It is almost impossible to build a sustainable liberal democratic free market nation when every major million-dollar project gets destroyed by an insurgency that is able to coordinate attacks and then pop over the border of a sovereign country (Pakistan) after doing the deed. One step forward and ten steps backwards.
LONDON: In my piece for The Sunday Guardian in December 2020, I suggested that the United States and its allies take a closer look at the true value of Afghanistan and develop a longer-term plan for supporting a liberal democratic Afghanistan. I presented an alternative future, where a tough-minded and brutal Taliban grab power, develop a strict and fundamentalist internal structure, and lead Afghanistan into becoming a client state of China. This future, I had argued, would place Afghanistan in China’s orbit, making it a critical link for Belt and Road Initiative and a valuable (and nearly exclusive) supplier of natural resources to China. In this future, the benefit of having China underwrite an economic growth plan would be enough for the Taliban to look the other way in regards to China’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghur population.
That future has now come to a fork in the road. The liberal Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GoIRA) has fallen, the Taliban have taken control, and the prevailing trajectory of Afghanistan is a shift to China as a client state, where China plays the role of an honest broker among a Talibanistan, a Shia Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It’s an attractive narrative for China to play, as it pokes America in the eye and tries to offer the world an alternative world order. The other fork in the world is seemingly blocked, as America and its allies seem to be in shock about the lightning-fast Taliban blitzkrieg through Afghanistan and the easy collapse of the house of cards that characterized the GoIRA.
How do we make sense of what happened, why it happened, and what the future looks like? The international media is enjoying a surge of viewership as pundits, politicians, think tanks, and journalists all present their views in a cacophony of voices. Let’s examine the battle of the narratives. The Taliban’s messaging has been short, clipped, yet confident. In contrast, the messaging by the United States and its allies has been confused, divergent, philosophical, sad, and generally inconsistent and incoherent. The international media has shown clip after clip of the chaos that has ensued as diplomats, foreigners, and Western-minded Afghans race to escape the country whilst dodging squads of Taliban fighters patrolling the city. Hamid Karzai International Airport looks like the Alamo (or the gates of Hell) with the largest concentration of American and coalition military forces in months trapped within the borders of the airport, ineffectively trying to herd thousands of people onto planes.
These images have been played and replayed, yet two days after the Taliban takeover of Kabul and—fresh from his vacation at Camp David—President Joe Biden publicly defended his policies in a speech broadcast around the world. He argued that he had inherited from President Trump a deal with the Taliban that gave him two choices: double down and increase US presence in Afghanistan, or draw down US military presence. He chose the latter. Biden highlighted some key points. First, that the United States never had the intention to nation build and had achieved what it set out to do in taking out Osama bin Laden and establishing a counter-terrorism capability. Second, that the Afghan National Army had shown its refusal to put up a fight against the Taliban and therefore why should Americans have to fight for a system that Afghans themselves refused to defend? And third, that Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani had fled and left Kabul to the Taliban—if Afghanistan’s own leader showed cowardice why should Americans have to be the courageous ones holding the government together?
Interesting. Yes, America accomplished some of its goals, but ultimately America can’t help but nation build when it conducts interventions. In the case of Afghanistan, the whole purpose of the invasion in the aftermath of the 911 Al Qaeda attacks was to prevent future attacks on American soil. Taking out the Taliban in 2001 and letting Afghanistan turn into a civil war was never a consideration because of the risk that the Taliban would just return, or that Afghanistan (and the world) would inherit an even worse regime that would harbour terrorists. The problem really lies in America’s failure to enable a bottom-up approach to nation building and the evolution of organic and locally owned governance structures.
Yes, Afghan forces displayed a certain unwillingness to fight during the Taliban’s rapid advance in August, but the Afghan National Army was simply a product of American and Coalition military forces—from command structure, to training, to tactics, to rules of engagement practices. Once the Americans and coalition forces left, it created a vacuum of leadership, purpose, and structure. Historically, the most effective Afghan militia have been those led by ruthless and feared warlords who promoted internal loyalty and morale through common tribal and ethnic allegiances and ties and thereby proved to be very effective fighting in local regions utilizing guerilla tactics. The Taliban, likewise, have been an effective fighting force for decades and are united by their religious fervour and quest for power in Afghanistan. Their unity of purpose and cohesiveness illustrates the main reason for their defeat of the Western-built Afghan National Army.
