What happens when a superpower retreats from the international stage? It usually leaves a power vacuum, plunging areas into chaotic uncertainty and allowing new players to fill the void left behind. It allows agents to redefine the normal rules of action, leading to the breaking of older loyalties and a realignment of strategic alliances. This type of process is not new, and we have seen it unfolding once again in Syria after the withdrawal of US troops. The US’s former allies, the YPG Kurds in Syria, have now thrown in their lot with the Assad regime and its Kremlin backers.
The questions for the US policy-makers in Afghanistan are even more torturous than those confronting them in Syria: after eighteen years, is there any form of withdrawal which could be successful? What would success look like? The US faces a timeless dilemma of foreign intervention: how to create and leave behind a stable normality when the military presence has itself become the new normal. At the same time, the President must decide whether supporting the ideals of democracy and religious toleration in Afghanistan is still worth the price of the military occupation required to sustain them.
The US’s continuing presence in Afghanistan, in what has been called ‘America’s longest war’, divides US politics within both major parties. The political consensus, from Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren to Republicans such as Rand Paul, however, is tilting towards leaving Afghanistan at all costs, even without a peace deal with the Taliban. Amongst US defence personnel and analysts, there is a belief that the defeat of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 has successfully neutralised the threat to national security. Home-grown, domestic terrorism is now seen as the more imminent danger.
Of course, there have been many fine words spoken about withdrawal from Afghanistan before from both Presidents Obama and Trump. The difficulty is that every time that the US has sought to scale down operations in Afghanistan, the story has been the same – a tentative withdrawal empowers a resurgent Taliban, forcing the US to re-commit the troops it once promised to take out.
In 2014, President Obama pledged to withdraw the majority of US troops by the end of 2016, cutting down the military presence to just 10,000 men and women by the end of that year. Between 2014-16, the Taliban captured almost seven provinces, including places such as Helmand, forcing the US once more into counter-attack.
Once again, a US Presidency is caught in a similar bind, attempting to scale down operations while not being seen to abandon an unstable democracy in Kabul. The commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, has explained that he has already had to reduce troop numbers in the past year, taking out 2,000 servicemen and women since December 2018.
Strategically, it seems that the Trump administration would prefer to leave Afghanistan only if and when a deal can be struck with the Taliban. The administration has already hosted peace talks earlier in the year, but these fell apart in September after a series of attacks in the Afghan capital which resulted in the death of a US serviceman. A fresh round of peace talks are now planned for 28-29 October. But the question remains: what does the President plan to do if these discussions fail?
In all of this there must be more than a little temptation to see similarities between the predicament in which the Trump administration now finds itself and that of the USSR in the later 1980s. At this time, the Soviet leaders sought to extricate their own soldiers from an Afghan war that had begun with an invasion in the winter of 1979.
On 13 November 1986, three years before the Russians made the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, there was a meeting held by the Soviet Politburo to discuss the strategic circumstances for the extraction of Russian troops from the country. The minutes of the meeting chronicle the dilemmas and delusions of a superpower in retreat.
The soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shervardnadze, reflected upon the long-term fragilities of the Soviet intervention. “Right now we are reaping the fruit of un-thought-out decisions of the past”, Shervardnadze stated, adding that if the USSR failed to support the communist government of Mohammad Najibullah, the regime installed by Moscow would be unlikely to outlive Moscow’s support – “It is necessary to state precisely the period of withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan…But neither we nor our Afghan comrades have mastered the questions of the functioning of the government without our troops.”
This is the heart of the dilemma of withdrawal – knowing that withdrawal must take place, but not knowing the circumstances under which such action could be deemed to be a success.
In the end, Shervardnadze’s fears were realised – within three years of the jaded Russian withdrawal in 1989, Najibullah’s government had collapsed. Four years later, he was hanged from a traffic post in Kabul when the Taliban retook the city. A decade of military operations in Afghanistan had ultimately been undone within the space of a few years. Any geopolitical gains had unravelled almost as soon as the Russian superpower withdrew its men on the ground.
There is every indication that something similar could happen if Donald Trump followed through on a full-scale withdrawal. Whether such an exodus takes place sooner or later, it could have fundamentally comparable consequences. Without US air support and ground troops, the balance of military power would be turned against the Afghan military and police. There is every possibility that the Taliban could gain momentum by swiftly retaking big cities such as Kandahar and Jalalabad, before seriously threatening the seat of government in Kabul itself.
In these difficult circumstances, doing a deal with even one’s enemies may be more responsible than simply pulling out forces entirely. The deal might not hold, but the only alternative is to erase entirely the purpose of US intervention in the first place – the Taliban might once again offer shelter for the operations of al-Qaeda.
Ultimately, regardless of the terms upon which the US leaves the country, the price of satisfying a weary American public would also probably be the defeat of the ideological mission that the US has come to pursue. In 2004, Afghanistan held its first (mostly) peaceful election since 1969. The next year, when a parliamentary election was held, over half of the 6 million voters who turned out were women. Such events would have been unthinkable during the darkest days of Taliban rule less than a decade earlier. In his farewell address of 2009, the outgoing President Bush cited the spread of democracy and education for young girls as the chief successes of the invasion in 2001.
But after signs over the last decade that even the US’s allies on the ground have come to resent their presence, the ideological mission may too have run its course, ground down not only by the Taliban, but also sporadic bloodshed and betrayal at the hands of Afghan allies.
At the heart of the question of the US presence in Afghanistan, as with Syria, is an ongoing crisis of American diplomacy. Presidents are quite simply failing to define what kind of power the US should be: a quasi-imperial, interventionist force promoting democracy as the foundation of global stability or an isolationist power which seeks to combine tight homeland security with a more indirect management foreign relations through proxy wars.
In such circumstances, the choice which is made is not as important as the sporadic instability caused by irresolution and incoherence. The retreat of the US from the middle eastern stage may not be as crippling as the constant, indecisive teetering between half-withdrawals and lingering persistence. It is high time for the US to decide whether promoting ideological beliefs is still worth the burdens of American interventionism.