The US were aware that they were abandoning Afghanistan. All the rhetoric surrounding the context of the initial peace deal makes it clear that US withdrawal would lead to a military advantage for the Taliban. While it is well and good to have an extraordinary amount of coverage emphasising the failure of the Biden administration, the Taliban deal was created 18 months ago and at no point seemed like a credible alternative to American military presence in Afghanistan.
The peace deal committed the US to a full withdrawal after 14 months if the Taliban kept to its commitments. The Taliban promised to prevent al-Qaeda operations in Taliban areas. The deal led to talks between the Afghan and Taliban government and secured the release of 5000 Taliban members for 1000 Afghans. The Taliban did not keep to their promises and conducted 4500 attacks in Afghanistan in the 45 days after the agreement. June 22, 2020 saw the ‘bloodiest week in 19 years’ in which the Taliban killed 291 members of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) in 422 attacks.
The positive reaction surrounding the peace deal with the Taliban seems like a reaction towards agreeing with the abstract concept of peace. The BBC wrote ‘when the only alternative is unending war, many Afghans seem ready to take this risk for peace’. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated ‘the importance of sustaining the nationwide reduction in violence, for the benefit of all Afghans’. UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace wrote ‘I welcome this small but important step towards the chance for Afghans to live in peace, free from terrorism… We remain absolutely committed to building an Afghanistan that is a strong partner for decades to come’. Emily Thornberry, the foreign secretary at the time, tweeted: ‘After 18 long years let’s hope this deal promises a genuinely brighter future for Afghanistan, and is not the latest example of the Taliban playing the long game and waiting for the US to leave’. An Afghani soldier Shahram gave a statement that ‘over the last seven days I did not go to war, I was not asked to go and kill people but to stay here and guard them and I am happy about it. I wish for peace, I am optimistic’. These statements suggest one of two things. Firstly, they believed the rhetoric of Trump and the Taliban – the political equivalent of trusting Jimmy Saville and Harvey Weinstein with your daughter. Secondly, that they knew the deal would not bring peace but we’re keen to abandon Afghanistan.
Analysis throughout 2020 in the FT and the Guardian demonstrates a wide scepticism of the US deal and confidence that US withdrawal would lead to a Taliban offensive. Kate Clark, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network warned that ‘some of the Taliban social media accounts are quite jubilant about this ‘win’, as they see it’ adding ‘one of the things that makes me worried is that if the Taliban leadership were serious about negotiations, you would expect them to be preparing the troops for a different stage in ‘the struggle’, and that doesn’t seem to be happening at all’. Semple, a professor at Queens University explained ‘the Taliban haven’t changed anything. They are merrily preparing for the spring offensive. As far as we can tell from talking to them in Doha and in Pakistan, they assume that regardless of whether they get their signing ceremony, they expect to go ahead with that’. A Pakistani official in the foreign ministry wrote ‘this would be a disaster. The Taliban who welcomed Trump’s remarks will then consider Afghanistan to be free to conquer and install an Islamist government’. A 25 year old Afghani computer repairman arguably offers the most accurate analysis saying ‘I support this deal and everything that brings peace, but I am sure this is not a deal for peace; the Americans have sold the government to the Taliban’. The uniformity of analysis is particularly significant because it means that for all the reactions that we’ve had in the past month, the US’s attitude towards the withdrawal of Afghanistan has been the exact same for 18 months. Media analysis predicts that the Taliban will control Afghanistan following US withdrawal and therefore, all commentators who are horrified with the scenes in Afghanistan had 18 months to try and stop this happening.
Despite the excellent work being done to enlighten the public on the failure of the current situation in Afghanistan, neither Rory Stewart nor General McMaster tweeted about the deal with the Taliban. Tom Tugenhadt, arguably the most active UK politician in holding the government to account on Afghanistan, did communicate criticism of the deal, however he only tweeted once.
The fact that experts like Stewart, Tugenhadt and McMaster did not communicate the problems that would be caused through withdrawal is representative of public neglect. The level of neglect may have worsened as a result of coronavirus, apathy towards Trump’s idiocy or political calculation of what position would have benefited Biden in the 2020 election, nonetheless, this doesn’t change the fact that the problem faced today is the realisation of predictions made 18 months ago. Holding the government to account is noble but it is 18 months too late.
