The pictures from Kabul are upsetting. The twenty year waste of human life, money, time, Western credibility and the hopes of 20 million Afghan females is a depressing fact. Instant analysis is not. Of course, one is tempted to jump in and join the circular firing squads of finger-pointing politicians, armchair military experts and populist bandwagon buffoons but it all feels too early and raw.
Fifty years ago Chinese leader, Zhou Enlai, famously told Henry Kissinger that “it is too early to tell” the impact of the French Revolution. What is less well known is that the Chinese Premier misunderstood the question and was actually referring to the student protests in Paris just three years earlier. Inconvenient truths eh! Now think about all the strategic questions thrown up by the fall of Kabul…… and then maybe ask the Kurds the same questions.
Less than two years ago the Kurds were the on-the-ground allies of the US in its fight with ISIS in Syria. Then the Trump administration in October 2019 gave the green light to Turkey for the invasion of north east Syria. US forces stood aside and watched the Turkish army clear out the Kurdish fighters who the Ankara regime had considered to be terrorists. The result was hundreds of thousands of displaced Kurds and an embarassed US military leadership. In fact, earlier Trump moves in 2018 to help Turkey and Russia(again!) in Syria had triggered high profile resignations by General Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defence, and US envoy to the region, Brett McGurk. Indeed, it was Trump who initiated the withdrawal from Afghanistan too, excluding the incumbent Kabul government from the process and negotiating with the Taliban directly. The parallels between the treatment of the Kurds and the Kabul government are difficult to ignore and would suggest some strategic questions are already answered. The events in Afghanistan should focus minds on the following two questions:
- What other geopolitical risks are accelerating much faster than is commonly understood? The catastrophic failure of US and NATO intelligence to realise that the Taliban had bought off all Afghan regional leaderships before heading to Kabul is one for the ages.
- Which traditional Western/NATO ally is in danger of being abandoned if intelligence services are once again blindsided by a geopolitical development?
We have previously written about the global economy’s dependence on Taiwan for semiconductor chips which power our digital world. How many people know Taiwan Semiconductors(TSMC) is now in the top 10 most valuable companies on the planet with a market capitalisation of almost $600 billion? The prospect of conflict in the South China Sea and its impact on global trade and technology is almost unthinkable. But we must think. And, watch the headlines:
Chinese state media sets sights on Taiwan as US Afghan retreat stokes nationalism – CNN
Beijing plans to build airport on reclaimed land near Taiwan amid tension – South China Morning Post
China recalls Lithuanian ambassador in Taiwan diplomatic office row – The Guardian
China drills near Taiwan as Chinese media warns US won’t help – Business Insider
Perhaps we should look closer to home. It was difficult for many ex-military Tory MPs in Westminster this week to suddenly realise that a failed Brussels journalist as Prime Minister surrounded by a cabinet of village idiots was never going to deliver a Global Britain. Other European NATO allies must be furious with the US and its “unilateral” withdrawal from Afghanistan but, so far, NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, is trotting out the Washington line about the Kabul leadership’s lack of resistance to the Taliban advance. Interestingly, it was Latvia’s defence minister, Artis Pabriks, who pointed out the dawning reality that “the west, Europe in particular, are showing they are weaker globally”.
As the Russian embassy sits fully and safely staffed in Kabul one wonders how the governments of the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine feel about an emboldened Bear on their borders looking for another Crimean opportunity? Well, let’s not be too gloomy and think back to Chinook helicopters on an embassy roof in Saigon in 1975. Kissinger’s frightening Communist ‘domino theory’ was in full flow but less than 15 years later the Berlin Wall had fallen and the USSR was no more. Today, amid the gloom, there are a few more potential positives which over time might gather more historical significance. These personal thoughts might seem contrarian but risk works both ways. So, here goes:
- Afghanistan tires of perpetual strife and rebuilds its economy in relative peace. Surprisingly, NATO occupation leaves behind one enduring benefit; the female population experienced a degree of opportunity and freedom which cannot be reversed by the Taliban in a digital/creator economy world. Female literacy, higher education and employment participation statistics continue to rise dramatically through the decade.
- NATO doesn’t force Russia to become a better global citizen. Climate does. The climate change emergency and rejection of fossil fuels breaks the financial grip of Putin and his oligarchs who are removed from power.
- The decline of US influence is reversed by a populist revolt. The shocking pictures of terrorists sitting in the offices of government, threatening female political voices and freedoms, mocking science, challenging the rule of law and claiming religious superiority was too much for the silent majority. They knew the nation and its constitution was under attack again. The criminal investigations into the January 6th attack on the US Capitol leads to hundreds of prosecutions and the incarceration of political figures plus the lawyers, lobbyists and media personalities who enabled the corruption of the democratic process.
- China’s GDP slowdown, zombie debt and shunned capital markets force a capitalist rather than a Communist re-think. President Xi is quietly ‘retired’ by more progressive elements in the Politburo.
Time will tell. As always with risk, and as the Zhou Enlai anecdote shows, the consequences of geopolitical events can often be over-estimated or misunderstood because there are other more significant forces and cycles at play.