Barring an extraordinary turn of events, the West’s 20-year presence in Afghanistan will end tomorrow (31 August). The US-led war that began in October 2001, after the Bush administration vowed to destroy al-Qaeda in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, will conclude with the last Western troops leaving the country in the next few hours.
The evacuation effort that followed the collapse of the Western-backed Afghan state to the Taliban will forever be marred by the terrible images of people falling to their deaths from American transport planes, desperate to escape the country’s new leaders. Thousands crowded the airport in the hope of a way out of Afghanistan, crowding filthy sewers and camping on barren ground with little more than the clothes on their backs.
To add to the misery, on 26 August a devastating suicide attack by a local affiliate of the Isis terror group killed more than 180 people, including 13 US service members. The US yesterday (29 August) said it carried out a drone strike against more Isis militants preparing to conduct an attack against the airport, although there were reports that the explosion killed Afghan civilians.
Thousands are believed to still be left behind, including foreign citizens and Afghans with links to Western states. Many who failed to get on a flight out of Kabul now fear for their lives. There are still routes out of Afghanistan but they are precarious, requiring travel to a land border and crossing into a neighbouring country. Any Taliban checkpoint along the way could mean trouble.
Afghanistan’s new leaders have pledged to allow those with the right to leave the country to go, though many are sceptical of such assurances. In any case, what a spokesperson tells the international media and how fighters at a provincial checkpoint behave may not always align.
The outside world now faces two difficult questions about how to respond to Taliban rule. The first is how to influence the group. Pakistan has led a recent PR offensive attempting to convince the world to recognise and engage with the Taliban rather than return Afghanistan to its 1990s-era international isolation. The international community has a few levers to pull, such as diplomatic recognition. Whether that will be enough to convince the Taliban to govern relatively moderately in exchange for the carrot of legitimisation remains unclear.
More concrete may be the billions in foreign aid that have at times accounted for around 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP. Without aid money, Afghanistan’s economy could collapse, leaving millions destitute. Keeping the money flowing risks shoring up Taliban rule, however.
The second question is about the terrorist threat from Afghanistan. Although the Taliban leadership does not appear interested in international terrorism, the group may not have the capacity to prevent attacks mounted by others. The organisation’s inability to prevent last week’s attack, which was conducted by an enemy of the Taliban and contradicted the withdrawal agreement signed by the US and the new Afghan authorities, illustrates the depth of that challenge.
The West failed in its effort at nation-building, an attempt to create a new country from the ashes of Taliban rule. Afghanistan was a deeply corrupt kleptocracy whose rulers stole billions in Western money while Afghans languished in some of the deepest poverty in the world. It was not loved – but it is still far from evident that what is to come will be better.