Let’s start by getting a few things straight – the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan does NOT end the war in Afghanistan.
Also, the war in Afghanistan did not start when the US and coalition allies arrived in the country in October 2001. Those who have been claiming this are largely misinformed, or are deliberately claiming this for political reasons.
This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal By Jon who many of you know as Defence Geek on Twitter and Discord. DefenceGeek (find him on Twitter here) is a member of the Open Sources Intelligence (OSINT) community, with more than 16,000 followers on Twitter.
He is the Co-Host of the OSINT Bunker Podcast which is made in collaboration with the UK Defence Journal, has previously written for the UKDJ before and is a Co-Founder of the Military Aviation Tracking Alliance (MATA) group who’s work providing news during the Kabul Airlift reached millions of people.
The people of Afghanistan have been fighting a war for over 40 years… back to the days of the Soviet Union. In their case, they were in Afghanistan fighting as far back as December 1979, but the actual “Afghanistan Conflict” began on 27th April 1978 with the Saur Revolution (which led to the creation of the communist-aligned Democratic Republic of Afghanistan). What followed the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989 was several Civil Wars which rolled through from 1989 to the NATO invasion in 2001. As I said above, despite the NATO withdrawal at the end of last month, the war continues.
The “Panjshir Conflict” as it is now known is the ongoing fight between the Taliban and the former (and internationally recognised) government of Afghanistan – effectively a resistance movement that without foreign support looks to have a long and arduous fight on its hands. Since the start of this conflict in 1978, it is estimated that between 1.4 million and 2.1 million lives have been lost.
Now I’m not going to argue whether or not we should be withdrawing from Afghanistan. I personally believe we should, but I do not believe that this was the correct time and I also don’t agree with the manner in which it was done – I think it’s fair to say nearly everyone is in agreement that mistakes have been made here and that NATO has been left with egg on its face for the disaster that has unfolded before us in the last month. Hopefully lessons will be learned by the international community from what has occurred – especially when it comes to foreign policy and dealing with terrorist groups. Ultimately the complete withdrawal was a recent political decision, and one that ignored the advice given by senior military leaders. The US government has to acknowledge responsibility for what has occurred – as the largest force in Afghanistan, their decision to withdraw completely left their coalition allies little choice but to do the same, as they all recognised that without the US ground presence and air support, the fight would become that much more difficult and costly. That conundrum is one which the Afghan forces faced, except they could not withdraw – it was their country and they had a choice: either they fought tooth and nail for every mile of territory, and risked plunging relatively peaceful parts of Afghanistan back into open conflict, or step aside and hope that a self-proclaimed “reformed” Taliban could at last bring some form of peace to the nation after 43 years.
The tragic deaths of 13 US service personnel at Kabul Airport on 26th August 2021 are a stark reminder that the Taliban’s Afghanistan was once a safe haven for terrorist entities like al-Qaeda. Sadly, it would seem that although the Taliban state they are enemies of ISIL/Daesh, once again Afghanistan is becoming a safe haven for those kinds of groups – something that President Biden seemed adamant would not be the case.
@Osinttechnical and I have already said it several times, and we’ve been joined in the statement by former senior defence and security officials from several governments (e.g., Former Head of MI6, Sir John Sawers GCMG) – the terrorist threat from groups in Afghanistan is not gone, in fact far from it, the risk now is back on the rise. Without a permanent US presence in the air and on the ground, the Taliban had the opportunity (and took it) to surge across Afghanistan taking territory from the Afghan National Army – and before you jump in to criticise the Afghan army, they were in a hell of a tough position. 1) Their largely US-made equipment no longer had maintenance support from US forces or contractors. 2) They no longer had the air support and reconnaissance data from their coalition allies that would have helped them see the Taliban’s forces gathering ahead of the takeover. 3) Their troops were being led by corrupt government officials, according to several field commanders. 4) They had to balance up the choice between fighting a battle they probably couldn’t win, which would risk their families and homes facing destruction by the Taliban, or step aside and prevent fights that could have wiped out towns and villages entirely. Ultimately faced with total destruction or the chance to survive, albeit in less-than-ideal conditions, most of the Afghan army chose to survive – and ultimately, they will be the basis for a resistance movement thanks to the training they received from NATO forces over the last few years. The problem facing Afghans now is that they have the Taliban to deal with, but not just that they also have to face the growth of ISIL-K who thanks to the same circumstances that allowed the Taliban to make such rapid progress in their takeover of the country, now have a vacuum where there are no longer US/coalition forces out looking for them.
ISIL may be nearly destroyed in Syria and Iraq, but there’s now an opportunity for them to survive and rebuild themselves in Afghanistan – and as the US and allies have completely withdrawn, they can do this completely undeterred. The equipment we have left behind also now means the Taliban is far better equipped than before… (see Sky News article).
