Saskia Brechenmacher: What Will Happen to Women and Girls in Afghanistan?
Over the past several days, analysts have described the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan as a massive “intelligence failure.” Yet for many Afghan women’s rights activists, the Taliban’s advances were anything but a surprise. For years they have been warning that the insurgents’ territorial expansion posed a threat to women’s security, and that an ill-prepared U.S. exit could erase women’s hard-won gains. As the United States rushed to evacuate its diplomatic personnel from Kabul on Sunday, many women voiced their sense of abandonment, anger, and despair.
Since 2001, the U.S. government has invested more than $787.4 million in promoting gender equality in Afghanistan, including in programs focused on maternal health, girls’ education, and women’s political participation. In some areas, international support helped local gender equality advocates achieve important gains. Other aid programs failed to have much of an impact, and violence and insecurity—including U.S. military actions—continued to undermine women’s mobility, health, and access to services. Overall, U.S. support for women’s rights in Afghanistan always remained subordinated to other strategic goals. As the White House’s focus shifted toward a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the concerns of women’s rights advocates and peacebuilders were increasingly sidelined.
Of course, Afghan women are not monolithic: they hold diverging views about the U.S. occupation and their country’s future. And Afghanistan today is different than it was in the 1990s. Women’s education as well as their economic and political participation is much higher than it was in the past. Yet even though the Taliban now claim that they are committed to upholding “women’s rights under Islam,” eyewitness accounts from Taliban-controlled areas tell a different story. Women have already been turned away from schools and universities, ordered not to leave their homes without a male guardian, and flogged for breaching Taliban-imposed rules. There have also been reports of forced marriages and targeted attacks against women and girls.
Although the situation on the ground remains highly fluid, Afghan women who have stood up for gender equality, democracy, and human rights clearly face imminent risks. In this context, the U.S. government and its NATO allies have a responsibility to ensure that Afghan gender equality activists, women journalists, and judges are considered a priority group for evacuation, emergency visas, and relocation support, and to mobilize humanitarian aid for refugees and those who are internally displaced. The international community also needs to use its limited leverage to press the Taliban to respect women’s rights, as even limited concessions will make a difference in a bad situation. And it needs to support those actors continuing the difficult fight for inclusion within the country and from abroad, rather than disengaging politically at this critical moment.
Rudra Chaudhuri: What Will India’s Diplomacy With a Taliban-Led Afghanistan Look Like?
Indian officials have engaged with Taliban representatives in Doha and elsewhere for some time, though Indian diplomats still face thorny choices ahead. Critics argue that this form of engagement could have been better organized, but contacts nonetheless exist. Taliban commanders and former leaders have gone out of their way to remark on India’s development investments in Afghanistan. On August 14, a day before Taliban fighters entered Kabul, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen stated that the group appreciated India’s efforts and “everything that has been done for the people of Afghanistan.”
This outreach notwithstanding, there are at least three sets of issues that Indian leaders will need to wrestle with as they craft a new strategy.
First, past experiences with the Taliban will shade India’s advance. India had no diplomatic presence in Afghanistan during the first Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. In 1999, an Indian commercial plane hijacked by terrorists from Pakistan, with 160 passengers, landed in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. The plane was released after three terrorists languishing in Indian prisons were freed. They were escorted from Kandahar to the Pakistani border by the Taliban. This memory has not faded.
Second, the Haqqani network, allied with the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, has attacked Indian interests in Afghanistan, including the Indian embassy. Sirajudin Haqqani, the present leader of the group, claims to see the importance of “maintaining friendly relations with all countries,” but this sentiment will be of little solace to Indian officials. As it formulates its strategy, India will need to confront the bitter reality that Pakistan has essentially won in Afghanistan.
Third, despite the limited available options, India is also uniquely positioned as a country with close working ties to European states, Iran, Russia, and the United States. If the Taliban practice what they have been preaching, which seems unlikely, India might just be able to find a workable balance between remaining engaged in Afghanistan without necessarily legitimizing the Islamic emirate.
