Good-bye Afghanistan, we joked!

(To Antonio Li Gobbi)
15/04/21

On April 13, the US press reported that Biden declared that the US will withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. That is exactly 20 years after the start of the "case Afghanistan"(The attack on the" twin towers ") the dossier of this country is closed, regardless of whether or not any objectives other than those of sending a clear message to the internal audience (read" electorate ") are reached in the" States ". I don't know if the decision was made by a military planner or by an electoral propaganda expert. However, I would definitely lean towards the second option!

Let's summarize briefly. The Trump administration, without prior consultation either with the "askari" (sorry, I meant the "allies") or with the government of Kabul, started the Doha talks with the Taliban (opening photo), coming to define the deadline for the withdrawal of "foreign" forces from Afghanistan on May 1, 2021. Even then, I do not know that the date was triggered by an incessant brainstorming on both sides of the Atlantic by fussy military planners. It was necessary to arrive at a result to be fed to the US electorate in view of the upcoming presidential elections. Point!

Once the date was agreed with those who until recently were described as representatives of "absolute evil" (the Taliban), this date was made known to the Allies and at the same time communicated (imposed?) To a reticent government of Kabul (which I remember being a democratically elected government!). Kabul government effectively forced by the US to free thousands of dangerous terrorists under agreements it was not a party to. There were undoubtedly some preconditions which also committed the Taliban and which “formally” were binding. Moreover, everyone was aware that the Taliban would not respect them and that no one outside Afghanistan would make a case.

Many in Europe were under the illusion that with the arrival of the Biden administration (which considers itself to be intimately multi-lateralist and no longer a slave to the sovereign motto "America First") things would change radically.

With regard to Afghanistan, the first taste of this "change" took place during the periodic meeting of NATO defense ministers held on 17 and 18 February in Brussels. The first in which the US was represented by the new Secretary of Defense, General Lloyd J. Austin III. I imagine that many European staffs expected to be made aware in that context of the plans of the new administration for Afghanistan (after all, the problem of Afghanistan was well known both to the president and to all the key men of his administration: it was predictable that already had a strategy).

It was predictable that the US would not stick to what Trump and Pompeo planned, if only to be able to send the message in and abroad that had turned the page. But what did they intend to do?

I believe the Allies were expecting precise guidance from Austin on what to do and when. They did not arrive. At least not officially.

Obviously, I cannot know whether Austin at least consulted with the ministers who represented the major contributors of forces (primarily Italy), to agree on a timetable that reflected their concerns and needs. I would certainly hope so. Officially, however, not one emerged from that meeting roadmap. At least not one roadmap official and shared

On that occasion, the secretary general (Norwegian Stoltenberg) declared that NATO "strongly supported" the peace process in Afghanistan (without ever pointing out how the Alliance was not taken into any consideration by the USA during the Doha agreements that marked the stages and modalities of this process). Stoltenberg had also highlighted how the Alliance had significantly adapted its presence in the country in accordance with this process (obviously without saying that she merely pretended to be part of a decision-making process from which she was excluded).

However, Stoltenberg had the courage to point out that the peace talks remained fragile and that the level of violence in the country remained "unacceptably high".

With the decision of the Dumas musketeers when they shouted "all for one, one for all", the general secretary had finally declared "Even if no ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, we will not leave before the time is right." A commitment that, had it been serious, would have implied at least a further decade of military presence in the country. Moreover, I believe that not even Stoltenberg was taking himself seriously in saying this. But maybe Stoltenberg actually meant “Only when Washington tells us".

With no indications from the "pack leader" who "made use of the right not to answer", the ministers of other countries could only reiterate the commitment of their nations to the mission. Resolute Support - with training and funding for the Afghan security forces.

The reality is that NATO in fact has to wait for the US to make its decision first in order to make any decision about its presence in Afghanistan.

In February Austin stated that the problem of Afghanistan was undergoing profound re-examination, it was evident that the Alliance did not know neither how to behave nor how to justify its hesitation to public opinion.

On that occasion, therefore, no definitive decision was made on the future of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, apart from the commitment of the Allies to continue to consult and coordinate closely, as the 1 May deadline approached.

