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IFANS Focus Afghanistan’s Internal and External Dynamics after the Taliban Takeover IN Namsik Upload Date 2021-10-13 Hits 138
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Ⅰ. Background of the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan
Ⅱ. Prospects of the Taliban’s Future Behavior: Pessimism Holding a Narrow Lead over Optimism
Ⅲ. The United States and China on Afghanistan: Positions and Dynamics
Ⅳ. Implications for International Politics 

Ⅰ. Background of the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

The joint operations by the U.S., NATO, and Afghan security forces carried out for two decades failed to annihilate the Taliban forces despite the $2.26 trillion spent and deaths of 2, 442 American soldiers. As a result, the Biden administration decided to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan because the cost of the pointless war in dollars and lives is astronomical. Meanwhile, the Taliban in Afghanistan gathered forces and seized power with the northern border region and southern Kandahar as their strong points for 20 years using guerrilla warfare techniques.

At the U.S.-Taliban peace talks held in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020, the two sides agreed to withdraw U.S. troops on the premise of (1) severing ties with violent extremist terrorist forces such as Al-Qaeda and IS, and (2) making efforts to form an inclusive government through cooperation among existing factions. However, with the announcement of the Biden government’s roadmap for the completion of the withdrawal of troops before August 31, 2021, the sudden withdrawal of the Bagram Airbase on July 2 wreaked havoc in the country. Moreover, as the Taliban advanced to Kabul at an unexpected speed, President Gani fled to the UAE after stepping down from office, and a terrorist attack occurred amid paralysis of Kabul International Airport due to chaos in the introduction operation.

1. Unchanged Objective of War

In the early stage of the Afghanistan war, the primary goals of the U.S.-led forces were to destroy Al-Qaeda’s footholds and remove key figures in terrorist organizations. As the war went on, the allied forces re-set their strategy and aligned resources and efforts into “state-building.” However, such efforts faltered. 

2. A Lack of Understanding of Afghanistan’s Local Context

A superficial understanding of Afghanistan’s diverse ethnicities, complex tribal networks, and resistance to foreign powers led to a misled conclusion that it would be easy to establish a secular, liberal democracy in Afghanistan. 

3. Burden of Tactical Errors 

 It is a widely held view that the allied forces failed to develop effective combative strategies for indigenous Taliban fighters who are familiar with Afghanistan’s terrain and built human networks. Moreover, operational failures continued as the Taliban base in southern Afghanistan was maintained due to a failure to block links with northern Pakistan, where the Pashtun are densely populated, which served as a source of military supplies and weapons in Afghanistan. In case of emergency, the Taliban in Afghanistan, including the Haqqani Network, repeatedly maintained the battle line and re-entered Afghanistan with the support of the Quetta Shura organization.

4. Incompetence and Widespread Corruption of the Afghan Government

Afghanistan’s pro-U.S. government proved itself corrupt, widely reviled, and in steady retreat despite the resources and dollars from the U.S. and the international community. Moreover, the U.S. failed to prevent the spread of local warlords while simultaneously supporting the Kabul government. Furthermore, the contradictory double structure, such as central government incompetence and exploitation of local warlords, intensified public sentiment.

Ⅱ. Prospects of the Taliban’s Future Behavior: Pessimism Holding a Narrow Lead over Optimism

Political forecasters are sharply divided over whether the Taliban 2.0 will be able to cooperate with the international community while staying committed to the agreement with the U.S., or the Taliban 2.0 will be exactly like the Taliban 1.0 characterized by atrocities. 

1. Optimism: A View that Focuses on Change (Expectation for Change from the Taliban’s 1996-2001 Ruling Period)

Although it is difficult to predict the essential and ideological changes of the Taliban, optimistic observers anticipate the Taliban 2.0 to be different from the Taliban 1.0., focusing on the Taliban’s strategic need to change behavior to stay in power. 
[Personnel] The Taliban would recognize that technocrats and professional personnel are essential in steering state affairs, so there is a possibility that existing government officials will be reappointed, which means that the Taliban’s rule may not affect the lower part of the government.
[Financing] The U.S. Federal Reserve Bank froze $9 billion in Afghan assets, and the World Bank and IMF suspended aid to Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover of Kabul, so the financial crisis will likely be the biggest challenge in the early days of the Taliban regime. 
[Diplomacy] The Taliban could have reflected on its past when they were ousted from power by the U.S.-led forces, interacting with various players in the international community while in exile.
[Society] There is also an argument that the Taliban is conscious that the Afghan people could resist the Taliban’s medieval rule because of the Internet and social media infrastructure established and expanded under a secular, democratic government.
[Experience] Some eye on the Taliban’s willingness to establish a sustainable governance system based on the reflection on the cause of the regime’s collapse 20 years ago, with the expectation that the Taliban will likely sever ties with terrorist organizations and refrain from causing uncertainties in the region.