India could support an international conference, such as a Bonn Conference 2.0, to discuss the transition of power in Afghanistan with all notable stakeholders, including Afghan politician Abdullah Abdullah, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and other former senior government officials still in Kabul. In the best-case scenario, by supporting such an international effort, India could be a part of a global partnership of countries invested in Afghanistan’s future. In the end, every strategic permutation will be dependent on the conduct of the Taliban government. Deeds rather than words are what matter.
Ryan Crocker: Was Pulling Out of Afghanistan a Mistake?
This was a mistake the United States will pay for in the years to come. Two decades after 9/11, a status quo had taken hold. The Taliban insurgency was alive and well, but Afghan security forces were holding their own with a steadily diminishing number of U.S. and NATO troops. Then Washington ran out of strategic patience. A year after proclaiming that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was based on conditions, not calendars, former president Donald Trump authorized direct U.S.-Taliban talks without the Afghan government present. This met a long-standing Taliban condition: readiness to talk to the Americans, but not with their puppets in Kabul. I said at the time that these talks were about American capitulation, not peace. And that is what they turned out to be. The indelible image of this catastrophic U.S. failure will be that U.S. Air Force C-17 plane taxiing for takeoff from Kabul surrounded by an Afghan mob desperate to get out of the country. The damage to U.S. national security and America’s reputation will be considerable. The United States has emboldened Islamic radicals everywhere as the Taliban produce a narrative of righteous believers defeating the infidels on the field of battle. The Taliban are back in control, and they will bring their al-Qaeda allies with them. This is not a hypothetical security threat. These are the groups that brought about 9/11, and they have not become kinder and gentler in the interim. At the same time, wholesale withdrawal will degrade U.S. intelligence capabilities, making it more difficult to identify emerging threats.
The United States has also placed those who have already risked their lives to support U.S. efforts in even greater danger. These potential recipients of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) will have to make their way to the airport through Taliban checkpoints. For those outside of Kabul, the danger is far greater. Afghan women and girls have been put at risk too. From the beginning, U.S. officials urged them to step forward. To pursue education. To run for office, establish businesses, and join the military. They did so, with the assurance that the Americans had their backs. Until we didn’t. They will pay a steep price for Washington’s lack of strategic patience.
It did not have to happen this way. There was a working and sustainable status quo. Driven by impatience, Trump initiated a policy to withdraw completely from Afghanistan, which U.S. President Joe Biden embraced with the results seen today. Biden accepts no responsibility for any aspect of how this withdrawal has been managed, instead blaming the Afghan government and security forces. When I was ambassador in 2011 and 2012, each week there was a solemn ceremony at the NATO-led military mission headquarters in which the names of those killed in action were read. The last to speak was always an Afghan officer. He did not read names. He simply said a number: 142. Or 137. Or 153. The number of fatalities that week. For the U.S. president to blame Afghan security forces for failing to fight after the sacrifices they have made and after he joined Trump in a calculated effort to delegitimize them is beneath the dignity of his office.
Judy Dempsey: How Is Europe Reacting to Afghanistan’s Fall?
The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan has made a mockery of the EU’s security and defense policy.
Most Western governments were unprepared for the extraordinary speed with which the Taliban took over the provincial capitals, arriving in Kabul on August 15.
But the German embassy, for one, had asked the defense ministry in Berlin several weeks ago to make preparations for evacuating its staff and local employees. That request was rejected.
As Kabul airport now becomes a security nightmare for evacuation operations, Germany, like other European countries, is finally trying to airlift out their staff and employees.
Instead of combining forces, each European country is doing its own thing. Despite years of calling for pooling and sharing resources, the crisis in Afghanistan has shown once again that Europe’s security policy, even on a civilian level and at this scale of urgency, does not exist in practice.
That deficit coincides with this crisis rekindling a debate over what policy the EU and European governments should have toward Afghan refugees.
