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What is the future of Afghanistan?

ASU panel discusses policy failure and a future under Taliban rule

US C-17 Packed With 640 Afghans
August 19, 2021

When President Joe Biden pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan this month, the Taliban launched a lightning blitz across the country and reclaimed it in days — the latest in a country called the "graveyard of empires" for its history of thwarted attempts to control it.

To examine these events, Arizona State University’s Center on the Future of War co-sponsored a panel discussion on Aug. 19 with Washington, D.C.-based think tank New America on the future of Afghanistan.

Roya Rahmani, a nonresident senior fellow at New America and, until July, an Afghan ambassador to the United States, described her reaction to last weekend’s events.

“Devastated … very worried, and angry,” Rahmani said. “I am angry because of how all this has been handled.”

She called the chaos of the withdrawl, the government’s rapid collapse and the desertion of Afghans who helped allies being left behind “a failure of international diplomacy. All our sacrifices and investments of 20 years have been disregarded in the way things are evolving. … It is going pretty badly and pretty slow.”

Moderator Peter Bergen, an ASU professor of practice and vice president of global studies and fellows at New America, asked Rahmani her reaction to Biden’s statement that “there was always going to be chaos” during an American withdrawal.

“I agree with him: It wouldn’t have been any different in six months,” she said. “But right now it is millions of Afghan people who have been thrown into this uncertain future dominated by fear.”

No intelligence indicated the collapse would happen in 11 days.

She said she didn’t receive intelligence briefings, but her past experience told her “it was totally not a surprise.”

The way the provinces collapsed with no resistance over the past few weeks? “It was very clear. There was no surprise about how fast it happened,” she said.

Rahmani was born a year before the Soviet invasion in 1979. “I have seen the country collapse many times,” she said. “I am looking for a miracle and magic that would turn this thing around.”

She blamed a failure of policy which threatens regional stability.

“But for Afghans it means they lose lives,” she said. “It has been going for 40 years.”

Candace Rondeaux, an ASU professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies, a senior fellow with the Center on the Future of War and former strategic adviser to the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, lived in Afghanistan for five years.

“This was a predictable outcome as early as 2011 when Obama announced the beginning of the drawdown,” Rondeaux said. She suggested negotiations should have been led by a third party, like the United Nations.

Bergen asked if she thought the Taliban were as reformed as they claim to be.

“In terms of the Taliban, we already see the evidence of shooting into crowds in Jalalabad,” she said. “Clearly their rhetoric does not match their actions. … That’s nothing new. We’ve seen that for years with the Taliban. It speaks volumes to the discipline in their ranks.”

Rondeaux described the chaos at the Kabul airport as “an unmitigated disaster — a stain on the history of this country we will never live down.” No presidential administration planned for this, she said.

The future of Afghanistan looks like more of this, but worse, she said.

“I predict that we will start seeing all kinds of resistance," she said. "Some of it will be peaceful. Some of it will be quite violent, and you know the regional partners and players — China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, India — all of them are going to pay a price for their inability to come to the table and press all the combatants and all the members who are part of the hostilities in Afghanistan for a negotiated settlement to the end to this conflict.”

The situation for women in Afghanistan will be bleak under the fundamentalist Taliban, she added.

“I was hearing today from the news that they are appointing a lot of religious experts to run cities,” Rahmani said. “This is by itself questionable.”

Under Sharia law, female doctors are allowed to treat female patients. Rahmani doesn’t see that changing.

Bergen asked about whether there will be a tolerant pose toward the Afghan press under Taliban rule.

“What is the tolerant pose?” Rondeaux said. “They’ve been targeting journalists and killing them. I don’t see any tolerant pose.”

And any independent reporting won’t last, Rahmani said.

“The way they are conducting themselves, the whole thing is that they really use fear as a instrument of control,” she said. “I’m sure that people will not be reporting necessarily independently for long.”

Bergen asked about the collapse of the Afghan Army.

It “collapsed due to lack of leadership from Kabul,” Rahmani said. “They failed to support the military. They failed to lead them.”

Rondeaux said rampant corruption and mismanagement plagued the Afghan Army.

Recent commentary has also questioned China’s future in the country, and whether the Taliban victory will affect that nation’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure development strategy adopted in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organizations.

Rondeaux said Belt and Road projects in southern Pakistan are already plagued with security problems. There’s no chance China will attempt anything in Afghanistan. She said the same thing for any chance China will attempt to mine the minerals and rare earth the country is rich in.

“I think anybody who sort of has this idea that China will come in now or in the next five years and take over the rest of Afghanistan is still living in a fantasy land,” she said.

The Center for the Future of War is a partnership between ASU and New America that explores the changing character of conflict and emerging global security challenges.

Top image: A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III safely evacuated some 640 Afghans from Kabul late Aug. 15. Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force via Defense One

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