The Fall of Kabul: Lessons Learned?

On Wednesday, November 17, Global Bridges held a video conference titled “The Fall of Kabul: Lessons Learned?”

The panellists were Ambassador Andreas von Brandt, the European Union’s Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and Professor Dr. Neamat Nojumi, who is a professor at George Mason University. The video conference was moderated by Dr. Angela Stanzel, who works as a researcher at the Asia Division of the German “Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik” (SWP) in Berlin.

Afghanistan was held to be a difficult environment for Western capitals to operate in due to strong differences in culture, political and social environments as well as the inherent contradictions and complexities that exist in the region. As such, the withdrawal of Western troops from the country that eventually took place in mid-2021 had been in the making for at least a decade and considered long overdue by the panel. In the light of the repeated prolongation of the military mission, its objectives kept shifting and evolving; with much of the available resources being diverted towards the development of ever new exit strategies. Given that the withdrawal dates were dictated by US politics rather than being negotiated with the EU or NATO, there was also a lack of coordination on part of the remaining Western allies. It was suggested that a certain sense of reliance on the US may have further undermined the strategic autonomy of NATO countries and added to their unreadiness for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

To the panel, such occasional unpreparedness came as a surprise. As a matter of fact, the EU had evacuated their core staff in the months leading up to August 15, 2021. Even though many observers were stunned by the speed by which the Afghan state collapsed, a continuation of the Republic was never seen as likely. The scenes at Kabul airport as well as the humanitarian situation that followed were regarded as worrisome, if not even dramatic. In recent months, there has been a spike in hunger; with 23 million people now being at risk of starvation. The panel regarded a deterioration of the situation as imminent and estimated that up to 7 million Afghans may seek refuge abroad. Against this background, the need to open humanitarian corridors from different directions was stressed. The EU was considered to be in a favourable position to provide such aid, having extensive experience with operations in Taliban controlled areas.

With regards to the months leading up to the withdrawal of Western forces, one important issue that significantly contributed to the collapse of the Afghan Republic was said to be the US peace deal with the Taliban. Not only was the peace process itself started too late and done half-heartedly, but due to the exclusion of various US Federal institutions, including Congress, the terms of negotiation were little known in Washington. Against the background of the upcoming US election, the negotiations were described as hasty. Having taken place under immense time pressure, they were calendar- rather than results-driven, and culminated in what might be called a policy failure.

On the Afghan side, the lack of transparency and communication that characterised the peace process created a crisis of legitimacy for the government of Ashraf Ghani. The final terms of the peace deal – in particular the power-sharing agreement between the democratically elected Ghani government and the Taliban as well as the nullification of the secular constitution of 2004 – exacerbated this crisis. The Afghan national security forces were further demoralised by the fact that the peace process bypassed much of the country’s leadership, including the parliament.

From an international law perspective, the peace deal may have violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Afghan Republic. As a matter of fact, in sharp contrast to the spirit of the UN Security Council Resolution providing NATO with a mandate to support the Afghan government at the invitation of the latter, the US unilaterally signed a peace deal with an adversary of the Afghan government. Therefore, the resulting peace deal was characterised as a treaty to the detriment of a third party, namely the government of the Republic.

When it came to lessons learned, there was a great convergence among the panellists on the need for future interventions to be more modest and realistic in terms of their aims and objectives. Throughout two decades, effective priority-setting was hindered by the presence of a multitude of stakeholders, each having rather overly ambitious goals. However, it was emphasised that multilateral efforts and international engagement in crisis prevention/management must nonetheless continue – if not in Afghanistan, then in other trouble spots around the world, such as Mali.

Moreover, the panel stressed that future interventions must devote more space to the political sphere as missions tend to become militarised over time, thereby diverting funds away from humanitarian aspects and towards military objectives. In Afghanistan, political party development was all but neglected in favour of cooperating either with Jihadi leaders or with what might be called an illusion of civil society. Also with regards to troop deploying countries, the panel called for greater public debate and citizen participation, for instance, in national parliaments, international organisations as well as within civil society and the wider public.

Furthermore, increased robustness and scrutiny was demanded with regards to how money from donations is spent. The panel called attention to the paradox that, even though foreign donations amounted to 75 per cent of the Afghan government’s budget, it was largely autonomous in its public spending decisions in spite of rampant corruption. The Taliban was said to have profited from this mismanagement both politically and morally. The suggestion was made that, in the future, humanitarian aid may be distributed regionally to the local population, thereby increasing the latter’s participation, transparency, and effectiveness. Mosques could play an important role in this regard, serving as civil society centres in charge of distributing the aid.

Lastly, the panel stressed the importance of regional cooperation for any mission’s success. In order to find common solutions, other regional stakeholders must be involved, including Iran and Pakistan. The latter, and especially its intelligence agency ISI, was considered to yield significant influence in Afghanistan since at least the 1990s when it supplied the Mujahideen with funds and weapons. Iran, on the other hand, has received hundreds of thousands Afghan refugees in recent months, leading to internal tensions and conflicts. While the US may lack natural allies in the region, the EU was considered a suitable broker, having experience with regional diplomacy and ‘soft’ approaches. The panel called for the EU and the US to develop a joint approach with China and Russia towards formalising a crisis management platform to support regional dealmaking.

The withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan marked a historical turning point, the consequences of which remain to be seen in terms of regional stability and hegemony. In spite of their rhetorical rejection of Western military presence in Afghanistan, China and Russia were said to have benefited from it, as they were able to expand their security domination in the region. Instability in Afghanistan was described as a major threat not only to the country’s immediate neighbours, including China, but also to the West. As such, the future of Afghanistan was said to forever be coined as a responsibility for the US and NATO. Yet, contrary to what has been proclaimed, it was emphasised that the Fall of Kabul does not reflect the end of the West, NATO or the EU.

Missing the statecraft necessary, it was stressed that the Taliban could not yet be regarded as a regime. Formal recognition was seen as unlikely to take place any time soon because it would put the moral standing of Western countries in question. Due to the absence of the state, decentralisation was a necessary, yet difficult, political reform.