The war in Afghanistan is not over

The former US national security adviser discusses the geostrategic repercussions of America’s withdrawal

The war in Afghanistan is not over

The West will have to deal with the consequences of abandoning Afghanistan, according to retired general H.R. McMaster.

General McMaster, who was Donald Trump’s national security adviser between 2017 and 2018 and is the author of “Dereliction of Duty” on the errors of the political and military leadership that led to defeat in Vietnam (a book that is widely read in the US military), in this exclusive interview via email with Kathimerini, insists that the war in Afghanistan is not over just because one side chose to withdraw.

He says he is not surprised at the precipitous fall of the Afghan government after the departure of NATO forces, which followed the Trump administration’s “capitulation agreement” with the Taliban.

He also highlights the geostrategic significance of the US and its allies rescuing as many vulnerable Afghans as possible from the clutches of the Islamic extremists.

Were you surprised at the speed of the collapse of the Afghan army and government? Was this not a massive intelligence failure, similar to Iran in 1979?

I was not surprised, given how we approached the withdrawal – we totally lost their confidence by making concession after concession with the Taliban. Including forcing the Afghan government to release 5,000 terrorists – effectively replenishing Taliban forces – and not even allowing the Afghan government to participate in what became our capitulation agreement with the Taliban.

How important is it that the US lead in extracting as many highly vulnerable Afghans as possible from the country? How committed do you think the Biden administration is to this?

It is incredibly important for us to help our Afghan allies who worked with the US over the past 20 years and now understandably fear retribution from the Taliban. Anything less is contributing to the humanitarian catastrophe we are seeing. How we handle the evacuation is also important geostrategically. I hope that the president will make this a top priority – especially in light of what many have sacrificed to fight against what is a modern-day frontier between barbarism and civilization.

Looking beyond the crucial matter of execution, did Joe Biden make the right call in getting out? Doesn’t the failure of the Afghans to fight show that defeat was inevitable? Isn’t US public opinion firmly in favor of withdrawal?

War doesn’t end when one side chooses to disengage. We heard that there was no military solution to the war in Afghanistan, but the Taliban clearly had one in mind. The Taliban and other jihadist terrorist organizations are waging an endless war against all civilized peoples.

Tens of thousands of Afghans made the ultimate sacrifice in the fight against our common enemies and we cannot underestimate the psychological blow from America’s sudden abandonment. They were bearing the brunt of the fight to preserve the freedoms they’ve enjoyed since we helped them defeat the Taliban in 2001.

President Trump had a solid strategy for South Asia as outlined in his August 2017 speech that was sustained and reasonable. But he abandoned that strategy to pursue the capitulation agreement, repeating the mistakes of other presidents who sought to end the “forever war,” again not realizing war doesn’t end when one party pulls out.

Do you expect the new Taliban regime to be more prudent than the previous incarnation in its international relations (especially supporting international terrorism)? Under what terms should the US and Europe develop a modus vivendi with the regime?

In areas they conquer, the Taliban conduct mass executions and assassinate journalists and anyone else who might oppose their perverted theocratic dictatorship. The Taliban force women to “marry” terrorists, who rape them, force them to wear the burqa and otherwise strip them of rights they have enjoyed for nearly two decades. Taking stock of this catastrophe and determining what might be done to limit the damage requires an acknowledgment of Afghanistan’s reality.

What are the wider geopolitical implications of the restoration of the Taliban? How does it strengthen the role of China, Russia and Turkey in the wider region?

This sends a signal to the rest of the world – including our adversaries – that the US is unreliable – our withdrawal from Afghanistan makes the US look weak and uncommitted to our allies. Russia and China are looking for opportunities and will eagerly fill any such voids left by us. China was already meeting with the Taliban before this happened. This will embolden Russia in the Black Sea and China in the South China Sea. This war in Afghanistan isn’t ending simply because we have pulled our forces out – the other side, the Taliban, will continue to fight this war – and the civilized world is going to have to, once again, deal with the consequences of that one way or the other – it’s just a matter of time.

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