Opinion

Afghanistan, foreseeable drifts and aftermath (I)

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A few days ago I published a paper in this same medium entitled "No two without three, nor is any peace lasting", in which I attempted to analyse in brief the prolegomena, foundations and final evolution of the war in Afghanistan and the ensuing crisis following the implementation of the US plans, agreed with the Taliban, to abandon the country after almost twenty years of heavy fighting, with the involvement of NATO. The foreseeable extension of the issue and the consequences of the rapid and ill-fated "solution" to the conflict lead us to analyse the initial consequences and the forecast of the future effects that this convulsive movement has brought about and will bring about. This is the first part of the resulting document.

Almost in a matter of hours, after many years of iron-fisted international occupation, Afghanistan, to the astonishment and disbelief of the entire International Community (IC), fell back into the hands of the Taliban - many of them of a new generation, who were born under occupation and most of whom have never left the country - validating the curse on a hostile and ungovernable territory that after the British and Russian defeats in the 19th and 20th centuries was defined as "the graveyard of empires". 

The Taliban, hastily, falsely or erroneously described as "victors" by the EU's representative for foreign policy, J. Borrell, who every time he speaks, opens a conflict, hastened to re-establish their old caliphate, although on this occasion and according to the little publicised Doha agreements (September 2020) they pretended to appear disguised with an impostured and fleeting goodwill, which they have practically abandoned in less than forty-eight hours. Their posturing will become debased and will soon translate into more serious national, regional and international consequences than before, and will probably mark important global changes for the coming months, years and even lustrums, at the very least.

Many are inclined to think that the situation created will be very similar to the US withdrawal from Vietnam; I think they are wrong. After that fall, the so-called "domino effect" was expected, whereby Vietnam would be followed by most of its then unstable neighbours; but that effect did not occur due to various circumstances and certain partial successes. In this case, it may well happen, albeit with differentiating nuances; foresight based on the degree to which the existing Taliban, Al-Qaeda and their peculiar franchises are entrenched in all or a more or less significant part of their Central and South Asian neighbours such as Pakistan, China, Iran and the three pro-Russian tanes under their umbrella (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan).

It is to be expected that the interests of these countries and the Taliban's substantial trade agreements with China, Russia and Iran will try to prevent these fundamentalist branches from proliferating out of control, although they will most likely turn the area into a vast sanctuary where jihadist groups of various stripes currently active in various parts of the world, mainly in Africa and Asia, can roam and train unhindered.

The crisis of regional and global authority provoked by this hasty and failed withdrawal - which clearly points to a failure of US and NATO civilian and military intelligence or political disregard for the reports - comes at a time when China and Russia are sharpening their knives and multiplying their activities to test the US determination to maintain its global leadership status.

On the other hand, in the region itself, Turkey and Iran are already trying to fill the vacuum following the US failure, albeit with different perspectives and intentions. Of the two countries, Iran has it worst because of its political, economic and health crisis, which prevents it from accepting large numbers of refugees, and the fact that, although both are Muslim, Iran is predominantly Shia and the Taliban are Sunni.

In politics, and even more so in today's world, it is very sad and frequent to see how political leaders, faced with any crisis or problem, do not usually assume the blame that corresponds to them, look the other way and always look for a scapegoat on which to place all the responsibility.

Only Chancellor Merkel and, to a lesser extent, President Macron, have had the courage to assume their share of responsibility for the birth, development and outcome of the conflict. A situation that has also served to make them question the blind following of Uncle Sam in his global brokerages. An issue that highlights and calls into question Europe's capacity for leadership in the world and within it; leadership that will worsen in the future when Merkel leaves political life, leaving us without a clear direction even for Germany.

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The initial and subsequent statements by the heads of the US, NATO, the EU and the UN, as well as the sepulchral silence of many presidents of governments of countries involved in the conflict with more or less discreet roles, who are used to putting on medals when everything looks good, but hide when the solutions to any crisis are difficult, have been very embarrassing, unpleasant and unfortunate, or have no value whatsoever.

As for the International Organisations, in view of their current ridicule and recent accumulated inefficiencies, they should rethink their role and tasks in the international arena, the missions assigned to each of them in the IC according to their capacities and real possibilities and, once and for all, seriously review their statutes, tasks, missions, mandates and areas of responsibility with a view to changing them for others that are more real, achievable and efficient.

All of them are massive, very costly and irresolute organisations that were created at specific times to meet specific needs and that have mutated "adapting and growing" as they have lost their capacity to act and react, with the consequent increase in cost and inefficiency.