Yes, President Ghani fled Kabul during the Taliban’s encirclement though he was not very popular with his people towards the end anyway. He had been enabled into power by the Obama administration and he came from an elite background as a professor of anthropology and a World Bank executive. He was a favourite of the West, as I witnessed during my time in Washington when my boss asked me to try and help the distinguished Afghan-American man in a pin stripe suit become Secretary General of the United Nations. When he became President of Afghanistan, however, his turn to local clothing and headdress failed to convince Afghans of his sincerity and many saw him as arrogant, elitist, and biased. Ghani represents another example of Western-style leader who was obviously placed in power by the United States which tarnished him among his people and prevented him from becoming a unifying figure. However, as far as Biden’s assertion that he abandoned his post in the last hours before the fall of Kabul, let’s be fair. When attacks occur on the American homeland, American leaders are whisked off to safety so fast it makes your head spin. During the hours and days following the 9/11 attacks, Americans had no idea where President Bush was. If Washington were surrounded today, do you think President Biden would stick around? Not on your life. By accusing Ghani of cowardice, President Biden has effectively prevented President Ghani from forming a government-in-exile, perhaps for good.
In the end, many are arguing that the Afghanistan experiment was doomed to fail for a number of reasons. I will say that having worked on economic development programmes in Afghanistan, it is almost impossible to build a sustainable liberal democratic free market nation when every major million-dollar project gets destroyed by an insurgency that is able to coordinate attacks and then pop over the border of a sovereign country (Pakistan) after doing the deed. One step forward and ten steps backwards. The concept of a modern democratic Afghanistan was doomed to fail as long as the insurgency was well funded through donors and the booming trade of heroin and trafficking.
So here we are. What are the options available to the US and like-minded allies in terms of Afghanistan? In short, there are two divergent futures for Afghanistan each with multiple variables.
(A) BEST CASE SCENARIO: The Taliban reveal a softer side, with more leniency, inclusiveness across gender and ethnic lines, and a genuine desire to develop a toned down hybrid internal structure (perhaps even a partial democratic system). Its foreign policy would be amenable to regional cooperation and diplomatic ties with America and coalition countries. An “enlightened” Taliban government would look to continue the previous economic development efforts from the past 20 years and would be open to a free market trade system.
(B) WORST CASE SCENARIO: The Taliban institute a strict Islamic fundamentalist system and rule with an iron fist internally. The Taliban foreign policy keeps a closed circle with China as its main supporter and takes an aggressive stance towards America and its allies. The Taliban continue their lucrative narco-business and other illicit activities such as trafficking and also develop their mining sector through China and become a beneficiary of regional trade with other Belt and Road partners Iran and Pakistan.
Let’s be realistic here. While Scenario A would be nice, it won’t happen without continual and highly-effective pressure along with a global trend of a weakening of Islamic extremism and the slowing of China. The Taliban will rule with power and force and the liberal democratic regimes have already exhibited an aversion to using military force as a tool. With that said, Scenario B is not necessarily a sustainable option for the Taliban due to internal and external pressures: Afghans have enjoyed freedoms the last twenty years that cannot be forgotten and the majority of states do not recognize the Taliban. China is not yet the world’s superpower and the concept of a Chinese alternative world order has not yet over-turned the liberal democratic rules-based order. Another factor is the possibility of an established and credible alternative to Talibanistan—a government-in-exile supported by liberal democratic nations coming in the form of many tools and levers.
Soft power options include a mix of diplomatic, international media and cultural pressures on a Taliban regime. With the exception of Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China, the rest of the world shut down its embassies and have yet to recognize the Taliban government. Those who belong to the liberal democratic order see Taliban practices as barbaric and uncouth. With enough pressure through effective strategic communications campaigns for an Afghan “Government-in exile”, NGOs and states, the Taliban would become isolated and those states that accept a “bad Taliban” would risk becoming shunned from the international community as well. It is up to the government-in-exile to communicate strategically.
Hard power scenarios may resemble old-school isolation through sanctions, in the same vein as North Korea. The international community could collectively limit the financial aid and assistance to the Taliban and isolate the Afghanistan economy. China, for fear of such reprisals, may decide not to develop a Belt and Road segway through Afghanistan and the West could exploit the fissures between a Shia-led Iran and a Sunni-led Afghanistan while concurrently pressuring Pakistan to lessen its support of a Talibanistan. At the extreme, a new insurgency might form, and now that the Taliban have come out of hiding in caves and the ungoverned areas of Pakistan, they offer such an insurgency a range of hard targets. Taliban headquarters at the former American University of Kabul? Target. Taliban occupation of the Presidential Palace? Target. Ring road? Target. You get the idea. The Taliban would then remember how difficult it truly is to build a nation when an insurgency destroys everything you build.
In the immediate future, there needs to be a formation of a credible Afghan government-in-exile. This group needs to have its own think tank and a shadow government that continues to connect with international donor nations and NGOs. It will need to be well connected with the Afghanistan diaspora around the world and within Afghanistan itself (why not hold global elections as well?). It will need credible and respected leaders and staff who develop alternative programmes and a very focused strategic communications campaign. The question is who is willing to stand up and lead this time? Whoever does, you have my support.
Craig Tiedman is the Chief Operating Officer of Auspex International and co-founder of The Oxford Exchange. He also served as a US Department of Defense advisor to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and NASA’s Lead to India. @CraigTiedman.