After almost two decades, it’s now clear America’s longest war was pointless, with a messy withdrawal set to leave the region in a worse state – and Australia more vulnerable than ever.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ (CFR) annual Preventive Priorities Survey, the risk of conflict in Afghanistan is high with political instability and increasing violence leading to the collapse of the peace process very likely this year.
If the prediction comes to pass, it will mean the Afghan War, which first began almost 20 years ago, will go down in history as one of America’s biggest military failures.
Stretching from 2001 until the present day, the Afghan War has now eclipsed the Vietnam War to become the longest in US history.
It is also one of the world’s deadliest, claiming around 100,000 civilian casualties since 2010 and costing $US778 billion from October 2001 until September 2019, according to the US Department of Defence.
After so many years of bloodshed, an agreement inked between the US and the Taliban last February under the former Trump administration for the withdrawal of troops by May 2021 was celebrated as step towards peace.
But many experts are convinced it was actually a major mistake – and that the commitment will end in disaster.
ANU Emeritus Professor Dr William Maley told news.com.au it was “highly likely we will see an escalation in violence” in the region this year, and that the so-called peace process has become a “real hot potato” for new US President Joe Biden.
He said the “deeply defective” agreement gave the Taliban everything they wanted – including the status of a place at the table with the US, the release of 5000 political prisoners and a firm timetable for the completion of troop withdrawal.
“The Taliban got everything so there was no incentive to negotiate seriously with anyone else and in fact, there has been no formal face-to-face meeting between Afghan government delegates and the Taliban since before Christmas,” Dr Maley said.
“That creates a real problem for the Biden administration because even if the process of intra-Afghan negotiations is dead or at death’s door, the Taliban is still insisting the US withdraw as it committed to do by the end of April, even as the Taliban themselves have massively escalated attacks against civil society activists, people who support women’s rights, and democrats.
“They are wiping out, as rapidly as they can, the young, educated population who are likely to oppose their medieval policies. There’s no sense within Afghanistan that the peace process has delivered anything for Afghans.”
Dr Maley said Mr Biden was essentially stuck between a rock and a hard place, and that a recent, bipartisan US study into an allied withdrawal of troops found it could be “a recipe for major meltdown in Afghanistan” – but that sadly, that’s how the situation could ultimately play out.
He said Mr Biden now had three options – to ignore the commitment to withdraw, to go ahead with the agreement or to negotiate a one-off extension with the Taliban.
However, he said the third option was little more than “wishful thinking” as the Taliban was unlikely to agree to an extension unless it got fresh, major concessions such as the release of yet more prisoners, an option Dr Maley said was “frankly delusional”.
“All it would do is inspire in the minds of the Taliban the impression that the US is a supine player that can be safely ignored, which is pretty much the impression they’ve got already,” he said.
That’s partly because the US has already made major concessions, including agreeing with the Taliban’s interpretation of the agreement that the release of 5000 prisoners was a “target, not the ceiling” and to the release of war criminals instead of only combat or political prisoners – including sergeant Hekmatullah who killed three Australian troops in their barracks.
He’s now under a “loose house arrest” in Doha, which Dr Maley said was “devastating” for the men’s families.
Dr Maley said it was interesting to note that the agreement was not only for the withdrawal of US troops, but also the troops of its allies, including Australia, and that it didn’t appear that Australia was consulted before the deal was struck, or that the negotiator was given the green light to commit on our behalf.
“What you see here is a picture of the US really blundering through a whole range of areas including the technical dynamics of the negotiating process,” he said, adding the process had been “severely botched” and left Mr Biden with “no easy options”.
While it might seem like a nightmare scenario for America, according to Dr Maley, the bungled “peace” process actually left Australia especially vulnerable in two ways.
The first is that the increased violence and re-emergence of the Taliban was likely to create “one of the largest refugee movements ever” out of the troubled nation, which would “dwarf anything seen previously in Afghanistan’s history”.
Given our geographical positioning, Australia was likely to be impacted by this crisis in a way that the US was not.
But the bigger problem facing Australia is the “inspirational effect” of a perceived Western loss in Afghanistan.
Dr Maley explained that when the Soviet Union withdrew in 1988-89, it prompted a narrative in radical circles that “religion proved to be a force that could even defeat a superpower”.
Now, he said there was a “real danger” of that rhetoric resurfacing in places like Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia – places where Australia has been investing heavily recently in an effort to counter violent extremism.
“We are much more vulnerable in Australia to radical Islamist groups in South-East Asia than is the US, and when people sometimes make the mistake of thinking the Taliban is not a global terrorist group like Al-Qaeda, they miss that ‘inspiration effect’,” he said.
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Dr Maley said he believed it was most likely that the US would break the agreement rather than withdrawing from Afghanistan completely come May.
“I think they will end up staying to some degree, although maybe not with a vast force,” he said.
He said total withdrawal could cause a “psychological trigger” within Afghanistan where people who were against the Taliban suddenly switched sides if they perceived it was in their best interests to do so, based on which side they expected to come out on top.
“It doesn’t pay to be on the losing side. The danger at the moment is not that the Taliban will grind their way to the centre of Kabul in the first week, but rather that if the US pulls out completely, people will calculate the Taliban will come out on top and local powerholders might switch sides, not because they like the Taliban but because they fear losing,” he explained.
In other words, after so much death and destruction, the world would be more or less back at the beginning, with the long, painful and expensive war little more than an exercise in futility.