20 August 2021, Christoph Heusgen, former permanent representative of Germany to the United Nations, and former longtime foreign and security policy advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, found clear words. In an article on the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations headlined “Germany and Afghanistan: Time to ditch bad governments, not good governance“, he draws a comparison of the engagement in Afghanistan with the situation in Mali, West Africa. He begins with stating “After Afghanistan, countries such as Germany should reconsider their presence in Mali, unless the ruling class commits to good governance and democratic principles.”
In the above article he talks about “good governance”, not only about “democratic principles”. He carefully lists both terms connected with an “and”. They stand separate from each other. And he talks about “the ruling class”. I will come back to “good governance”, conditionality, but also moral responsibilities, towards the end.
At the time of this writing the new Emperor is dressing into governmental clothes: The Taleban are in a process of forming and announcing a new government. When the insurgency had reached Kabul’s outer perimeter, the former Afghan government imploded, literally, after the former President fled the country. In an earlier article on Afghanistan developments I wrote that the difference with this implosion of governance is that we were observing it being on the inside, not on the outside. And in my last piece as of September 02, 2021 I wrote about a country being “armed to the teeth”. This because, amongst many other, the implosion has extraordinary consequences for the amount and type of military and police equipment, weapons, ammunition, and explosives.
Roughly, my questions related to future threats are:
- Is this gear now subject to new governmental control, and to which extent, and how?
- What will this gear be used for in Afghanistan by those who claim legitimacy for their governing the country, or just do rule it without any process resembling legitimacy?
- Will the new Emperor (so to speak) undertake a comprehensive effort to secure large stockpiles of weapons and ammunition before even more will disappear into dubious, criminal, and terrorist channels as for sure is the case already right now? And how will this be done, concretely looking at possible new faultlines of terror and organised crime, by creating new generations of people being subjected to cruelties?
- Which consequences come from the implosion preceeding the victory? Where are soldiers, police officers, commanding officers of any rank, organisational structures? We hear stories of individuals hiding, of entire units fleeing into neighboring countries together with the equipment they were carrying. We don’t know who will partner up with warlords. We don’t know who will end up on the side of terrorist organisations. And by the way, we do hear about the hostility between IS and the Taleban. We do hear about disappointed Taleban joining the ranks of ISIS-K, who are historically hostile to the Taleban, and who are extremely radical in their religious beliefs. What does this mean for weapons being readily available? Which threats come from extremism and terror in the region, for other parts of the world, including, but not only, Europe?
I am not even pretending this list is complete. Neither I would make a comparison in detail about what happened in other country situations where governance imploded, such as in Libya. Except for the numbers of weapons out of control after Libya’s implosion which were ending up fueling the conflict cycles which haunt us in addition to Libya, thereafter. I talk about Mali and what I witnessed there throughout my travels 2013 and the following years. Today, nine years after the initial crisis in Mail, the fire which we try to extinguish is burning in neighbouring countries, and beyond.
What I say is that we have serious reasons for working on a profound threat assessment. In my conversations, I hear all sorts of opinions. Some would be on the cautious side. Others would say “There won’t be much happening”, or they would say “There is not much that will be a threat for Europe, Afghanistan is too far away”, or, “I am not interested”. The last one being something I heard very often when I listened to people on the streets.
If the catastrophic failure of all collective assessments of intelligence, diplomacy and politics led to the circumstances which we witnessed in July and August, with many voices likening it with an embarrassing “defeat of the West”, what more do we need as a wake-up call that we need to wrap our minds around everything which could be a potential threat for humanity, peace, and security? For the citizens in Afghanistan, in Afghanistan’s neighborhood, in countries closer to the European Union, and the EU itself?
There is no time for complacency any longer.
Just a recap: Until recently, we fought a war against the Taleban, considering them insurgents at least, but we would put them close to terrorism, or we would consider them committing acts of terror. We have, until now, all indications for Taleban forces being responsible for atrocities, for countless crimes against humanity. We have not only withdrawn from a war against the Taleban, with international forces fighting against the Taleban. Rather, the Afghan military and the Afghan Police apparatus has been built, trained, staffed, and equipped. With huge amounts of military and police gear.
This has not been an isolated U.S. endeavor. The U.S. was involved on their own, and being part of NATO. NATO, and NATO member States were in this, together with the United States. The European Union was in it, amongst many other topical areas the EU, and EU Member States, provided large financial contributions to what is known as LOTFA, the Law and Order Trust Fund. Throughout two decades, Afghanistan’s military and policing capacities and capabilities were defined through often mainly international decisions, and when the capacities were stood up, they were dependent on everything, including salaries, equipment, and training. We are talking about an entire Army, and an entire Police setup. From everything I know from public sources, there wasn’t much sustainable development at all if the entire security apparatus depends on salaries being paid through international trust funds, capabilities being generated as donations, with huge dependencies on foreign contractors working on maintenance and supply chains, and constant ongoing training.
Even in a “best case” scenario, I have difficulties imagining anything like a smooth transition of what we call a “chain of command” from one government to the next. It feels almost cynical to name it like that. Rather, I anticipate that sheer power of coercion by the Taleban, may be combined with tribal play which we hardly understand, will compete with resistance, dissolution, and the panic of individuals who fear for their life, and that of their families. There are news about the Taleban not living up to what they publicly claim, that they hunt and execute former police and military officials. What does this mean for weapons control, and for the fate of armed people who are desperate, and need a living at the same time?
Within days in August, the Talban took control. A short while later, the last U.S. airplane being part of the international evacuation and rescue effort, now hailed by the U.S. Secretary of State as the biggest air bridge ever, left Kabul 30 August, 23:59 hours. With that, the U.S. declared the war in Afghanistan being over. Already before, we froze all international aid, by far not only the humanitarian side of it. Who is paying salaries for soldiers and police, right now?
International attention, and attention of the general public, often has a short breath. I can already feel that some may say “Alright, we have lost that war, let us move on.” For twenty years, we were with the Afghan people. Like everyone else in Afghanistan, our military and police colleagues grew friends with us. Fought with us, risked their life for their people, and trusting our promise that we would not leave them alone. Afghan police and military were the ones who took unimaginable casualties (the police even more than the military), and won’t forget the civilian casualties from two decades of war, either. After all, the victims were family, or friends.
Thus, further instability may not only depend on how the Taleban act when delivering on what they claim: That they are different now. It also depends on whether we are able to create new trust amongst those who feel they have lost everything. This means that we can not only think about threats from Afghanistan we may have to contain in the closer and larger neighborhood. We have to seek ways how we can establish a dialogue inside Afghanistan as well. Here, conditionality will be critical.
Apart from any moral assessment of this, which has its legitimacy in its own right: From a pure threat assessment perspective we need to think about a situation where former friends may feel that we have handed them over to former enemies. Where does this lead us to? Our own actions decide about whether this points to future enemies, or scenarios of cooperation. I stop there, the humanist in me wants to, of course, think of even more.
It means that, concretely for the topic at hand – large amounts of weapons, ammunition and explosives – we need to look into long term strategies, waiting for opportunities and avenues allowing the support to containment, control, and demolition inside Afghanistan, and immediate strategies allowing to help in establishing conditions for networks addressing SALW control in Afghanistan’s neighborhood.