The West’s departure from Afghanistan is a gamble

The withdrawal of US and NATO troops leaves the Afghan government facing a civil war alone.

The commander of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan, US Army Gen John W Nicholson in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2018 [File: Massoud Hossaini/AP Photo]

The American announcement of a complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan by September 11 – neatly marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States – has been largely welcomed, but it is worth reflecting on whether it is a premature decision.

The legacy of the past 20 years in Afghanistan is a mixed one. The conflict there has, at times, jostled with the Iraq War for public attention. It has produced tangible, if slow, progress, including establishing a more moderate administration, rebuilding some infrastructure, promoting women’s education and introducing voting.

This has come at a high human cost for the West, with more than 3,500 losses. But, for the Afghan security forces, it has been even higher – in the many tens of thousands.

In the short term, President Joe Biden’s announcement may bring relief at home in the US, where emergency COVID measures have ballooned the national deficit. Any spending redeployed towards domestic policy will be popular among voters.

The decision to pull out is also in line with the prevailing wind among Americans, blowing against a muscular foreign policy, with Afghanistan and, in particular, the legacy of the Iraq War, seriously damaging the image of external military engagement, particularly when there have been unclear goals, mission creep and ever-continuing conflict.

However, the complete withdrawal of US forces represents a massive gamble for the region. NATO allies, including the United Kingdom, have also taken the decision to leave because the US is integral to the NATO logistical supply chain. The Afghan government will, within a few months, face a potential civil war alone.

For some time, Western forces have occupied something of a sweet spot in Afghanistan. No longer on the front line, NATO has shifted away from direct military engagements to capacity building with the local Afghan military, providing training, equipment and intelligence gathering. Indeed, the last UK combat troops left in 2014 and the UK has kept just a battalion-size elite force of 750 soldiers as trainers, down from a peak of 9,500 soldiers; a neat way to amplify their effect without being an outsize commitment, with Western casualties dropping accordingly.

The complete departure in September may also embolden the Taliban.

Under then-President Donald Trump, the US negotiated an agreement with the Taliban under which its forces would withdraw by May this year if the Taliban broke their link with al-Qaeda. The plan would eventually involve the Taliban negotiating a more stable settlement with the Afghan government. The deal was supposed to be conditional, but the Taliban proved unreliable, with ceasefires consistently broken. Indeed, the Taliban is now likely to step up its attacks, furious that the US is leaving five months later than originally agreed.

So, the West has left the Afghan government in a bind. The Taliban has achieved its objectives without holding up to its side of the bargain. The Afghan government faces the prospect of negotiating with the Taliban without the leverage of Western military support. There seems little incentive for the ruthless Taliban to be altruistic and go for a political settlement without unpalatable concessions.

If Afghanistan had strong and stable institutions, perhaps there would be more hope. But achieving that for a young democracy is a tall task. The West’s humanitarian, economic and diplomatic aid may not be enough to provide the necessary stability and security to allow institutions to bed in and take root. Citizens need to believe that this new democratic approach will last and is worth fighting for, and it takes time to strengthen Afghanistan’s military and civic institutions. That time has now run out.

The reality is that the path of least resistance for ambitious leaders is not yet through a long-winded democratic process but via the use of arms to seize power. The Afghan government lacks the influence to force destabilising forces such as the Taliban to adhere to international rules. Private military contractors may come in to replace NATO and bolster Afghan forces, but this patchwork of unaccountable muscle is neither strategic nor financially sustainable, and the vital piece for building a stable nation, rather than merely provide security, will be missing.

As US troops go home, the withdrawal may also further strengthen the prevailing argument that foreign interventions are always doomed to failure. In the UK, for example, it has already become harder to make a case for military intervention.

Examples include former UK Prime Minister David Cameron being unable to secure a parliamentary vote to intervene in Syria in 2013 and the muted response from the West when Ukraine came under attack from Russia in 2014.

In the US, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Trump were dovish on military interventions, and Biden, with his latest action, has continued that trend. Instead, economic sanctions have become the go-to response. However, the behaviour-changing effect of sanctions remains unconvincing if we go by Russia’s ongoing assertiveness.

The stakes are high, and this withdrawal from Afghanistan will affect us all. Perhaps the 300,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces are ready to face the Taliban alone. Perhaps having tasted freedom, and with memories of Taliban brutality still fresh in many people’s minds, the Afghan people will rally against the brutal Taliban regime. That will be the best-case scenario. Otherwise, Afghanistan may crumble into a civil war and create a destabilising haven for hostile forces, representing a significant threat to the West. However, the biggest losers will be the Afghan civilians, exhausted by decades of war, who are simply seeking to live their lives in peace.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.