The last US combat troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan in September. America’s crusade ends not with a bang but a whimper. By what yardstick should we measure their success? Let’s start with something simple: Are the Taliban defeated? No. Has democracy been instituted in Afghanistan? Barely. What are the long term prospects for peace in Afghanistan? Hanging by a knife edge. The campaign has cost the US much in blood and treasure, and it is not immediately clear what they have to show for it.
America’s withdrawal represents a significant change in both its domestic and foreign policy priorities. The so-called ‘War on Terror’ and subsequent engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq came as a visceral reaction to the tragedy of the September 11th attacks in 2001, with a shellshocked American public demanding repayment in blood and soil. Furthermore, it was an attempt to impose the tenets of liberal democracy (suffrage, stability, secularism) on a region considered fundamentally volatile; the ultimate expression of the much vaunted Pax Americana (American Peace). President Bush acknowledged as much when he said ‘this is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom’. But America’s crusade faltered, unable to withstand the war of attrition it faced in the ‘graveyard of empires’. Public opinion at home eroded under the weight of casualties without any discernible gains. The symbolism of the Biden administration’s choice of the anniversary of 9/11 to complete its withdrawal is not incidental. After twenty years it seeks to end America’s longest war where it started and draw a line under its experiment with imperialism.
Withdrawal from Afghanistan is also emblematic of a wider US disengagement from the Middle East, and from its focus on combating resilient non-state groups with hybrid capabilities, such as the Taliban and ISIS. Instead, it turns its gaze eastward, to the growing confrontation with China and its challenge to the liberal world order built in the wake of the USSR’s collapse. But despite this pivot towards the Asia-Pacific and its newfound distaste for interventionism, Washington knows it cannot leave Afghanistan with nothing. With its military prestige damaged, it must show that all the money and blood it has expended has produced some kind of durable stability in the region.
What is the state of Afghanistan today? After decades of counterinsurgency operations, during which the US has tried to gradually reduce its role and shift responsibility to the nascent Afghan armed forces, the Taliban remain a potent force in the region. In recent years, they have made significant territorial gains at the expense of the Afghan government. The Taliban now control more territory than at any time since they were deposed from power after the 2001 invasion. Billions of US dollars and crucial support from US air power have meant that the Afghan government has managed to stay in the fight, just. Both sides are now at a strategic stalemate, unable to claim a decisive victory over the other. As with most modern intra-state conflicts, the situation is complicated by the involvement of a series of other actors including NATO forces, tribal militias, Taliban splinter groups, and Al-Qaeda.
In the face of this situation, only limited progress on peace has been made. Representatives from the US government and the Taliban’s leadership met last year to agree a timetable for withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan, subject to the Taliban’s commitment to preventing terrorist groups using Afghanistan as a base for international attacks. This agreement was meant to precede talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, with the aim of securing a peace deal and setting out a vision of the future of Afghanistan. However, subsequent talks stalled as the deadline for the US’ withdrawal was confirmed for September, precipitating an upsurge in violence as both sides look to strengthen their negotiating position in anticipation of America’s withdrawal.
It is hard to imagine what peace in Afghanistan would look like, as it would almost certainly entail a power- sharing agreement. When in power, the Taliban ruled in accordance with a strict interpretation of Sharia law; banning television and non-religious music, mandating beards be worn by all men, and restricting education for girls to the bare minimum. Their image of an Islamic emirate is starkly at odds with the modern democracy young Afghans have grown accustomed to over two decades of development. Fear of the loss of these freedoms in the event of a return to power by the Taliban have contributed to the snail-pace of negotiations. Given the fact of Taliban dominance in swathes of the country, as well as enduring support for them in the more conservative rural communities, it seems inevitable that some kind of power-sharing agreement (or ‘consociation’) must be reached.
Government by consociation, the route to peace adopted in war-torn states as diverse as Lebanon and Northern Ireland, is by no means an easy process. It rewards extremist parties with guaranteed representation in government, the idea being that grand coalitions of opposing factions share power and by having a mutual stake in governance, peace is maintained. This tends to produce enduring communal divides as the centre ground is ditched in favour of bringing together parties that would otherwise be at conflict. However, it has proved remarkably effective in restricting inter-communal disputes to the political field, giving crucial time for old differences to soften. In Northern Ireland, a community once brought to its knees by thirty years of sectarian violence, an enduring peace has been achieved through consociation. Though Catholics and Protestants remain divided and Brexit has exacerbated tensions, no one seriously believes that a return to the extremes of the Troubles is likely.
Afghanistan’s people have endured decades of near constant violence, a cycle of ethno-religious conflict that time and again has destroyed lives and condemned future generations to sustained divides. Though peace will not come easy, consociation between the Taliban and the parties of Afghanistan’s democracy stands the best chance of finally breaking the cycle of conflict, and providing a vital opportunity for communities to negotiate their differences within a peaceful political context. The US may prove an important third party in negotiations; it now has an opportunity to atone for the mistakes of the past. The consequences for the failure of the talks would be disastrous.