Before and After - Lessons from 20 Years of Afghanistan Operations
I spent five challenging years in Afghanistan between 2005 - 2013 as an adviser in various roles for UK, UN and EU, working on counter-narcotics campaigns, strategic communications with Afghan ministries, and investigating electoral complaints. Together with colleagues in Embassies and organisations, we believed in our collective mission to help Afghans build a stable nation in line with their beliefs - a chance denied after the Soviets pulled out. There was more altruism than we ever dared to admit to our publics back home, alongside the need to counter terrorism. We are all now devastated by the humiliating end to our engagement and sense of abandonment felt by our Afghan friends. Our questions are three-fold: why did Biden not alter the narrow Trump strategy; why was the peace process allowed to fail; and why didn’t European allies pressure the US for a better exit strategy and conditional withdrawal.
Analysts have offered a variety of answers: Western allies were just not paying attention given other distractions; the failure of intelligence as to the speed of the Taliban advance and Government collapse; lack of European will to modify the US-led timetable and advocate a more controlled withdrawal. In a nutshell, US wanted out, at all costs, and were willing to accept the enduring message of failure, Western unreliability and risks of resurgent terrorism. Other partners didn’t have the bandwidth or appetite, to offer an alternative end-game.
Firstly though, it’s important to counter some myths. We did not impose Western-style democracy on Afghans nor ‘occupy’ the country to exploit its people and resources; after the initial incursion in 2001 to quash Al Qaeda under the right of self-defence, we were invited in by the interim Afghan administration to achieve shared objectives. Most Afghans wanted the promised fruits of democracy: functioning, inclusive and accountable government; fair elections, peace and security, and a range of freedoms. Inevitably, there were tensions between aspects of conservative Islam and liberalism, or between tribal approaches backed by patronage versus a centralised and meritocratic system of governance. In later years, growing disaffection with governance, the foreign troop presence and endless attacks, weakened the legitimacy of the government and international partners in the eyes of Afghan citizens, providing inroads for the Taliban to exploit.
It’s also important in terms of lessons learnt that we don’t allow the disastrous withdrawal process paint our entire engagement in Afghanistan as a failure.
Many towns enjoyed great progress, media freedom flourished and the population was a vibrant mix of modernity and traditionalism. Polls show most people felt their lives improved over time as a result of mass support to governance, infrastructure, economy and rights – these gains must be safeguarded.
The writing on the wall
Around 2006, as NATO and US troops expanded their presence across the country, Western confidence also took a hit; in Kabul, our windows rattled from daily bomb attacks, with Afghan security forces and civilians bearing the brunt. By 2008, analysts questioned whether NATO troops were part of the problem or the solution, and whether our level of ambition was realistic given the tribal complexity and cultural difference. It was also clear that we were not on the same page as President Karzai in terms of countering narcotics, corruption and how to fight the insurgency. Karzai’s resistance to accountability was expressed in his insistence on ‘sovereignty’, and anger at civilian casualties was weighted against foreigners rather than his ‘Taliban brothers’.
The Taliban exploited the endemic suspicion of ‘foreigners’ and discontent with corruption that international spending practises and Government permissiveness allowed to flourish. The 2009 election triggered massive fraud by Karzai supporters and marked a turning point in expectations for good governance. International advisers insisting on accountability were told to ‘stop making waves.’
The trends were set, and the writing was on the wall - we were out of step with our Afghan partners and insurgents were never giving up, fuelled by elements in Pakistan.
A final surge led to a high point of 130,000 soldiers in 2011, followed by a drawdown and end to the NATO combat mission in 2014. Still, our involvement drifted on.
The distressing images of panicked Afghans trying to reach the airport in August 2021 has prompted much soul-searching and speculation about historic mistakes and wrong turns. On the peace process, Jonathan Powell in a recent article suggests the Taliban should have been included in the 2001 Bonn process since “inclusive negotiations are the best way to end a war.” Others like former Canadian Ambassador Chris Alexander blame Pakistan, an ally in the war on terror, for providing safe havens to the Taliban throughout the conflict. Diplomats now admit they were flummoxed on how to deal with Islamabad’s dual role. Some suggest the US should have maintained a limited footprint for security reasons, as it has elsewhere for decades. Others accept the logic of withdrawal as the US pivots to a post-9/11 foreign policy posture, while questioning the manner of departure.
US end-game: “Get out at all costs”
Biden made clear in his landmark article in Foreign Affairs magazine in March 2020, that he wanted to end the ‘forever wars’ in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and narrow the mission to defeating ISIS and Al Qaeda. Yet he accused Trump of emboldening enemies in Afghanistan through the Doha deal. In the same article, he barely mentions Europe. Still, in our roundtables for Keeping Channels Open, a new network aimed at strengthening US-EU-UK cooperation, most diplomats expressed optimism that “America was back”: the Summits in June 2021 defined a shared transatlantic agenda based on ethical multilateralism, commitment to democratic values and coordinated approaches to key challenges. Only a couple of voices warned that consulting with European allies was not as important to Biden as domestic policy and competing with China. His unilateral approach to Afghanistan was a sign of more to come, they argued, and Europe must accept the decline of US interventionism and ruthless focus on national priorities.
