Things unfolding in Afghanistan over the past ten days are a forecaster’s nightmare. The Twitter sphere is abuzz with pundits, both faraway and regional, rationalizing how the sudden fall of Kabul to the Taliban, and the messy American evacuation, was bound to happen. A plethora of Western-media pieces abound, tracing the series of events leading up to the debacle. The truth is, nobody had a clue about those outcomes, not even the victors.
What was supposed to be a low-key exit from a war most Americans (and their allies) had largely forgotten has now jolted the West. The situation is “fluid,” as military analysts would call it. Therefore, it will be a fool’s errand to speculate on the shape of things to come in Afghanistan and their impact on Central Asia-South Asia region and beyond. What is obvious is that the debris is still falling amid new tremors every day.
It can potentially get a whole lot worse, as the the Biden administration has to get out thousands more American citizens and vulnerable Afghans at a time when US military no longer commands a fixed operational base around Kabul. In hindsight, pulling the troops out before evacuating civilians was a tactical mistake. However, the ground game could have still turned out alright if Kabul was somehow held by the Afghan army for a month or two. But it doesn’t matter now.
Joe Biden, who had defeated Donald Trump last year by appealing to Americans’ sense of compassion and need for competence at the top, is taking political fire from both right, left and center. In the face of terrible images from Kabul provoking a sense of national humiliation, Biden is presenting a picture of defiance. He is showing no contrition over his decisions and focusing on finishing what he had started. Maybe he is onto something!
American commentators seem to have a consensus view that Biden is betting that the majority of Americans who support the troop withdrawal will forget about the aftershocks of a retreat gone wrong. The gamble looks a little dicey, for it depends, in short term, on US forces swiftly ramping up remaining evacuations without any casualties. By next electoral cycle in late 2022, Biden’s Democrats would be particularly vulnerable to political attacks if the Taliban rule resulted in severe human rights violations.
Another worry for Biden and Co. is that it may take some time for America’s aura to recover among its allies. The European friends went ahead with, first Trump’s 2020 US-Taliban peace deal, and later Biden’s pullout decision earlier this April – now they are openly complaining about the management of US withdrawal. This particular wound runs deep because the US allies think they are let down, not by the isolationist Trump, but by the America-is-back Biden.
The EU has a lot to worry, not only from a fresh wave of refugees, but also from the reputational loss that NATO forces have suffered. This can potentially embolden Vladimir Putin’s expansionist designs in Eastern Europe. US-backed Taiwan is also concerned about China’s posture. India, which was flapping its wings in the Indo-Pacific under the US-led Quad, now has an immediate neighborhood to become more worried about.
In short, what has taken place in Afghanistan this month has created ripple effects across the global security landscape, even though the perception that America has lost its will to stand up for its allies is premature, if not misplaced. There are winners and there are losers in this game. While the losers will lick their wounds and hope to bounce back soon, the winners must not count their chickens before they hatch. Governing a youthful country will be far more difficult than gaining territory at lightening speed.