What does this mean for the world outside of Afghanistan? Well for a start as already mentioned, the terrorist threat will increase. Former MI6 Chief Sir Sawer speaking to Sky News emphasised that Afghanistan will return to being a safe haven for groups planning attacks on the west, and this will also encourage “home-grown terrorists” particularly in the UK and Europe.
The impacts are not just limited to terrorism though. What we’ve witnessed with the Biden administration is a major shift in foreign policy, with the current direction almost being a form of Isolationism similar to the US policy adopted 100 years ago. Biden’s total desertion of the Afghan people is a move that will raise eyebrows among allies and cause fear among those countries who are dependent on the US for their continued existence. An example of this will be Taiwan who will now be watching to see how China respond to the situation in Afghanistan. It is no secret that China’s military build-up and exercises in recent years have been squarely aimed at a potential future invasion of the island nation, and that the US’ unwillingness to prevent the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan does not bode well for the chances of an intervention if China were to invade. China is also no doubt watching carefully as it has already expressed an interest in assisting the Taliban in forming their new governmental system, filling a void left by the complete US withdrawal and disappearance of the former Afghan government (many officials having fled the country with whatever cash they could carry with them).
The US has been clear that it no longer wishes to be part of any “forever wars” as politicians keep referring to them. South Korea, albeit not currently fighting the North will no doubt be taking careful note of this and waiting for the possibility of a US withdrawal there. In the long-term however, it’s likely that we will now see the US step away from the role it has played as “the world’s policemen”, and China’s growing military strength and influence may see them take on this role.
The rest of NATO should be concerned by this though, as for the most part China’s interests do not align with NATOs and so the alliances’ ability to act outside of its own territory will diminish in the face of UN vetoes by China and Russia. This wasn’t much of a problem before as the US’ backing would normally be sufficient to allow action without full UN backing, but if the US is now destined to take a side-line role, NATO will have to decide if it is prepared to stand up to China and Russia without US help. This gives the UK an opportunity to step up and live out the “Global Britain” ambition (see my previous article on this), but whether it is currently in a position to do so remains to be seen.
The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan will also have major impacts back home, particularly in the US and UK. We’re already seeing thousands of veterans of the NATO operation openly call for changes of leadership, and we’re starting to see active-duty personnel resign their posts (e.g., Lt-Colonel Stuart P. Scheller Jr. of the US Marine Corps) in outrage at the willingness to accept defeat after 20 years of sacrifice by their colleagues and hundreds of families. Ultimately the coalition lost 3,576 dead, the bulk of these being Americans (2,420), British (456) and Canadian (159) and more than 22,700 wounded. Politicians are going to have a hard time convincing those veterans and the families of those who didn’t come home that their sacrifices were worthwhile.
To be clear, the presence of coalition forces in Afghanistan did achieve good things. Healthcare and education improvements have helped hundreds of thousands of Afghans to have a chance at a future that they otherwise would not have had under the previous Taliban regime, particularly women. The concern now is that the return of the Taliban to power and the coalition’s unwillingness to continue the fight for those freedoms and rights means all those years of progress and advances may now be undone, ultimately meaning that those veterans questioning if it was all worth it may someday be proved right…
And ultimately… we cannot forget the Afghan people. The coming months and years may prove to be the darkest of their 40+ years of conflict. They face the realisation that their NATO allies have walked away and that they now once again stand alone against the Taliban. Some will form a resistance movement and try to fight… maybe they will have some success, but it will come at a cost, one they are already too used to paying. The world will watch this unfold, and it is unlikely that we will do much to help them. Ultimately, it’s very likely we will see a humanitarian disaster unfold in Afghanistan and that we will someday have to get involved again. It would not surprise me if in years to come we end up having to send people back into Afghanistan, and if that does happen those future politicians will likely have to condemn the decision to leave Afghanistan now.
We’re also seeing the Taliban now supplying former Afghan/US Army equipment to nations like Iran, who are openly seeking to destabilize the world. Photos from Iranian media of former US Army Humvees arriving in Tehran on flat-bed trucks should be a cause for concern – as much as the US insisted that airstrikes against usable equipment that was left behind would occur, the US cannot risk striking its old equipment now in the hands of Iran. Iran’s own sponsoring of terrorism is also something we need to bear in mind – Afghanistan’s fall will likely be welcome news to Iran who have actively sought the removal of US forces from the region for many years.
I’m not saying we should have stayed forever… but you don’t leave a job half-done. The Taliban were not defeated in Afghanistan, and ultimately were able to come back with a vengeance. One hopes that the coalition dealing with ISIL/Daesh in Syria and Iraq do not make the same mistake of walking out before that group is completely destroyed. Either way their task there is now made more difficult by ISIL-K’s safe haven in Afghanistan.
The choices we have made in Afghanistan mean any chance of the War on Terrorism coming to a conclusion in the next 20 years is now gone. It is a war that I believe will now last throughout my lifetime, and possibly beyond then. In ending our war in Afghanistan, we have made sure we now have to fight the forever war on terror… and this war will likely feel very close to home, very soon.