Who Wins in the US Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan?

Newscred Biden Afghanistan US pullout 1800
President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on April 14, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

The Biden administration has announced that all U.S. combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021. Presumably, this also applies to troops supplied by America's NATO allies. 

The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center is an odd choice for a final pullout date. 

The Trump administration also declared that all U.S. troops were going to leave Afghanistan. Declaring a pullout is not the same as actually doing one. Still, regardless of whether America meets the September deadline, it's clear that the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is in its final chapter. 

What happens to Afghanistan after the pullout and who will benefit from it?

Afghanistan After the Withdrawal

Afghanistan is another long, expensive war whose outcome is at best inconclusive and at worst a failure. That's consistent with the historical record.

Between 1839 and 2021, Afghanistan has been invaded four times: first by the British in 1838 and again in 1878, in the First and Second Anglo-Afghan wars; by the Soviet Union in 1979; and by the U.S. and its allies in 2001. 

"All four invasions," according to Arwin Rahi, "have had four things in common: first, an initial quick military victory for the invader; second, that victory turning into a stalemate; third, an eventual face-saving withdrawal; and fourth, Afghanistan's becoming an economic liability for the invader."

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, to destroy al-Qaida and its training camps. Initially, Washington asked the Taliban government to expel al-Qaida from Afghanistan and to allow the U.S. to intervene to facilitate it. The Taliban, beholden to al-Qaida for its assistance in helping them consolidate their control over Afghanistan, refused. Had the Taliban acceded to the U.S. request, the trajectory of U.S.-Afghan relations would have evolved along a very different track.

Other than their support of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, the Taliban did not pose any significant threat to the U.S. By siding with al-Qaida, the Taliban forced the U.S. to go to war against both al-Qaida and the Taliban, and ultimately to find a replacement for the deposed Taliban government. What began as a mission to destroy a terrorist organization and its training camps morphed into an exercise in nation-building. The former was a straightforward mission, the latter a near impossibility.

Some $1 trillion; 3,502 killed in action, of which 2,355 were Americans; and more than 20,000 additional U.S. casualties later, America and its allies have little to show for two decades of effort. 

The Afghan military has been rebuilt. Its effectiveness has steadily improved, but it is still rife with corruption and -- despite U.S. training -- most, though not all, of its leadership remains questionable. The major cities are in the hands of the government, though Kabul's ability to prevent terrorist attacks is haphazard. Much of the countryside is in the hands of the Taliban, though that control is often transient. 

The cities boast an emerging middle class, a phenomenon that Afghanistan hasn't seen since the 1960s, but it's debatable how long that will last when the money spigots from the West are finally turned off. Still, Afghan society is different now than it was two decades ago. The urban population has little desire to see the Taliban return to power. 

In the north, the Afghan Tajiks have carved out a separate enclave. They have their own militia and armaments, and they are backed by a Russia that is far more able to render assistance today than it could in 2001.  

The Taliban, too, is different. It has morphed into an insurgent-criminal enterprise, a common evolutionary path among insurgent organizations, which reaps billions of dollars each year from the control of the Afghan heroin trade, about 90% of the world's supply, and from other illicit activities. 

The jihadist landscape has changed also. Whereas once there was just al-Qaida and its Taliban allies, there are now scores of groups challenging it for the jihadist mantle -- some of which, like the Islamic State, spend as much time fighting other jihadist rivals as they do attacking Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces.

For that matter, al-Qaida, too, has changed. In 2001, it was dependent on Afghanistan to house it and its training camps. Since then, it has metastasized into an international franchise with scores of affiliates around the world and no shortage of places where it can set up camps. 

In fact, in the last decade, most of the al-Qaida-linked threats have come from al-Qaida affiliates outside of Afghanistan. Even if Afghanistan were to revert to its pre-2001 state, the threat posed by al-Qaida to the U.S. would not be substantially greater than it is now, although its leadership would have an easier time operating without the constant threat of a U.S. attack. 

The most likely outcome in Afghanistan is a continued stalemate with the Afghan government continuing to control, more or less, the major cities; the Tajiks in the north effectively self-governing; the Taliban holding sway in rural areas, especially in the regions that were historically Pashtun (Pashtunwali); while western Afghanistan falls under the control of various groups loosely aligned with Iran. The Taliban may eventually end up in control of Afghanistan, but probably not for a while.

Russia, Pakistan and China in Afghanistan

Russia and China have both benefited from the U.S. preoccupation with Afghanistan over the last two decades. Moreover, both Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, Russia, were able to parlay their assistance to coalition forces in logistics and intelligence-gathering to their advantage.

