EER was joined by Oved Lobel, a policy analyst at the Australia Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), to discuss the aftermath of the jihadist takeover of Afghanistan. In the lead-up to that disaster, Lobel wrote a report for EER, “The Graveyard of Empires: The Causes and Consequences of American Withdrawal from Afghanistan”, tracing the historical context of the Afghan war; the roles of neighbouring states like Pakistan and Iran; and the decision-processes of the United States and its NATO allies.
Lobel starts with Pakistan, which has a long-standing role in using Islamists to try to overthrow the Afghan government and create a proxy regime. The important point is that this began long before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, often posited as the event that triggered Pakistan’s creation of an Islamist coalition for intervention in Afghanistan. In reality, Lobel explains, the Mujahideen groups that were used in the anti-Soviet jihad were only the latest iteration of a conglomerate Pakistan had created out of the Subcontinent’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Iran has also played a key role in Afghanistan, working through its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), in part alongside Pakistan and at times in some level of competition with the Pakistanis. Even before the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Russia’s role in Afghanistan has been tied to Iran’s, Lobel notes.
Throughout the 1990s, Iran and Russia were the main patrons of the anti-Taliban coalition, the Northern Alliance—albeit while keeping channels open to the Taliban—and the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 had the ironic consequence of installing the Iran- and Russia-sponsored coalition, despite the U.S.’s rivalry with the theocratic regime in Iran and increasingly-poor relations with Russia.
The Islamic State’s Khorasan province (ISKP) has made steady advances in Afghanistan over the last five years. ISKP, wholly controlled from the centre in Syria and Iraq, as Lobel emphasises, has been able to peel away jihadists from Al-Qaeda and other Pakistani proxy groups, significantly through its ideological appeal, and has been able to recruit a base of support beyond these established groups, including with middle-class Afghans in the cities. In the months since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in August, ISKP has escalated its operations in the country, enabled by the Taliban breaking open the prisons, Lobel points out.
A strange debate has taken place about whether the Taliban will break with Al-Qaeda. Lobel rejects this premise, noting that “functionally, these are not separate groups”.
China has played a substantial role in enabling what has happened in Afghanistan because it is the primary supporter of Pakistan. Indeed, as Lobel outlines, Pakistan is in an economic sense—and some others—a dependency of the Chinese Communist regime. One of the defences of the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan has been that this enables a pivot from “counter-terrorism” to “great power competition”. Lobel says this is “nonsensical”: Afghanistan was “lost to China and it is not freeing up any resources”—there were only a few thousand troops in the country, and the cost was not prohibitive. The transfer of these men and money to the Pacific is not going to make a difference to the U.S. posture in that theatre, while these were making a difference in Afghanistan by preventing China (and Russia, another “great power” rival) fulfilling a long-term desire of their grand strategy by pushing the U.S. out of Central Asia.
The argument that proposes an antagonism between the “small war” in Afghanistan and “great power competition” with China is thus conceptually flawed, Lobel explains. The contest is for influence across the world: surrendering influence in one country—particularly one that allowed a U.S. military presence on the Chines border—does not help. Moreover, in the U.S.-China competition, “India is the crux” in South-East Asia and the U.S. has now enabled India’s enemies to surround India on three sides—with Pakistan’s occupation of Afghanistan, giving it the strategic depth to restart the Kashmir war; China is attacking India directly from the north; and to India’s east the Chinese are supporting anti-India forces in Burma.
“Turkey’s role in Afghanistan has never been substantial”, though it has contacts with everyone” and does not particularly mind who runs Afghanistan, Lobel says. During the endgame in Afghanistan, there was discussion of Turkey taking over the running of Kabul Airport; that did not happen and there has been little development on this issue since then. That said, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is “extremely erratic”, Lobel goes on, so it is difficult to predict what course he will now take. At this moment, Turkey is consumed with its domestic economic problems, but it is possible Ankara will make a play for greater involvement in Afghanistan at some future point.
Lobel argues that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was undertaken on an ideological basis, rather than on the basis of any security considerations. The U.S. presence was sustainable, relatively low-cost, and yielded significant strategic and security benefits. “So, there was never any reason to be discussing withdrawal, except for this ideology that is essentially expressed as ‘ending endless wars’ or ending ‘forever wars’,” says Lobel. “In real life, you fight a war until you win—or lose. … Wars take as long as they take.” The effects of abandoning this have already begun to manifest in a spate of terrorist attacks in Britain and elsewhere.
Lobel concludes that there is very little that can be done now in Afghanistan. A primary policy change, he recommends, is to treat Pakistan as a hostile entity, sanctioning it for its sponsorship of terrorism and aggression against its neighbour.