Saving face, but at what cost?

For a lot of Afghanistan watchers, last week was a whirlwind of emotions. In rapid succession, the Taliban conquered one city after another, primarily in the north of the country. Since the U.S. signed its so-called peace deal with the insurgent group, Afghanistan has experienced more violence, and more bloodshed, than at virtually any point in the past two decades. None of this was supposed to happen. According to U.S. negotiators, the deal with the Taliban was supposed to usher in a period of calm, allowing for Afghans to sit down together and come to some kind of solution. Instead, it has led to an all-out assault by the very group with which the U.S. shook hands. Was there ever a serious belief that the Taliban would end the war in Afghanistan peacefully?

Adnan R. Khan: There was supposed to be a peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban. What happened to that?

Ilter Turan: The Americans agreed on a number of points, for instance that the Taliban would seek a ceasefire and begin negotiations for a peaceful settlement to the conflict. There was also an agreement that any prisoners released by the government as a confidence-building measure would not return to the battlefield, as well as a number of other commitments. But in the end, it seems the Taliban were never really serious about honoring commitments when they were negotiating with the Americans. My conclusion is that the Taliban judged the Americans wanted to get out Afghanistan, irrespective of what happens, and the proposed agreement was simply a face-saving exercise. When Taliban began to drag their feet at the Doha meetings, the Americans must have understood that they would not be delivering on their commitments but continued to pretend as if everything would proceed smoothly. Now we have a situation in which Taliban forces are taking over cities in Afghanistan much more quickly than anyone expected, and the concern is that the Taliban will be able to establish control over much of Afghanistan soon.

Adnan R. Khan: Can we unpack this idea of saving face? A face-saving exercise implies that the U.S. comes out of this with some kind of narrative it can use to justify what it did. But with the way things have played out – the Taliban breaking every commitment it made, the mounting humanitarian toll, the looming migration crisis – it doesn’t look like Biden can really make the argument that the withdrawal was a good idea. What face is being saved here?

Ilter Turan: From an outside perspective, I find it difficult to see any face saving. But from inside the U.S., i.e. in terms of American public opinion, the administration seems to be arguing that it did everything to achieve a smooth transition. It just didn’t work out because the Afghans were not able to manage it. That narrative seems to be holding, at least for now.

But let’s look also at this from an international perspective. For countries that rely mainly on American support for security and for the implementation of their own policies, this is really a very discouraging moment. If you are, for example, in the UAE, or if you are Lebanese and hoping that the Americans might come in and pull you out of difficulties, or even if you are the YPG to whom Americans are pronouncing strong commitment on a daily basis, would you now consider American commitment reliable?

More broadly, we see a general trend in the U.S. to reduce its global commitments, even in Europe. Would you, as a European, believe that the U.S. would come to your defense in the event of a security challenge?

Adnan R. Khan: Indeed, it seems as if the American pivot toward Russia and China is all encompassing. And yet, what do you make of the fact that Russia and China are preparing themselves to fill the power vacuum the U.S. is leaving behind in Afghanistan?

Ilter Turan: Right you are. When we examine what China has been trying to do – extending its global reach through its Belt and Road Initiative to the Middle East, Africa and Europe- Afghanistan figures importantly in their plans. If the U.S. is so dedicated to stopping Chinese expansion, is it prudent, so to speak, to leave one area totally unattended and hand it as a gift to the Russians and the Chinese? This essentially opens the gates to Chinese penetration, into Pakistan, into Iran, and beyond into areas which the U.S. considers to be its own zone of influence.

Adnan R. Khan: So, as you watch this all play out, how do you think the U.S. comes out looking?

Ilter Turan: It comes out of this ordeal looking like an unreliable partner that shifts its policy based exclusively on its own domestic political needs and the judgment of whoever happens to be in power at a given time. It does not seem particularly concerned about what happens to its partners, a perception that does not serve a large, powerful nation well. For a nation seeking to maintain its global leadership and influence, losing credibility is not a reliable path to a better future.

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