By Michael von der Schulenburg* – Wall Street International Magazine
Afghanistan is a geopolitical game changer for the West
In the remote mountains of the Hindu Kush not only Soviet attempts to install a pro-communist regime but also Western efforts to establish a liberal democracy by force now ended in disaster
I have always loved Afghanistan and the friendliness and hospitality of its people. I experienced Afghans not as extremists but as an extraordinarily proud, sincere and honest people who are scraping a living out of the harsh conditions of their country. I miss the mountains with their snow caps, the narrow green valleys with their clever irrigation systems and the cool mornings filled with the air of burning woodfires to prepare the first tea. What has become of Afghanistan and what have we done to its people? We may have come with good intentions, but we ended up having raped Afghanistan. We are now leaving its torn and mistreated body on the roadside, will slip a few hundred dollars into its pocket to calm any feeling of guilt, and will go home as if nothing has happened.
At a press conference on 14 April 2021, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg declared with an air of achievement: “We are united in leaving Afghanistan!” – what a strange way to announce a defeat. Only three years earlier, Stoltenberg had called NATO the most successful military alliance of all times, Now, it stands humiliated, beaten by a small, ill-armed, underfunded local group called the Taliban – all bearded men with ideas that are completely contrary to those NATO claimed it had fought for. This is an almost unbelievable turn of events.
Even if Western politicians, think tanks and the mainstream media may play it down, NATO’s defeat is not a small affair. To fight in Afghanistan, we assembled under NATO command the largest military coalition of countries since WWII. At times, this coalition included 54 countries. Even if some made only token contributions, these countries combined control well over 60% of world-wide military budgets and have some of the technically most advanced and powerful armed forces. Almost the entire Western world had descended on Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world … and it lost. This must have consequences that go far beyond Afghanistan.
This defeat should mark the end of an era in which the West believed that it was its divine mission to rule the world as a force of good and that this gave it the right to impose, if necessary with military force, our political system on other countries. This defeat should compel us to fundamentally rethink how we see our role in the world, how we relate to countries with different political systems, and how we can protect our principles of liberal democracy in a changing world we no longer dominate. The greatest mistake would now be to ignore the lessons we should draw from the Afghanistan debacle.
Indeed, the US/NATO pull-out from Afghanistan after 20 years of war is a signal of military defeat. None of its aims were achieved. Quite to the contrary, NATO will leave Afghanistan in chaos and on the verge of a new round of anarchy and violence. For the Afghans we had promised paradise, the sufferings will continue, if not intensify.
At the peak of the war, NATO could rely on over 200,000 foreign troops and foreign military contractors; it had total control over the skies of Afghanistan and commanded the most modern military and spy hard- and software that exists today. It was supported by an estimated 350,000 Afghan security forces and an undisclosed number of local pro-Government militias. They all were entirely equipped, trained, and financed by NATO and its allies. Although there are no official calculations, NATO and its allies may have spent between US$4 and US$4.5 trillion over the last 20 years, that is about twice the annual GDP of the whole African continent.
NATO’s defeat is even more bitter if we consider that the Taliban never had more than 60,000 fighters, that they only relied on rudimentary military hardware and that they had to purchase most of it from corrupt members of the Afghan army. They had virtually no foreign backers and the little support they may have gotten from a relatively poor Pakistan could not even be remotely compared to the massive support the Government received from NATO countries and its allies. The question why, despite such an overwhelming military superiority, NATO lost this war will haunt us for years to come.
Worse than the military defeat will be the loss of trust among Afghans and in the wider region in the West. We could not deliver what we had promised and, after 20 years of war, we will leave Afghans to the mercy of the same group people NATO came to free Afghanistan from, the Taliban. It is a betrayal for all those Afghans who had sided with the West in the hope to reform their country.
President Biden’s four-month delay in withdrawing US troops, seemingly irrelevant to us, constitutes a breach of a US-signed and UN Security Council sanctioned peace agreement and is a sign of internal US disagreements. Having abandoned his initial plan to link a troop withdrawal to an inner Afghan peace settlement, Biden only draws attention to how desperate the situation for the US must have become. Could Trump claim that signing his so-called peace accord with the Taliban may provide some guarantee that radical forces such as al-Qaida or the Islamic State (IS) would not get a foothold, Biden will now have lost credibility in Afghanistan and with it, on future developments there.
Europe fared even worse in this affair. Promises the EU’s High Representative Borrell made after the Trump-Taliban accord that the EU will never leave and abandon the Afghans or, more recently, the promise made by the German government that it will keep its troops in Afghanistan until a peace settlement is reached, evaporated into thin air. European troops quietly began tiptoeing out of Afghanistan, proving its geopolitical weakness.
This will be the second time within a little more than a generation that a global superpower is humiliated in Afghanistan and forced to withdraw. Only 12 years after the Soviet Union failed to install its political system in Afghanistan, we committed the same mistake of marching into Afghanistan to turn it into a liberal democracy. Each time, it was ‘white men dominated powers’ from the North that invaded Afghanistan. In a mentality so typical of Cold War ideological empires, they felt justified as they saw their respective political system, be it communism or liberalism to be superior and universally applicable.