Moscow will be as concerned about a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan as it was about the collapse of its communist ally 40 years ago, even if a takeover is far less damaging to Russian interests than it was to Soviet interests. 

Russia will use its long-standing ties to the Tajik community in northern Afghanistan to create a buffer zone between the Taliban and Tajikistan. Although no longer a Soviet Republic, Russia still has strategic and military interests there and maintains a major air base in the country -- Dushanbe. That base is a linchpin of a broader Russian military buildup in Central Asia over the last several years. Moreover, Moscow now can better assist the Tajik-led Northern Alliance, officially the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, than it could in 2001. 

Pakistan's relations with Afghanistan revolve around the long-standing issue of the Durand Line. It marked the demarcation of the border between Afghanistan and British India. It was negotiated by Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat, and the Afghan government of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan in 1893, and subsequently reaffirmed by Anglo-Afghan treaties and agreements in 1905, 1919, 1921 and 1930. 

As a result of the treaty, Afghanistan lost the province of Balochistan, its outlet to the Arabian Sea; control of the Khyber Pass, the traditional invasion route from Afghanistan to India; and the Pashtunwali, the historic region inhabited by the Pashtun people, was divided between Afghanistan and British India.

The agreement was only a page long. Durand insisted that the English version was the official document, but there were also copies produced in Pashto and Dari. The Afghan signatories could not read English so they relied on the Dari and Pashto versions. 

Successive Afghan governments have long maintained that the English version differed significantly from the Dari and Pashto version and, most significantly, that the seceding of Balochistan was only for 100 years and not permanent. On July 26, 1948, the Afghan government declared that the Durand Line and subsequent treaties recognizing it were void because they had been imposed on Afghanistan by British coercion. Kabul has not been able to produce the Dari and Pashto versions of the agreement, and the British Foreign office has insisted it cannot find its copies.

Following the dissolution of British India, the Durand Line became the new border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The region in dispute represents around 60% of Pakistan's sovereign territory. 

Return of the territories seceded by the Durand agreement has been a touchstone of every Afghan government since 1948. Even the Taliban have declared that they do not recognize the Durand demarcation, and that the territory in question should be returned to Afghanistan. 

It's questionable if Pakistan could be a viable state, especially given its long-standing military rivalry with India, if it had to relinquish the territory covered by the Durand agreement. Hence, it has been in Pakistan's self interest to ensure that a strong Afghan government capable of regaining its ancestral lands did not emerge in Kabul. From Islamabad's perspective, the continued instability created by the ongoing fighting between the Afghan government and the Taliban is in its best interest. 

The withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from Afghanistan eliminates for Pakistan an ongoing conflict it had with the U.S. over its de facto support of the Taliban. It also eliminates the gravy train of funding the U.S. gave Pakistan for its logistical and intelligence assistance. On the other hand, neither is it in Pakistan's interest to see a Taliban takeover of the country. For now, it's likely that Pakistan, or at least elements in its military and intelligence communities, will continue to support the Taliban but at the same time try to ensure that the Taliban isn't ultimately successful in taking control of the country. 

The Durand agreement altered one other border: It created a narrow corridor separating Tajikistan from Pakistan and Kashmir. The Wakhan corridor is 210 miles long and between 8 and 39 miles wide. It's wedged in between the Pamir Mountains in the north and the Karakoram range in the south. At an elevation ranging from 10,000 to around 16,000 feet above sea level, it connects China's Xinjiang province with Afghanistan.

The rationale for creating the Wakhan corridor was to separate the encroaching Russian empire from British India. At the time, this was a wild, rugged region whose border had never been surveyed. It hasn't changed much. Historically, the region connected Badakhshan and Yarkand, and was one component of several routes that traversed Central Asia -- collectively called the Silk Road. There is still a road that traverses the region, although calling it a road is being extremely generous. The border crossing, the only one, at the South Wakhjir Pass, has been closed by the Chinese government since at least the 1970s.

China has been only tangentially involved in the Afghan military conflict. Beijing pledged several hundred million dollars in aid toward Afghan reconstruction and has signed various agreements with the Afghan government to train police and military forces, especially in anti-drug smuggling efforts. The Wakhan corridor has historically been used to smuggle Afghan opium into China. 

China's main objectives in Afghanistan are twofold. The first is to tap into Afghanistan's mineral wealth; that objective so far has been problematic. The second is to ensure that jihadist extremism does not destabilize Central Asia in general and China's Xinjiang province in particular. The first objective has yet to be realized in a meaningful way, and the second, in light of growing unrest among Xinjiang's indigenous Uighur population, is becoming more important.

