Tribal truths: The wounds of the US’ Afghanistan exit

As a land heavily influenced by tribal practices, an Afghan proverb stating, “The wound of the sword will heal, but not that of the tongue,” could not be more poetically appropriate when considering the United States’ military withdrawal. Although the reputational consequences of the US departing a cradling Afghanistan is evident. An assortment of security consequences is set to materialize that will have a global reach and will threaten American national interests. 

In spite of the vast technological, financial, and diplomatic resources at the disposal of multiple presidents, the American exit from Afghanistan is another case study in failed statecraft. Afghanistan is Vietnam-light. Since 2001, the blood sacrificed by the 2,400 US military personnel killed, and the $776 billion on nation-building and security training in Afghanistan will be for nothing should the Taliban retake the country. 

Almost as quickly as Washington is leaving, so too will the hard-fought values of democracy and women’s rights, as well as a secular education and justice system, all of which will evaporate from Afghani society with every Taliban victory. They will presumably be replaced with theocratic practices and draconian justice. Consequently, should this scenario unfold, it is hard not to rate this as the ultimate failure of the US’ two-decade-long presence, given the diametrically opposite sources of power between the combatants. 

With Afghanistan entering a new state of extreme brittleness in the coming months, both drug traffickers and terrorism should flourish. A weakened central government in Kabul will be forced to deprioritize these issues and concentrate sparse resources on holding ground and providing security to critical areas they control.

Once the Americans leave, Afghanistan will remain synonymous with the heroin trade. The Taliban’s estimated annual cut of the illicit drug economy ranges from between $100 million and $400 million. Washington’s 2019 termination of Operation Iron Tempest, which was meant to eradicate the opium trade and drugs labs throughout the country, represents the last nail in this failed exercise to curb the country’s addiction to narcotics trafficking.

Without any serious interference from Washington or Kabul, in the cultivation and distribution process, spoils for the Taliban will rise, reinforcing their financial legitimacy vis-à-vis the citizenry.  As a by-product, transit countries like Iran, Turkey, and Russia, will be awash in more opium heroin and transnational crime as it reaches its endpoint in the West. 

At the same time, with government and militia forces trying to stop the hemorrhaging of land to the Taliban, new pockets of operational space will avail themselves to terrorist entities. Although ISIS and Al-Qaeda have their differences, supporters of both will, however, welcome the chance for more breathing room to regroup and reset priorities.

One of the US and NATO’s main successes in Afghanistan was the destruction of terrorist safe heavens, but the possibility of those being reconstituted is real. With less field intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets available, the United States will have to almost exclusively rely on drone attacks to disrupt terrorist groups and their networks. Furthermore, the transfer of Bagram Air Base to the Afghan Armed Forces will remove a critical regional forward presence option for American special operations units.

Although the totality of the situation in Afghanistan looks somber, there are some beneficial geopolitical factors for the Americans to take stock from, and even exploit.

After a proven track record of duplicity, Pakistan will have lost its primary lever of influence to extort even more financial support and arms packages from Washington. This strategy had become common practice with almost every presidential administration falling victim to Pakistan’s ploy. Underscoring the equalization of bilateral relations between Washington and Islamabad, this reduction of Pakistani influence will be cheered in India. For as long as the Afghan conflict has endured, India has been an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s covert support for the Taliban and Islamist extremist groups, both inside Afghanistan and in the Indian subcontinent, as a means to wage a proxy war with plausible deniability. The US’ abatement of relations with Pakistan, should be instrumentalized by Washington to tighten India’s involvement in the Quad (the US, India, Japan and Australia) and streamline efforts against China.

Across the border in Iran, with new President Ebrahim Raisis set to take office in August, few in Tehran will be celebrating the prospect of a new Taliban government. With JCPOA negotiations ongoing in Vienna, and a top priority to restore financial flows, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) can hardly afford an unnecessary strategic distraction on top of their existing deployment of soft and hard power assents across the Middle East. Although the chance of an armed exchange remains low, the IRGC will pray for a stable border situation and potentially de-escalate at the earliest signs of violence.

An American Marine interacts with Afghan children in Helmand province. WIKIPEDIA

The “x” factor of American withdrawal, which remains the most unpredictable to judge, is the threat of Islamic terrorist spillover from Afghanistan to neighboring countries. With every day the Taliban grows stronger, so too does the prospect of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS regenerating. With American military personnel no longer present, terrorist groups will seek out new foreign targets.

Beijing’s oppression of the Muslim Uyghur minority across the border from Afghanistan could provide an attractive and fresh option for terrorists to consider. With reports of Uyghur militants fighting with existing groups in Afghanistan, and organized through the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, China’s security apparatus will be forced to devote assets to ensure enhanced internal security.

While the US should in no way encourage this, its potential occurrence against China would prove useful during their superpower competition. Unless diplomatically resolved through the Taliban, China could be facing the prospect of a thorny insurgency on its doorstep. The same danger of terrorism, born out of Afghanistan, subsequently extends to India and Russia. 

There is no doubt that the wound left by the US’ tongue through the renunciation of its commitment to Afghanistan will linger as the country lurches into chaos. While it implodes internally, the immediate and long-term pains caused by their withdrawal will be shared by many and not heal soon, like that of a sword.

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