The active US military presence in Afghanistan over the past two decades has been a pivotal factor, not only in controlling the military balances inside this country and preventing it from falling again in the hands of extremist groups and armed militias, but also in controlling the network of alliances and military and strategic balances in the Central Asia region and the greater Middle East.
But with the implementation of its plan for the complete withdrawal from Afghanistan before the eleventh of September 2021 by the United States of America, as announced by US President Joe Biden in April 2021, many of these balances and alliances began to change on the ground, with the Afghan Taliban movement controlling power, which raises some questions about the implications of the military and strategic transformations that occurred in Afghanistan that accompanied the US withdrawal, and the limits of the expected change in the strategic and military landscape inside Afghanistan and the region within the foreseeable future. These are the questions that this study will attempt to answer through the following axes:
First: The American withdrawal from Afghanistan within the American military doctrine
During the last three successive administrations (Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden), the United States of America adopted a policy based on reducing American ties to the Middle East and reducing direct military involvement in it, in return for increasing attention to other regions and challenges in the world such as the situation in the Far East and the rise of China. Former President Barack Obama adopted a strategy called “leading from behind” when he decided to withdraw from most of the hotbeds of conflicts in which the United States was involved, and to make the countries that suffer from these conflicts work to solve their problems on their own after giving them all possible requirements by the United States. Obama’s administration actually withdrew the bulk of US forces from Iraq at the end of 2011, as well as from Afghanistan in 2014. The administration of President Donald Trump also adopted the “America First” principle, which meant putting US interests above all others, even if at the expense of its traditional allies, this administration continued the process of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, and concluded an agreement with the Afghan Taliban movement in February 2020 providing for the complete withdrawal of US forces by May 2021 in exchange for the movement’s pledge not to target American forces and interests and to engage in political negotiations with the Afghan government. Before the current President Joe Biden came up with the slogan of “ending the eternal wars” of Washington in the Middle East, especially the war in Afghanistan, which he pledged to completely withdraw from by the end of August 2021.
The American withdrawal from Afghanistan after twenty years of military intervention that overthrew the Taliban government and struck al-Qaeda in its strongholds in this country, represents an application of Washington’s military doctrine of reducing the military presence in the Middle East in general. This “hasty and ill-considered” withdrawal, as seen by many, raises other questions about the impact of this American military doctrine on the United States itself, its interests, and its image as the largest military power in the world. In this context, we can refer to a number of negative messages carried by the American insistence on completing this withdrawal, despite the clear indications that the Taliban will regain control of power at the expense of the American-backed government forces:
The first message:
To the Americans themselves which says that the great sacrifices made by their country over two decades, both at the human level (the killing of more than 2,300 American soldiers and the wounding of more than twenty thousand others), or the material level (the cost of the war sustained by Washington was estimated at about a trillion dollars)> went in vain without any return, which will make American public opinion hesitate a lot to support any military movements outside the borders in the future, especially in light of the similarity of the current American experience in Afghanistan with the painful experience of the United States in Vietnam, from which the withdrawal of American forces was completed in 1975. .
The second message: to the anti-US forces in the region, a message which says that these armed forces and militias can repeat the experience of the Taliban movement and ultimately defeat the United States, which may encourage these forces and groups such as Iran and its associated armed militias or even terrorist organizations to continue their hostilities to achieve results similar to the Taliban or to try to fill any security vacuum left by the American withdrawal and exit from the region in general.
The third message:
To the allies of the United States, which means that relying entirely on the American ally may involve an adventure with uncertain consequences, despite the assurances and promises made by US President Joe Biden to his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani during their recent joint meeting in Washington to support Afghanistan and continue military and economic cooperation between Washington and Kabul, but the US administration did not provide any support to the Afghan army to stop the progress of the Taliban movement, and only secured the US embassy and ensured the exit of the rest of its forces and members of its diplomatic mission from Afghan territory.
Second: The impact of the US withdrawal on the military balances inside Afghanistan
Before the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan entered its final phase, the balance of power was clearly tilted in favor of the Afghan government’s security forces, which had a clear advantage over the Taliban movement, as they were larger and better equipped, and received huge amounts of external military training programs, logistical support, financial aid, advanced weapons, and intelligence information. According to the available figures and statistics, the total number of Afghan security forces reached about 300,000, compared to only 75,000 fighters working under the banner of Taliban. The Afghan security forces were using fairly advanced military weapons and technologies that were supplied by the United States and its allies in NATO, and despite this, the Taliban movement was able to impose its military control quickly remarkably on many Afghan cities and regions that fell successively in its hands, all the way to the capital, Kabul, and surprisingly even the Americans themselves, as US intelligence estimates indicated the possibility that the capital, Kabul, would fall into the hands of the Taliban within six months, and not before the US withdrawal was completed, as it actually happened. This shift in the map of military balances on the ground can be explained in light of the following factors:
1 The shortcomings and weaknesses of the Afghan government forces, despite the continuous support provided by the United States and its allies to the government forces in terms of training, equipping and financing, these forces continued to suffer from a lot of corruption and structural weakness factors such as the unwillingness to fight. Successive US administrations have published several reports about the extent of corruption that afflicts the structures of the Afghan forces, including commanders keeping funds destined for their forces, or selling weapons on the black market and lying about the number of soldiers in the ranks of their forces. The problem of desertion and surrender in front of the Taliban fighters constituted one of the major weaknesses in the performance of these forces, which happened in recent weeks with the acceleration of the fall of Afghan cities in the hands of the movement’s fighters without much resistance, prompting US President Joe Biden to urge Afghan military leaders to fight for the homeland and to show more resistance. The flight of more than a thousand Afghan soldiers into the Tajik border during the first week of July 2021, during the Taliban entry into Badakhshan province, is a telling example of this.
