By Mark Cancian, Breajing Defense, September 09, 2021
The message was clear, from the mouths of military officials, the State Department and President Joe Biden himself: Aug. 30 marked the official end of the US war in Afghanistan. But, as Mark Cancian writes below, just because the US has decided it is done with Afghanistan does not mean Afghanistan is done with the United States.
With the departure of the last aircraft from Kabul, most Americans were ready to be done with the Afghanistan misadventure. However, Afghanistan is not done with us.
Even putting aside the fact there are reportedly still American citizens stuck in the country, along with tens of thousands of Afghans who desperately wanted to leave but were unable to make it onto the last flights out of HKIA, there are going to be long-term effects of the Taliban takeover. Among them: Captured data, waves of refugees, the weapons on the global market, and emboldened radical Islam.
As with our experience in Vietnam, Afghanistan will shape our politics and diplomacy long after the last servicemember withdrew.
Captured data. Given the rapid collapse of Afghan forces, it is unlikely that our Afghan allies took the effort to destroy all sensitive material. Thus, the Taliban likely captured many computers and now have access to databases that the US and its coalition kept in Afghanistan. This captured data, both electronic and hard copy, includes details of military, diplomatic, and intelligence activities, not only in Afghanistan but across the entire region.
This will make interesting reading when the Taliban publishes them, as they certainly will. Some items will merely be embarrassing, such as the many complaints about corrupt Afghan government officials. This will resemble the WikiLeaks publication of documents stolen by then-Private Manning, where the gossip about world leaders was tantalizing but ultimately of little significance. More serious will be publication of the names of Afghan and US intelligence officials and details about ongoing operations, because these will damage US security and may be fatal for the Afghans. The precedent here is the 1979 Iranian revolution, which painstakingly reconstructed shredded US Embassy documents and published sensitive and sometimes embarrassing details about US intelligence operations.
The material will also provide the Taliban with a bargaining chip to trade with the Chinese, Russians, and the Iranians, all of whom could use the material to disrupt US operations in their area of interest.
Waves of refugees. The United States and its allies have moved about 100,000 Afghan refugees who will need resettlement someplace. That will be a challenge, but the numbers are likely manageable, other countries have committed to help, and there is a sense of responsibility to people who helped us.
More challenging will be the millions who may flee Taliban rule in the future, as happened in the 1990s. Already, 2.6 million Afghans are refugees. That number could double. As Erol Yayboke, a CSIS expert on global refugees, commented, “millions of displaced Afghans in 2021 could make the 2015 migration crisis seem like a geopolitical walk in the park.”
As a reminder, that earlier surge of Syrian and North African refugees overwhelmed the European Union (EU), which initially tried to accept them all. However, countries eventually had to erect barriers when the numbers and cultural conflicts threatened to destabilize not just the host countries but the entire structure of the EU as well. The United States might accept the initial wave of refugees but, given ongoing tensions over refugees from Central and South America, accepting large numbers of Afghans who did not directly work for the United States would be problematic. Thus, an Afghan refugee surge could destabilize Europe and cause a political backlash in the United States.
A world flooded with weapons. Given how much of the Afghan military simply surrendered, it is fair to assume that the majority of its equipment is now in the hands of the Taliban. This inventory potentially includes 22,000 HMMWVs, 600 gun trucks, 170 armored personnel carriers, 64,000 machine guns 16,000 night vision goggles, 170 artillery pieces, and 358,000 assault rifles. In addition, there are helicopters and transport aircraft, although many flew over the border to escape, and most of the remaining aircraft are inoperable.
Much of this equipment will decay with time. Captured aircraft, for example, will not operate long without trained maintainers and a steady flow of spare parts. However, the Taliban could keep a number of vehicles, artillery, and small arms operating indefinitely, cannibalizing some to keep the others operating.
These weapons are not going to appear in the United States; all are illegal for private individuals to own and getting them into the country in large numbers would be difficult. However, these weapons will be available on the world market, and a cash strapped Taliban might well put them up for sale. Further, they could be sent to any terrorist organization that the Taliban (or Pakistani intelligence) may want to support. India and the ‘Stans should be very worried.
An emboldened radical Islam. Al Qaeda, ISIS-K, and all the related Islamist extremist groups are already celebrating their second victory over a global superpower. HR McMaster cites 20 such groups, which “remain determined to murder Americans and our allies.” Just as their victory over the Soviet Union energized them in the 1980s, so this victory will also.
The United States and its allies have been very successful in the last two decades in preventing major terrorist attacks. Law enforcement deserves great credit, and US operations overseas likely had a dampening effect. However, radical Islam’s surge in confidence, plus the possibility of a sympathetic regime to provide a base, may translate into future terrorist attacks. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz notes, “the enemy gets a vote.”
A long credibility shadow. The Chinese, Russians and Iranians are celebrating the US defeat. Beijing in particular has seized on the withdrawal as a propaganda cudgel, and wasted no time in hitting Taiwan with broadsides that America cannot be trusted. As the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated, “The US withdrawal from Afghanistan shows that wanton military intervention in other countries and imposition of values and social systems onto other countries’ policy will lead nowhere and is doomed to end up in failure.” Meanwhile, questions about the solidity of US commitments are appearing widely, including in the European and US press.
Many commentators point out that leaving a small and isolated country like Afghanistan after a 20-year commitment does not constitute a major retrenchment of US power and influence. The US military is still strong, the economy is reviving, and the government has reiterated its commitments to allies and partners. This is true.
However, the defeat and precipitate withdrawal are facts that cannot be talked away. Credibility comes from actions. For years into the future, US policies will be measured against this need to maintain credibility, and the administration will feel the need to prove its steadfastness. If the administration is lucky, it will have a “Mayaguez moment” that allows them to show with military action that the United States is still a global military and diplomatic force. The drone strikes against ISIS-K may provide that signal if they continue, but it will take time and effort. It will be a while before the “Afghanistan syndrome” goes way.
Despite the many statements about “the end of America’s longest war,” it is only one phase of the war that is over. Another phase is beginning. Expect to see Afghanistan — directly or indirectly — on the front pages for many years to come.
Mark Cancian, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a retired Marine Colonel now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies