Now that the USA has left Afghanistan and the Taliban have taken power, the cards of international geopolitics are being reshuffled.
Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, the Taliban have taken back control of Afghanistan, and the withdrawal of the USA has turned into a fiasco, symbolized in the terrible attack perpetrated by Islamic State at Kabul airport. America is leaving Afghanistan not only beaten but humiliated.
The unqualified victory of the Taliban marks a turning point in history, comparable to the fiasco of the Suez crisis in 1956 which put an end to European strategic autonomy, or to the collapse of American imperialism in Saigon in 1975.
For Afghanistan’s 40 million inhabitants, the return to power of the Taliban, with their promises of an open and inclusive government, means a return to living in terror as they did between 1996 and 2001. There can be no doubt that the country will once again become a hotbed of international terrorism, because of the vast diaspora of Jihadists who have enrolled in the Taliban. This will have devastating consequences for the Middle East and Europe. On the other hand, the new masters of Afghanistan have gained experience in government and in diplomacy. They will seek to compensate for the disappearance of international aid, which accounts for 22% of GDP, by granting China the right to exploit its wealth – its copper, cobalt and lithium that are indispensable for the digital revolution and energy transition. Breaking with their isolation of the 1990s, they will also attempt to stabilize their power by getting support from China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan.
The fall of Kabul marks a shift into a post-America world. The USA’s withdrawal and the calamitous way in which it was carried out have discredited the Biden administration and destroyed the idea that America can once again rank among the first in the world order.
After Donald Trump’s hatchet job on his alliances, the guarantee of security offered by the USA has been weakened even further. China, Russia, Iran and Turkey, on the other hand, have emerged strengthened. Beijing has immediately taken advantage of the consequences and upped its threats to Taiwan. Just as, in 2013, Barack Obama’s perjury over what constituted a “red line” with Damascus opened the door for China’s annexation of the South China Sea and Moscow’s invasion of Crimea and the Dombas region. There is therefore a growing risk of Chinese military intervention in Taiwan in order to test the USA. At the same time, the world is becoming increasingly divided in Asia, the heart of the new Cold War, with the establishment of two coalitions: on one side, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan under the Taliban; on the other side, the USA, India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan.
After the 2008 crash and the Covid pandemic, the Afghan defeat is a warning to democracies, who are being reminded of the terrorist menace, the rise of strategic perils, and their own vulnerability. We must urgently create a new alliance of free nations supported by three pillars: American, European and Asian, but no longer dependent solely on the USA. After the disaster in Vietnam, Ronald Reagan enabled the USA to overcome its political crisis, to renew its economic model, to rebuild its army and, in 1989, to trigger the internal collapse of the Soviet empire, which found itself challenged on its two weak points – production and technology. The USA aims, quite rightly, to prioritize the containment of Beijing, but its power is on the decline and the nation is undermined by divisions. Furthermore, the Chinese threat is even more formidable than the one represented by the USSR, for it is about the management of capitalism and technology and not only ideology and military strength. Contrary to the USA and China, our continent holds a central position in the Jihadists’ area of operations. The withdrawal of the USA from Afghanistan underlines its unilateralism, for it had no consideration for its allies in the chaotic way its departure was decided on and organized. Contrary to the illusions Europeans may have had about America’s returning to its 1945 role because of Joe Biden’s electoral victory, we must now, more than ever, work towards strategic autonomy, by creating a Union for security whose task would notably include the fight against terrorism and exerting control over Europe’s external borders.
As a final point, the rout in Afghanistan is a sign for the French to put internal and external security at the forefront of debate in the presidential elections of 2022. The Sahel presents all the characteristics of Afghanistan: the confusion of strategic objectives that France is pursuing with regard to bankrupt and corrupt nations, the inability of the elite to bring any credible government to power, and the operational weakness of the local armed forces.
While there is still time, we should organize the ordered withdrawal from Mali and make the reconstruction of France our absolute priority.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 30th August 2021)