The U.S. Geologic Service has estimated that Afghanistan's mineral resources are worth approximately $1 trillion and contain, among other minerals, world-class deposits of copper, iron and rare earths. In 2008, China Metallurgical Group and Jiangxi Copper, both state-owned companies, signed a 30-year, $2.9 billion lease to develop the Mes Aynak copper mine. The deposit, believed to be the world's second-largest copper ore body, also contains significant amounts of chromium and cobalt. The mine was supposed to be operational by 2013. It has been repeatedly attacked by Taliban insurgents and, as of 2021, little development work has been done. 

Chinese companies have invested in other mining ventures, as well as other sectors -- most notably by building fiber optic networks. They have committed to roughly $1.2 billion of investments, although the status of many of these investments is unknown. China's National Petroleum Company has, since 2018, been extracting oil from Afghanistan's Amu Darya basin.

China is Afghanistan's second-largest source of imports, second only to Iran, at $2.3 billion, and its third-largest export destination after Pakistan and India, although its exports are a modest $50 million or so. Chinese consumer goods are ubiquitous in Afghanistan, as they are in many parts of Central Asia. On the whole, however, the economic relationship has been insignificant so far.

Beijing has had a minor, although ongoing, role in Afghanistan's security. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Beijing supplied training and several hundred million dollars of armaments to the Afghan mujahideen. The People's Liberation Army, or PLA, also set up training camps in Xinjiang to train the Afghan fighters.

Since then, Beijing's security concerns have revolved around the activities of jihadist groups in Xinjiang, their links to other international jihadist groups, and the potential for jihadist-induced instability in Afghanistan destabilizing Central Asia and, in particular, Xinjiang.

The Chinese province of Xinjiang represents one-sixth of China's land mass. It also contains 34% of China's natural gas reserves, 40% of its coal and 30% of its oil. It's sparsely settled. Notwithstanding years of ethnic Han Chinese migration into the region, the majority of its population is made up of ethnic Uighurs. 

The Uighurs are a Turkic people drawn from the same ethnic stock as the Tajiks of neighboring Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan. Outside of their common Sunni religion, they have little in common with the predominantly Pashtun population of Afghanistan.

There has been a low-level insurgency in Xinjiang for at least the last three decades. The Chinese government has identified four different jihadist groups operating in Xinjiang: East Turkistan Islamic Movement, or ETIM; East Turkistan Liberation Organization, or ETLO; United Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan, or URFET; and the Uyghur Liberation Organization, or ULO. The PLA believes that members of these groups have received training or operated camps in either Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The composition of these groups is very fluid. They are also prone to changing their names, so it is not always clear whether a new group is genuinely new, a splinter group of an existing group or just an old group changing its name. The groups have not articulated a common position between them beyond a general call to end the Sinification of Xinjiang, which they refer to as East Turkmenistan, and for China to leave the region. It's also unclear to what extent they collaborate with one another. There have been dozens of attacks within Xinjiang and several elsewhere in China, including Beijing's Tiananmen Square and Kunming. 

What is particularly worrisome to Beijing are the growing international links between the Uighur jihadist groups and the international jihadist movement. Both Ayman al-Zawahiri, the functional head of al-Qaida, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former head of Islamic State, have voiced their support for the Uighur jihadist groups and their aim to expel China from Xinjiang. There are also long-standing ties between jihadist groups in Xinjiang and Tajikistan. 

The Chinese government believes that al-Qaida has provided training and armaments to ETIM. A contingent of Uighur jihadists did deploy to Syria during the civil war. It's not clear if they are still there. 

Beijing has responded to the unrest in Xinjiang with a crackdown on the Uighur population, banning public meetings and demonstrations, conducting mass arrest of separatist sympathizers and interning more than a million Uighurs in what it describes as re-education camps. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have condemned Chinese actions as genocidal. 

Beyond the Taliban, it's hard to see anyone benefiting from the withdrawal of American and coalition troops from Afghanistan. For Pakistan, it removes what has been a sore spot in its bilateral relations with the U.S. On the other hand, it creates a potentially bigger problem for Islamabad if a strong government eventually emerges in Kabul, regardless of its ideological stripe. Moreover, less dependency on Pakistan's assistance for logistics and intelligence will make it easier for Washington to continue its tilt, at Pakistan's expense, toward New Delhi.

In the short term, neither Russia or China will be much affected by the U.S. withdrawal. In the long term, they may have to deal with new jihadist threats emerging from Afghanistan. That gives both countries ample reason to support the present Afghan government. While that support will stop well short of deploying troops, it will likely manifest itself as a step up in military aid and/or training for the Afghan military. 

With the American withdrawal, another chapter in Afghanistan's long and tumultuous military history is ending. The next one is about to begin.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

Story Continues