After 20 years in Afghanistan, lessons remain unlearned
As the formal war in Afghanistan ends, the Afghan people are living with the consequences of the mistakes of foreign powers. The chaotic withdrawal of the US and its allies has brought international attention back to Afghanistan, but the outlook on the ground has been dire for some time. While much has been made of the withdrawal symbolising a superpower in decline, it is ultimately ordinary civilians, as always, who will bear its brunt.
The well-publicised scenes at Kabul airport revealed a reprehensible lack of preparation for the evacuation of visa-holders and at-risk citizens. However, moreover, it has exposed long-term injustices: Afghan citizens have consistently faced years-long delays for visa applications. Australia’s humanitarian assistance remains limited — perhaps unsurprisingly, given the treatment refugees, including those from Afghanistan, have faced in Australia in the 20 years since the Tampa affair.
The faster-than-expected pullout served to exacerbate these ongoing bureaucratic and political failings and pressured decisions on evacuations. The operations of US allies were further impacted by a domino effect on foreign embassies and security, with the withdrawal of already-limited US forces creating both a perception and a reality of weak protection that led to the closure of many embassies well before the fall of Kabul. Australia was the first of the coalition nations to withdraw its forces and end its diplomatic presence with the closure of its embassy mere weeks after a “new chapter of our diplomatic relationship” was announced by Foreign Minister Marise Payne in May.
This is not the first diplomatic exodus from the country, similar scenes having played out during the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 at a time when the US was funding the Afghan mujahideen. Nevertheless, the lack of in-country diplomatic representation, justified or otherwise, is likely to hamper both accurate intelligence and continued dialogue with Afghanistan’s new rulers. Conversely for those countries whose embassies remain, notably China, Russia, and particularly Pakistan, whose military establishment has a history of support for the Taliban, it represents an opportunity to expand their influence both domestically and regionally.
From the beginning, the withdrawal was undercut by seemingly catastrophic intelligence failures. The failure to notify Afghan forces ahead of the abandonment of Bagram air base on July 2nd was indicative of an underlying lack of trust in Afghan forces that jarred with positive intelligence assessments of their capabilities. Some have moved to shift blame for the Taliban’s victory onto the Western-trained Afghan National Army, but it was never a unified fighting force and suffered from endemic corruption, with many of its soldiers poorly trained and paid. Its failure to ‘defend’ Afghanistan is more an indictment of the West's 20-year failed ‘nation-building’ project than it is of individual soldiers. The diversity and division of Afghan society belie the imposition of a largely constructed national identity, especially one constructed on imported values.
The withdrawal of US troops has been on the cards since the signing of the much maligned Doha Agreement in 2020, and President Biden had long telegraphed his opposition to the continued presence of troops in the country. In some ways, the process has been indicative of the logistical challenges and chaos inherent to the ending of many long-running conflicts. Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected comparisons with the end of the Vietnam War, stating: “This is manifestly not Saigon”. Indeed, manifestly, Kabul is not Saigon. Symbolically, however, the two may well come to occupy a similar place in the public consciousness — a perception which material and geographical differences are unlikely to sway.
Ultimately, the tragic airport chaos and diplomatic obstacles pale in comparison to the human security challenges that now face Afghan civilians. Kazakhstan, one of Afghanistan’s largest wheat and flour suppliers, is now looking to other markets. The World Health Organisation and World Food Program are warning of critical food shortages in the country as early as this month, amid a host of preexisting logistical challenges to food security that have only been exacerbated by the takeover. Economic strain is also likely given the cutting off of aid and finances by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, though in practice Afghanistan has been poorly supported by the global community for some time, with aid appeals consistently seeing large shortfalls over recent years. This is to say little of the obvious threats that ordinary citizens, particularly women, now face under renewed Taliban rule, with evidence of ‘reform’ yet to be seen.
The coming months will reveal if some of the tangible gains of the last 20 years, such as Afghanistan’s relatively strong media environment, will survive. But the fatal corruption of the former Afghan government and the failure of the US-led coalition to effect long-term change that would outlast their occupation of the country, will prove the enduring legacy of the conflict. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that money and guns are never enough to achieve sustainable solutions. It is a lesson that has been taught before, but seemingly is constantly forgotten.
Samuel Garrett is the Young Diplomats Society’s Regional Correspondent for South and Central Asia, and a student of Arabic and International Relations at the University of Sydney.