2. Pessimism: The Only Thing the Taliban Have Learned is How to Disguise

 Given the essential nature of the Taliban, which is the fundamentalist political movement that criticized the confusion for acquiring power during the civil war after the Soviet Union’s ouster, the possibility of change in ideology and value is low, and the prevailing view is that the Taliban 2.0 will ultimately follow the Taliban 1.0’s suit.
[Personnel] The Taliban leadership recognizes, understands the usefulness of showing off the willingness to change, and is sending out its message to the international community. However, many in the Taliban are known to be highly hostile to foreign powers and are expressing antipathy to democracy.
[Generation] It is observed that the Taliban fighters in their 20s and 30s tend to be more radical than the middle-aged Taliban fighters compared to their secular peers. 
[Organization] The Taliban’s organizational characteristics are marked by its loose, autonomous command system, not by a strict, top-down one. However, it is currently operating under the three-way system - Kabul, Doha, and Quetta, and the possibility of separation from the central leadership’s decision and judgment is a problem.
[Finance] The Taliban pledges to seek alternatives in anticipation of support from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan if the U.S. and the international community block aid and cut financing and freeze Afghanistan’s assets held abroad. However, in reality, it is a tricky issue.
[Ideology] There is a view that underestimates the credibility of the Taliban leadership’s friendly remarks because there is no Sharia basis to assess ideological change in the absence of “fatwa,” a formal interpretation on the point of Islamic law, regarding the formation of an inclusive and pluralistic government.
[Terrorism] The Taliban’s ruling ideology communicates with some violent extremist forces, and it is difficult to rule out that some Taliban branches will unite with extremism such as IS-K cannot be ruled out.

3. Prospects for Domestic Politics in Afghanistan

For now, the international community will implement Afghanistan policies focusing on encouraging the Taliban to cooperate with the international community, by mobilizing all possible means like conciliation and pressure. Efforts will be made to encourage the Taliban to seek somewhere between the so-called Taliban 2.0 and its earlier version Taliban 1.0., but as close as possible to 2.0 (optimistic change). However, the Taliban’s patterns of ruling the country are also likely to be affected by changes in the situation, as pessimistic and optimistic perspectives on the future of Afghanistan are competing to gain currency amid confusion stoked by a series of incidents like the recent terrorist attack at the Kabul airport. 
In the early days of the Taliban rule, the organization is highly likely to pursue a policy of appeasement for a while according to the guidelines shared by its central leadership, but the Taliban might return to its old behavior of resorting to arbitrary decisions depending on the situation. The key is how well the international community, including the U.S., uses tactics involving conciliation and pressure to ensure that the Taliban governance remains sustainable in the future. And much attention has been brought to the Taliban approach toward the Islamic State since whether or not the Taliban chooses to sever ties with terrorist groups like IS-K will determine the future course of Taliban rule. 
The international community is paying close attention to the combat power and unity of the recently formed National Resistance Front, a reincarnation of the Northern Alliance rebel group, as it is a variable that could induce political change. If their armed struggle begins in earnest, terrorist attacks and refugee crises could quickly spread across Afghanistan, blocking the international community’s intervention. 

Ⅲ. The United States and China on Afghanistan: Positions and Dynamics

1. America Relieved of Burden Set to Make a Strategic Choice

Realists such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt criticized the Bush administration’s democracy-spreading project as a great delusion that had disastrous consequences. 
Part of the reason for the Afghan withdrawal was to end the all-consuming war and facilitate the reallocation of manpower, resources, and strategic assets toward America’s most urgent priority - keeping China in check. 

The primary goal of the Biden administration is to pressure and appease the Taliban and ensure its soft landing to establish a stable ruling structure in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal from its soil. But as Afghanistan is a highly volatile region, it appears that the Biden administration withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan based on the belief that even if Afghanistan spirals into a civil war, this potential worst-case scenario would not threaten the U.S. mainland. The Biden administration tried to move quickly to address the situation in Afghanistan with troop withdrawal and salvage the tatters of the nuclear deal with Iran, as part of efforts to shift the focus and resources towards other areas linked to vital national interests. 
If the Biden administration shifts to offshore intervention in Afghanistan after completing necessary follow-up measures, the administration will be able to bolster its Indo-Pacific strategy and rally allies to check China. But if threats of terrorism loom large in Afghanistan and a sign of global terrorism rears its ugly head, history may repeat itself and bring us back to 2001. 

