The US — dispensable or indispensable
THE US-made Afghan disaster has become the butt of the joke the world over.
The USA took four presidents, thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and 20 years to replace the Taliban with the Taliban.
It seems the United States foreign policy establishment is finally coming to grips with the idea that these exhausting, expensive wars in the Greater Middle East are not only costly $6.4 trillion and counting but are also weakening US economy and standing in the world, especially vis-a-vis its strategic competitors, China and Russia.
The US and Afghanistan seem to be curbing their ambitions, lowering their expectations and moderating their positions after the two decades long war, which left Afghanistan in a disastrous limbo.
The war and the US occupation has ended and the dust is finally settling in Afghanistan. What the future holds for the Afghan nation or for the main protagonists, the US and the Taliban?
Now have the curtains of death been closed on the theatre of Afghanistan? What lessons has US learned from two decades of war and occupation in Afghanistan? Withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan was the right decision of former President Donald Trump, putting an end to US longest war.
The withdrawal of troops should have been completed few months after the assassination of Usama Bin Laden in Abbottabad. Post assassination of Usama the US and the NATO unnecessarily stayed for one more decade in Afghanistan.
The Americans have gone tired of wars as are the Afghans. Both of the nations supported the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Post fall of Kabul the humiliating scenes in Kabul will definitely deepen the public resentment for future global escapades.
Why and how the US had gone wrong in Afghanistan, from strategy, planning and timelines to spending and oversight? America did not learn lessons from Vietnam War but it should learn the lessons from Afghanistan war before going off on another foreign adventure. The most important lesson of all is avoiding wars of choice altogether and at all costs.
In Afghanistan, it is maintaining the right to act preemptively, and at will, against any emerging threats, real or perceived.
In fact, US has defended withdrawal from Afghanistan on the basis that they do not need to be on the ground in order to act when needed, just as they do in other parts of the region.
As US tries to steer away from major troop deployments and nation-building missions, it is doubling down on its infamous global war on terror through drone bombings, covert operations, etc in the Middle East and South East Asia.
The Joe Biden Administration might have given in on the counter insurgency front, but it has not given up counter terrorism operations.
It is expected that the US may want to avoid foreign entanglements for at least the foreseeable future and, instead, try to recover some of its lost credibility by acting less recklessly when faced with similar security challenges. But then again, old habits die hard.
To avoid unnecessary escalation, US will try to influence the behaviour of the Taliban in a way that limits or prevents the emergence of future threats to US interests by working closely with Afghanistan’s neighbours, notably Pakistan and Iran, and other regional actors like Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Despite its repeated debacles, the US remains the world’s richest, most powerful nation with enormous leverage at its disposal.
President Joe Biden’s reviewed and rational strategy on Afghanistan is in the best interest of the US.
How receptive are the Taliban to US and Western pressure and how will they rule Afghanistan? Initial Taliban statements and behaviour signal a certain pragmatism, willingness to compromise and a realisation that the country, especially Pakistan which has quintupled to five million inhabitants, has somewhat transformed since 2001.
Taliban have won a decisive victory, but they do not want to be isolated once again as they were when they first ruled in the late 1990s. That is why the Taliban have opened dialogue with China, in order to win its recognition and aid.
China is undertaking huge infrastructural works in Pakistan, Iran and other Asian nations, as part of its strategic Belt and Road Initiative, to replace the US as Asia’s leading power.
The Taliban has granted amnesty to all and appealed civil servants and soldiers of the Ashraf Ghani regime to join its armed forces.
Taliban leaders are repeatedly saying of forming coalition government and allow girls to go to school and women to stay in their jobs, as long as they are veiled.
Judging by their most recent declarations and by their coordination with the US evacuating forces in Kabul, the Taliban leaders want to continue dialogue with the US, seeking de facto recognition and aid from Western nations and institutions, knowing all too well the country can’t be stabilised without foreign assistance.
All of this will have important repercussions on other Islamist groups that have been inspired by the Taliban victory, creating a new vicious cycle of attacks and counterattacks.
If the Taliban fails to transform into a functioning government and instead rules like a vengeful armed uprising, expect the likes of Iran and Pakistan to intervene directly or through disaffected tribal and ethnic groups.
America, the self-declared indispensable nation, has once again proven, at a high cost for itself and the world, to be utterly dispensable.
Twenty years after US invaded Afghanistan and later Iraq with the ambition to transform the entire region to its liking, one has to wonder who transformed whom.
—The writer, based in Islamabad, is book ambassador, columnist and author of several books.