Now in Washington they have decided on the new date, which I believe dictated more by symbolic references than by logistical or security needs connected with the withdrawal of troops and with the possible handover to Afghan units (in whose ranks I imagine a crescendo of desertions as the time for the return of the Taliban is approaching).

The "official" communication of this date to the Allies took place on April 14 (or the day after its publication in the US press) in the context of the joint meeting of NATO Foreign and Defense Ministers, which was attended by the USA on Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, and Secretary of Defense, Lloyd J. Austin III.

It should be noted that in the preliminary meeting with Austin, Stoltenberg began by talking about Afghanistan and repeating the now somewhat stale motto “In together out together ", while Austin in answering him focused on the Russian threat and on NATO 2030! Perhaps symptomatic that Afghanistan no longer ignites Washington's interest, that there are Republicans or Democrats in the Oval Office.

The Taliban, at least formally, will not take this 4-month postponement well and could do some demonstrative action to underline their opposition with the blood of a few dozen innocent people. In fact, the Taliban leaders will be happy because, instead of radically changing the Policy Trump, the new administration simply pushed the withdrawal date a little further. A little make-up, just to show that nothing that was decided in the Trump era will remain as it is with the new administration.

In reality, the change in substance is irrelevant. Indeed, once it is publicly said that we withdraw (and that this withdrawal is linked to a date and not to the achievement of a goal) the sooner we leave, the better (also for the safety of our staff in the theater, victim of this grueling yo-yo of dates).

Again, Washington has defined the date and the roadmap and the Allies must adapt. However, frankly, we expected it to turn out like this and, at least personally, I can't be surprised.

There is, however, another aspect of the Afghanistan affair which, as Europeans and especially as Italians, I believe should bother us even more.

As the US announces its withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the rest of the Alliance adjusts, Erdogan is cleverly building a new role in relation to Afghanistan as well. Turkey, in fact, with the support of Qatar and under the only formal aegis of the United Nations (now totally irrelevant in relation to Afghanistan) organized an important peace conference on Afghanistan to be held in Istanbul from 24 April to 4 May. , with the presence of both the Kabul government and the Taliban. The stated goal would be “To accelerate and assist the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha for the achievement of a just and lasting political solution”.

The fact that, certainly with US approval, a NATO member country particularly hostile to the European Union takes the baton from the US as a negotiator between the Kabul government and the Taliban should not be a comforting sign for many reasons.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Qatar (which finances many of Erdogan's initiatives) are notoriously closely linked to Political Islam. Therefore, they don't exactly look like negotiators to us Super partes in these talks.

Turkey is perhaps the NATO country that has accompanied its (limited) military role with a (important) presence of Turkish firms operating in the country.

Ankara's neo-Ottoman expansionism in the Mediterranean, Libya and the Horn of Africa will inevitably be reinvigorated by the recognition of a mediating role in Afghanistan.

Those who hoped that after Trump's benevolent eye towards Erdogan's intemperance, Biden would change register and, at least in the name of civil rights, the US would take a more severe stance towards Ankara for the moment can only be said disappointed.
Furthermore, for us Italians, since Turkey is our most insidious competitor in the Mediterranean and Libya, certainly not good news..

In conclusion. The US has decided and we will withdraw to Afghanistan perhaps without ever understanding why we went there in the first place, but surely without having achieved the goals our soldiers fought for (even with painful human losses) and for which the Italian taxpayer has paid significant amounts.

NATO, instead of a forum for consultation and sharing between Allies with equal dignity, as it was designed by the Washington Treaty of 1949, appears increasingly an instrument at the service of changing US policies.

With the approval of Uncle Sam, the Sultan's Turkey, not caring about human rights and conducting an aggressive policy in the Mediterranean, is becoming increasingly important.

After all, as a Neapolitan song in vogue after the war said "Who had, had, had, who gave, gave, gave, scurdámmoce 'or passed away". Good-bye Afghanistan.

Photo: web / ministry of defense / NATO / US DoD / presidency of the republic of Turkey