At first glance, the Taliban’s victory over the Afghan government after the US withdrew its troops from the country represents a humiliating defeat for America and its allies. This, at least, seems to be the position taken by analysts and commentators in coverage of this story in most mainstream US media publications. Upon closer review, however, the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the collapse of the Afghan government might represent a victory for the US and its longer-term plans to gain the ascendancy over its global geopolitical rivals in the region rather than a humiliating defeat.
In support of this hypothesis, consider some of the advantages the US gains vis-à-vis its rivals by allowing the government of a strategically located country that borders an implacable ideological enemy and its main rival for global hegemony to fall into the hands of the Taliban; a hardline and militant movement that seems unwilling or incapable of cultivating normal diplomatic relations with countries that do not condone the excesses and abuses permitted under its peculiar fundamentalist ideology.
Firstly, consider that having the Taliban take over Afghanistan is potentially likely to create problems for China. With tensions between members of the majority Han ethnic group and predominantly Muslim Uighur minority escalating in Xinjiang (the westernmost Chinese region bordering Afghanistan) and Beijing reportedly brutally subjugating its Uighur citizens there, a Taliban victory is likely to stoke fears that the Taliban would either come to the aid of their Uighur co-religionists or inspire Uighurs to resist Chinese oppression with greater intensity. Greater Uighur resistance, with or without direct Taliban assistance, risks inciting unrest and exacerbating separatist tendencies thereby disrupting flagship projects commissioned by the Chinese government under its Belt and Road Initiative in that distant and culturally distinct part of the country and thwarting its ambitions to knit the wider Central Asian region together under Chinese suzerainty.
Likewise for Russia, with its restive Muslim majority populations in its southern republics that forever seem to be on the brink of rebellion. Hard-nosed US policymakers who remember how the mujahadeen ‘freedom fighters’ bled the Soviet military and its economy during the eighties might hope that Russian fears that Afghanistan under the Taliban will revert to becoming a ‘breeding ground for terror organisations’ as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson put it will prompt it [Russia] to expend greater resources on maintaining stability in these regions. Should these operations lead to repression of these minorities, these actions could foment greater division and instability in far-flung regions of that vast country. More importantly, instability and repression would not only lead to greater expenditure on domestic security and a preoccupation with internal rather than external affairs by the Russians but also attract more debilitating Western economic sanctions. The net effect of these factors is that they would constrain the boldness Russia has displayed of late in its willingness and ability to act on the international stage.
Turning to Iran, having a hostile fundamentalist movement that is dogmatically opposed to its regime in power on its doorstep presents a number of advantages to the US, more so after Iran seems to have successfully secured its western boundary with Iraq following the defeat of ISIS. Chief of these advantages is the likelihood that the Iranian government, faced with an ailing economy and with large numbers of its citizens disaffected by government service delivery, might be forced to reduce support for its allies in the Near East such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Houthis in Yemen and divert these resources to securing their long, rugged and porous eastern border with Afghanistan. Reduced support for these non-state actors is likely to strengthen the hand of US regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel and diminish Iran’s growing regional stature.
As an ancillary benefit, the cost of dealing with increasing numbers of refugees and maintaining order in its border areas might increase socioeconomic instability and ethnic tensions in Pakistan, already heavily indebted and becoming increasingly dependent on inflows of foreign capital to keep its economy afloat. This instability may, in turn, blunt the pro-Chinese turn it has taken in its foreign affairs; less out of fear that closer relations and greater dependence on the ‘godless’ Chinese would lead to the erosion of its sovereignty than anxiety that closer relations with them could jeopardise its lines of credit with US allies and Muslim co-religionists in the Gulf or the IMF for that matter.
Furthermore, the cost of the Taliban’s victory is unlikely to be all that great in military, financial or political terms. In political terms, the domestic political fallout in the US associated with the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan might be minimal for all the cries being heard in some quarters about Afghans’ human rights or the consternation being expressed about the plight of women under the Taliban regime. Now twenty years after the September 11 attacks, with terror mastermind Osama Bin Laden dead and the capacity of terror organisation Al Qaeda to mount attacks on US interests domestically or abroad seemingly broken, the sting of the memory of this event in the American public’s consciousness is likely to have receded. Consequently, politicians might conclude that now is the opportune time to withdraw US troops from what had become an increasingly unpopular theatre of war and that doing so would not negatively affect public opinion or popular support very much.
On the domestic front too, the US government has probably already extracted all the mileage it could from invoking the spectre of the War on Terror to curtail civil liberties without encountering significant pushback from civil society to force it to roll back the surveillance state it established in the wake of the September 11 attacks to surveil and gather data on dissidents and potential enemies abroad. Based on this assessment, actors in the security and national intelligence services might conclude that it would be prudent to withdraw troops from the original theatre in which the nebulous and ill-defined War on Terror was fought and search instead for the next imminent threat which can be employed to undermine democratic rights and dismantle civilian checks on state power even further.
The US also stands to lose comparatively little by disengaging from Afghanistan in military terms. As the number of troops still remaining in Afghanistan that were due to be withdrawn by President Biden by September 11 this year was already miniscule compared to the number deployed in previous years, it is only by a far stretch of the imagination that one can conclude that the US somehow lost to the Taliban. In fact, given the relatively paltry number (fewer than 10 000) of US troops stationed in the entire country since the latter years of President Obama’s second administration, it would appear that US political and military decision-makers had long decided not to commit troops in sufficient numbers necessary to occupy and subdue the country i.e. to win the war.
To the astute observer who would point to the loss of military hardware and the cost of this materiel, note that this equipment was already accounted for and this expenditure had been written off as aid to its erstwhile ally, the Afghan government. The cynic might even see in the images of Taliban fighters riding around Kabul in US army Humvees that were captured from retreating Afghan army soldiers not utter failure but a tactical masterstroke via which the US had managed to deliver large amounts of heavy weaponry into the hands of its enemy and destabilising force in the region in plain sight: what better cover is there to bequeath hardware onto a supposedly implacable foe than by having an unprepared ally surrender it to them on the battlefield? Seen from this perspective, arms surrendered to the Taliban by the Afghan army are not a loss for the Americans but a way to arm the Taliban regime and guarantee it will be able to resist regional rivals that might attempt to invade the country or seek to usurp them by supporting and arming local militias.
Taking all the reasons above into account, one concludes that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is far from the ‘blunder’ it has been portrayed to be. Granted, planners appear to have misestimated the speed of the Taliban’s advance. The resultant chaotic scenes of Afghans and foreigners alike scrambling to flee the country make for some awkward optics that will prevent leaders from attempting to convince the American public that the withdrawal of US troops and subsequent Taliban takeover is a success and represents a cost-effective way to out-manoeuvre their rivals.
Barring this inability to spin this story, public criticism of the Biden administration for withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan and calls for the President to step down might be unnecessarily harsh and unwarranted. Where criticism is warranted, it is of the kind that ought to be reserved for the doctrine by which all imperialist regimes that seek to dominate global affairs by any means necessary abide. It is this doctrine that makes it possible for the US to tacitly support fanatics like the Taliban and abandon allies of convenience in impoverished parts of the world to an uncertain fate when expedient to do so. Until the American public is prepared to confront the cold calculus that informs this doctrine and reckon with its domestic and global effects, all criticism of the government for its defeat in Afghanistan and cries about the Afghans’ plight rings hollow.
*Gerard Boyce is an economist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.