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The US aim with Afghanistan was to cut its losses to focus on China, but the repercussions from its exit will make that impossible

Tom Fowdy
Tom Fowdy

is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.

is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.

The US aim with Afghanistan was to cut its losses to focus on China, but the repercussions from its exit will make that impossible
The return of the Taliban will fuel Islamic militancy across the world, radicalise some Muslims in the West, and provoke a new refugee crisis. If America and its allies think they won’t suffer strife from all this, they’re wrong.

As the chaos in Kabul rages on, some insist it’s all part of a cunning American plan. At least that’s what Blinken seemed to be claiming as he doubled down on the White House’s assertion that remaining in Afghanistan was “not in our national interest”. 

The swift abandonment of the Central Asian nation and its capitulation to the Taliban (though perhaps not at the speed it happened) was the deliberate intent of a US foreign policy that sought to end the carrying of the cross of its “forever wars” and shift its strategy from the Middle East and associated conflicts in Muslim nations towards a new era of “great-power competition” with China. 

Washington convinced itself it would be convenient for the West to simply leave it all behind as if none of it ever happened, and as if none of it would ever come back to harm it again. The collapse of the Afghan government to the Taliban seemed an inevitable price to pay, even if it happened far sooner than expected. Yet, it’s not turning out to be as simple as that.

One particular aspect of the War on Terror era is that the West has been locked in a vicious cycle of wars it once thought would be quick and easy – not just in Afghanistan, but in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Instead, they’ve set off never-ending chain reactions of further conflict, with one crisis leading to the next.

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And now the West is facing blowback. It never quite understood that its actions would cause that blowback, spurring on the radicalisation of Muslims and the spread of extremist ideologies, which, in turn, ignited more conflict and elicited more terror attacks. The length of this era has not been down to choice.

As a case study of how this worked, one can follow a chain of events beginning with the US’s funding of extremists to undermine the USSR in Afghanistan, to the events of 9/11, to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, to the wider promulgation of Al-Qaeda and insurgency, which then loops into the rise of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS), and was further exacerbated by other ad hoc decisions along the way, including Libya and Syria. 

They’re all connected and part of the same pattern of decision-making. Supporting factors, such as Western support for Israel, have contributed to all of this, too. These events are demonstrative of the destructiveness of conflicts in the Middle East, and the effects they create. 

So, will America’s strategy of walking away and trying to cut the chain of conflict in at least some Islamic lands give it the peace and space it wants to concentrate on its Chinese adversary?

Leaving Afghanistan to its fate may be a necessary and logical step for Washington to have taken, but it is also naïve for US politicians to believe they can simply dismiss the consequences and say, “It’s not our problem anymore.”

It’s true that the Taliban has never directly waged terrorism overseas, even if it did harbour Al-Qaeda. It’s a group made up of Pashtun nationalists who reject foreign control of their country. Nevertheless, we have to face the reality that Afghanistan has again become an Islamist state, and this will have repercussions. The new regime wants to be diplomatic, not least in how it reaches out to Russia and China, but its ideology will inevitably provide a platform for Islamic fundamentalism and inspire others to take a similar path

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There is a serious risk that, even if the Taliban does not advocate it directly, a new wave of radicalisation will naturally spawn from its success in Afghanistan, and that the country will become a magnet of sorts for jihadists. This spells trouble for the West. Given that, can the US and its allies turn their heads away from these consequences? 

American neo-conservatives have come out clamouring for still more war after the fall of Kabul. This is unlikely to happen, and Biden will seek to stick to his policy. But even without the likelihood of further military intervention in Afghanistan, it makes little difference, because the repercussions of the past 20 years of occupation are already in train. Abruptly ending the engagement and fleeing won’t make those go away. 

There are a number of things to consider, among them the potential radicalisation of Muslim diaspora groups in the West, Islamist uprisings in other countries via the spreading of Islamist ideology, and refugee outflows from Afghanistan. 

The crises of the past tell us that these factors will pose immense disruptive influences to the West and its domestic politics. It should not be forgotten that the impact of the Syrian civil war and the rise of IS were decisive factors in empowering right-wing populist, anti-immigration and anti-Muslim movements across the Western world. 

2016 was a damning year for this. Events such as Brexit and Trump’s election were not exclusively products of foreign-policy failures in Muslim lands, but it’s hard to deny that those two moments were a reactionary backlash to the events of that time. It was a year defined by a massive refugee crisis and sporadic terrorism brought about by radicals. Trump’s infamous proclamation of his “Muslim ban” is evidence of the mood at that time, and it sent him to triumph in the GOP primaries. 

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The West’s dilemma is this: its interventions in Muslim countries spur radicalisation through the massive political and social upheavals they cause, proliferating terrorism and insecurity, creating refugee crises, dragging politics rightwards and forcing the West into ever more conflicts. 

Afghanistan is now a case study to see if the US and its allies can truly break this vicious cycle and end the West’s self-destructive spree of interventionism, which has drained its resources and political will for much more than 20 years. 

The US’s new enemy may be China, but the drama of the past few days suggest it’s not going to be easy to cast aside the damage that’s been done with its adventures in Muslim lands. 

Peter Frankopan’s outstanding book ‘The Silk Roads’ reminds us that the nations of the Middle East and Central Asia are the drivers of world history and geopolitical tectonics. Afghanistan has clearly defined the trajectory and decisions of world powers for decades, and it is still in that driving seat.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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