The US and its allies had to leave Afghanistan, but the precipitate manner of their doing so has cast US policy planning and determination in a dismal light. It will not help to encourage middling size countries in Asia to snuggle up to the US-led Quad as protection against Chinese ambitions.
The justification for punishing the Taliban for its role as protector of el-Qaida as it planned the 9/11 attack in 2001 was real enough but the belief that it could reconstruct a state which had never been much more than a loose federation of ethnic groups and regional warlords was delusional, particularly in the face of a group driven by a ruthless and relentless religious ideology. A government leadership in Kabul and an army of disparate interests were reliant on US air and logistical support. Once Biden withdrew that, the will to fight crumbled.
That is not to say the Afghan people as a whole prefer the Taliban. But an army of women would have been better suited to combating the most extreme form of a religion which men dominate. Indeed, one must now wonder what will happen next. The Taliban may be highly motivated but they lack the ethnic cohesion and organization that (North) Vietnam had at the time of its 1975 victory over the US-backed South. It is clear from the sudden collapse of the Kabul regime that in addition to the failings of the army, the Taliban benefited from decisions of local power wielders to move to their side, a pragmatic, if hardly, honorable decision in the face of US withdrawal.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. Countries, led by China and Russia, have leapt forward to accept the Taliban and hope to gain some influence in the new Kabul. But at least three factors remain to be seen. The first is how much control the Taliban leaders have over their local commanders. The second is how far those commanders are going to be subject to the power interests of local non-Taliban leaders, especially in non-Pashtu areas in the north and west.
The third and most difficult is relations with neighboring countries, notably Pakistan, Iran, and Tajikistan. Shia Iran is fundamentally hostile to a Sunni Taliban which has oppressed Afghan Shias. Iran also resents the impact on its youth on the drugs from Afghanistan, a trade that has financed the Taliban. The western city of Herat lies too close to the border for Iran not to want to have influence. The area’s people are largely Persian speaking.
Tajikistan is itself a weak state but has a long border with Afghanistan where Tajiks at about 27 percent are the second largest ethnic group. Uzbekistan, with 34 million the most populous central Asian state, and an economy that has been growing fast and opening to foreign investment, also shares a border and ethnic links with Uzbeks across the historically important Amu Darya River. The very secular government in Tashkent is especially wary of the Taliban stirring religious zeal as well as worried about a refugee influx.
Pakistan’s informal support for the Taliban may come back to haunt it, whether via its own Pakistani Taliban, not officially related but with much of the ideology. Then there is the issue of their common border, the Durand line created by the British in 1883 which divides the Pashtu people into two and once led to a demand for a Pashtunistan. Afghan and Pashtu are almost synonymous.
The other question is whether a Taliban-led country prefers to rely more heavily on Pakistan and China for trade and to use the Gwadar port in which China has invested so much money and where Chinese have been subject to attack. Or whether it will seek a balance by strengthening land links through Iran to its port at Chahbahar just west of Gwadar.
In the background too is India which had backed the US presence in Afghanistan and must now redesign its own policies. While the US has a newfound Quad friend in India, the latter has and needs to maintain a good relationship with Iran.
This issue in turn is a reminder of the other US strategic folly of the past 20 years – the capture of policy by Saudi feudal and Israeli expansionist interests and hence US failure to find accommodation with Iran.
Meanwhile, Afghanis and their neighbors will wonder whether this is the end of wars which began with the Soviet invasion in 1979, to install one Communist faction led by Babrak Kamal against another, or whether it will bring just another civil war, or eventual dismemberment of a country created roughly in its present form in the 18th century.