14.09.2021 – 09.50 – We lost because the US did not listen to Britain and Italy in 2013. These days, opinions are spilling over about the 20-year Western presence in Afghanistan and its legitimacy. It is forgotten that the United Nations had already given the mandate for the NATO operation, known as ISAF, in December 2001, in support of the American operation Enduring Freedom, after the Taliban government refused to cooperate in dismantling the Al-Qaeda network present in the country and responsible, in particular in the person of Osama bin Laden, for the attacks in the United States on 11 September 2011.
Today, everyone wonders how it was possible to lose control of a territory that had been conquered seemingly effortlessly. However, it is impossible to understand Afghanistan without knowing its geography. The most important parameter is that, apart from the desert in the southwest, the country is very mountainous: mountains literally everywhere! The Hindu Kush mountain range means that there are many basins and valleys between the mountains, and you can usually only get out through a handful of gorges.
Given the difficulty of reaching the most inaccessible places and the presence of many ethnic groups, often in conflict with each other, it is therefore a very difficult task to build a sense of nationhood for a central state. This leads to the fact that it is much more difficult to maintain a territory than to conquer it. This point is crucial to understanding why, with so many resources, we have not been able to defeat the Taliban.
It should be noted, however, that the Afghan forces are nowhere near as unworthy as we sometimes read: During the conflict, the Afghan army and police have lost 27 times more men than U.S. forces… and, in fact, they have lost more men this year than Americans have in 20 years. The Russians once estimated that it would take a million troops to hold the country, which would equal three-quarters of the total active U.S. military. The international force reached at most 15% of that number, and not for long.
Precisely because connecting the country’s various cities and towns was critical to maintaining control and also allowed for greater troop mobility, the international coalition’s efforts focused on building roads. In particular, the coalition wanted to rebuild the ‘ring road’ that would connect all the major cities in the country. It was supposed to cost 1.5 billion but was twice as expensive and was never actually completed. Most importantly, it was not maintained and quickly fell into disrepair.
Why? Because the US war effort shifted to Iraq back in 2003, making it necessary to hire private mercenaries to protect the road builders, which costs much more than protection by regular armies.
Moreover, Afghanistan is a landlocked country, meaning it has no access to the seas and oceans: to enter and supply the country, one must enter from a neighbouring country. It is therefore appropriate to look again at the geography of the region, but this time no longer at the mountains of the country, but at its borders. For obvious reasons, we will leave out China and Iran. Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have other contraindications, but have made themselves partially available.
It was mainly Pakistan that served as a gateway for international forces. Especially via the Khyber Pass to the east, through which most international resources entered… when it was not closed due to fighting.
Which leads to another problem: Pakistan is a sovereign state, which made it difficult to find the Taliban hiding there when they were pushed across the border into Pakistani territory, which then served as a reverse base.
The Pakistani state was told to take care of the Taliban if they were on its side of the border, but that is much easier said than done. First, because the region remains mountainous.
Second, Pakistan has a troubled relationship with the Taliban, so much so that it was among the last to stop funding them in 2001. If this relationship has soured, it is because it is not obvious to Pakistan, for domestic political reasons, to simply declare the Taliban enemies and devote all its energies to eradicating them.
Why? When they cross the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, the Taliban, who are mostly Pashtuns (one of the ethnolinguistic groups in the region), move from house to house, underscoring the contradictions of the Durand Line, the non-border that the British wanted in the early 1900s.
After 2001, the Taliban were quickly defeated, for the same reasons that explain why they have quickly retaken their country in recent months: The country’s geography makes it very easy to conquer, but virtually impossible to control. And that brings us back to where we were before when George W. Bush diverted resources to Iraq instead of reconstruction after that easy victory in 2003. After him, Obama massively increased the American military presence in 2009, but after Bin Laden was killed in May 2011, the American public no longer followed with interest and the U.S. reconsidered its commitment, turning to supporting the Afghan government and ceasing active combat. International forces followed them by ending the mission known as ISAF NATO.
By 2013, the situation seemed inextricable: either invest hundreds of times more than any country was willing to do, or leave, with the risk of a relapse into chaos. Was the Taliban takeover inevitable?
Hard to say, and in any case, it is too late to hope for anything else.
