It’s been twenty years since 9/11. But the West has precious little to show for it
The Taliban now find themselves in the privileged position of forming a new government, with new-found allies like China and Iran
CON COUGHLIN DEFENCE EDITOR 12 September 2021 •
Of all the outcomes considered for Afghanistan’s future when the West first launched its military intervention 20 years ago, there was no consideration whatsoever of the possibility of gifting this strategically important country to our enemies and rivals.
The fundamental aim of the US-led coalition established in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks was to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan so that it could never again be used as a base to launch deadly terrorist attacks against freedom-loving democracies. Another important goal was for the mission to act as a deterrent for other failed or failing states in the region, such as Iran and Pakistan, to continue sponsoring or supporting Islamist terror groups.
So the fact that, as the world yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack ever committed on American soil, the Taliban, the original protagonists in this long-running conflict, now enjoy undisputed control of Afghanistan constitutes a defeat of collosal proportions for the major Western powers.
Having precipitated the Western invasion in the first place over their refusal to hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the other architects of the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban now find themselves in the privileged position of forming a new government, while new-found allies like China and Iran jostle over the division of the spoils.
As if it were not bad enough for the US and its allies to witness the appointment of seasoned Taliban terrorists – responsible for the deaths of countless Western soldiers – to senior positions in the new Afghan regime, they are also having to suffer the indignity of seeing vital assets handed over to bitter regional rivals.
Arguably the most potent symbol of the US-led coalition’s abject failure in the Afghan mission was the television footage aired earlier this month showing a convoy of American military vehicles making their way to Tehran after the Taliban handed them over to the Iranian authorities as a goodwill gesture. Whatever tensions may previously have existed between Iran and the Taliban, they have clearly been set aside in the interests of inflicting even greater humiliation on the West.
China is another regional power that has been quick to exploit the new opportunities afforded by the collapse in Western influence. Beijing’s pragmatism in overlooking the Taliban’s long-established ties with Uyghur Islamist cells has resulted in the Taliban identifying China as their new “principal partner”, with Beijing promising to invest heavily in the new Taliban regime as it seeks to consolidate its stranglehold on Central Asia’s trade routes.
As if to compound America’s humiliation in Afghanistan, China is giving active consideration to deploying military personnel and economic development officials to Bagram air base, once the nerve centre of Washington’s anti-Taliban military campaign, but now firmly under the control of the new Islamist regime.
Another deeply unappetising consequence of Washington’s ignominious retreat from Afghanistan has been the boost the debacle has given the powerful anti-American lobby in neighbouring Pakistan which, despite receiving billions in US aid, has continued to maintain close ties with the Taliban and other Islamist militant groups. No one derived greater delight from Washington’s discomfort than Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has publicly praised the Afghans for “breaking the shackles of slavery” after the Taliban seized control of Kabul.
In the new Great Game that is unfolding on the historic battlefields of Afghanistan, it is the Taliban and their allies that are in the ascendant, while countries like America and Britain, which paid the heaviest price in terms of blood and treasure, have been reduced to the status of impotent observers, a status that does not bode well for their future well-being.
Boris Johnson yesterday attempted to put a brave face on Britain’s inglorious exit from Afghanistan, claiming the September 11 attacks had “failed to shake our belief in freedom and democracy”.
But Mr Johnson also knows full well that our ability to defend and protect our democratic values has been seriously compromised by our experience in Afghanistan, not least the Biden administration’s contemptuous dismissal of British concerns when making the withdrawal decision. And, when the British government made its own, somewhat half-hearted, attempts to maintain a residual military presence in Kabul after the US withdrawal, it soon found it was incapable of doing so without American backing, a damning predicament for a government that aspires to be one of the world’s major military powers.
Nor can there be any guarantees, despite the very tangible sacrifices of the past twenty years, that Britain and its allies are better protected today from the threat of Islamist terror attacks than they were in September 2001.
Perhaps the greatest indictment of the Afghan withdrawal fiasco is the warning from Ken McCullum, the head of MI5, who declared earlier this week that the risk of another 9/11-style terrorist attack has been heightened as a result of this whole sorry affair.