Few governments want a repeat of 2011, after which 6 million refugees fled the war in Syria, with close to 1 million finding safety in Germany.
Even before the Taliban took over Afghanistan, EU leaders were getting ready to shut down the hatches. In early August, as if anticipating a crisis, a joint letter signed by the interior ministers from Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, and Denmark addressed to the EU’s executive, the European Commission, asked that deportations to Afghanistan for rejected asylum applicants should continue, despite the situation on the ground. “Stopping returns sends the wrong signal,” the letter read.
With the Taliban now in control, Chancellor Angela Merkel told her conservative party colleagues that Germany must evacuate up to 10,000 Afghans, including support staff, human rights activists, and others at risk.
But Armin Laschet, leader of the governing Christian Democrats who is hoping to become the next chancellor despite a miserable position in the polls, warned: “We should not send the signal that Germany can take in everyone in need. The focus must be on humanitarian aid on site, unlike in 2015.”
In France, President Emmanuel Macron said: “We must anticipate and protect ourselves against major irregular migratory flows that would endanger those who use them and feed trafficking of all kinds.”
Whatever decision EU leaders make over Afghan refugees, the crisis deals a heavy political and moral blow to the transatlantic relationship.
Neither NATO nor EU leaders were briefed in any detail about the practicalities and the consequences about U.S. President Joe Biden’s plans to take troops out of Afghanistan.
So much for the much-lauded transatlantic honeymoon Biden promised when he took office seven months ago. So much too for European governments fantasizing about “strategic autonomy” when Donald Trump was in the White House. So much also for the EU’s unquestionable belief in its ability to export values via its soft power instruments of development aid.
In short, the collapse of the West’s goals in Afghanistan leaves the transatlantic alliance vulnerable and weak as a security, political, and moral beacon. The Taliban takeover reveals a painful truth: Europe’s and the Americans’ ability to export values, democracy, or security has failed.
H.A. Hellyer: How Has the UK Reacted to the Crisis in Afghanistan?
Many will try to make what is happening in Afghanistan an American tragedy or a Western calamity. But the reality is that the NATO alliance over the past twenty years brought more costs to the Afghan people than it ever did to NATO members. That goes not only for the United States but also for the UK and Germany, who had the largest number of troops in Afghanistan following the U.S. contingent.
U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration have largely sought to blame the Afghan government for the current situation, shifting responsibility away from successive U.S. administrations for going to war without a plan for peace, for failing to effectively counter corruption in the Afghan administration (and arguably enabling it), for legitimizing the Taliban openly, and for such a needlessly chaotic withdrawal.
This tendency to shift blame has not surfaced in London, as the impetus for such a narrative is not politically necessary for UK leaders. The UK wasn’t in the driving seat of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, and all attention will be directed toward the United States. It is telling that British, European, and Western power is almost completely reduced to what the White House does or doesn’t do.
There won’t be any critique of Washington’s approach from Downing Street. Since the UK has now left the EU, there will be less of a need for London to engage with louder European voices that are cynically talking about the need to stop refugees from coming, which has been the line already emanating from France and Hungary. When the topic of values in European diplomacy arises, it won’t be lost on the world that French President Emmanuel Macron and Hungarian President Viktor Orbán raised this as a primary concern rather than empathizing with the fears of those refugees.
That means that other voices in London are given space to lobby for taking in refugees and to insist that London live up to at least some of its responsibilities to Afghans who wish to come to the UK, many of whom worked with British forces over the past twenty years in a myriad of capacities. These voices will be lobbying against the backdrop of significant anti-migrant sentiment; in this case, however, they will be aided by some significant figures on the right wing of British politics that feel some responsibility.
London will, nevertheless, also focus on the need to prevent the strengthening of international terrorist groups. What that focus will look like remains an open-ended question, given that British troops will be removed once the full evacuation is completed in the next few days.
Aaron David Miller: How Will Afghanistan Affect the Biden Presidency?
