Both Afghanistan and the US at an uncertain time

Aug 22, 2021

It’s possible, and much to be hoped, that some of the worst fears for the Afghan people under the Taliban will not be realised.  But the United States’ standing in the world has been damaged.

When the extent of the Afghan Government’s defeat, and the imminence of total US departure, became clear, first thoughts for many were for the future of Afghanistan’s women and girls, and for the safety of Afghans who had worked for the defeated government and/or assisted the US and allied forces, including our own.  These fears were clearly shared by many Afghans, prominently by those who flocked to Kabul airport.  And many media interviews, bravely done by Afghan women with foreign reporters, revealed grave concerns about their futures, personal safety and the closing of opportunities that a return to Taliban rule as it was in the 1990s would bring.

These fears may well be realised, and many experienced Western observers expect they will be.  But there are factors which give cause for some hope.  One is statements by Taliban spokesmen themselves, who have said that they want an inclusive government; will respect the right of women and girls to work and study, “within the framework of Islamic law”; and that they will extend an amnesty to those who worked for or assisted the former government and its foreign supporters, and “do not seek revenge”.

Of course it remains to be seen whether those encouraging words will be put into practice.  Regional Taliban leaders have said other things in interviews, and there are reports, particularly from the regions,  of killings and brutality.

We can only say “we’ll see”, but there are some factors that give some grounds for hope.  They include:-.   the fact that in many regions, and spectacularly in the capital, the Taliban’s takeover was unopposed and peaceful.  That no doubt was the product of many factors, but one was undoubtedly the extensive talking which had clearly been going on between the Taliban and other players, both formally in Doha and less formally—clandestinely—elsewhere.  It’s possible that these talks and understandings included commitments from the Taliban.

.   the country has clearly moved on and developed a great deal in the past 20 years, with a youthful population used to participating, including electronically, in the modern world.  The Taliban will be fully aware of this, and of how different the country now is from the one they ran in the 1990s.

.   that 1990s model was based to a significant extent on the Saudi Arabia of that era, with its Wahabi brand of severe Islam.  But while modern Saudi Arabia is certainly not a beacon of liberalism it is now very much more liberal, in particular in regard to the role of women, than it then was.

.   the Taliban will now have to think about running the country and will be seeking international support, both politically and financially.  They clearly have significant supporters in prospect of which two, Russia and China, have had in the past or believe they are having now serious problems with Islamist extremism.  One would expect that the Taliban will not want to alienate them by re-introducing archaic practices.

But of course how much weight these factors prove to have remains to be seen—and it also remains to be seen how effectively the Taliban leadership will be able to control all the members of what is after all a guerrilla force of about 80,000 armed men, some of whom have been fighting for 20 years.

Answers to these questions remain in the future, but it already seems clear that the United States’ status in the world has been seriously harmed by the way it has handled its withdrawal, and by the awful scenes at Kabul airport.  Both President Biden and Secretary Blinken have been trying to put a good face on it but their spin—“we have achieved the objectives that took us into Afghanistan (20 years ago)”–isn’t really a match for the anguish and fears of those left behind, or for the photos of Taliban fighters in the Presidential palace, and of events at the airport.  What has happened has raised basic questions about the US in its current mood, with polls showing 70% support for Trump and Biden’s decision to go.  As Paul Kelly said in “The Australian” of 18 August, “You’re either a global power or you’re not.  You either have the resilience, cohesion, leadership and self-sacrificing of a great power or you’re just pretending”.

Of course it’s not beyond the powers of the United States to recover from this disaster, as it did from its defeat in Vietnam.  It’s basically such a large, rich, powerful, important and consequential country that it can recover from setbacks that would finish others.  But this has not been a proud moment—and of course it simply feeds the Chinese belief in and narrative about American decline.

Geoff Miller is a former Australian diplomat and Government official.


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