Withdrawal was therefore squarely on Biden’s agenda. But was there room for him to change the terms? Trump’s Doha deal in February 2020 excluded the Afghan government and provided legitimacy to the Taliban. Its main focus was to ensure the safe US pull-out and prevention of Afghan soil being used as a base for terrorism. But the agreement also refer- red to intra-Afghan talks, a roadmap and a ceasefire – these elements should have been the essential focus in ensuing months.
The reduction of US troops down to 2500 in January 2021 and release of thousands of Taliban prisoners did indeed force Biden’s hand and undermine US leverage, but perhaps other options were available. After all, the Taliban had already broken good faith in the months after the agreement by launching thousands of attacks on Afghan forces and systematically killing judges, officials, journalists, and activists. Given this aggression, Biden should have applied conditions and set a longer deadline for withdrawal than September 11, which was set purely for domestic consumption. Pressure on the Taliban for a ceasefire should have increased in line with the tight timetable. The truth was that the will was not there, commitments to the Afghans were deprioritised, and allied investments made over 20 years were swept aside.
Kate Clark at the Afghan Analysts Network states in a recent analysis that the US approach favoured the Taliban and pressured the Afghan Government in unhelpful ways - for example, Afghan forces were advised to act only in pre-emptive selfdefence in 2020, allowing the Taliban to conquer more territory. Meanwhile, the Afghan Government was not preparing for the US departure and was uncoordinated in its approach to the peace process, with leaders wrangling among themselves over money and power. By the time of the withdrawal, demoralised Afghan troops short of pay and ammunition and undermined by a weak and disunited administration, collapsed in the face of the Taliban’s strategic advances.
The abrupt departure of US and NATO troops - partners in the war not just donors and advisers - was the final straw. In the end, everyone had tired of war - except the Taliban.
Failure of peace process
In terms of the negotiations, where were more comprehensive efforts to convene all relevant players round the table to push for a power-sharing agreement and ceasefire? This could have included Russia, Pakistan, Iran, China, India, Saudi, Turkey, Qatar, US, EU, UK as well as Afghan stakeholders and respected Islamic bodies.
History shows the best peace processes have aligned the oddest of bedfellows to push in the same direction and shelve competing agendas. The Europeans, NATO and Australia should not have left this to the US alone.
They had invested heavily over two decades and had a right to push for a more intensive political process. Instead, Ambassador Khalilzad in April 2021 told Congress what they wanted to hear: “I do not believe the government is going to collapse or the Taliban is going to take over.”
Kate Clark says international institutions were preoccupied with how the peace would function even as the talks proved a fantasy. Throughout 2020, the Taliban avoided any compromise or substantive discussions on power-sharing and were instead preparing for a total takeover to impose their interpretation of Sharia. The G7 communiqué in June 2021 called for a ‘sustainable inclusive political settlement’ without acknowledging how remote this was and with little sense of urgency given withdrawal was already underway. The NATO communiqué talked of a “new chapter” supporting the Afghan National Security Forces - too many assumptions and not enough alter- native scenario development.
Diplomats admit there was little international discussion on a detailed Afghan exit strategy and collective plan, nor challenge to the US timetable. This was due to lack of will and attention with so much else on the table: Afghanistan was a third order issue given the pandemic, climate change, China and Russia. Nobody wanted to precipitate a final withdrawal ahead of the Americans and the groupthink was that the Afghan Government would remain in power till the end of the year. The UK Government did not have the bandwidth to pressure the US due to Brexit and Covid, and there was not a real sense among the new cabinet of the heavy sacrifices made. Only afterwards came the lament- what was it all for?
Everything now needs to happen in reverse. What should have happened before the withdrawal, should still be the goal. The international community can still have a moderating effect on Taliban authoritarianism, help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and ensure terrorists don’t once again take root in the country. The Taliban are also weaker, poorer and more fragmented than they seem. They need the former government’s expertise to run the country, so we should still press for a pluralistic political settlement to avoid a future civil war and total state collapse.
In terms of rights, the focus of aid conditionality should be on achievable goals such as ensuring secondary school for girls, and preventing discrimination of minority ethnic groups. Regional neighbours largely share these stabilisation goals, which provides opportunity for broad alignment and a joint position with Western allies. Leverage can also be exercised through funding from the UN, IMF and World Bank, UN sanctions, ICC investigations and the influence of moderate Islamic organisations.
The Taliban will also find that ruling by intimidation is no longer an option for citizens who have enjoyed broad freedoms in the last 20 years and where young people constitute the majority; they will need to develop an ability to win hearts and minds, and even perhaps contest elections - Afghans prize their right to vote.
As for the future of interventionism, we are all realists now. Nobody expects a repeat of the comprehensive nation-building model applied in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan – but as we defend our own democracies, we must still fashion effective joint foreign policies and targeted interventions. We cannot turn away from mass human rights violations, debilitating conflicts, the spread of extremism and effects of climate change.
To do this, we need trusting transatlantic relationships, clever strategic alignment, and rigorous coordination. The recent AUKUS agreement might make sense in terms of Indo-Pacific stability, but it rode roughshod over an important European ally and missed an opportunity to coordinate with the EU. As with Afghanistan, the US proved unable to accommodate European interests in its decision-making, nor consider the effect on UK-EU rifts. EU leaders are now calling for a stronger independent defence and foreign policy capability.
These are the challenges that transatlantic partners face in a new world order: despite disruption in norms of governance and diplomacy, a new set of challenges and a tendency to turn inwards, we must still stand for something and stand together - or risk losing the power to be a force for good, and ensure our own stability in an interconnected world.