It’s often stunning how quickly presidential fortunes can change—for good or ill. Joe Biden assumed the U.S. presidency confronting perhaps the greatest challenge of national recovery of any president since Franklin Roosevelt. And since January he has managed to project an image of competency, prudent decisionmaking, and confidence—handling the rollout of the COVID-19 stimulus and vaccine, benefiting from a strong economy, and even setting the stage for the passage of the largest bipartisan legislation on infrastructure in two decades.
And then came Afghanistan.
The decision to withdraw U.S. forces by a certain date was the boldest and riskiest of his presidency, as he willfully pledged not to turn the war over to a fifth U.S. president. Few in his administration, however, imagined the risks would become apparent so quickly. The Taliban captured the provincial capitals, then Kabul, as the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces collapsed and melted away. There was chaos at the Kabul airport amid a frantic, tardy, and poorly planned evacuation effort. Images of Afghans who crept into the wheel well of a departing aircraft falling to their deaths will permanently scar his presidency. Even though his three predecessors bear most of the responsibility for the Afghan mess he inherited, this was a president who after all rightly touted his foreign policy credentials and competency in matters of national security and who personally predicted that there would be no Saigon-like ending to the American experience in Afghanistan.
What lasting impact U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will have on Biden’s foreign policy is not yet clear. It has confounded European allies, especially Britain; presaged more refugee flows; and tarnished the United States’ competency and image as a defender of democratic values. The administration may well feel compelled—as a corrective—to be tougher on authoritarian governments such as those in Iran or China or to stand firmer in defense of allies such as Taiwan. Times have changed. Still, it’s worth pointing out that fifteen years after the images of rooftop exits from Saigon—viewed as a permanent loss of U.S. credibility—America was being hailed as the world’s only superpower.
The medium-term political impact—in essence, the damage Afghanistan might do to Biden’s presidency—is another matter. Much may depend on whether the Afghan crisis persists or abates in U.S. consciousness and whether it will be just a temporary headline or become a long-term trend line. Republicans, to be sure, will try to make it the latter—a kind of Benghazi on steroids. They will blame Biden for losing Afghanistan and opening the door to the return of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. And the pictures from what is now the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will be bad, with plenty of talking points about Taliban abuses to back up GOP claims. Still, pre-withdrawal polls strongly suggested that most Americans supported withdrawal, and, barring his failure to secure the safety of Americans and their Afghan allies still in the country or a resurgence of extremist terror out of Afghanistan that claims American lives, Biden should survive the domestic fallout.
Indeed, the speech he gave on August 16 defending his decision reflected a president confident, certain, and committed to withdrawal even amid the chaos. He revealed no doubts, no regrets, and generally defended the poorly managed extrication of Americans and their Afghan allies. The speech ignored the impact withdrawal might have on allies or adversaries and for the most part, Afghanistan. In fact, it was quite consistent with Biden’s own focus on domestic priorities and his deep conviction that there was no foreign policy issue more potentially damaging or dangerous to his presidency or the American republic than the several challenges he faces at home. And it’s clear that this president is betting on the fact that the vast majority of Americans, who are tired of or simply uninterested in Afghanistan, are done with it. Whether Afghanistan is done with Joe Biden’s presidency remains to be seen.
Karim Sadjadpour: What Is Iran’s View of Taliban Rule in Afghanistan?
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the Islamic Republic of Iran cooperated with the United States in ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan and helping to assemble a post-Taliban Afghan government. Twenty years later, Iran’s revolutionaries celebrated the U.S. withdrawal and the return of the violent, intolerant, narcotrafficking Taliban that will undoubtedly bring instability, intolerance, and economic ruin to Afghanistan. Why?
Iranian calculations in Afghanistan shifted partly because of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which Tehran interpreted as part of a plan to bring down the Iranian regime. Rather than cooperate in making the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a success, Tehran felt incentivized to make them a smoldering failure, even if that instability spilled over its borders.
