No strategy behind the withdrawal from Afghanistan

The Taliban capturing Kabul and regaining power in Afghanistan was almost inevitable given the disastrous exit strategy by the US and Nato allies, says Dorothée Vandamme, an international relations expert at UCLouvain and a specialist in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Was the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan inevitable?

Dorothée Vandamme: Yes, the objective was there, and above all, what made this outcome more and more inevitable was the fact that as they conquered more territory, there was hardly any resistance. I did expect that the capture of Kabul would be the subject of a bit more fighting on the ground, perhaps with air support from the United States. But I think that in the end, as the Taliban already had the whole country, there was little point in resisting.

How do you explain this lack of resistance to the Taliban?

There are several reasons. From a Western point of view, the intention was to leave; so if the Western armies start fighting again, they’re putting their skin back in the game. Resuming the fight against the Taliban could not be done on an ad hoc basis, just to defend Kabul, for example; it would not have made sense to resume the fight for two days and then leave.

On the Afghan army side, the first reason is that the estimated number of security forces is not the real number, because the army has a lot of difficulty in recruiting. The figure given corresponds to the objectives desired by the United States and necessary to defend the country. However, these objectives have never been achieved. We do not have the exact figure, but it is likely to be lower than the official figure.

There is also a question of demoralisation. As the adversary advances and makes conquests, de facto, morale decreases, especially because soldiers are often away from their families and ethnic groups, whereas we are in a society deeply rooted in ethnic and local ties. Western, and especially American, withdrawal means that a crutch is being taken away from the country in an extremely brutal way. It’s not surprising that it couldn’t keep up, and the Afghan army couldn’t, and I think that some soldiers didn’t want to engage too much in combat either, to avoid being massacred.

I hope it’s not 20 years for nothing.

Dorothée Vandamme

Dorothée Vandamme, PhD in International Relations, UCLouvain

Could this withdrawal of American troops have been better organised?

In terms of preparation, one wonders where the United States got its strategy from, because, sincerely, I don’t see any. There was no preparation. I think there was a lot of hope, ultimately vain, that the Taliban were honest in their desire to negotiate with the other parties in Afghanistan. And since we just wanted to leave, we believed them…

This departure was also done so quickly, when the objective was to rebuild all the security forces, to ensure the security of the whole country. It was completely illusory to establish this exit strategy.

Was the US naive to believe the Taliban? Were you worried about the outcome of the withdrawal?

Yes, I was worried, and for me there was almost no doubt about the outcome. When you follow the country closely and when you see the evolution of this Taliban movement over the last few years, you see that they were in a strong enough position to engage in direct negotiations from the United States, before they went into negotiations with the Afghan government. And they obtained concessions from the United States, which then caused a lot of problems. I am thinking, for example, of the release of prisoners.

When they entered into negotiations, there should be clauses that must respected: a halt to combat activities against international troops, breaking the link with al-Qaeda, etc. They never did anything. The US has signed a really bad agreement.

Is it back to square one?

I hope it’s not 20 years for nothing, in the sense that we’ve seen some progress, especially in terms of women’s rights. We have been able to change part of Afghan society. Now, have these 20 years been in vain and have not concretely anchored anything in the country? Perhaps, yes, we are finally back in 1996.

The Taliban claim that girls will be able to continue to go to school and women to work. Do you believe this?

No, I don’t believe it for a moment. They are fundamentalists in their ideology, and their ideology is extremely intolerant. It doesn’t work with a certain tolerance and respect for human rights as we understand them in the West. From the beginning, in these negotiations, the United States had asked the Taliban how they intend to maintain and guarantee the progress made in relation to women’s rights. The Taliban have always been very vague and have never given any guarantees, but have instead made empty promises. In concrete terms, they never proposed anything. So, for me, it was a balloon from the start that was going to be punctured quickly, because it doesn’t work in their vision of society.

China has said it wants “friendly relations” with the insurgents. How do you explain this?

