Afghanistan is truly a historical anomaly. Whether it was the British in the 1800s, the Soviets in 1979 or, most recently, the US after 9/11, global superpowers have tried and failed to use the country for their own benefit. There was an overwhelming sense of history repeating itself on 30th August, 2021, when the last of the remaining US troops withdrew from Afghanistan. There was also a sense, however, of confusion and uncertainty. The rapid takeover of Kabul by the Taliban went against multiple US intelligence reports. US President Biden himself conceded that although he did expect an eventual Taliban takeover, he was told it wouldn’t be for many months. This unexpected advancement by the Taliban leaves us with many questions that remain to be answered. What would the US withdrawal mean for the future of Afghanistan? What impact could it have on global stability?
The Future of Afghanistan. After nearly 20 years, Afghanistan has once again rid itself of foreign occupation. While many consider this a victory for the Taliban and the Afghan people, the ground reality is not so simple. Although the Taliban enjoys general public support in Afghanistan, it now faces a number of economic, political, and societal challenges. The previous US-backed Afghan government was functioning largely on foreign aid and support. Since the Taliban takeover of Kabul, though, the US, International Monetary Fund and World Bank have all suspended aid for Afghanistan, with the US freezing nearly $9.5 billion in Afghan foreign reserves. Politically, major powers are still deciding on whether or not to recognize the Taliban, with many calling for a more inclusive government in Afghanistan. Other states, such as China and Russia, have already indicated that they would recognize the Taliban. There are also indications that that this time around, the Taliban are interested in interacting with the global community. Exactly in what capacity still remains to be seen. Whatever the case, without proper financial and political support, there are legitimate fears of a major humanitarian crisis occurring in Afghanistan. Refugee displacement, food insecurity, poverty and violence are real issues that are currently affecting Afghans, and they could easily be made worse if instability breaks out. The international community must ensure that a major crisis is avoided.
Global Implications of US Withdrawal from Afghanistan. The global implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan are also significant. Firstly, it paints a picture of an overall decline in US global power and hegemony. Although US President Biden has returned to many international treaties and pacts that were abandoned by his predecessor, such as the Paris Accord, World Health Organisation and New START, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan certainly goes against the US foreign policy approach of the past few decades. There was also a sense of the US abandoning its allies with its unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan, which could lead to the building of a trust deficit between the US and some of its NATO allies. America’s international reputation had already taken a hit under former President Trump’s ‘America First’ policies, and the US exit from Afghanistan doesn’t help improve its image. It sends a message to international allies and rivals alike, that perhaps this is a new United States; one that might not be as keen to undertake military action. If that is the case, then we could very well see a rise in the global influence of other states such as China and Russia. The unipolar world that we had seen after the end of the Cold War is clearly a thing of the past, and it seems the case that a multipolar world order will become the norm.
US withdrawal will also lead to the creation of a vacuum in Afghanistan; a vacuum that many will be both eager and cautious to fill. China will be keen to extend the Belt and Road Initiative into Afghanistan, as it will provide a route into Central and Southwest Asia. China has already pledged $31 million in emergency aid to Afghanistan, who in return described China as their “most important partner”. A China-Taliban partnership doesn’t seem too far away. This will depend, though, on the stability of Afghanistan and the region. China would not want to invest time and money on a large-scale project that could be derailed by instability. Russia will also sense an opportunity in Afghanistan. Russia, under President Putin, wants to position itself as a global leader again, and playing a role in Afghanistan could certainly help with that aim. Despite having had a turbulent relationship with Afghanistan in the past, a stable Central Asia is now certainly in the best interests of Russia.
Rise in Global Terrorism. Another possible implication of US withdrawal from Afghanistan could be the rise in global terrorism. US intervention and withdrawal from Iraq led to the eventual rise of ISIS, and the overall instability of the Middle East. We could see a similar scenario unfold in Afghanistan, which will be in a state of uncertainty and could be used by terrorist organisations. ISIS-K, an Afghanistan based offshoot of ISIL, has already claimed responsibility for the Kabul Airport suicide bomb attack which killed 175 people on the 26th August, 2021. The presence of both ISIS-K and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has already been confirmed. Terrorist groups around the world could also feel more emboldened and we could see a rise in international terrorist attacks, particularly targeting Western countries. This could further contribute to the growing divide between the Western and Muslim worlds.
Conclusion. The recent history of Afghanistan is, unfortunately, one of either foreign occupation or internal turmoil. Rarely has the country gone through an extended period of peace and stability. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan brought an end to a two-decade saga. But, although the US has packed up its bags and left, the global implications of their occupation and recent exit will certainly be felt for years to come. Historically, Afghanistan has been abandoned by global powers and not been allowed to prosper. The international community must come together in order to ensure that the events of the past are not repeated. Not just for humanitarian reasons, but also to ensure global stability and safety from any terrorist threats.