The sense of neglect around the problem of Afghanistan is emphasised by the diplomacy of the Trump administration. This was a deal conceived in absence of the Afghan government, who were blackmailed into supporting it. President Trump got impeached following the threat that he would withhold military aid to Ukraine in order to coerce them into finding illicit material on Hunter Biden. The exact same method of politics was used to coerce the Afghan government into making a government and supporting the deal with the Taliban as in March 2020 Mike Pompeo and the Trump administration threatened to ‘cut $1 billion in aid to Kabul this year if President Ashraf Ghani and opposition politican Abdullah Abdullah refused to agree a power sharing deal’. The Afghan governments initial absence from dealings with Taliban, refusal to support and then the clear warnings that US withdrawal would lead to support the Taliban contribute towards the theory that the US knew they were abandoning Afghanistan and were willing to find a way out of Afghanistan.
Abdullah Abdullah, the leader of the Afghan peace negotiations, suggested the US Presidential Election was the cause for the bungled attempt at a peace deal. The Taliban viewed the deal within the context of the election asserting that ‘they hoped the president won-re-election and would ‘wind up US military presence in Afghanistan’. In 2019, in the candidates’ debate for the Democratic primary Warren, Buttigieg, Sanders, Yang and Biden can be found committing themselves towards the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The abandonment of Afghanistan has been explicit for 18 months, the greatest failure seems to have been in failing to conceptualise or communicate the geopolitical consequences of withdrawing troops and financial aid from Afghanistan. Foreign policy seems to have been conducted through the persuasive lens of preventing the loss of US lives and limiting the money spent on Iraq. The scenes of desperation are not a reflection of the Biden administration. They are the expression of a 20-year war that cost $2 trillion dollars, 150,000 lives offering no plausible ending. Though the analysis about Taliban takeover was accurate and well reported, little apart from the following quote from the FT editorial board was done to conceptualise what a Taliban rule might mean:
‘a new Taliban takeover would jeopardise the advances that have been achieved in the past 18 years: women’s rights to education and work, schooling for millions of young people, the elements of democracy that have been built. If any power-sharing arrangement can be agreed, the best foreign powers can do – including China, which is building a presence – is to offer co-ordinated investment. To stand any chance of escaping the cycle of killing of the past 40 years, Afghanistan will need all the help it can get’.
It seems that the obsession with the failure of the war and the narrative of ‘bring our troops home’ led towards the neglect of the question of what happens when the troops come home. Following the revelations of the Pegasus project that mobile phones are now vulnerable to phone hacking I have experienced a similar short sightedness in regard to media reportage over what it means to live in a world where Internet of Things devices can be easily hacked into. If third parties can access people’s mobile phones what does this mean for driverless cars and Artificial Intelligence. None of these questions were asked or written about in response to the Pegasus project and therefore we seem to have missed a vital opportunity to solve one of the most important cybersecurity questions of our time. Likewise I’ve seen the exact same thing happen with climate change where media reports fail to align climate disaster with the climate science, thus meaning that people that experience the trauma and disaster of climate change don’t associate it with global warming, meaning that the most painful evidence of climate change fails to increase support on climate politics. The exact same thing seems to have happened with the problem of Afghanistan – the correct questions weren’t asked until met with images of crises.
Journalism that effectively contextualises problems and communicate evidence helps people make better decisions that eventually lead to a better planet as a result of the effective critical thinking communicated through the media. In the event of Afghanistan the problems that we are now entertaining: the rights of women, the refugee crises, the implications of Taliban rule for India, the implications of Taliban rule on Chinese influence, the implications of Taliban rule on global terrorism, should have been entertained at the same time as the Trump peace deal 18 months ago. This would’ve led to a much more complex discussion of the withdrawal from Afghanistan which would have given a more accurate communication of the problems that will be faced in pulling out, and, even then, the US may have found that giving up Afghanistan to the Taliban was the most effective long term geopolitical solution.