Do We Stay or Do We Go?

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America’s Role in Kabul After the Withdrawal

The American Flag outside of the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan

By Scott Kelly

America has shut down and handed over Bagram Airfield, its largest base in Afghanistan and the nerve center for its campaign there for the past 20 years. As it effectively ends its active participation in Afghanistan’s ongoing wars, it plans on leaving behind 650 troops in order to maintain the security of its embassy and several hundred more to secure Kabul International airport until a deal with Turkey to provide security can be reached. Although not there to participate in fighting or provide any support to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIROA) or Afghan National Army, the presence of those troops and the diplomatic mission they protect could still play a decisive role in deciding the eventual outcome of the war between GIROA and the Taliban.

For America these troops represent the minimal force they feel is necessary to ensure the safety of its embassy and diplomatic mission in Kabul. The Taliban have said that such forces would be viewed as an occupying military force in violation of the peace deal, and subject to potential attack as a result. How likely the Taliban are to act on such a threat, given what the American retaliatory response would likely be and that they did not retaliate against troops who stayed past the original May deadline for withdrawal is debatable. However, the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, the Al-Qaeda attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in 2012 show how precarious the security of our diplomatic missions can be. There have been over 50 attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates since 1945, and that is a dangerous game of brinksmanship to play in a country like Afghanistan facing the possibility of civil war. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989 America closed its embassy in Kabul over the same concerns.

The presence of such a large American force to secure the embassy in Kabul, and the airport that would be needed to evacuate it is an open acknowledgement that GIROA is unable to secure the locations with its own forces, which under different circumstances could be considered an embarrassing slap in the face to an ally, if the security picture across the country and inside the Kabul itself was not so clearly deteriorating.

The size of the force left behind to guard the embassy, combined with the size of the embassy staff itself is also challenging to evacuate on short notice. This sends a tacit message that America is still committed to the future of GIROA, and has faith that it will survive the coming showdown with the Taliban. It is this show of faith that may ultimately save the government. The American embassy is one of the few that remain open in Kabul, and America is the only country that can realistically commit the resources needed to secure its foreign mission in Afghanistan. Australia packed up theirs and closed shop in May, promising to continue diplomatic relationships with frequent flights and virtual meetings. Belgium has removed its staff, and the French and British along with most who remain are looking to see what America decides to do next. The Taliban have offered repeated assurances that embassies and diplomatic missions will be protected and welcomed in the future Afghanistan they want to build, but it’s an open question if the representatives who make such assurances have enough control over the Taliban fighters on the ground to make good on their promises.

With the security situation deteriorating around the country and the additional threat of the delta COVID variant which is now running rampant in Kabul it can be difficult to see a reason to continue to accept the risk of maintaining an embassy in Kabul. But in politics location matters, and where one chooses to plant their flag carries a lot of weight. The often quoted and rarely read military philosopher Carl Von Clausewitz famously described war as the continuation of politics by other means. The outcome of this next chapter in the Afghan war will be decided by the political will to resist the Taliban rather than by the military prowess of the Afghan National Army. This political will may come down to nothing more than a belief by Afghanistan’s traditional cadre of strongmen that the GIROA retains the backing of the international community, and that defending it will lead to a more prosperous future for themselves. A functioning embassy that is open in Kabul may very well be critical to promulgating the belief that America and her allies will continue to work with and support the GIORA.

As the Taliban have advanced in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, many of these strongmen such as Abdul Rashid Dostrum and Abbas Ibrahimzada have re-emerged as warlords at the head of their own large, well equipped militias. These militias have shown a remarkable willingness to resist Taliban rule and fight them in the past, and include many of the same commanders that helped the U.S. take Kabul 20 years ago. As the Afghan National Army collapses in many places and faith in security forces falters, the militias may prove to be the force that prevents the Taliban’s return to power. But that will only happen if they choose to fight to preserve some semblance of the current government. Otherwise the country will devolve into a series of smaller fiefdoms, each run by its own strong man, who may or may not decided to unite in time to resist the Taliban or cut their own deal with them.

After 20 years of expending blood and treasure and disrupting millions of lives in a campaign that aimed to uproot extremists and build a functioning, democratic nation, the idea that the most we can hope for is for warlords, with their own long list of alleged human rights abuses, to prop up the government in Kabul by resisting the Taliban in order to keep the tap of foreign aid dollars flowing can be a bitter pill to swallow. But a coalition of strongmen would still provide for a better future for Afghanistan’s people, especially its most oppressed ethnic minorities, than Taliban rule ever could. It would also better fulfill the primary reason America went there, which was to ensure Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups cannot use it as a safe haven, and provide tangible proof that even in the most dire situations, siding with America is ultimately a good bet. America’s longest war is over, but Afghanistan’s continues, and an American flag flying over an embassy in Kabul may ultimately matter more to the outcome than anything else we could provide.

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