Afghanistan turmoil forgotten by Nato in blood of Ukraine

Nato’s overseas operational deployment forgotten amid the horror of Russia's invasion

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During announcements and background briefings at the high-level Nato summit in Madrid, there was a barely a whisper about Afghanistan.

What had been Nato’s first and costliest overseas operational deployment had been forgotten in the horror of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and rising concerns over China.

But a year on from the Taliban’s abrupt seizure of power, that collective amnesia could prove misguided, with Afghanistan once again potentially becoming a training ground for terrorists or descending into civil war.

“The summit in Madrid showed Nato is in a very strong position and that it doesn't really matter what happened in Afghanistan,” said James Rogers, who is with the Council for Geostrategy think tank.

The Ukraine war has significantly fortified the alliance, making it more unified and stronger with the admission of Sweden and Finland and a substantial increase in defence spending.

That is in sharp contrast to last year's images of desperate Afghans falling from evacuation aircraft.

How Afghanistan may have led to Ukraine

Analysts have drawn a direct line from the Kabul debacle — culminating in the Taliban victory on August 15 — to the invasion of Ukraine, stating that Russia came to the understandable but false conclusion that the West was a beaten force.

“The reduction of the West’s credibility may well have contributed to Russia's decision to attack Ukraine,” said former Brig Ben Barry, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.

“That there may be an apparent lack of resolution on the part of the West was part of that Russian calculation about pressing on with the attack on Ukraine.”

Hameed Hakimi, of the Chatham House think tank, said “western credibility in international affairs appeared to have been dented”.

“And there is a direct consequence of the Afghanistan conflict for the Ukrainian conflict where parallels and connections have been drawn,” he said.

Taliban and Trump

The “biggest factor” that allowed the Taliban into power was former US president Donald Trump’s decision to sign a deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, said Mr Hakimi, a former adviser at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“This was followed by President Biden’s completely unconditional withdrawal, which essentially broke morale in Afghanistan,” he said. “That’s what happens when you sign a peace deal with a bunch of people who are on terrorist lists.”

He suggested that if Mr Trump had remained in power, there would have been a possibility that the Taliban would have been more hesitant, even if he had withdrawn American forces.

“They were fearful of Trump in the sense that Trump could literally wake up one morning and cancel the whole thing, that leaves the Taliban nowhere. Essentially what Biden did, he reaffirmed Trump's mistake and made it a catastrophe.”

Ultimately, Afghanistan fell victim to the policy that the US could not fight “forever wars”.

Terror haven

It remains unknown whether the Taliban’s allies in Al Qaeda have re-established a power base and are using Afghanistan as a safe haven to plan international terror attacks.

Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri was killed in a US strike in the country on July 31.

Without a presence there, the West’s security agencies are extremely limited in gathering human intelligence to monitor extremists.

“Intelligence services don't have any boots on the ground, so they can only monitor Afghanistan in a stand-off way with satellites and signals intelligence,” said the IISS's Mr Barry.

'The National' reports from Kabul where Al Qaeda leader Al Zawahiri was killed

'The National' reports from Kabul where Al Qaeda leader Al Zawahiri was killed

He said MI6 and the CIA had “only got finite resources” that were now largely focused on Ukraine and Russia.

Without any particular hindrance, terrorists could well be formulating plans for attacks, said Mr Hakimi.

“What these groups need is space to train, space to incubate ideas, space for mobility, and they have all three things right now in Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, with government responsibilities, the Taliban may be forced to turn away from parts of their ideology, leading to splits, he warned.

“There are people who were in the Taliban who have found them a bit of a whitewash, so they have moved to the more extreme stuff.”

American power

Strategic analyst James Rogers said the withdrawal from Afghanistan “looked very clumsy” and the image of Afghans clinging on to aircraft in Kabul “looked terrible”, similar to the Saigon moment of 1975.

But now the US has been able to consolidate its position in the Indo-Pacific through its maritime power, shoring up allies such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

“I'm not sure Afghanistan has had a long-term structural geopolitical impact for America,” he said.

“Maybe its reputation has fallen, because it failed strategically in Afghanistan, but you could look at Vietnam and say that it didn't have a long-term structural impact on US power. In fact, in the 1980s and 1990s, US power increased in the world, relative to what it was.”

Officials in the US State Department are understood to have “factored in” the scenario of a Taliban victory.

“The administration was happy with the price because we wanted to cut loose,” said a US official who has spoken to analysts. “Afghanistan was not something that would win us votes and it meant we could focus on other things such as China. We couldn't stay there forever.”

A largely unreported legacy of the war has been the lack of acknowledgement from the defence industry over how its technology failed to defeat an enemy equipped with AK47s and RPGs.

“I think the West’s military industrial complex has been in denial about the Taliban victory,” said Mr Barry. “Their victory was accomplished without the Taliban having air power or high-tech equipment.”

Billions were given to defence companies who had argued that their high-precision weapons, air power and drones would defeat the poorly equipped insurgents.

“In the end, that was meaningless because the Taliban still won,” said Mr Barry. “This was the biggest buying exercise in recent history and it failed.”

However, the advanced weaponry that was used in Afghanistan is now in Ukraine's hands, destroying Russia’s military.

Honeymoon over?

Afghans have a tradition of welcoming new regimes and then, within two or three years, growing disillusioned and calling for change.

Some believe by 2023, the honeymoon period will have ended. With the Taliban unable to attract international recognition or money, opposition is expected to grow.

In August 2021, many people were fed up with corruption in the US-backed government, and many were impoverished and eager for change.

“Those people will soon run out of patience,” said Mr Hakimi. “Then you have the Taliban's core constituents, who will be increasingly competitive for the scant resources that will run out.”

Eventually, the “silent majority society” that simply wants to move on will also become disgruntled.

“If all these three segments can't get what they want out of the Taliban, then naturally, resentment will translate into opposition, which could start politically, but then easily can escalate to be armed because there isn't a shortage of guns. I do feel really concerned about Afghanistan; it is a very tough situation.”

The future

The West has clearly taken its eye off Afghanistan, merely allowing a few billion dollars in charitable aid to stave off famine and total collapse.

Its lack of focus on the country that was the genesis for the 9/11 attacks is a concern, but perhaps understandable in a world facing dire economic challenges and war.

Potentially, western powers are waiting for the Taliban to implode and for Afghans to find new rulers, but that comes with risk.

“The Taliban are not trained to be security guards, they are trained to blow people up,” said Mr Hakimi.

“To transform them to protect people is a journey that takes time, and training with money and incentives.

“My fear is that in Afghanistan, we will see a bang at some point, or it might be a series of these bangs that nobody really cares about because they’re busy with Ukraine and Russia. But I fear that we could be storing up a huge problem on our doorstep.”

Updated: August 10, 2022, 11:05 AM