly defining the Russo-Afghan war as the defeat of the former Soviet Union was a mistake in the sense that no structured approach was employed to either reintegrate jihadists or to address the power vacuum left in Afghanistan. As a result, the entire socio-political structure of the country collapsed, with the costs greatly outweighing the benefits. So, framing the outcome of GWOT purely from a US lens is a geopolitical blunder.

Global jihadism not only remains undefeated, notwithstanding its degradation, but it has also spread horizontally and vertically. Undoubtedly, it has metastasised into different forms and shapes, but the threat still exists. While the Taliban are now in the ascendance in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) are weak organisationally but ideologically strong and persistent. The Taliban’s victory narrative and the US indirect admission of defeat by announcing the unconditional withdrawal will serve as oxygen to a plethora of jihadist groups around the globe. The triumphant narrative is going to energise and galvanise the next generation of jihadists in Kashmir, Pakistan, Central Asia, among other parts of the world. If Afghanistan descends into highly probable chaos, Al-Qaeda can organisationally reconstitute itself. At the same time, the IS’ regional franchise is lurking in Afghanistan’s ungoverned spaces.

If history is any guide, narrowly defining the Russo-Afghan war as the defeat of the former Soviet Union was a mistake in the sense that no structured approach was employed to either reintegrate jihadists or to address the power vacuum left in Afghanistan. As a result, the entire socio-political structure of the country collapsed, with the costs greatly outweighing the benefits. So, framing the outcome of GWOT purely from a US lens is a geopolitical blunder.

The progress achieved post-9/11 in women empowerment, democratic order, human rights, civil liberties, and the functionality of civil society will undergo a significant reversal. The Taliban are likely to take control of large areas of the country by employing tools of coercion and force, which will lead to renewed repression of the Afghan populace. Whereas the representation of marginalised groups in the peace process is non-existent, making their presence within Afghanistan highly limited.

By decoupling its withdrawal from the Afghan peace process, the US has removed its sole and most important leverage on the Taliban to participate in the peace parleys. The decision to stay or leave would have been the single most critical factor in any potential outcome of the peace process. Since the announcement of the unconditional withdrawal, the Taliban have twice rejected the invitation to participate in the Istanbul peace negotiations. This particularly strengthens the impression that the. Currently, the Taliban are encircling 12 provincial capitals and are increasing their number. The only factor which blunted the Taliban’s advances on the Afghan urban centre was the US airpower. The unavailability of that factor after September will enable the Taliban to march towards these cities without any substantial resistance from the Afghan security forces, which are of no match to the former. Hypothetically, if these cities fall to the Taliban one after the other, it would create a domino effect.

Of all the countries, the implications for Pakistan are most direct and grievous ethnically, politically, and security-wise. Pakistan’s Taliban movement, which was revived in August last year, is on the rebound and will draw further inspiration from the Taliban’s victory. An ungoverned and politically unstable Afghanistan will provide various Pakistani militant organisations with an ideal safe haven to train, hide and launch attacks in Pakistan. Ethnically, given the cross-border linkages between the Pashtun communities of the two countries, Pakistan will be the first preferred destination of war-torn Afghan refugees, as already witnessed in the 1980s and 1990s. Though Pakistan has fenced most of its border with Afghanistan, it will not be sufficient to minimise the blowback of chaos from Afghanistan. Not only that, Pakistan is likely to be scapegoated for the US policy failures and inconsistencies in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is the test case of the declining US hegemony. While the unipolarity of the world order is still not over, it is breathing its last. Yet again, Afghanistan has turned out to be the graveyard of another great empire. Russia and China are the two countries that will most likely fill the vacuum of the US exit. At the same time, the absence of a regional consensus of non-interference and irreconcilable position of the waring Afghan parties paint a bleak picture.

Saman Rizwan

Saman Rizwan is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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