What’s next for the US, the Taliban and Afghanistan?

A balance sheet of lessons learned and unlearned.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the crisis in Afghanistan during a speech in the East Room at the White House in Washington on August 16, 2021 [Reuters/Leah Millis]

Although the war and the occupation have ended and the dust is finally settling in Afghanistan, there is little clarity as to what the future holds for the Afghan nation or for the main protagonists, the United States and the Taliban.

Judging by their initial official statements, both sides seem to be curbing their ambitions, lowering their expectations and moderating their positions after the 20-year war that came after another 20-year conflict, left Afghanistan in a disastrous limbo.

Despite America’s humiliating defeat, over the past week, President Joe Biden has insisted that withdrawing US and NATO forces was the right decision, putting an end to Washington’s longest war.

He argues that Americans should not be fighting wars and dying on behalf of those who lack the will to do so themselves – no less on behalf of a demonstrably corrupt government the United States propped up in Kabul.

Fair enough.

I suppose, better late than never. Or, as Winston Churchill observed, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing only after they have tried everything else.”

Well, not always.

But now that the curtains have closed on the US-Afghan theatre of death, what lessons has Washington learned from two decades of war and occupation?

In a scathing report, published earlier this month, the Pentagon’s special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction has shown how and why the US has gotten it all wrong in Afghanistan, from strategy, planning and timelines to spending and oversight.

However, virtually all of the report’s proposed lessons are operational, useful mainly to prepare better for the next mission; or the next war. If America did not learn the lessons of Vietnam, it must learn the lessons of Afghanistan before going off on another foreign adventure.

But that misses the greater most important lesson of all, namely, avoiding “wars of choice” altogether and at all costs.

Fortunately, Americans have grown tired of Washington’s wars and some 70 percent of those polled, fully support the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Indeed, the humiliating scenes in Kabul last week will hopefully deepen the public resentment for future global escapades.

Likewise, it seems much of Washington’s 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 standing in the world, especially vis-a-vis its strategic competitors, China and Russia.

Tragic as it is, the US-made Afghan disaster has become the butt of the joke the world over. As one online gag goes, “If you feel useless, just remember USA took four presidents, thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and 20 years to replace the Taliban with the Taliban.”

That is why 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.

As Washington 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 Greater Middle East and beyond.

In other words, the Biden administration might have given in on the counterinsurgency front, but it has not given up counterterrorism operations.

Rather the contrary.

In Afghanistan, it is maintaining the right to act preemptively, and at will, against any emerging threats, real or perceived. In fact, US officials have defended their 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.

But to avoid unnecessary escalation, Washington 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. To that end, President Biden is already convening a virtual G7 leaders’ meeting next week to discuss a common strategy on Afghanistan.

But how receptive is the Taliban to US/Western pressure and how will it rule Afghanistan?

Initial Taliban statements and behaviour signal a certain pragmatism, willingness to compromise and a realisation that the country, especially the capital which has quintupled to five million inhabitants, has somewhat transformed since 2001.

Taliban leaders may 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 they have already opened dialogue with Beijing, despite its mistreatment of the Uighur Muslims, 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.

However, judging by their most recent declarations and by their coordination with the US evacuating forces in Kabul this week, the Taliban leaders want to continue the dialogue with the US, seeking de facto recognition and perhaps aid from Western nations and institutions, knowing all too well the country cannot be stabilised without foreign assistance.

To that end, the Taliban has granted amnesty to all civil servants and appealed to the soldiers of the old regime to join its armed forces. Moreover, its leaders are speaking of forming coalition governments and allowing girls to go to school and women to stay in their jobs, as long as they are veiled.

Whether that signals a real change of heart or is a mere tactic to break out of isolation remains to be seen, though most remain sceptical that the conservative Islamist movement would accept Western dictates after its hard-won victory. It has certainly made clear that democracy is not consistent with Sharia nor with Afghan tradition.

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.

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.

In sum, the war may have ended but the reckoning may well start soon in Afghanistan.

Likewise, the curtains may have come down on the post-9/11 US occupation of Afghanistan, but they are far from closed on the post-9/11 era.

And 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 it invaded Afghanistan and later Iraq with the ambition to transform the entire region to its liking, one has to wonder who transformed whom.