By Jose Miguel Alonso-Trabanco
After decades of constant turmoil, the latest chapter in the conflict of Afghanistan took place as the Taliban overran the country’s capital in the wake of the withdrawal of US forces and the implosion of the Western-backed Afghan government. This outcome is being characterised as dramatic because of the inevitable comparison to the fall of Saigon and also because of the widespread resonance of the images that vividly illustrate the various facets of this calamity. The baffling scenes that show the hasty evacuation of American personnel and the capture of the presidential palace have caught the attention of observers from all over the world.
Moreover, the significance of this event is highlighted by the fact that, after almost two decades, the invasion and occupation of the Central Asian country did not go as expected. The limits of American military power ‒ even with the assistance of NATO forces and the involvement of other allies ‒ were demonstrated in a stark way. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to interpret this as a return to the status quo that prevailed before Operation Enduring Freedom was launched. In fact, the Taliban is arguably more powerful than ever before. Right now, they control even more territory than before the Pentagon’s direct military intervention first started.
However, a closer and dispassionate analysis reveals that this turn of events is hardly surprising. After all, progress was elusive, governance was feeble at best, the promise of prosperity never materialised, and the costs of the war effort got to be far in excess of the marginal benefits being obtained, most of which concerned the dismantlement of al-Qaeda’s top leadership. Furthermore, there were longstanding and serious doubts about the effectiveness of the massive investments being made to develop governmental institutional capabilities in the fields of security and law enforcement.
On the other hand, the imperative to abandon Afghanistan had become self-evident in Washington itself. The proverbial writing on the wall had been there for a while. In fact, deliberations started during the Obama administration and the US government under President Trump even engaged the Taliban in talks to pave the way for a pullout. Regardless of contrasts in terms of both domestic politics and foreign policy, the Biden team was nominally committed to the execution of an orderly withdrawal. Yet, what was unforeseen was the speed with which the whole situation unraveled as the power void left by the US and its local allies was rapidly filled by the Taliban. No matter how this reality is sugarcoated by official spokesmen, it was a shocking failure in terms of foreign policy, strategic intelligence, and planning.
In this context, a great deal of attention is being paid to the damage done to the prestige of the United States as a superpower, the humanitarian impact of the crisis, the multiple political costs that would have to be paid in Washington, and the nature of the regime that will be established by the Taliban. Besides, another major issue that will certainly ignite geopolitical shockwaves on a global scale is the diminished credibility of American support, commitment, and security guarantees. However, this disaster can offer instructive lessons for policymakers, analysts, and scholars, which are valid for understanding matters that will condition international security environments for years and maybe even decades to come.
War is a phenomenon of permanent change
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the United States represents 33% of global military expenditures, far above any other country, including other great powers like China (13%) and Russia (3.1%). Qualitatively, the power projection capabilities of Washington include impressive platforms like aircraft carriers, submarines, state-of-the-art stealth fighters, nuclear weapons and ICBMs. Moreover, the American arsenal also contains special operations squads, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and highly sophisticated systems of intelligence and surveillance. In contrast, the Taliban is an irregular and loose alliance of militias equipped mostly with primitive firearms. Nevertheless, that massive disparity did not prevent the Pentagon from experiencing a severe setback in Afghanistan.
In order to understand such paradox, it is necessary to highlight that war is commonly regarded in Western countries as a military activity in which performance is mostly conditioned by logistical, operational, and technical matters. Those variables are of course relevant but said technocratic vision of military conflict is flawed because it overlooks that war is ‒ above all else ‒ a quintessentially political reality in which violence is instrumental in a deadly struggle between clashing interests, as the Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz famously explained. Furthermore, it also has a psychological dimension that cannot be manipulated with hardware or weaponry alone. Neglecting such axioms is not just an intellectual shortcoming. Actually, an inaccurate assessment of what war is all about can lead to disastrous decisions.
Moreover, even though the underlying logic of war remains constant, its grammar evolves and becomes increasingly complex. As the Chinese General Sun Bin ‒ presumably related to the legendary Sun Tzu ‒ argued hundreds of years ago, war can be regarded as a kaleidoscopic phenomenon whose permutations are endless. In the particular case of Afghanistan, a modern national fighting force ‒ along with NATO troops ‒ and the Afghan government were involved in an intermittent confrontation with tribal warlords affiliated with the ideology of hardline militant Islamism.
