Where Afghanistan was lost

Making sense of the bewildering events of the past few days has been difficult.  How could Afghanistan have fallen so quickly to the Taliban?  Why does the West look so powerless.  Comparisons have been made with Vietnam but this isn’t quite the same.  The US haven’t been forced out defeated in the battlefield but appear to have surrendered the field to the enemy.

To understand the situation we need to go back and read a document that most of us barely noticed when it was first published.  Here it is, the Doha agreement. Have a read through.  You will notice first of all that this is an agreement between The Taliban and the US government.  Although the US are keen to insist that they don’t recognise the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban), the agreement is specifically with them and not with the Afghanistan government. Nor are any other parties including the US’s NATO allies involved. This is a bi-lateral agreement. 

The US commitment to withdraw from Afghanistan was made not to the democratically elected government in Kabul and nor to the people of Afghanistan but specifically to the Taliban. It was made in return for a specific condition, that: “Afghan soil will not be used against the security of the United States and its allies.” 

This specifically includes that:

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”

In return, the US confirmed

“The United States is committed to withdraw from Afghanistan all military forces of the United States, its allies, and Coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel within fourteen (14) months following announcement of this agreement, and will take the following measures in this regard:”

You will notice from this that other nations such as the UK are included within the commitment even though as I stated, they are not named as parties to the agreement. Yet, the US made commitments on their behalf . Presumably NATO allies including the UK knew what was being signed up to and gave their consent but this is not the same as being a signatory.  It suggests a level of detachment. The UK’s involvement was simply in a supporting role to our ally the US and we did not have a strategic interest or alliance with Afghanistan in our own right. Incidentally, this also goes against suggestions by Joe Biden that other NATO allies could continue the mission without the US.

The agreement also includes a commitment by the US not ti intervene in the internal affairs of Afghanistan after withdrawal.

Now it is important to understand how this agreement will have been perceived by the Taliban.  Here is what Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader, the Taliban spokesman said at the time:

“I hope that with the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan the Afghan nation under an Islamic regime will take its relief and embark on a new prosperous life,” [1]

It is clear that they saw the agreement as paving the way to an Islamic state under their rule in the region.   And that is entirely understandable from their perspective.  It would have seemed clear to them that first of all, it was the US they were dealing with, all other parties were irrelevant. Secondly, that this was an agreement handing power over to them. From their perspective it was a surrender on terms.  The US were relinquishing control of the land and given that they were negotiating terms with the Taliban, it seems that it was to them that they were relinquishing control.  They clearly did not expect the official government to have any control over the use of the territory for terrorist purposes. 

The US could claim on paper for all they liked that they did not recognise the Taliban or their regime yet this is de-facto exactly what they had just done.

Now imagine looking on from the Afghani perspective. It would also be clear to you that the US did not see you as part of the picture. The deal was also clear that not only were the US pulling out their troops but that they were absolving themselves from all engagement and support in the country. They were being left to their own devices.  You can now see why there would be little appetite to put up a fight.

The Taliban will also have been able to make the following calculations. First that the US were willing to assume good faith on their part.  Can the Taliban be expected to keep their word? Well, it is worth noting that theologically certain strands of Islam permit a level of deception on the basis that infidel are not entitled to the truth from you.  Furthermore, we know already that they are capable of making statements to the media whilst doing something completely different in practice. Taliban promises cannot be relied upon.[2]

Second, I suspect that they’ve calculated that it will be much harder for the US to go back in.  The infrastructure and logistics will no longer be in place for them to bring in ground troops and station them.  Furthermore the political will is unlikely to be their either as the US pursues an “America first” agenda.

Thirdly, I suspect that they can in good conscience say that they have no plans to invite Al -Qaeda back in.  Their primary objective is quite simply to rule Afghanistan in line with their extreme version of Sharia law and to enjoy the local benefits of that.  Whether that means they will have the will or ability to prevent Al Qaeda to return is another matter.

Fourthly, they will also have calculated that it is now very difficult for other countries to get involved as with the US they are unlikely to have the political will power or the logistical capability. This is further impeded by the current presence of the remaining US forces at the airport. The US is unlikely to take kindly to Britain and France intervening whilst an evacuation is underway. Such an intervention would be dangerous for their expats too.  By the time the evacuation is complete, it is likely that any last elements of resistance will have been dealt with.

I realise that this makes for sober reading.  I’m sharing my thoughts here for two reason. First because as we seek to pray for Afghanistan and consider future Gospel engagement we need to be informed.  Our primary response will be through engaging with the refugee crisis coming our way. And praying for believers who have chosen to remain or been unable to leave. 

I was asked the other day “but shouldn’t we be seeking to get missionaries into Afghanistan whilst there are still openings?” On the one hand we need faith and we need courage to go into hard to reach places. However, we need also to recognise that the presence of western missionaries is more likely to be a hinderance and a risk to indigenous believers on the ground. We need to accept that such doors are closed and probably for many years to come.  However, whilst the door is closed to us, remember that no power can shut the door to God’s Word. Let’s continue to pray for the work of the Gospel in that country and that region.

The other reason I wanted to share these thoughts was to highlight the mistakes that have been made here. These include

  • The decision to deal with certain people and not with others
  • A naivety about the trustworthy of others despite their track record.
  • A failure to understand how you are being heard, especially across cultures
  • Allowing people to make decisions on your behalf without being alert to the consequences

These mistakes were serious but are also examples of the mistakes people make all the time. We need to be alert to those risks in outreach, discipleship, pastoral care and decision making too.

[1] Afghan conflict: US and Taliban sign deal to end 18-year war – BBC News

[2] See Taliban step up hunt for Afghans who worked with UK and US forces (telegraph.co.uk)

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* Tomorrow we look at another crucial implication of this for the church

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