ANALYSIS - The second Taliban era begins on the 20th anniversary of 9/11
Afghanistan is now a more fragile state than it was twenty years ago. This fragility will either be repaired in the second Taliban era or Afghanistan will impose an even greater geopolitical burden on the region
The author is an assistant professor at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University, with her research focusing on security, defense, and intelligence
The September 11 attacks, the deadliest terrorist attacks in US history, represent a watershed moment in terms of strategic nature, state counter-terrorism policies, military doctrines, international law, and the capabilities of armed non-state actors, as well as security literature.
Following the attacks, the US declared a “Global War on Terrorism,” receiving the support of not only the international community but also international law regarding the reasons for (as well as the purpose and means of) carrying out this war. Following 9/11, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed a series of resolutions granting the authority to respond to the attacks (and thus legitimacy to military action), allowing taking actions in the name of joint self-defense, on which a coalition consensus was formed. Furthermore, for the first time in history, NATO, a regional organization, used one of the most critical articles of its founding treaty (Article 5). The North Atlantic Alliance decided to take military action, putting into practice for the first time the principles of “collective defense” and “alliance relationships”, on the basis that “an attack against one Ally is considered an attack against all Allies.” In fact, NATO was able to take such a unilateral decision for the first time in its history.
Thus, the US received the support of regional and international organizations in its fight against Al-Qaeda and its collaborators. On October 7, 2001, “Operation Enduring Freedom” was launched against Afghanistan in accordance with all of the rights and powers granted to the US under international law, particularly UN Security Council Resolution 1373. However, the White House took the concept of responding to 9/11, which was described as a strategic surprise, a step further; while the US’s new counter-terrorism policy conceptualized as the “Bush Doctrine” was reformulated to have a “preventive” and “preemptive” approach, “preemptive self-defense” became the new hot topic of discussion in international law literature.
However, the US’s counter-terrorism policy, which was carried out with the support of the international community, organizations and law, started to elicit strong reactions in a short period of time due to discrepancies between its theory and practice. During the same time period, we observed that the US’s status began to rapidly evolve from that of a hegemonic power fighting terrorism on a global scale and promising to establish peace, stability, and democracy throughout the world to that of an “expansionist” and an “invader”.
First and foremost, the United States did not respect the principle of “proportionality” in the law governing the use of force. Second, the US caused harm to multiple parties, most notably civilian casualties. Third, the US did not properly treat combatants and detainees/prisoners, who it described as “hostile elements”. Fourth, taking the approach of an “expansionist state”, the US made efforts to realize its project of establishing a “nation” and a “state” by imposing its own culture, rules, and institutions.
For instance, while the massive airstrikes used disproportionately by the US and the thousands of civilians killed in these attacks led to the growing distrust and anger of the Afghan people towards the US and the international coalition forces, these airstrikes were also used by the Taliban as rhetoric and one of their strongest arguments to gain popular support. The number of civilian casualties between 2016 and 2020 alone was 3,977. While children accounted for 40% of these casualties, international coalition forces were responsible for 62% of the total number of deaths. In fact, while withdrawing from Afghanistan, the US perpetrated yet another massacre, killing 10 people, including six children from the same family, in a UAV attack carried out in Kabul against DAESH’s Afghan branch (DAESH/ISIS-K) on August 29, 2021.
Moreover, although President Bush claimed that the detainees in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, a US military prison in Cuba, were treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, Guantanamo went down in US history as a source of embarrassment and was criticized heavily by the international community when the footage of prisoners held there despite having no charges against them being subjected to inhumane practices, such as torture, received international media coverage. However, following the peace deal signed in February 2020, the same US converted the al-Qaeda and Taliban militants that it called “terror suspects” back in Guantanamo into a political actor, one that the US itself has legitimized. Although the US still considers al-Qaeda to be a “terrorist organization”, it is not possible to clearly distinguish between the elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban among the thousands of prisoners recently released. In addition, it has also been revealed that a large number of al-Qaeda elements were among the Taliban militants who rapidly expanded their territorial control in northern Afghanistan beginning in the spring of 2021.
Moreover, one of the most critical conditions put forward by the US in the aforementioned peace deal was that the US and the Taliban would fight alongside each other against Daesh, which demonstrates how pragmatic, unstable, and artificial the counter-terrorism policy of the US against the Taliban and al-Qaeda has been over the last 20 years. This attitude of the US has sparked a great debate and problem on “who” needs to be defined as a terrorist organization and “who” as a legitimate political actor, as well as “when”, “under what conditions”, and “how”. Similarly, the US’s efforts to forcefully export democracy to various countries, as well as its agreements with terrorist organizations that intimidate people by force and ruthlessly seize territorial control through violence, have severely harmed the US’s reputation in the eyes of the international community and are a concrete manifestation of the end of its global leadership.
While the primary reason for the US’s presence in Afghanistan was to eliminate the Taliban and Al-Qaeda threats, as well as to bring stability and peace to the region and the country by building a nation-state and liberating Afghanistan from its status of a “failed”, “weak”, “fragile” and “collapsed” state, the stage reached on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 saw the handing over of Afghanistan to the Taliban. Although looking at the Taliban’s future actions would be a more appropriate approach to determining whether the organization has changed in the last twenty years or not, the future does not appear to be so bright for Afghanistan either, given that the Taliban has never been open to the idea of holding democratic elections during peace talks, while also not taking into account other ethnic groups’ rates of representation in the interim government models constructed.
Potential scenarios: Afghanistan
When we consider the current circumstances and actors, we could talk about three main scenarios regarding the future of Afghanistan:
The first is that the Taliban would adopt a more compromising attitude than in the 1990s, allowing it to integrate into the world. This is primarily due to the country’s complete reliance on foreign aid. Afghanistan cannot defend or preserve itself unless foreign countries assist it with everything from food to ammunition. As a result, it appears that the Taliban intends to gain the necessary support, at least for the time being, through diplomacy and the implementation of reconciliation mechanisms. This optimistic scenario would result in the Taliban gaining legitimacy and international recognition in a short period of time.
The second scenario is that actors who do not want to completely hand over Afghanistan to the Taliban would support other armed non-state actors by speeding up the proxy war. As a result, the Taliban would be rendered powerless, lacking the ability and capacity to defend the country and thus activating the domestic resistance mechanism. In this way, Afghanistan would be dragged into a civil war, which would erupt with the uprising of ethnic groups denied the right to representation, and would have to wait for intervention from yet another global power.
The third scenario is that the Taliban realize they cannot be the sole dominant actor in the country and are forced to collaborate with other actors. The cooperation in question, on the other hand, would raise three possible alternatives: a “confederal state model” in the absence of a participatory government, a change in the local government mechanism (such that governors, for example, would be elected), or the division of the country into two as north and south. However, such a schism would create a much more challenging and precarious geopolitical situation for the region.
On the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, the United States was forced to withdraw from the country, incurring heavy losses. Worse, it did so by handing over the country to elements it had fought against for 20 years, while also its global image has been badly tarnished. Afghanistan is now a more fragile state than it was twenty years ago. This fragility will either be repaired in the second Taliban era or Afghanistan will impose an even greater geopolitical burden on the region. Minimizing this burden depends entirely on the Taliban’s decision not to impose an oppressive regime by establishing an inclusive government, as well as on the geopolitical consensus of the region’s countries.
Translated from Turkish by Can Atalay
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.