In late 2008, Sherard Cowper Coles, the controversial British Arabist and ambassador to Afghanistan was directed to lunch with Vice President-elect Joe Biden in Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan. It was at Camp Bastion, a once-bustling military base dotted with chinooks, C-130s, make-shift volleyball courts and the odd milkshake bar. It was also home to the US marines. Coles did his best to convince Biden to strike the right balance between a political solution to the war in Afghanistan and the continuing need for boots on the ground. ‘Ground holding forces’, Coles relayed later, was the only difference between stability and civil war.
A year later, in a less private setting at King’s College London, Coles was asked to outline what Afghanistan would look like in a decade or more, if all Western forces left the country. “It would be chaos,” I remember him saying. Those were also his words in a public testimony in the House of Commons. The best scenario, Coles made clear, was one where major cities – Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar, and maybe Jalalabad – would serve as fortified protectorates of modernity. The countryside, he confessed, would turn into negotiated spaces between the Taliban on the one hand and the “narco-mafia” on the other.
These were pre-ISIS days. Add ISIS and the still-robust connections between the Taliban (especially the Haqqani group, Pakistan’s favoured proxy) and Al-Qaeda to the mix, and the prognosis can be anything but bleak. As a recent United Nations report highlights, “the Taliban and Al-Qaida remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.”
To be clear, political negotiations with the Taliban was the only strategy on offer, given the West’s own political needs for withdrawal. There was and continues to be a need to deal with elements of the Taliban, who, in some form or shape, will be represented in Afghanistan’s political future. Journalists, analysts, scholars, and especially those who have long worked with the US military rightly lament about Biden’s uncompromising decision to withdraw all American troops in a couple of weeks from now. Those inside Afghanistan live with the reality of what is increasingly being called a “betrayal.”
In what can only be labelled as a self-protective speech outlining the rationale for withdrawal, President Biden argued that “we did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build.” He is right, in that there has been no strategic policy directive to nation-build in Afghanistan. Yet, this is exactly what thousands of coalition troops, officials, civilian contractors, and hundreds of thousands of Afghans have done every day since at least 2009, when President Barack Obama had the foresight to invest in an honest counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign.
A nation was built in Afghanistan
Commitment was what divided “winning populations” from those lost to the Taliban. Provincial Reconstruction Teams spent months building sewage pipes in cities like Kandahar, under the shadow of war. Contracts for building schools were often given to those who also had the ability to stem the tide of violence.
Markets were reopened and the “freedom of movement” was assured by the impossibly hard tasks left to forward operating bases (FOBs) located close to the Durand Line, which divides Afghanistan from Pakistan. Close air support (CAS) provided the only sense of comfort for those young men and women in uniform on the lookout for armed militias often being waved across the border in the many checkpoints that the Pakistan Army and the Frontier Constabulary were meant to secure. Training camps led by Britain and the United States equipped and built an Afghan National Army. The Afghan local police was, in part, transformed into groups of warriors dedicated to defending their districts from the forces of old.
In the end, the so-called “surge” partially worked. It did so because of the hundreds of thousands of individuals from dozens of countries who were determined to rebuild Afghanistan. At the same time, and ever since 2010, the United States – often pushed by Britain – slowly began to appreciate the rationale to negotiate with the Taliban. Trial balloons were encouraged across White Hall, and later by Foggy Bottom. Former Taliban leaders were invited out to London, Oslo, Berlin, and other parts of Europe. Their agency was tested in simple, and sometimes ludicrous ways. Those once close to Mullah Omar were given pride of place. These were the early interlocutors. They were met by American, British, Indian, Pakistani and of course Afghan officials and non-officials.
This was, in some ways, what led to the beginning of the Doha process, and culminated in the US-Taliban agreement in February 2020. Yet, no one, not even Coles, could have estimated how devastatingly chaotic Afghanistan would really become as US forces packed their bags.
Also read: 5 reasons the West lost in Afghanistan
What US can do before leaving
It is America’s prerogative to leave. Too many of its soldiers and officials have suffered in a country few have heard of. It makes imminent political sense. Yet, there is still much that can be done to sustain – at least in part – the gains of the last 20 years.
For sure, this is a country that is very different to the one the Taliban left as they crawled into caves on their way to Pakistan in 2001-02. The younger demography of Afghanistan will simply not support the return to the 1990s. Pockets of resistance are growing. Those who once hung up the boots of war are hesitatingly back in the frontline. Tragically, so are their children. There are many ways of supporting this spirit and reality. After all, and in a sense, as these businessmen and farmers-returned-to-soldiers protect their gains, they are also the best bet against the rise of extremist forces.
First, Biden could announce a decade-long aid package to sustain salaries and basic amenities for the Afghan government. Second, as Seth Jones points out, the Central Intelligence Agency and US Special Forces could still be deployed in pockets. Air support could be provided – if not off carriers now designated to focus on China, then from friendly airbases suitable for jets and Reapers alike. The Turkish contingent at Kabul airport could be rotated annually between erstwhile coalition partners for a period of at least five years, with the view to encourage basing rights for US air assets, if necessary. Third, a dedicated package for the Afghan National Army ought to be announced as soon as possible.
These measures will not stop the war. They will not meet the needs of the Afghan people either. In the end, and in the best-case scenario, they may just leave Afghanistan as Coles predicted a decade ago – a country divided between fortresses of modernity and those separated between forces of extremism. Yet, such guarantees serve as a deterrent. These commitments might just stem the tide, give supportive regional forces a chance to get better organised, and most importantly, make clear to those who exercise and harbour extremism that commitments made will not all be forgotten.
The author is the director of Carnegie India. He tweets @Rudra_81. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)