In other words, it was an asymmetric conflict. This war is an illustrative example of what American professor Sean McFate refers to as ‘durable chaos,’ i.e. a protracted conflict fought between the armed forces of a national state and a nonstate actor in unconventional battlefields in which rules of engagement are unclear. Moreover, an aspect that provides an additional layer of complexity is that the motivations of both sides could not have been more different. For the Americans this was an optional conflict fought very far away from their own homeland and one in which no vital interest was at stake. In contrast, for the Taliban it was an existential confrontation and a ‘holy war’ against both ‘infidels’ and ‘apostates.’
Under such conditions, there is no precise definition of victory. The rebels win as long as they do not lose and the invaders lose as long as they do not crush the insurgents. In this regard, the coalition headed by Washington rapidly overthrew the Taliban regime, but it never managed to pacify the whole country. In addition, the reach of the new Afghan government seldom went beyond the perimeter of Kabul, leaving the hinterland mostly wild, lawless, and dangerous. Eventually, through a relentless campaign of guerrilla warfare, spectacular acts of psychological warfare, salami tactics, the appropriation of modern weaponry handed over by deserters from the US-trained security forces, and a final Blitzkrieg offensive, the Taliban achieved their intended outcome: the eviction of the foreign invaders and the demise of the client regime they had established.
Another factor that must be taken into account in order to understand why this turn of the tide was seen by so many as surprising is that, in the context of asymmetric wars, appearances can often be deceiving, especially if one’s analytical framework relies on narrow unidimensional prisms. Specifically, the idea that technological superiority by itself is enough to ensure a favorable result in war is not supported by empirical evidence. Hence, understanding the comprehensive and malleable nature of war in today’s world requires a broad multidimensional perspective.
Nevertheless, despite the deeply humiliating overtones associated with the loss of a crucial anchor of geopolitical influence in Central Asia, this can be an opportunity for learning in Washington itself. As a result of that military, strategic, political and diplomatic catastrophe, the world’s leading sea power will have to rethink, reassess, and reformulate its grand strategy, the actual reach ‒ and limitations ‒ of its national power, and the criteria that will determine its involvement in operational theaters in which direct intervention can create more problems than it solves. Thus, this occasion is appropriate for the Americans to analyze the far-reaching implications of fighting land wars in Asia against subnational nonstate actors the 21st century. As classical realist thinkers such as Thucydides and Machiavelli have argued, the sense of humbleness imposed by restraint is a timeless virtue of paramount importance for statecraft.
The influence of geography cannot be overstated
Sometimes, obvious realities are so blatantly evident that they are actually overlooked. As the German philosopher Carl Schmitt noted, man is an earthling. As such, the political behaviors of human groups are heavily influenced by the spatial and material contextual circumstances in which they live, grow, thrive, decline, and fight against each other. In fact, the idea that geography is a powerful driver of political actions and interactions ‒ especially because of its relatively unchanged permanence in time ‒ is the core fundamental assumption held by all works of geopolitical literature.
Accordingly, an in-depth scrutiny of Afghanistan’s geographical conditions is essential to explain the country’s past and present. Afghanistan is a landlocked state located in the so-called ‘rimland,’ a region whose control is constantly being contested between continental (aka the heartland) and maritime powers from what it is referred to as the ‘outer crescent.’ However, it can also operate as a pivotal land bridge that connects vibrant, wealthy and powerful nations from the Eurasian landmass with one another. In fact, Afghanistan’s territory was crucial for the trade networks that were established under the umbrella of the legendary ‘Silk Road.’ This reality explains why such a location at the crossroads of empires has attracted the interest of mighty conquerors such as Alexander the Great, the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
Nevertheless, that reality does not clarify why Afghanistan has acted as a ‘graveyard of empires,’ i.e. a black hole that drains the strength, manpower, resources and even the vitality of foreign invaders. Afghanistan’s rugged and arid geography entails meaningful military, political and economic challenges. Consequently, it is a place that is hard to control, rule, manage, and develop. Moreover, the ubiquitous presence of mountain ridges is an element that gives birth to clannish societies that are deeply distrustful of outsiders, particularly if those outsiders come from either valleys or ports. Such societies are protective of their own beliefs, ways of life, traditions, laws and independence. Likewise, in those environments, fierce warriors that are feared by their enemies are much more common than accommodating merchants and individuals who are eager to embrace ideologies with ecumenical pretensions.