Looking from this perspective, the Cold War had not ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in Europe in 1989 but ends only with NATO’s defeat in Afghanistan in 2021. It was in the remote mountains of the Hindu Kush that the Communist drive to expand globally ended in disaster and it is in the Hindu Kush that a Western intervention of spreading liberal democracy around the world has ended in a similar disaster. In both cases, the high ideals of creating a world in which men would no longer exploit men or a world in which all people would enjoy liberal freedoms were crushed by tanks, armed drone attacks, gunship helicopters and aerial bombardments, and drowned in massive human rights abuses and targeted killings.
Only two years after its defeat in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union had collapsed and the Warsaw Pact, and indeed the Communist world, was history. The West will not collapse following its defeat, but also for the West, the world has dramatically changed since it marched into Afghanistan in 2001. Then, the US was still the uncontested military superpower; today it no longer is. In 2001, NATO saw itself as a global actor upholding a liberal world order; in 2021 its raison d’être is questioned. In 2001, Europe appeared to be on the path of becoming a global superpower; in 2021 it is torn by internal fractions, having lost its second largest economy, the UK. In 2001, the West dominated the world economy and technology; in 2021 this is no longer the case. In 2001, liberal democracy was still expanding; in 2021 it is contracting, having lost its attraction in many parts of the world.
The greatest changes arguably took place within the United States itself. The US is today more divided along political, racial, social, and cultural than ever before. According to a recent Washington Post study, the rise of violence due to homegrown political extremism in the US is the highest in decades. Every year, around 15,000 people are killed by firearms in the US, a number we usually only know from civil wars. After years of high military expenditures and expensive foreign military interventions, its infrastructure, its health, and education systems suffer from neglect and many parts of its cities are in ruins. The US is now primarily preoccupied with itself and Biden’s plans to expand government and launch massive social programmes appear to recognise this problem.
But is the US also ready for a radical change to respond to geopolitical changes? Back in the 1980’s, the Soviet Union was led by a group of fossilized politicians (Brezhnev, Gromyko, Andropov and Chernenko) who were unable to see the risks of their Afghan adventure. Now, the US is led by an equally old group of politicians (Pelosi, McConnell, Schumer, Biden, and Trump) who seem unable to draw conclusions from the Afghanistan debacle. Does the US wait for its Gorbachev?
And what will become of Afghanistan? NATO will leave behind a country with more weapons and more men with arms than ever before in its history; a country in which the Taliban will gain the upper hand, a country in which al Qaida is replaced by the even more radical Islamic State and a country in which rent-seeking warlords roam the countryside. Being home to many other armed militant groups for example from China’s Xingjian province, India-Pakistan contested Kashmir, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Afghanistan will again be a threat to its neighbours and risks destabilising the balance in a region in which India and Pakistan are nuclear powers.
Afghanistan will be left with a dysfunctional government, a corrupt legal system and security forces with doubtful loyalties. The government may soon not be able to pay its civil services and armed forces, raising the fear of a melt-down. The US has done its part in undermining the already-weak government when it signed a peace treaty without involving the government and, more recently, when it asked President Ashraf Ghani to step down in an unsuccessful attempt to entice the Taliban to participate in a peace conference. Free and fair elections, our standard democratic recipe for solving political tensions, are discredited. At the last election, the turn-out of eligible voters was at best 9%. In addition, elections cost hundreds of millions of dollars, money nobody has.
The country is dominated by a war economy, by illegal road taxes, by contraband, by corruption and, of course, by drug trafficking. Afghanistan is again the world’s largest producer of illegal opium. At the same time, it has become increasingly dependent on food imports – about one-third of all wheat will have to be imported with money a future government will not have.
NATO will leave a country that has suffered at least 200,000 killed and an unknown number of maimed Afghans, a country with about 2.7 million internally displaced persons and about 2.5 million Afghan refugees. Afghanistan’s population increase and its rapid urbanisation will destroy its traditional social structure, leave an increasing number of Afghans – especially the young – in destitute poverty. Already today, Afghanistan has one of the highest numbers of drug addicts, something unknown before we intervened. Will young Afghan’s allegiances belong to democracy or are they the future recruits of an IS or other radical militant organisations?
One of the saddest aspects of NATO’s defeat will be its impact on Afghan women. Gender equality is so interlinked to foreign military interventions –the Soviet Union also promoted gender equality – that the issue of empowerment of women is compromised for years to come. Especially for Afghan women, Western support has backfired.
Who is responsible for all of this – if not we?! How can we turn around now and do as if nothing important has happened? And how can we continue acting with an air of moral superiority and self-righteousness, or criticising others? And Afghanistan should make us think before venturing into the next Cold War.
*Former UN Assistant Secretary-General, escaped East Germany in 1969, studied in Berlin, London and Paris and worked for over 34 years for the United Nations, and shortly the OSCE, in many countries in war or internal armed conflicts often involving fragile governments and armed non-state actors. These included long-term assignments in Haiti, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sierra Leone and shorter assignments in Syria, Somalia, the Balkan, the Sahel, and Central Asia. In 2017, he published the book ‘On Building Peace – rescuing the Nation-State and saving the United Nations’, AUP.