The following guest editorial appeared in Die Presse titled, " Kabul's Fall und seine Folgen." Translation by Karen M. Gallagher-Teske, Research Assistant at LISD. Title image courtesy of The REACH Initiative.
Wolfgang F. Danspeckgruber is the Founding Director of LISD.
Kabul’s fall and its consequences
Die Presse Vienna, Austria, September 9, 2021
The Afghanistan disaster will still cost us dearly. We must develop a sensible European refugee policy, but also stand by all those who need help and, if necessary, bring them to safety.
By Wolfgang Danspeckgruber
The fall of Kabul on August 15th, 2021 is an event of historical significance, not only because it happened, but above all because of how it happened—perceptively. It is about the impressions made: here a victorious Taliban, there a defeated America and its allies; and in between, the men, women, children in Afghanistan who are primarily affected, who feel abandoned and betrayed—their incredulous fear, hopelessness, despair, and possible desire for retribution – a potential breeding ground for revenge and terror.
In addition, the country is experiencing severe drought, rising famine, the threat of Covid. Government coffers are empty, funding is blocked, and the economy is crippled. The Taliban systematically destroyed important infrastructure, new successful businesses, terrorized and murdered employees of the free media and central figures of a flourishing civil society.
At the same time our world appears saturated with crises, from the Covid Pandemic and its socio-economic effects to environmental disasters; sensational reporting, fake news, and a deluge of negative reporting in traditional and social media; all that leading to a numbness to suffering, and widespread antipathy against foreigners.
A hornet’s nest of terrorists
The almost flight-like withdrawal of the United States and Coalition forces in Afghanistan – including nearly 20,000 private military personnel – led not only to the collapse of the Afghan military and security apparatus, but also to a strategic legitimization of the Taliban. The flight of the elected and Western-backed President Ghani on August 15th plunged Afghanistan and its people into an abyss. The process is not yet complete – while America and allies, in apparent panic, tried to evacuate their citizens and many who supported them (more than 120,000 people) – U.S. President Joe Biden withdrew all U.S. troops and allies, officially ending evacuations on August 30th even before the Taliban deadline of August 31st– but there is not yet international recognition of the new Taliban Government.
What are the consequences?
- A possible international arms buildup. Because of loss of confidence in U.S. security promises and guarantees – a rise especially also in advanced weaponry like drones, hypersonic, robotics, AI, autonomous, and space weapons.
- A global intensification – possibly also instrumentalization – of terrorism and radical Islamic fundamentalism. In addition, a race for raw materials in and around Afghanistan could begin. There might develop an armed contest for dominance – close to civil war – in Afghanistan between radical fundamentalist global movements, from al-Qaeda to Da’esh/ISIL, the Taliban, and the Haqqani Network. Thus, a “hornet’s nest of terrorism” may emerge – eventually some international actors may seek to deliberately exploit, if not control, these hornets and their terrorist activities!
Furthermore, this “Victory of the Taliban” in the perception of some is encouraging radical forces elsewhere to take on action.
- It is a catastrophic experience for young people and the next generation. Thanks to photos and videos on social media, information from exiled Afghans, and oral history, shocking information is coming to light that calls into question the values of the West and possibly even democracy. This may cause socio-psychological repercussions, disenchantment with politics, and the leadership. The drama of these final days and the victory of the Taliban will raise serious questions among the military and veterans of all those who have served in Afghanistan – and possibly for the next generation of security forces.
- Is Kabul’s fall in 2021 – after Vietnam (“Saigon trauma”) and the 9/11 terror – the end of the Pax Americana and the unipolar moment of America as a great power? Is it the end of an era, American soft power, its trust, values and global reputation – comparable to the end of the British Empire and the East of Suez policy after the double crisis Suez-Hungary, 1956?
The U.S. was hardly present in Central Asia until 9/11. Now they pulled out “just like that” again. This results in serious reputational damage to the image of and trust in the United States (see already the Kurds and also Ukraine), making it difficult to maintain relations with allies, but also with other partners whose trust in the United States and NATO might be waning – especially when they are in precarious strategic situations themselves, like Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, Baltic States, Ukraine, Georgia, etc. See the new Quad – a nascent defense arrangement between Japan, Australia, India, and America.
Most NATO allies felt that the order to withdraw, issued by Washington largely without consultations and coordination, and rejecting European alternative suggestions, de facto prompted them to withdraw hastily – not the least because of their dependence on strategic U.S. airlift capabilities.
Whereas the Taliban, radical fundamentalism, and all their supporters now consider themselves winners; Russia also sees itself among them – this is Putin’s triumph over Biden. The chaotic withdrawal with all its consequences proves to them that the West and its leading world power are vulnerable and able to be defeated – seemingly all it takes is the will, tenacity and smartness. This represents great encouragement to all those who want no good for America and the West. It can be assumed that this dynamic will be exploited further – for example by China, Iran, and Venezuela – and de facto lead to the intensification of change, multipolarity, and turbulence in world politics, with increased interference by non-state actors through money, weapons, etc.
What to do now?
- Analyze the situation on the ground in detail in all its dimensions and impacts. Beware of filtered and manipulated information! Make sure that Afghanistan does not become a “black hole” for information.
- Cooperate with friendly and interested Islamic states, such as the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, in order to reach a functioning and acceptable modus vivendi with the Taliban.
- “Mistrust and verify” when interacting and communicating with the Taliban. Monitor the Taliban closely and take them at their promised word. Penalize crimes – there are many ways to do this (including coercive diplomacy, “little green men,” robots, etc.).
- Freeze all Afghan government accounts, World Bank and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) trust funds. This money must not fall into the hands of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network! Strictly control who financially assists the Taliban.
- Initiate proceedings against Ashraf Ghani and consorts for embezzlement
- The EU needs urgently an independent strategic transport capability and must stand on its own two feet in terms of security and intelligence - also in close cooperation with the United Kingdom.
- Whatever happens in Afghanistan will also come to Europe – through people, trade, the Internet, and by those who deliberately bring it to Europe. We must quickly develop a good European refugee policy but also continue to stand by those who need help and, if necessary, bring them to safety. At the same time, the negative momentum must be stopped and stability created, so that Afghanistan is not completely bled dry of all those who are necessary for a stable and livable Afghanistan.
Europe’s inaction dangerously contributes to crises and terrorism.