Afghanistan is perhaps the most paradigmatic example of this reality. However, it is critical to underscore that, throughout history, the highlands have been the natural habitat, protective shelter, and perfect hideout of guerrilla forces, insurgents, separatists, rebels, religious extremists and even drug lords. In fact, many contemporary flashpoints are located in mountainous environments, including the Caucasus, Tibet, Scotland, Kurdistan and even the remote Colombian and Mexican villages in which the presence of the state is not even symbolic.
Hence, geography is an impersonal force that has played a major role in the history of Afghanistan. Yet, it can also determine its future, as the country’s geography offers many obstacles but it also provides assets that can be harnessed in a strategic way. For instance, it contains vast untapped deposits of natural gas, metallic minerals ‒ including rare earths ‒ and gemstones. Moreover, it is well positioned to participate in the ambitious multilateral projects of regional interconnectedness headed by China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. Yet, only the power of human agency will define if, how, and under what terms Afghanistan is willing to play its cards as a potential geoeconomic corridor. At least for the time being, it seems the Taliban are prepared to adopt a pragmatic approach for statesmanship in the latest iteration of the ‘Great Game’ played on the Eurasian geostrategic chessboard, but only time will tell.
Militant Islamism is here to stay
Anthropologically speaking, since the dawn of human civilization, religion has been closely connected to the worldly domain of politics. Historically, the expansion of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa, the Levant, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Persia, Southeast Asia, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Eastern periphery of Europe was a result of military conquest. Centuries later, Christianity played a crucial role in the global expansion of European empires. Tellingly, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once described the Vatican as the ghost of the defunct Roman Empire.
Nonetheless, after the Enlightenment, it was believed that the influence of religion would eventually vanish thanks to the continuous progress of reason and science. However, even though secularism has triumphed in much of the West, religion ‒ as an element that shapes collective identities, establishes social rules, and provides a sense of meaningfulness in an uncertain world ‒ is still a powerful political force elsewhere. As such, it can be pragmatically mobilized for the pursuit of power.
Specifically in the Muslim world, the disappointing political, military, and economic failure of Arab nationalism ‒ a secular ideology championed by the likes Gamal Abdel Nasser and the various branches of the Ba’ath Party‒ fueled the gradual rise of militant political Islamism. Another precedent that needs to be taken into account is the overthrowing of the Shah of Iran (a right-wing secular modernizer aligned with Western powers) as the result of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Furthermore, in the particular case of Afghanistan, the CIA and local intelligence agencies ‒ like the Pakistani ISI ‒ clandestinely encouraged the struggle of the Mujahideen against the invading troops of the Soviet Union and the atheist local client regime backed by Moscow.
Likewise, the flames of militant Islamism have been fanned by major events like American military intervention, the deposal of secular governments in the Middle East, the intermittent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the so-called Arab spring, the birth of ISIS and the sectarian carnage unleashed by Sunni and Shiite forces in places like Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In addition, radical Islamism has played a major role in multiple Eurasian spots whose control has or is being contested, including Chechnya, Transcaucasia, the Balkans, Kashmir and Xinjiang. Likewise, Turkey has abandoned almost a century of secularism in order to openly embrace political Islamism both at home and abroad. Finally, deadly acts of jihadist terror have taken place in Europe and even in the American hemisphere.
This is the political zeitgeist in which the growing power of the Taliban must be understood. The Western campaign to hunt down Al-Qaeda was ‒ to a certain extent ‒ partially successful, but radical militant Islamism is very much alive and thriving. Moreover, the prestige that comes with the achievement of defeating two superpowers that wanted to impose secular regimes in Afghanistan in a couple of generations will likely enhance their strength and their reputation as holy warriors. The impressive victory of the Taliban will be seen as a source of inspiration for jihadists all over the world.
Therefore, their triumphal return is being monitored with concern and caution in Moscow, Beijing, Delhi and Teheran, all of which are troubled by the prospect of Sunni extremism. Needless to say, such a turn of events entails potentially problematic ramifications in a region in which turmoil and tension can rapidly spiral out of control and engulf those in close proximity. Hence, those great powers have a strong incentive to reach some sort of mutually acceptable accommodation with the Taliban. The last thing they want is to intervene in Afghanistan, but they have to make sure, through either ‘carrots’ or ‘sticks,’ that the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ does not become an exporter of jihadist geopolitical disruption.
