May 1, Afghanistan upside-down

May 1, 2021 is approaching and the withdrawal / non-withdrawal of all American (and coalition) troops from Afghanistan? . . .  but now all is upside-down.

Burden of history.

Afghanistan has a long history of wars and armed conflicts and one common, striking feature has been that any major foreign conqueror, who has come in has got stuck in it without that victory they were seeking. Great Britain, Soviet Union and now the US have tried, each in turn, but with the same result.

In a certain way, the Taliban was a force, largely created and supported by the US, and used against Soviet Union’s occupation but this monster finally turned to its former creator. In Western main stream media, no honest consideration is ever given to the fact that Washington encouraged and supplied with billions of dollars fundamentalist Islam (Taliban) in Afghanistan as a reactive anti-communist force. It was simply not anticipated how this would one day backfire.

Situation of today.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated, in mid-February 2021, that the promise of NATO coalition to leave Afghanistan by May 1. is conditions-based, criticizing that the Taliban has to meet their commitments. But what happened?

According to the official of Biden administration, on Tuesday April 13, the withdrawal will not be conditions based. “We will begin an orderly drawdown of the remaining forces before May 1, and plan to have all US troops out of the country before the 20th anniversary of 9/11,” the official said. “The President has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.  And so, he has reached the conclusion that the United States will remove its forces from Afghanistan before September 11.”

The official also said that the US will coordinate with NATO allies and partners about a drawdown of their forces in the same timeframe beginning before May one, ending before the 20th anniversary of September 11.  Sources close to the Taliban have said that the Biden administration has asked the Taliban to agree on the presence of the US forces for another three or six months. 

The much-awaited UN-led conference on Afghanistan will begin on April 24 in Turkey, the co-conveners of the conference said on April 13 amid intensive diplomatic efforts to put an end to the ongoing conflict in the country. Turkey, Qatar, and the United Nations are co-convening a high level and inclusive conference from 24 April – 4 May 2021 between representatives of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban. Turkey is hosting the conference in Istanbul.

Now, the purpose, meaning and importance of this conference (April 24 in Istanbul) has changed overnight. The consequences and ramifications of this Biden’s non-conditions-based withdrawal will radiate wide and far in the future of great power relations. This subject will be analyzed later in coming blogs.

Obviously, President Biden will confirm those aforementioned statements, later on April 14, 2021.

Eurasian strategic chessboard.

The Eurasian region, where Afghanistan locates, has been seen for over a hundred years as a strategic region, a “chessboard à la Brzezinski”. No wonder why so many players, internal and external, have been running around. Besides present great powers, the US, China and Russia, many regional major players have a finger in this pie like Pakistan, India and Iran. Especially Iran’s role is now rising and becoming exceptionally interesting.

Biden administration may have forgot the assassination of Iranian General Soleimani by the former US administration (Trump), while focusing allegedly on “rules-based international order”, but Iran has certainly not forgot that tragic episode and keeps firmly on the stated aim: the US out of the region. That Iran is still seeking revenge for an attack that happened more than a year ago fits a well-known pattern in Iranian foreign politics. When under attack, Iran generally reacts with a clear but limited direct response, paired with a long-term revenge strategy, usually carried out by Iran’s proxy militias throughout the Middle East.

The result is a strategy in which Iran has to play a delicate game between appeasing public opinion at home by projecting strength, while also showing enough restraint to avoid provoking all-out war. Iran’s initial response to Soleimani’s assassination fits this pattern. The ballistic missile strikes at the two US bases in Iraq were just severe enough to satisfy the public’s call for vengeance, while they were also limited enough to prevent the US from taking more aggressive military action. Iranian experts described the missile strikes as “political theater” that “will not replace the blood-for-blood desire for revenge”.

Given this background, it is logical that the Taliban has already reconciled their past rivalry with Iran. Their frequent visits to Tehran and increasing coordination with it shows how they are forging a united front against the US. Iran is intensely conscious of the dangers of a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan. The laser-guided missile attack on an Afghan military helicopter killing several military personnel in late March in Wardak (about 100 km south from Kabul), reportedly by pro-Iranian militia, can be seen as a timely warning to the US military. A new warning came on April 8, when the Taliban fired rockets at Kandahar airfield. Clearly, the Biden administration’s refusal to give a firm commitment on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan can only complicate and worsen matters.

These moves signify how the Taliban is preparing for an eventual US presence beyond May 2021. Whereas the Taliban has been doing active diplomacy in the past few years to earn legitimacy, their increasing coordination with Tehran and other players seems to be motivated by an attempt to build a ring of allies around Afghanistan, including Iran, Pakistan and China, to create regional pressure on the US to end its military presence in Afghanistan and beyond. For Iran, it means no direct US presence next door.