2. Opportunity-seeking China Maintains an Ambivalent Stance

The U.S. exit from Afghanistan has raised the possibility of China assuming a bigger role in Afghanistan. On the surface, China is welcoming the U.S. withdrawal. But the country is closely monitoring the political landscape surrounding Afghanistan as the political climate in the region remains highly volatile and unpredictable. Afghanistan’s political unrest or signs of civil war directly affect Chinese national security as the Xinjiang region shares a border with Afghanistan. China is likely to watch the situation in Afghanistan anxiously as the U.S. pulls out after experiencing a heavy security burden for 20 years. Beijing, wary about the disarray and uncertainty Afghanistan will likely face after America’s departure, is expected to avoid any potential risk associated with the country by any means possible. 
In reality, China has no willingness to present itself as an alternative force in Afghanistan. Beijing, therefore, will try to prevent the risk factors exhibited by Afghanistan from affecting China’s affairs. It is likely to play a limited role, like staving off the international community’s intervention in Afghanistan while maintaining a certain degree of economic cooperation.

Ⅳ. Implications for International Politics  

1. Liberal International Order Shows Signs of Fading

Even after fighting their 20-year-long war in Afghanistan with overwhelming hard power, the U.S. and the West’s nation-building efforts failed, and they eventually withdrew after negotiating with the Taliban. Accordingly, it is viewed that the idealist approach – promoting peace through liberal international order by transferring democratic ideals abroad – upheld by many scholars has lost currency. 
The U.S. is likely to pursue a foreign policy strategy focused more on feasibility (can we) rather than an intervention with justifiable cause (should we) in the coming years, and this approach has already been reflected in American foreign policy since the Obama administration. 

2. Intensifying U.S.-China Competition and Realist Ideas Gaining Ground

The United States is expected to focus on checking China by identifying resources and manpower wasted in the process of establishing a liberal international order, reorganizing its forces worldwide, and resetting priorities. As a realistic approach begins to prevail, America’s way of cooperating with its allies is also expected to change. Washington is likely to seek a more sophisticated, finely crafted way of cooperation with allies to check and rein in countries that aspire to change the status quo, namely China and Russia. 

3. Skepticism over Spreading Democracy as an Effective Means to Achieve Political Development 

A series of projects to democratize countries in the Middle East and Southwest Asia failed, as demonstrated by the crisis in Afghanistan and the failed Arab Spring which occurred 10 years ago. Amid political turbulence, civil wars and frequent conflicts plagued the region. These discouraging developments have led the U.S. and the international community to be skeptical of the idea that transferring democracy is the immediate task and an effective way to promote political development. 
Even if the Taliban declares the creation of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” abolishes the existing electoral system as well as the representative elements in the government, the international community is unlikely to raise an issue about the Taliban’s return to a society guided by the belief that religion and politics are inseparable. 

4. A New Chapter Looming in Global Terrorism

Combined with the impact it has had on global politics, the return of the Taliban might appear as a symbol of victory for those with extremist Islamic ideas. If the Taliban ramps up its propaganda claiming that it has expelled the United States - the world’s superpower – from Islamic territory after the 20-year long war of attrition, Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban could become a region admired by potential terrorists. Should violent extremist groups gain traction, the U.S. and the international community could get into a situation where they have to prepare for and wage another level of war on terrorism.   

5. Possibility of Multilateral Security Cooperation

Afghanistan is a country plagued by a comprehensive mix of factors that threaten  human security. If efforts at stabilizing the country fail and the unrest spills over into the region and beyond, neighboring states will become warier about and deeply concerned about the future of the region. Ironically, the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan may pave the way for multilateral security cooperation, including the UN Security Council, which has not worked well in the region so far.
If the withdrawal of the United States and NATO from Afghanistan backfires even further, the consequences will be felt across China, Central Asia, Russia, Iran, India, and Pakistan. Given that most of these countries are nuclear states, low-intensity conflicts, if they ever occur, could morph into an extremely perilous situation. Therefore, countries around the world should regard and approach the crisis in Afghanistan as a matter of global security.

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