From a very pragmatic point of view, and without taking into consideration the moral or ethical dimension, the Taliban are more stable because their objective is national. They want to take over and establish an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan. They do not have an international aim with the desire to bring down regimes that they consider to be apostate. This is the difference to al-Qaeda, which, in its project and since the foundation, has this international aim to bring down regimes that, according to them, enslave Muslim populations.

It is true that China can see al-Qaeda as a threat, because the central government’s policy towards its Uyghur population is problematic, to say the least. China thus appears to be a relatively easy target for al-Qaeda, considering the latter’s ideology, which is committed to liberating or helping rescue Muslim populations that are perceived to be enslaved by non-Muslim or apostate governments.

If you don’t want to send another 100,000 troops and reinvest for 10 years, unfortunately you can’t do anything.

Dorothée Vandamme

Dorothée Vandamme, PhD in International Relations, UCLouvain

What will happen to the Westerners who have not yet left Afghan territory?

I think it will depend a lot on air support, especially from the United States. If they don’t manage to leave, I don’t think the Westerners will be an immediate target of the Taliban. However, they are unfortunately very interesting as hostages, and they could be taken prisoner. And the Taliban could very well prevent them from leaving, while letting them live in less decent conditions.

What consequences does the arrival of the Taliban in power have for European countries?

The first direct consequence is a migratory consequence, since there will be a large flow of refugees into Europe. The neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan and Iran, will be the first countries concerned, with much larger flows. But there will be waves of asylum applications.

In the medium or long term, this Taliban victory will continue to damage the image of the West as a pole of international power. This Taliban victory puts an end to that. So, from a more geopolitical point of view, this is a situation that will have an impact on the distribution of power at international level. We don’t know yet how it will play out, but the impact is there, and the image of the United States, in this case, has just taken a phenomenal beating. They are defeated as if they had just come out of the Vietnam War.

Another consequence, which could emerge if Afghanistan descends into civil war or becomes a pariah state, is that terrorist groups could find sanctuary there and prepare attacks on our territories. This is also a risk.

In recent years, the granting of international protection for Afghans has not been systematic in the European Union. Does this seem consistent to you?

No, it seems inconsistent to me, but it is in line with the Western position in recent years. Despite the current situation, I don’t believe that we will have systematic admission, simply because European governments cannot find policies for managing migration flows that are satisfactory and acceptable to their electorates. Politically, they would therefore be putting themselves in danger with systematic admission. And, as we know, politicians are first and foremost governed by public opinion.

I hope I am wrong, because I consider it a duty on our part. We have spent 20 years in this country; we have achieved absolutely nothing, and we are back to square one. So we have to take responsibility for our mistakes, and among those mistakes is the fact that all these people, including those who have worked for the West, are in real danger.

What resources does Afghanistan have?

The situation has never allowed for the development of its potential, but the country has great economic potential. The first country hoping to see a stable Afghanistan to benefit from all this is China. Not only because Afghanistan is ideally situated for China to develop its Silk Road, but also because inside the country there are a lot of resources, rare earths, mining resources, etc.

China has purchased the exploitation of a certain number of mines, and it hoped to be able to benefit from this potential, which has not been exploited for 40 years. But I don’t think there will be a crash or a major economic impact, apart from a few jolts due to the instability of the situation. Apart from opium, Afghanistan is not a hub of the international economy.

Could China take advantage of the situation to develop the country’s economy?

If the Taliban manage to establish power, stabilise the country, and set up their emirate in a stable way, then yes, China will benefit. And the Taliban will be in favour of it, because it’s obviously advantageous for them to be able to benefit from the financial windfall that will come. It will only further entrench their power, their government, and therefore ensure their longevity.

What can Nato do at the moment on the ground?

If we don’t want to send another 100,000 troops and reinvest for 10 years, unfortunately we can’t do anything. The investment required is too great, we are not in a situation like with the Islamic State in Iraq, where we could carry out air strikes on specific locations. Here, the Taliban are an integral part of the population. Bombing Kabul is not an option.

The thing that could most stabilise the country, unfortunately, would be to admit defeat and, without going so far as to recognise the government, to continue to discuss with them. That will still allow for some form of stability, because not negotiating could lead to stronger links between the Taliban and the Islamists.