The Taliban’s new and old allies in the region see the situation differently. Pakistan’s foreign minister recently said the Taliban alone was not responsible for reducing violence in Afghanistan. The statement was made after meeting with a Taliban delegation in Islamabad. The recent prominent cooperation agreement between Iran and China can be seen also in light of this context and is apt to boost the self-reliance and resilience of Iran visa-vis the US.

Geopolitical background of US presence in Afghanistan.

The “hidden agenda” of the war on terror in Afghanistan has been an open secret, the containment of China and Russia as well as a direct gateway to interfere in both countries’ internal affairs. The geographical location of Afghanistan is suitable for this kind of operations.  The establishment and measures of the SCO can be seen as a counter-operation in the context of the US presence in Afghanistan. However, in public discussions, Russia and China have been reticent about that topic so far. Now, the situation is changing significantly. 

In last few months, China has loudly and repeatedly accused the US presence in Afghanistan to be containing and destabilizing China and the best way to do it would be to foment unrest in Xinjiang. From China’s point of view indeed, Xinjiang is a major logistics center for China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the gateway to Central and West Asia, as well as to European markets. The US is deeply hostile to the BRI and it is apparent that Washington’s campaign on Xinjiang is part of the Pentagon’s “Pivot to Asia,” along with naval operations in the South China Sea and support for separatist movements in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet. 

China and Russia clearly have their post-US withdrawal designs ready for Afghanistan. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently spoke of plans to integrate the Chinese BRI with the Russia-led EEU. That would potentially benefit Afghanistan’s economy and would provide a useful direct territorial link connecting south, west and central Asia.

Like Russia, China has also developed direct ties with the Taliban. Beijing has offered the Taliban sizeable investments in energy and infrastructure projects following a US withdrawal and a political settlement with Ghani’s government. While China is keen to help to develop Afghanistan, it also seeks Taliban protection from anti-China Islamists known to be based in the country, including those with known links to its ethnic Uighur minority.  

In the US, a strategic reviewing underway… or to keep forces in Afghanistan

The report to the US Congress by the Afghanistan Study Group, in February 2021, makes a strong case for extending the US military presence in Afghanistan beyond May 2021. The report’s key message: “… further US troop withdrawals should be conditioned on the Taliban’s demonstrated willingness and capacity to contain violence and on real progress toward a compromise political settlement.

The course of action in Afghanistan was factually confirmed by a video conference held between NATO defense ministers on February 18, during which no decision was made about withdrawing the alliance’s troops from Afghanistan by May 1, as stipulated by the US-Taliban agreement a year ago. The US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin unequivocally announced the position on the “Afghan issue” assuring NATO allies that the US would not be hasty or disorganized about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

The dire Afghan situation came into focus in mid-March, when the US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its 2021 High-Risk List, which identifies threats to the US position in Afghanistan. Once again, this Afghan case turns around as a geopolitical/great power political issue. SIGAR Report makes it clear that the key background player here is Pakistan, which has extensive and close relations with the Taliban. Biden’s Quad-process (the US, Japan, Australia, India joint front versus China) may have helped bolster American security interests in the South and East China Seas but it did nothing to improve US position in Afghanistan, rather on the contrary.

For the Taliban, the war remains alive option, because they see it as a viable means to achieve their political objectives. Their core objectives on the battlefield and the negotiating table remain an end to the US “occupation” of Afghanistan and a return to a political system that retains their political and ideological and religious primacy. For President Ashraf Ghani’s administration, however, military resistance remains their only hope to limit the extent to which the Taliban can impose their will on the nation.

A dilemma of Biden administration was:

  • If it decides to withdraw according to the deal, it risks a total Taliban takeover.
  • If it decides to change its withdrawal schedule, it risks a return to war with the Taliban, taking Afghanistan back to square one and more body bags flowing home.
  • The endgame of the Afghanistan war poses no easy options but what is now completely clear: the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable to the US troops
  • the US has to withdraw the troops sooner or later, question is only when and how
  • the Taliban has already won the war

The more time passes, the clearer it becomes that the main point of the last year agreement — the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan within fourteen months of its signing — won’t be achieved. The German government, which has the second largest contingent in Afghanistan, already approved extending its mission there until 2022.

Then, April 13.-14. news disclosed the situation to be upside-down, the unconditional withdrawal of all US and coalition forces from Afghanistan by 11. September, 2021.

How to explain it to Americans and to others; after 20 years, thousands of dead and trillions of dollars spent … for what?

What were the factual reasons behind the abrupt decision of unconditional surrender of the US & NATO forces and to leave Afghanistan for the Taliban?

“Mayday from Afghanistan” seems to be turned into “Bye-bye Afghanistan”.