President Joe Biden is right to end the futile U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan, “America’s longest war,” but the chaotic exit has so far been disastrous. There is still time to redeem his administration, and I have confidence that he will.
“We’ve had the Saigon moment. Now we need the Dunkirk moment – get everyone out,” one commentator said.
Biden says his administration planned for every contingency – except they didn’t plan for the most significant one: that Afghan forces we have spent the last 20 years and $2 trillion arming and training would simply fold, that the leadership would high-tail out of there, leaving chaos and fear.
It shouldn’t have been such a surprise: of the 300,000 forces we armed and trained, a good number were opportunists just in it for the money (U.S. taxpayers paid) and a good proportion may well have sympathized with the Taliban and their concept of “law and order,” and have no problem going back to a medieval society that subjugates, even enslaves women and girls.
It’s not that the Afghan fighters were incompetent or incapable – Afghanistan is, after all, the “Graveyard of Empires” – but that they lacked the will. Clearly, the United States spent these 20 years arming and training the wrong Afghans – they should have armed women soldiers. Women would have stood and fought for their nation, their freedom and their lives.
The intelligence failure, though, is beyond colossal. Even if Trump, who negotiated this sham deal with the Taliban gaining nothing more than a promise they would stop shooting at Americans, and who brought down the number of troops to 2,500 from 15,000 while releasing thousands of prisoners, might have ignored or politicized the intelligence (as he did when told of Putin paying bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers), Biden should have been clearer eyed and not taken by surprise at the speed with which the Afghan forces simply laid down their arms and embraced the Taliban.
(Anyone who thinks the exit would have been less chaotic or tragic under Trump is delusional; the difference is that Trump wouldn’t have cared – recall his cavalier attitude to Kurds being massacred by Turks after sudden pull-out from Syria.)
It is clear that there is no military solution to Afghanistan, but there is an argument to be made that Biden should have changed the mission of the US, kept a force of 2,500-3,500 to keep the embassy open and Bagram as a base of operations for counter-terrorism and intelligence. The objective today, as on Sept. 11, 2001, is that the Taliban cannot again provide safe haven for terror operations such as Al Qaeda or ISIS, but the fear is that the Taliban will become a mecca for anti-Western terrorist wannabes.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, in a press briefing, countered by saying these are rival forces but it remains to be seen if they will collaborate.
But fundamental to Biden’s strategy is that the terror threat has metastasized to other countries. “We have been successful to date in suppressing terrorist threat to country without sustaining military presence or fighting a war [in places like Somalia and Yemen]. It’s not a question of being clear-eyed about the terror threat, but whether the threat is fundamentally different from 2001. We believe it is. We believe we should be postured differently.”
But clearly, the Biden administration should have planned the logistics for safe evacuation of all US and allied personnel, including the Afghanis who supported the U.S. mission, who worked in government, in civic and humanitarian organizations, and most especially women who would be targeted for their efforts in helping women and girls fulfill their potential and their ambitions.
That means not only keeping the airport open, but organizing access to it and safe passage from people’s homes. That might have required some sort of United Nations or coalition force to escort people to the airport and border crossings. Biden should not have abandoned Afghanistan until these processes were in place.
Being surprised not by the Taliban takeover but by the speed is not really an excuse. But, unlike the Trump administration, the Biden administration is recalibrating and addressing the crisis, including working with the Taliban to ensure safe passage to the airport.
The Taliban now in charge claim to want to govern Afghanistan, not just rule it. So it’s actually to the Taliban’s benefit to eject as many of these ideologically opposed people as possible so they do not become an underground resistance movement – and that is a point that diplomats, to the extent there is ongoing diplomacy, should stress.
Indeed, this might be the one factor mitigating Taliban’s cruelty: the need to have a functioning society now that they run it. Already, they have tried to coerce civil servants, health care workers, electricians back to work.
Also, the fact that Afghanistan has depended upon foreign aid (and its United Nations representative still appealing for nations to make good on their pledges) may prove Biden’s trump card and why Sullivan keeps insisting that diplomacy can still rein in the Taliban because (they believe) no foreign nation will legitimize the Taliban if they rule through violence.
“We will watch over time, but Taliban has obligations to basic human rights, dignity, safe passage to the airport, fair and just treatment of civilians. We have no expectations but sense they will have to prove to the international community who they are.”
Here like in his expectation of Afghans standing up to the Taliban, Biden may prove too idealistic, too optimistic and too naïve (his fatal character flaw) in expecting other governments to hold together and resist recognizing the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government (China already has and Russia and Iran are likely to also).
Indeed, while the US is depending upon leverage of threats of “sanctions, marshaling international condemnation and isolation,” Iran, China and Russia may well step in to bring Afghanistan into their sphere of influence.
And, with as many as two million Afghan refugees flooding into other countries (one wonders why they aren’t taking up arms to save their country instead), there is new concern this may fuel nativist and populist-nationalist movements, further destabilizing liberal democracies, just as the Syrian refugees did – another victory for Putin and Xi.
As for what it was all for as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and whether all the gains in Afghanistan’s civil society have been swept away, that remains to be seen.
But the fact is that for 20 years, women and girls have had freedom, and for the 68 percent of Afghanistan’s population under the age of 25, all they have known is a more secular, open society.
Further, they have grown up with technology, so Afghanistan can no longer be so isolated from the rest of the world. So perhaps the seeds of progress cannot be completely uprooted.