If Biden cannot lead on Afghanistan, Taliban rule will follow

America's withdrawal from a position of weakness will not go unnoticed by other powers

FILE - In this Jan. 14, 2002 file photo, U.S. Marines scan the northwest perimeter of the American military compound at Afghanistan's Kandahar airport using sophisticated thermal imagery equipment. The Biden administration’s surprise announcement in April 2021, of an unconditional troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, appears to strip the Taliban and the Afghan government of considerable leverage, pressuring them to reach a peace deal. (AP Photo/Marco Di Lauro, File)
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The decision by US President Joe Biden to withdraw all remaining American forces from Afghanistan raises as many questions about the survival prospects of the Afghan government as it does about Mr Biden's own ambitions as a global leader.

The choice of September 11 as the end date for America’s long and costly involvement in Afghanistan is significant. It marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the US, which was the primary reason for the US-led military intervention in the first place.

So much has happened during the intervening two decades that the original objective of the intervention is often overlooked – namely the eradication of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan that executed the most deadly attack on American soil.

And, to a large extent, that objective achieved its goal. Within weeks of the US and its allies launching its assault against Al Qaeda, bin Laden was forced to flee into exile in Pakistan – where he was eventually assassinated in a daring raid by US special forces – and the organisation’s terror network was destroyed, radically reducing its ability to carry out further attacks against the West.

Since then, the objectives have become a great deal more complex, with a number of Nato countries – including Britain – undertaking major military deployments to support Afghanistan’s nascent democratic institutions from the threat posed by the Taliban, whose refusal to end its support for Al Qaeda resulted in its removal from power.

Indeed, one of Washington’s cardinal demands throughout the long drawn-out Doha negotiations, aimed at ending the civil war, was that the Taliban end its links with the Al Qaeda, as well as other militant groups like ISIS, in return for the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country.

But while the Taliban indicated it was willing to comply with this request given the deal it struck with the Trump administration in February last year, so far there is scant evidence it has complied with this undertaking, even though the deal resulted in a dramatic reduction in US troops based in the country to its current figure of around 2,500.

On the contrary, according to a report issued by the US Treasury In January, Al Qaeda is “gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection.” It adds that the group “capitalises on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support.”

In the meantime, the Taliban has taken advantage of the phased withdrawal of US forces to intensify its campaign to seize control of large swathes of the country, increasing the pressure on the democratically-elected government of President Ashraf Ghani.

And, as the Taliban and other militias strengthen their grip on outlying regions of the country, they are creating a government vacuum, limiting the Afghan government’s ability to act effectively much beyond the confines of the capital, Kabul. As a result, millions of Afghans risk losing access to basic services, while hard-won freedoms achieved for Afghan women are now at risk.

 Maryam Yousufi, 25, sews a traditional Afghan design clothing at her home in Kabul, Afghanistan March 8, 2021. Picture taken March 8, 2021.  REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
Maryam Yousufi, 25, sews a traditional Afghan design clothing at her home in Kabul, Afghanistan March 8. Reuters

There are also concerns that, without foreign backing, the Afghan security forces may lose the resolve to continue their fight against the Taliban. Unsurprisingly, many young Afghan professionals are leaving the country in search of better opportunities.

The dire predicament facing the Afghan authorities was last month highlighted by John Sopko, the Pentagon’s special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, who warned that, without US support, the Afghan government “probably would face collapse". The US intelligence community’s 2021 Threat Assessment, which was published this week, reached a similar conclusion, stating that “the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support".

Youths take pictures next to an Afghan flag on a hilltop overlooking Kabul, Afghanistan, April 15, 2021. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Youths take pictures next to an Afghan flag on a hilltop overlooking Kabul, Afghanistan, April 15, 2021. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

In short, the withdrawal of US forces, as well as the rest of the 10,000 Nato troops, which will withdraw at the same time, means there is nothing standing in the way of the Taliban and a return to its brand of medieval religious authoritarianism.

In such circumstances, Mr Biden’s decision to end America’s involvement in what has become its longest war, begins to look decidedly premature, even if the decision simply concludes a process already initiated by former US President Donald Trump, who had committed to withdrawing US forces by the end of next month.

The decision is certainly not without risk, especially if it results in Afghanistan once more becoming a sanctuary for Al Qaeda and ISIS. Washington policymakers will be well aware of the possibility of history repeating itself – the Obama administration’s decision to end US military involvement in Iraq in 2009 resulted in ISIS seizing control of large areas of the country, forcing the US to redeploy forces to Baghdad in support of the beleaguered Iraqi security forces.

Washington argues that the September withdrawal deadline still leaves enough time for negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban to be concluded and a peace deal struck to be struck. But with the Taliban so far showing no inclination to honour the commitments it made with the Trump administration, and fully aware it will no longer be under pressure from Nato forces, the willingness of the organisation to conclude a deal must be in doubt.

The withdrawal decision also raises significant questions about the Biden presidency and the approach it is likely to adopt to future global security challenges. To date, Mr Biden has spoken of his desire to rebuild relations with key global allies, after the tensions created during the Trump era.

Yet, on issues like Afghanistan, as well as the administration’s initial, faltering attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, the White House is sending out a signal that, far from providing strong leadership on key issues, the new administration is more interested in avoiding confrontation at all costs.

It is a message that will not be lost on countries like China and Russia, which see themselves as Washington’s rivals for influence on the world stage, and will be keenly watching for any indication of institutional American weakness.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National