A New Afghanistan, A New Taliban: How Has the United States Contributed?

Animosities have ended, and we would like to live peacefully, without internal or external enemies.- Zabihullah Mujahid, Spokesperson of the Taliban, 17 August 2021

The friends and foes of the United States have been analysing the withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan. It is also hotly debated in the US as part of its domestic politics and foreign policy. The pull-out of the US military forces and the end of the American presence in Afghanistan is undeniably a critical issue in the world. Notably, the military victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan after twenty years of bloody fighting among the three sides – the Taliban, the Afghan soldiers and the US-led international forces is genuinely stunning. More importantly, the victory has been scripted in almost a bloodless way thanks to the fleeing of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The Afghan military and security forces, along with the Police, have demonstrated extraordinary moments of restraint and patience in the face of armed threats and attacks of the Taliban. The capture of power by the Taliban has raised several pertinent questions discussed and scrutinized in every corner of the world. An overwhelming volume of analysis has focused on the failure of the US in Afghanistan, Vietnam analogy and humiliation of a superpower. It shows one side of the story. But the story has many sides. It is perplexing to observe that analysts focus very little on the achievements of the USA for creating a new Afghanistan during its twenty years of presence in the country. If success means beating the Taliban or keeping control of Afghanistan, it has severe problems in understanding.

The US invasion in Afghanistan and its subsequence presence in the country for twenty years are against the normative order of international relations. However, history shows that every tremendous or regional power has records of intervention in some way or other. Going beyond the popular understanding of the defeat or failure in Afghanistan or the universal rejection of external intervention in another country’s domestic affairs, the US has achieved remarkable success through its engagement in Afghanistan and finally withdrawing from the country. It is not only pertinent to its interests as a global power but also for Afghanistan and the region at large. It may sound challenging the strong line of argument that we have been noticing over the past few days terming the US withdrawal a mistake, or a failure or at least ‘a messy’. Based on profound insights from the history of international relations, it may be argued that the US has greatly supported Afghanistan, the region and the world at large through its role in the country. What are the reasons behind this assertion?

First and foremost, the image of the Taliban 2.0 that the world has been seeing today with a lot of enthusiasm and surprise is the creation of the US. So far, the Taliban has promised a new script of their political journey while it remains doubtful and questionable to many analysts. People across the world applaud the change of the Taliban as they have assured a new set of actions signalling a departure from their past. Although it is at the early phase, it has been possible due to the US pressure on this group from day one in 2001 to the peace deal signed in 2020. The 2020 US-Taliban Peace Deal, formally known as the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”, essentially focuses on the promise that “Afghan soil would not be used for any activity against the US and its allies”. It binds the Taliban to “reduce violence” and does not mention a ceasefire. Second, the US presence in Afghanistan has taught the Taliban to be diplomatic and tactical in their relations with the eternal actors. The Taliban has effectively applied diplomatic skills in their peace negotiations with the USA. They have negotiated with Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran – countries emerging as their allies. They are now demonstrating it in their critical times of existence in the post-American era. They badly need “international legitimacy, support and aid” in order to cement their rule. The Taliban has already displayed its tactical and diplomatic skills to get sympathy and support from the Afghan people and the world.

Third, the US and its allies have created a counter narrative of the Taliban ideology in Afghanistan, which is based on liberal values such as individualism, openness, multi-party system, free trade, human rights, and women rights. The history of the Taliban is the history of the hard-line application of Sharia Law, use of force, suppression of women rights, and rejection of diversity. Even today, the Taliban has been insisting on Sharia Law as the basic structure of the political system of Afghanistan under their rule.  Fourth, the presence of the US and other western powers and the functioning of the Afghan government have challenged the Taliban to rethink about their historical relations with the terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and IS. Although they have the linkages with these outfits during their insurgency war in the last twenty years, now they are promising to break their relations with the terrorist outfits. They have further assured that the soil of Afghanistan would not be used by external forces against any other country or institution. Although there is a suspicion in this declaration of the Taliban, it is a positive sign that they have recognized the fact that they have built such networks and linkages over the years.

Fifth, one of the biggest contributions of the US and international forces is the opening, albeit limited, of the Afghan society to the world, which has traditionally remained closed and conservative. Tribes and clan-based Afghan society has little respect for a modern nation-state. It is widely researched that people in Afghanistan have their primary allegiance to their clan leaders, warlords. Due to widespread poverty and underdevelopment, people in Afghanistan have a limited opportunity to familiarize with the modern world. Tribal leaders, warlords, extremists and elite have exploited this issue for centuries. However, over the past twenty years the people of Afghanistan have developed a high degree of global connections. Sixth, the US engagement has contributed to an alternative political space, if not perfect, for moderate and progressive Afghans. The protest of the Afghan women against the Taliban immediately after the fall of the Afghan government is a case in point. It must be seen as a significant achievement of the US role in Afghanistan.  

Seventh, the US has shown the courage to withdraw from a country with a lesson that external intervention has a limit that the so-called great powers forget time and again in the historical trajectories. The Biden Administration has demonstrated extraordinary wisdom and resolution although he emphasized protecting American lives as the core reason behind his decision. The withdrawal has taken place in a time when the US and the Western world are clearly in a global rivalry with China and Russia for asserting new spheres of influence. Eighth, the US has thrown away a new challenge to the succeeding regional and global powers readying to intervene in Afghanistan by supporting and protecting the Taliban regime. Meanwhile, Russia declared that they would not send troops to Afghanistan. China has promised for maintaining friendly relations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Ninth, compared to the earlier episodes of external involvement in Afghanistan, the US role has been qualitatively different. The US exposed the Taliban to the world, supported the Afghan state and society in the areas of economic development, women empowerment and military capability. Although the US policy makers publicly deny the objective of nation building in Afghanistan, its emphasis on democracy, human rights and economic prosperity has contributed to this objective. The US and its allies have managed to ensure generous economic support to Afghanistan over the past twenty years through bilateral and multilateral channels. Widespread corruption and ethnic divides in Afghanistan have not allowed effective use of this support.

Finally, preventing the Taliban from staying in power with its hard-line, suppressive and conservative political ideology helped the region and world in diffusing the threat of terrorism. The continuation of the Taliban rule since 2001 would have been a horrendous reality to the world if one reminisces the global situation immediately after the 9/11 attacks. The US and its allies have, perhaps, not created a new Taliban, but a new Afghanistan. It remains vivid in the memory of the world that after promising moderation in 1996, the Taliban converted Kabul’s central soccer stadium into a place for public executions. The Taliban have to go a long way to show the world that they are new and different from their past.

Delwar Hossain
Delwar Hossain
Delwar Hossain, PhD is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and Director, East Asia Center, University of Dhaka.