Nevertheless, the political revival of religion goes well beyond the confines of the Muslim world. In fact, this lesson can be extrapolated further in order to examine relevant phenomena in non-Islamic societies in which religion is playing a prominent role in politics, foreign policy, and statecraft. In fact, this contemporary trend is reflected in the proliferation of religious Zionism (even though the movement was originally secular), the closeness between the ruling Siloviki clan and the Orthodox church in Russia, the influence of Catholicism in Poland, and the mass political mobilization of Evangelical Christians in places like Brazil and the United States.
Dreams of utopian nation-building can engender very real nightmares
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the early post-Cold War era was a period of intellectual triumphalism in the West. Back then, it was commonly believed that the global expansion of liberal democracy, free markets, human rights, and institutionalized co-operation was inevitable. In this regard, the quixotic neoconservative crusade launched by President George W. Bush was based on the premise ‒paradoxically inspired by the Trotskyist concept of ‘permanent revolution’ ‒ that Western models could be exported through hard power to places like the Greater Middle East. The radical transformation of societies was seen as desirable, but it could not happen without military might.
Afghanistan became the most notorious experiment undertaken to validate such ideas. Thus, once the Taliban was removed, an ambitious program of institutional reform was undertaken in order to remake Afghanistan. In other words, Washington was following the footsteps of the Soviet Union. In fact, both superpowers were guilty of hubris, in the sense that they were attempting to impose forms of government that had no roots whatsoever in the idiosyncratic national character and historical background of a country like Afghanistan, a place in which political dynamics are driven by collective tribal affiliations rather than by class struggle or individual self-interest. Thus, neoconservatism was mugged by reality in Afghanistan just like communism was in the late Cold War.
As the insightful Israeli political scientist Yoram Hazony observed, the use of military force or diplomatic pressure by a great power to rebuild a society in its own image and likeness is seldom met with welcoming enthusiasm and support. Instead, as history shows, the instrumental use of coercion in order to implement political reengineering usually elicits a strong nationalist backlash. After all, the collective struggle to determine a people’s own fate ‒ regardless of whether the decisions made as a result of that process please foreigners or not ‒ is a structural feature of an international system in which there is a plurality of heterogeneous polities. Thus, the idea of enforcing the universal homogeneity of political regimes is unnatural and out of touch with reality. In the case of Afghanistan, the Americans were seen by large segments of society as arrogant imperialist invaders, and their local allies were regarded as outright treacherous collaborators willing to sell out their country in exchange for personal benefit.
Furthermore, the artificial regime propped up by Washington can hardly be described as a textbook example of Jeffersonian democracy. It was an uneasy amalgam of sheer opportunism, professional careerism, rampant corruption, and misplaced optimism. Of course, realpolitik played a major role, since the US had little choice but to make deals with unsavory stakeholders such as local warlords, all sorts of outlaws, ambitious politicians with little genuine popular support, and Soviet-era strongmen. Likewise, occupation forces largely turned a blind eye to problematic phenomena like a skyrocketing cultivation of opium poppies. Unsurprisingly, such a political creation never reached the levels of legitimacy that could provide reasonable stability. Arguably, considering all of the above, it was simply a matter of time before the regime collapsed like a house of cards.
Undeniably, the military, political and ideological triumph of the Taliban over the West in general and the U.S. in particular represents a tectonic shift in contemporary international relations. It can even be argued that, as the epilogue of the twenty years’ crisis that began with 9/11, it abruptly disproves the premature prophecies that were made in the early 90s about the imminence of ‘the end of history.’ However, despite its ominous connotations, it can also teach sobering lessons that are valuable for strategic intelligence, foreign policy, and statecraft. The greatest tragedy in this case would be to disregard ‒ or, even worse, to stubbornly contradict ‒ those lessons. After all, wisdom in statesmanship calls for realism, a keen understanding of human nature, a thorough knowledge of impersonal forces, and an unshakable fixation on attainable concrete results rather than on zealotry over abstract principles. This is what the art of the possible is all about.
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