Out of Afghanistan: A Realist View

Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Air University Press --

Leaving Afghanistan
A Marine with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) walks with the children during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 24. U.S. service members are assisting the Department of State with an orderly drawdown of designated personnel in Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Samuel Ruiz).
Photo By: Sgt. Samuel Ruiz, USMC
VIRIN: 210824-M-GQ845-1049

Most of those decrying the fall of Afghanistan tend to do so in terms of the logic of liberal internationalism. According to this logic, the end of the Cold War created a new international order defined by unipolarity (with the United States as the sole superpower) and the near universalization of an essentially liberal set of norms, rules, and institutions that it was believed would deliver perpetual peace, general prosperity, and universal democracy. With the advent of the “unipolar moment,” however, new threats also appeared. In place of the existential menace of armed Soviet hegemonism, “rogue states,” “global terrorism,” and “state failure” came to dominate the geopolitical imagination of the American foreign policy establishment. In response, the Cold War grand strategy of containment gave way to a post–Cold War grand strategy of “primacy,” the upshot of which was that unrivaled US hard- and soft-power resources should be used to uphold, police and defend the freshly minted “liberal international order” (LIO).1 As with containment before it, primacy became the fundamental logic that guided US leaders seeking security in a complex and insecure world. It was intellectual architecture that gave form and structure to American foreign and defense policy. It was the way Washington understood threats and framed responses to those threats.

Viewed against this backdrop, the two-decade-long US mission to Afghanistan made eminent strategic sense—at least as an aspiration. The forces of armed illiberalism, in the form of al-Qaeda, had attacked not just the United States but also two of the principal icons of the LIO: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Moreover, the organization had done so from beyond the pale of the liberal world—from the illiberal, and therefore dangerously retrograde, country of Afghanistan, then ruled by the equally retrograde and dangerous Taliban. From the perspective of liberal internationalism and its associated grand strategy of primacy, a US invasion to eradicate al-Qaeda and its Taliban patrons, followed by a campaign to incorporate Afghanistan into the community of liberal (read civilized) nations, made perfect sense. Indeed, viewed through the lens of the grand strategy of primacy, there could be no other rational course of action.

Fast forward to today. Now, when viewed from the perspective of primacy and liberal internationalism, the now-inevitable victory of the Taliban looks like a catastrophe. For not only does it augur the retrocession of Afghanistan to a place beyond the frontiers of the liberal international order but also signals a traumatic failure of the United States to uphold, police, and defend the LIO—now increasingly rebranded as the “rules-based order”—itself. For it raised the question: if the US could fail so spectacularly to implant and defend a liberal order in Afghanistan, how could Washington be expected to sustain the international liberal order from threats posed by far more serious illiberal actors like the People’s Republic of China?

However, there is another way to look at the Taliban victory. If one puts to one side the frame of liberal internationalism (which, after all, was an artifact of the post–Cold War unipolar moment) and adopts instead that of “great-power competition,” or GPC (which more accurately reflects the current geopolitical environment), concerns about the loss of Afghanistan to the forces of illiberalism quickly fade. And, as those concerns fade, a new picture comes into focus—one in which America’s great-power competitors, Russia and China, are forced to deal with a rapidly deteriorating situation in a region that both consider of vital importance to their security and broader geopolitical interests.

However, what, specifically, does this new strategic picture look like? How should we think about the fall of Afghanistan in the context of post-unipolar moment world—a world in which great powers like the United States, China, and Russia vie with each other for power and influence?

First, consider the likely GPC consequences of the collapse of the Afghan national government for Russia. When a Taliban emirate is established in Afghanistan, and the new regime—like so many newly victorious revolutionary regimes—seeks to export its revolution, this will necessarily have a destabilizing effect on neighboring Central Asian states. Tajikistan is already experiencing the tremors that might well augur a regional geopolitical earthquake and has been forced to call on Russia and other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)2—a post-Soviet, Russian-dominated military alliance—to provide assistance in dealing with security challenges emerging from neighboring Afghanistan. Should this tremor in fact presage more general unrest in the Central Asia, Russia will be required to devote more—perhaps considerably more—military resources to the region. For should any of the CSTO member states fall to Taliban-aligned movements emboldened by the fall of the Afghan national government and the “defeat” of the United States, Russia’s status as regional security-guarantor and hegemon will be cast into considerable doubt. Simply put, if Kabul falls, Russia will be drawn ever more deeply into an increasingly unstable Central Asia. And while the likelihood of it being drawn once again into the graveyard of empires is remote, that of being drawn into the immediate environs of that graveyard is considerable.