In time, as the Afghan government proved feckless and the Taliban proved resilient, Iran began to hedge its bets, simultaneously providing financial and military support to both the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. Iran routinely delivered bags of cash to Afghanistan’s elected presidents while arming the Taliban and paying bounties for U.S. soldiers the Taliban killed.
Iran’s strategic duplicity in Afghanistan also reflects the inherent tension between Iran’s national interests and the revolutionary ethos of its Islamic government. Although tenuous stability in Afghanistan served the national interests of Iran, a U.S. presence in Afghanistan was anathema to the revolutionary values of the Islamic Republic. In the choice between two longtime adversaries, Tehran prefers Taliban-led disorder to U.S.-backed order.
Although the Sunni, fundamentalist Taliban may once have been Shia Iran’s adversary—the two sides nearly went to war in 1998—today the primary driver of Iranian revolutionary ideology is not religion but opposition to the United States and Israel. The Islamic Republic is happy to partner with nonreligious allies in Pyongyang and Caracas, as well as Sunni radical groups—including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Taliban, and even at times al-Qaeda—with whom Tehran shares common adversaries.
The U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban’s return will also increase Afghan refugee flows and drug exports, which could prove costly for Iran. Iran was once home to 2 million Afghan refugees, more than half of whom returned home after the 2001 U.S. removal of the Taliban. The return of many of these refugees and the sudden influx of cheap Afghan labor in Iran could exacerbate social tensions given Tehran’s inability to meet the economic and employment needs of its own citizens.
More than 80 percent of the global heroin supply originates in Afghanistan, much of which is transported westward via the porous Iran-Afghanistan border. Iran spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and loses thousands of soldiers, to counter the flow of cheap drugs into the country, which (coupled with unemployment and social repression) have given it one of the world’s highest rates of drug addiction.
Tehran was quick to recognize the Taliban’s return to power, and Iran’s state media ordered its journalists not to criticize the Taliban. If the Taliban resume their persecution of Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia minority, however, Tehran may feel compelled to mobilize its approximately 30,000-strong Afghan Shia militia—known as the Fatemiyoun Brigade—which it cultivated to defend Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The first impact of the Taliban’s ascendance may not be felt on Iran’s border but instead in its ongoing nuclear negotiations with the United States. Having badly managed to empower one group of anti-American Islamists in Kabul, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration may be compelled to take a tougher negotiating stance with Iran.
James Schwemlein: How Should the United States Engage With Afghanistan’s New Taliban Government?
U.S. policymakers face difficult choices as they consider how best to interact with the Taliban’s emerging government. For now, the U.S. government should actively but cautiously engage with the Taliban with three goals in mind.
First, in the near term, U.S. officials should act to enable the evacuation of both the expatriate community and Afghans who helped the U.S. and NATO effort or are at high risk of retaliation due to the Taliban’s victory, while also creating space to provide necessary humanitarian relief to the Afghan people. The tenuous modus vivendi that appears to have developed between the Taliban and U.S. and NATO forces at Hamid Karzai International Airport needs to be sustained to facilitate the ongoing evacuation effort. The unfortunate reality is that the current construct of this evacuation, even of high-risk individuals, requires Taliban cooperation. Policymakers also need to ensure that the Afghan people continue to have access to food, water, and basic health and education services.
Second, U.S. officials need to keep nudging and encouraging the Taliban to maintain basic women’s rights and protect minority groups. The Taliban appear to be implementing a deliberate plan in these early days to renovate their international reputation and offer reassurance to Afghan groups. The images of Taliban officials encouraging female doctors and nurses to continue working in hospitals, meeting with Kabul’s small Sikh community, and attending Muharram services with Kabul’s Hazara Shia minority are all part of these efforts. There is too much history to take these measures at face value but assuming they are all deception will effectively guarantee a bad result. If policymakers treat the Taliban as a pariah, they will almost certainly become a pariah; if policymakers engage with the Taliban and encourage them to be a more responsible government this time, they might well still turn into a pariah, but there is a chance for a better outcome for U.S. interests and for the Afghan people. It is important that U.S. and international engagement, through both diplomacy and humanitarian assistance, be designed to prompt the Taliban to fill in actions behind the words of Taliban spokespeople.