It seems that after twenty years of fighting side by side, keeping things quiet because others were paying, nobody wanted to be the first to object and look the other way, and now comes the time for internal and collective political regrets and reproaches for having accepted at the time, without further ado, the invocation and acceptance of Article 5 of the Alliance for Afghanistan and its successive plans.

Now, the almost unexpected - though often announced - US withdrawal has reopened the debate in several countries, especially in Germany, on Europe's excessive and almost total dependence on foreign policy and defence, although it will probably be difficult to get this discussion back on track until it is known who will succeed it in the chancellorship.

Berlin, aware of Europe's limited capabilities and limitations, has always been more reluctant than Paris to take steps towards a European defence policy that is more independent of the US, and has been wary of the concept of 'strategic sovereignty' that Macron has repeatedly proclaimed. In just a few days, however, certain high-ranking German authorities have no qualms about speaking out clearly about the need to reflect on the role of the European partners in NATO and the division of duties and responsibilities among all of them in order to stop looking to the other side of the pond.

The increase in the EU's capabilities and possibilities, which was a chimera after the Second World War, makes us think again about the possibility of accepting other types of responsibilities as an economic and political power, above and beyond national interests; a utopian situation that, as can be seen quite often, is not easy to overcome within the Union due to its cost and certain chauvinisms.

The Afghan disaster, following on the heels of the wars in Iraq and Syria, which resulted in large-scale massacres of civilians, leads us to question the future of organisations such as NATO, which was born in a bipolar world as a result of the Cold War and the threat of a powerful Soviet Union, a situation that no longer exists as such.

The Alliance will have to define its role in a new world order with actors that were not expected or were not so dangerous when it was born, where the strategic and economic weight for years has been oriented much more towards the Pacific than the Atlantic, with China as the main power in friction, although without leaving aside Putin's intentions to recover its splendour and the territories lost after the dissolution of the former USSR.

The time seems to have come, therefore, for the European allies to decide whether they want Europe to continue to act as a military annex to Washington, parading on Washington's tail, or whether they want to pursue a Community defence policy that is independent and worthy of the name. Because no one can guarantee that the Americans, with their ever-changing policies, which are hardly ever consensual, can lead us to similar situations at any time.

There is no doubt that in this mess, it is, as always, the USA, the first dancer, which is bearing the brunt both internally and externally; the now very mature Biden has had to shoulder the entire responsibility, for which he bears a significant part, despite the fact that the idea and plans for withdrawal have been preached, designed and marked out by Obama and Trump.

It can be said that the loss of image, prestige, world leadership in the struggle for and expansion of democracy, as well as the loss of credibility in terms of fulfilling its commitments and protecting its allies are almost irreparable, as long as one remembers what happened in Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Korea and Ukraine, among others. I very much doubt that the US will be able to resume the recently declining role it has been playing since the fall of the Berlin Wall without anyone daring to cough in its face.

After the fall of Kabul due to the precipitous US withdrawal after having "spent" more than 1 trillion dollars on its failed attempts at democratic, social and military reconstruction (officially 300,000 soldiers), the question of the future of the country and its area of influence is rapidly spreading to the Middle East. The spread of the foreseeable millions of refugees, possibly truffled by jihadists in disguise among them, extends to a wide swathe from Morocco to Pakistan and from Turkey to the Gulf including the countries of the Horn of Africa.

With some degree of probability, all corners of the Middle East and North Africa will be affected in some way by the US failure in Afghanistan, having kept many allies with them in the longest war in their history. Needless to say, if the refugees reach those confines, their attempted passage to Europe will be more than predictable.

After so many ups and downs in US Middle East policy in recent years, it is difficult to foresee the future role of the US in the region at a time when Biden seemed to want to smooth things over with Iran by trying to get his Iran-IC nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA, back on track, at the same time that the ultra-conservative Ebrahim Raisi, much tougher than his predecessor, takes office, when the country is mired in bankruptcy, is heavily hit by Covid and coincides with the IAEA confirming that Iran has already enriched uranium to 60 per cent.

The US's role and commitment to Iraq is now almost a dead letter or has come to nothing like its intervention in Syria; it only maintains strong ties with Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan who, for various factors or circumstances, need to maintain their closeness to Washington because much of their security depends on them. Saudi Arabia's relations with the Taliban start from a long way off and it will soon become clear how they evolve when the Taliban dominate an entire country. Israel will be forced to increase the diversification of its external sources and Jordan will begin to fear that it will be left on the hook.

It can be argued that this example has set off alarm bells and fears of further abandonment in much more advanced and needy countries that really rely on US ties and support for their survival, such as Taiwan.