The dilemma of the Afghan security forces surrendering without a fight in many cases, leaving behind the military equipment that Washington provided to them, is one of the factors that contributed to the transformation of the military situation on the ground, because this advanced military equipment ultimately goes to the fighters of the movement that uses them to achieve More progress on the ground. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid referred to this in a tweet on Twitter, in which he said: “The enemy fled… Dozens of military vehicles, weapons and ammunition fell into the hands of the Mujahideen.” Perhaps this explains one of the reasons for the decline in US military support for Afghan forces in the last stage, for fear of these weapons reaching the Taliban movement.
2 The different nature of the popular incubator, On the one hand, there is a view that dominates some popular groups inside Afghanistan that views the Afghan forces as “puppet forces” or as “a creation of the West” (the United States and its allies) and not as national government forces, a view fueled by the Taliban and some allied forces With it and the extremist groups in this country, at a time when the Taliban enjoys a popular incubator based on tribal affiliation because it belongs to the Pashtun ethnicity, which most estimates place it as the largest ethnicity in Afghanistan by more than 40 percent of the total population (other estimates place the percentage much higher). Some analysts explain the rapid fall of some cities with this tribal background. But this explanation is not applicable to the explanation of why the northern regions and cities dominated by other ethnicities fell.
3 Not seriously testing the combat strategies and training programs on which the Afghan forces were trained on the ground, as these forces continued to rely mainly and heavily on the support and assistance of the American and NATO forces, especially those provided by the American Air Force in terms of logistics and strikes. When American support stopped, these forces were unable to work alone and did not withstand in many locations in front of the progress of the Taliban movement.
However, does the Taliban’s control of power in Afghanistan mean that the matter will be established for it strategically and militarily?
There are two scenarios in this regard. The first, and perhaps most likely, is that the Taliban will impose full control over all Afghan lands and succeed in establishing a regime subject to them, especially after the rapid collapse and fading of the Afghan forces, and the failure of other security groups affiliated with the warlords in the northern cities to maintain the independence of their cities and not being subject to the Taliban as the situation was before 2001.
As for the other scenario, it refers to the possibility of civil conflicts within Afghanistan between the Taliban movement and some forces and groups rejecting its rule, which means the possibility of a state of instability in the next stage. Among the indicators supporting this scenario is what many media have indicated about the formation of an anti-Taliban coalition that includes Amrullah Saleh, the vice president in the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who declared himself the “interim” president of the country, and Ahmed Masoud, son of the late famous Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, who announced the launch of what he described as the “Mujahideen resistance” against the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan.
Third: The Taliban’s control of Afghanistan… the regional and international military and strategic repercussions
The Taliban’s return to control of power in Afghanistan once again raises a lot of unresolved discussions. What are the military and strategic repercussions that this might entail regionally and internationally? Here the following points that can be mentioned:
1 The Taliban’s control of power in Afghanistan may represent a challenge to the international powers interested in this region, especially China, Russia and Western countries. China includes Afghanistan within the plans of its global initiative “One Belt, One Road”. The presence of a movement such as the Taliban may pose a challenge to China to move forward with this project, and perhaps this is what prompted a number of researchers to talk about a “conspiracy” what Washington is ” to restore the movement to power to thwart the giant Chinese project in this region. But this line of thinking ignores the fact that the Taliban is an enemy of Washington and not of China, and that Beijing, with its pragmatic policy, will find a way, one way or another, to include Afghanistan-Taliban in the New Silk Road. If this happens, it will contribute to strengthening Chinese influence in this region. The same applies to Russia, which had previously expressed concern about what it described as “ISIS’s build-up of its forces in northern Afghanistan”, coinciding with the hasty departure of US and NATO forces from the country. It also expressed its fear of the impact of this movement on the growth of the activity of religious groups. However, Russia was less concerned about the Taliban’s rapid control of Afghanistan, and even indicated its intention to dialogue with the Taliban, like China. As for the European countries, along with Washington, they are more concerned about the human rights situation and the fears of waves of Afghan immigration to Europe after the Taliban’s takeover, as well as the fears of the return of extremism and terrorist groups to Afghanistan.
2 At the regional level, the state of security vacuum that Afghanistan will witness after the American withdrawal will tempt many regional powers such as Turkey, Pakistan and Iran to move to try to fill this vacuum. But the Taliban’s control will most likely pose a challenge to Iran in particular, as the movement adopts ideological orientations against Iran’s orientations, while the chances of cooperation seem greater between the Taliban-Afghanistan and Turkey and Pakistan.
3 The Taliban’s control over Afghanistan will reinforce fears of the return of extremist and terrorist organizations to take Afghanistan as a safe haven again, especially Al-Qaeda. Although there are many official statements and intelligence assessments that have expressed these fears, there are those who believe that the movement may not ally with these terrorist organizations again, at least in the first stage, because it would thus violate its agreement with Washington signed in Doha in February 2020, in which the US forces withdrew from Afghanistan, in addition to that, the Taliban realizes that such a move will push the United States and its allies to return again to target it militarily, as happened in 2001. However, these rational calculations are not guaranteed in the case of dealing with a militant movement trying to impose its extremist vision on society, which means that the chances of Afghanistan returning to be a safe haven for terrorism and terrorist groups will increase significantly if the Taliban seizes power in the post-US withdrawal stage.
By: Dr. Fattouh Haikal (Research Director – TRENDS Research and Advisory)