NATO took note of Obama’s orientation, but at the Vilnius Defence Ministers’ summit in 2013, remarks by the Italians (I was Defence Minister) and the British about the risks of a disorderly withdrawal, especially for civilians who had hoped for a new Afghanistan, convinced the Americans to give up and try to train national troops. Thus came the transition from ISAF to Resolute Support: a NATO operation to guide the Afghan army.
However, it must be said that the end that has been looming before the eyes of the world in the last few days was fully planned (even if it was faster than the US had imagined).
Indeed, in February 2020, Donald Trump without the Afghan government and without NATO signed an agreement with the Taliban, the Doha Agreement. This agreement governs the protection of the Americans during their departure and tacitly the recapture of the country by the Taliban. The agreement frees 5,400 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the release of 1,000 Afghan soldiers and a ceasefire. The result? Not a single attack against international coalition forces, but an explosion of attacks against Afghan forces: as we have said before, the Afghan army has lost more men in the last year than the Americans have since 2001.
This arrangement explains why Westerners are now relatively safe in Kabul while the Taliban control the country: They know that if they kill an American, they risk toppling the U.S. position and even seeing the return of the cavalry. The Taliban have clearly realised that they have an interest in setting aside their principles for a short time: the moment when the West and CNN leave in a few days and the planet turns to the next news storey and forgets about Afghanistan.
This Doha agreement is an indelible stain, not only on U.S.-Afghanistan relations, but even more so on relations between Americans and their allies. Biden’s speech to the nation, in which the president ignored NATO and Europe, reaffirms and glorifies this mistake that will weigh heavily on our future. And it requires us to think quickly about a true European defence model.
Meanwhile, after long days of deliberation and haggling between factions, the announcement of the new government was accompanied by shots fired into the air in Kabul to disperse a demonstration denouncing the violent repression of the Taliban.
The Afghan government will be led by Mullah Muhammed Hasan Akhund, a government that proudly claims to be directly descended from the old Taliban. At his side is Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the founders of the Taliban movement, the man who negotiated for years with the Americans in Doha, the political head of the group, while at the side of the defence Muhammed Yaqoob, son of the famous Mullah Omar, young commander of the Taliban militias.
But to call it a government is wrong, because no one really elected it, it is the result of a coup d’état and that says a lot about the Western leadership, which is now reduced to hoping rather than calling a spade a spade. It is right to be outraged, but not to any degree. It is those who, precisely by sitting at the table with them, have been recognised as interlocutors and thus legitimised.
There is also the big issue of migration flows. While countries like Pakistan and Turkey have become arbiters in managing the flows, the inevitable consequence will be that Afghan refugees will come to the West via a route marked by new walls, like those erected on one side by Turkey and Greece and on the other by Hungary and the countries of the East.
Therefore, the solution that is now taken for granted will be that a large part of the Afghan refugees will show up at the gates of Gorizia next spring.
Obviously, the West never stops playing its big game and is already looking with fear at Chinese, Russian and Iranian ambitions on the chessboard. To go back to Afghanistan: Worse than what we see may be what we do not see.
What the future of the country will look like is impossible to say. What should Western countries do? Should they allow human rights to be trampled by the country’s new masters, or should they return to intervene, even at the risk of opening new Pandora’s Boxes? No clue from Washington. In Europe, standing lonely for now, the voice of Angela Merkel has admitted mistakes and taken responsibility.
The right warning came at the opening of Rimini Meeting from our President of the Republic: “There is an “I”, a “you” and a “we” also for Europe and for its responsibility, against all narrow-mindedness, against the mortifying delusion mixed with hypocrisy – which is also evident these days – which are the result of anti-historical and in reality self-destructive entrenchments. … This is also the reason for the need to strengthen Community sovereignty, which alone can complement national sovereignties and not make them illusory. Community sovereignty is an act of responsibility towards the citizens and towards a global world that needs Europe’s civilisation and its role in cooperation and peace. … This is made possible by the current reflection on the future of Europe. The present conference must be an opportunity for a comprehensive historical vision and not for a boring, ordinary administration of the contingent.
Building community sovereignty is the only way to become capable of action as Europeans and to stop putting the fate of the world – and our own – in the hands of others.