U.S. President Joe Biden announced on April 14 that the United States would begin withdrawing from Afghanistan before May 1 and complete the process by Sept 11. Though plenty remains to be seen, can the U.S. just walk away from Afghanistan? I’m not optimistic about it.
First, there is tremendous uncertainty regarding the prospect of political reconciliation in the country. Because the Taliban had long refused to negotiate with the Ghani government, the present Afghan government was not a signatory to the U.S.-Taliban agreement. While the Taliban conducted negotiations with the Ghani government recently — and only under pressure — no consensus was reached on such matters as power sharing, political transition and structure of the military in the future. In fact, the core of the U.S.-Taliban agreement only ensured that Afghanistan won’t be used to undermine the security of the U.S. and its allies, as foreign militaries all withdraw.
After the U.S. troops leave, how can the Afghan government, which will lose external military support and has suffered severe frustrations, seek compromise with the Taliban? Political reconciliation and rebuilding are the premise for rebuilding the Afghan nation. Without them, there could be greater chaos.
Second, there is great uncertainty about the prospect of the U.S. war on terror in Afghanistan. Over the past 20 years, the biggest U.S. achievements in the war were destroying the Bin Laden-led al-Qaida, driving the Taliban (which offered cover for al-Qaida) off the Afghan political stage and depriving global transnational jihadists of a safe haven.
Though the U.S. has repeatedly postponed its troop pullout over the past two decades, it has yet to root out either the Taliban or al-Qaida. Now it has to sit down and talk with the Taliban. According to media reports, though the Taliban made promises to the U.S., it still maintains close ties with al-Qaida. The latter still retains a military force of 200 to 500, active in 11 provinces, including Kondoz, Nangarhar and Helmand. Besides al-Qaida, there are a great number of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan. According to data published by the UN in February, Afghanistan faces the most serious threat of terrorism in the world. The report said the ISIL branch known as ISIL-K has about 1,000 to 2,200 armed members in Afghanistan, mainly active in Konar, Nangarhar and Kabul. In contrast, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan has as many as 2,500-6,000 members in Afghanistan, and it has close relations with al-Qaida.
Other terrorist groups in Afghanistan include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has 700 or so members, Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari, Islamic Jihad Group and the ETIM from China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Once Afghanistan sinks into chaos again, these jihadist terror cells will inevitably surface rapidly and attract more cross-border jihadists to the country, thereby dealing new blows to global security.
Last, the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan may result in greater diplomatic crises for the Biden administration. A hasty U.S. withdrawal may lead to an international crisis like ISIL’s swift rise in Iraq in 2013. Militarily, Afghanistan relies heavily on U.S. aerial reconnaissance and rapid strikes in its anti-terror and revolt suppression campaigns. Once the US troops are gone, the government forces will lose their aerial advantage.
Economically, according to World Bank estimates, about 75 percent of the Afghan government’s present money comes from international aid. Once such aid stops, operations of the Afghan military and political institutions may become unsustainable.
Ideologically, the deep-rooted Islamic cultural traditions in Afghanistan may render the preaching of such religious political organizations as the Taliban more appealing. And before any political and social rebuilding, once Afghanistan sinks into turmoil there may be humanitarian disasters the international community cannot look upon without intervening, including a refugee crisis, with shortages of food and other needed materials.
Obviously whether in the case of radical armed forces regaining the advantage in Afghanistan or the outbreak of a humanitarian crisis, the Biden administration will continue to face an international dilemma. For the U.S., it’s not difficult to overthrow a Taliban regime in Afghanistan. What is difficult is to rebuild a country with profound Islamic traditions.
Though the Biden administration hopes to sustain U.S. global hegemony via the Afghan pullout, a hurried withdrawal may very likely trigger serious diplomatic and humanitarian crises, causing greater damage to the international status and image of the United States.
Ironically, while the Biden government claims the withdrawal is for coping with fierce competition from China, the latter — as Afghanistan’s neighbor — is an indispensable partner for the U.S. in rebuilding the country.