Conflict and Leadership
Après Nous, le Deluge? Afghanistan after the Withdrawal of US Troops

It is becoming obvious that after the “Afghan exodus” a real war of compromising materials began in Washington. The State Department blamed the Pentagon, the Pentagon — intelligence, and intelligence agencies blamed the White House. Together they blame former President Donald Trump: he was wrong to make an agreement with the Taliban, organised the negotiation process poorly, etc. However, it was Joe Biden who turned Afghanistan into one of the most critical problems literally from scratch, Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov writes.

The paradox of the situation with the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan has generated new worries, not just among foreign observers, but also the Americans themselves. How could the leading military power, which had been planning the withdrawal for many years, carry it out so chaotically? Back in 2007, at a hearing in Congress, General David Petraeus, the US Commander in Iraq, first outlined the task: not to build a Jefferson-style democracy, but to create conditions for the withdrawal of American troops. Even then, it was about a withdrawal of troops that would not be accompanied by a catastrophic collapse of the regime and would allow it to exist for several years. This, in turn, would enable the United States to present the case as a victory. In the end, Washington could afford to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely.

The withdrawal of American troops not only turned into a worldwide crisis of confidence in the United States, but also became the biggest challenge for the presidential administration on the domestic political front. The American political system relies heavily on leaks from various departments. It is becoming obvious that after the “Afghan exodus” a real war of compromising materials began in Washington. The State Department blamed the Pentagon, the Pentagon — intelligence, and intelligence agencies blamed the White House. Together they blame former President Donald Trump: he was wrong to make an agreement with the Taliban, organised the negotiation process poorly, etc. However, it was Joe Biden who turned Afghanistan into one of the most critical problems literally from scratch. It was supposed to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The metaphorical connection between the 20th anniversary of the terrible terrorist attacks and the inglorious end of the retaliatory operation deeply hurts the American public and the elite alike.

The withdrawal of troops was accompanied by a refusal to evacuate military equipment: the president’s team, apparently, made an economic calculation that it would be cheaper to write it off, rendering it unusable, than evacuating it with cargo aircraft. The question remains — why was it impossible to transfer it to the Afghan army? Why did Washington assess that it was well-armed and could resist the Taliban for at least a few weeks after the US withdrawal? It is also unclear why the US military did not warn its Afghan counterparts about the date and time of the withdrawal from the Bagram military base. As a result, the base stood for several hours without protection and was subject to a looting invasion. Such facts indicated that the Americans had lost control in the country and completely lost faith in their henchmen in Kabul.

When the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, it left the Afghan army well-trained and armed, equipped with tanks, rocket fire systems and even an air defence system. This, as well as the material support of the USSR, allowed the government in Kabul to resist the Mujahedeen and hold power for another three years.

The lightning-fast fall of the Afghan regime in 2021 was caused, among other things, by the unwillingness of the United States to pursue a policy of legitimising its henchmen in the eyes of the population. Relying on American support, the former leaders of Afghanistan did not announce the results of elections in the country for months — they were probably compromised. In fact, the “daytime” government of large cities in Afghanistan was the official authorities, while “at night”, in a significant part of the country, the Taliban were in charge.

Realising the weakness of its protégés, the White House for at least six years conducted negotiations with the Taliban, which were completely separate. The purpose of these negotiations was to create conditions that would allow the United States to withdraw its troops and integrate the Taliban into the political structure of Afghanistan without losing face. However, the Taliban were irreconcilable, insisting on the complete withdrawal of troops, and only after that — on the determination of the composition of a government of national accord.

It is interesting to see how inclusive the new government in Kabul will be, given Afghanistan’s historical decentralisation. If the Taliban correctly take into account this feature of Afghan society, their regime will be stable. However, it is quite possible to admit a scenario where, in the absence of consensus with regional groupings, a situation similar to the late 1990s will develop: part of the country was controlled by the Pashtuns, while in the north power was held by Tajiks and Uzbeks. The fact of the appearance of a second generation of Mujahedeen (young Ahmad Massoud is the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who died on the eve of September 11, 2001 in Afghanistan), that is, the internal opposition, indicates that regional tensions within the country have not gone anywhere.

It is an interesting experiment: will the Taliban remain a monolithic movement, or will it split along regional lines? Will the Taliban be able to legitimise itself in the eyes of Afghans on the horizon of at least ten years? Will the Taliban government be recognised by the international community? However, another question remains central: whether the Taliban is able to create a viable state in Afghanistan that does not pose a threat to neighbouring countries.


Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.