Next consider the consequences of a Taliban victory for China. The fall of Afghanistan is likely to work to Beijing’s geopolitical disadvantage in two ways. First, it has at least the potential of exacerbating the security situation in China’s restive province of Xinjiang. The Taliban has supported the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM),3 a group that seeks the independence of East Turkestan as a homeland for the Uyghur people and is alleged to have provided training to Chinese Uyghurs jihadists. China was cooperating with the Afghan national government to suppress these groups. With the demise of that government, China may well be forced to take more direct steps to deal with Uyghur nationalist and jihadist groups in Afghanistan. Second, the fall of Afghanistan is likely to undermine Beijing’s bid to “move to center stage” of the international order. As the regional security situation worsens, China will be forced to devote more energy and resources to stabilizing a part of the world that is at the very heart of its global Belt and Road Initiative. This will necessarily distract China from other regions (most notably the Western Pacific). In the worst-case scenario, from Beijing’s perspective at least, all this will induce China to intervene militarily to impose some sort of order favorable to its interests. Should this happen, one more headstone would likely be added to the graveyard of empires—an outcome not likely to be unwelcome from the perspective of an offshore balancer.

Finally, the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is likely to complicate life for Iran as well. Although Iran has taken steps to improve its diplomatic relations with the Taliban in recent years, the new government of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi will now have to deal with the consequences of an empowered Taliban—many of whose factions regard Iran with implacable hostility. When they ruled Kabul in the 1990s, the Taliban treated Afghanistan’s Shiite minority with extreme brutality. In recent years, they have become more tolerant of that minority, but largely for tactical purposes related to the peace process. That is unlikely to persist once the Sunni extremists in the Taliban are in power and have no need of such tactical concessions. Indeed, militants within the Taliban coalition have stepped up attacks against Shiite targets.4 And if the past is any guide, there is every reason to believe that Sunni–Shia sectarian animosities are likely to shape relations between these two theocracies, demanding increased attention and investments of resources on Tehran’s part. In forcing Iran to look east, a Taliban victory—whatever the short-term schadenfreude it might inspire—will necessarily undermine Tehran’s efforts to achieve primacy in the region to Iran’s west.

And that is why, from a realist perspective, the fall of Afghanistan does not constitute a strategic disaster—well, at least not an unmitigated one. In a new era of great-power competition, preventing any country from dominating the heart of Eurasia or the Persian Gulf should be a goal of American grand strategy. A Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, emboldened by its victory over the United States to take its insurrection on the road, is likely to undermine Russian, Chinese, and Iranian efforts to achieve such dominance. While this will doubtless prove most unwelcome in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran, it should be viewed much more favorably in Washington. Whether it will or not largely depends on whether the American foreign policy establishment is finally ready to move beyond the liberal internationalism and primacy logics of yesteryear and embrace instead the timeless logic of balance-of-power realism.

Dr. Andrew Latham

Dr. Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and a research associate with the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Canada. Over the past two decades, he has taught courses such as “The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”; “Chinese Foreign Policy, Regional Conflict and Security” (which has alternatively focused on the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific Region); “US Foreign and Defense Policy”; and “Great Power Competition.” In addition to publishing in a range of academic journals, Dr. Latham has published in outlets such as The Hill, The Diplomat, Responsible Statecraft, 19FortyFive, RealClearDefense, DefenseOne, Wavell Room, Strategy Bridge, and The Conversation.

1 John J. Mearsheimer, “Bound to Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order,” International Security 43, no. 4 (Spring 2019): 7–50.

2 Collective Security Treaty Organization, website, 2021, https://en.odkb-csto.org/.

3 “East Turkestan independence movement,” Wikipedia, 6 August 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/.

4 Sune Engel Rasmussen and Ehsanullah Amiri, “Afghanistan Bomb Attack Targeting Schoolgirls Kills at Least 50 People,” Wall Street Journal, 9 May 2021, https://www.wsj.com/.

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