Third, U.S. policymakers need to keep focused on the security risk profile associated with the Taliban’s return to power. Media reports indicate that General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned members of Congress that the speed of the Taliban’s victory could embolden militant groups and increase the terrorism threat. The February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement was premised on a set of basic assurances that the Taliban will not allow Afghan soil to be used by terrorist groups who threaten the United States and U.S. allies, but these assurances were both insufficiently concrete and have been overtaken by events. While terrorist groups today now have multiple territorial options from which they can threaten U.S. and international security, a hostile and uncooperative relationship with a Taliban-dominated government could pose a significant threat to regional and international security.
Having said that, the emerging Taliban emirate faces many tests, including consolidating control of territory outside of Kabul and other cities and standing up a new governing authority, ideally with the inclusion of other Afghan political groups. There seem to be more opportunities for the situation in Afghanistan to deteriorate than there are for it to improve. But continuing engagement with the new regime is the best option available to avoid even worse outcomes.
Aqil Shah: How Is Pakistan Reacting to Taliban Rule in Afghanistan?
Pakistan’s military-backed prime minister, Imran Khan, has endorsed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan by saying that Afghans have “broken the shackles of slavery.” Several ministers in his cabinet, retired generals close to the army’s high command, and the country’s main Islamist parties have openly welcomed the group’s triumph in Afghanistan as a victory for the Muslim world.
Pakistan’s leaders believe Taliban rule will increase their leverage in Afghanistan and sideline their archrival, India, which they believe had expanded its diplomatic and political footprint in Afghanistan at Islamabad’s expense during the rule of former presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. With the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s proximity to landlocked Afghanistan and the depth of its influence over the Taliban will position Islamabad as the primary diplomatic conduit between the Taliban regime and the international community. This stature will put Islamabad at the forefront of communicating with the Taliban leadership, channeling humanitarian assistance, and potentially helping conduct future U.S. counterterrorism operations if transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda are able to reconstitute themselves in Afghanistan.
But Taliban rule in Afghanistan is not risk-free and could embolden militant groups inside Pakistan. Pakistan should be especially on guard against more empowered fighters in the ranks of the Deobandi Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan), a collection of jihadists and sectarians who aim to topple Pakistan’s government from their perch along the Afghan border.
After conducting a spree of terrorist strikes in Pakistan in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the group sought refuge in Afghanistan to escape reprisals from the Pakistani government. More recently, the group has stepped up violence against the Pakistani military. It also has carried out deadly terrorist attacks against Chinese interests in Pakistan, such as a bombing that killed several people in July 2021, including Chinese workers on a Beijing-funded hydropower project. The Pakistani Taliban have ideological and operational ties to the Afghan Taliban, but it certainly isn’t a given that the jihadi group’s Afghan compatriots will feel any strong obligation to rein them in.
For Pakistan’s ruling generals, these risks are collateral damage in their pursuit of their country’s perceived national security interests vis-à-vis India and quest for greater geopolitical influence in Afghanistan. What degree of domestic unrest and regional fallout this decision will produce remains to be seen.
Dmitri Trenin: What Is Russia’s Response to Afghanistan?
Even a few years ago, Russian policymakers concluded that the Taliban would ultimately win in Afghanistan and began to brace for it. At the diplomatic level, Moscow established contacts with the Taliban. At the military and security level, it began to strengthen its alliances and partnerships in Central Asia and started exercising with regional forces. Just last month, the Russian foreign ministry hosted a Taliban delegation for talks in Moscow—despite the fact that the Taliban have been banned in Russia since 2001. Just last week, Russia completed military drills with Uzbek and Tajik troops along the Afghan border. With the Taliban entering Kabul, the Russian mission did not evacuate from Afghanistan and stayed to remain in contact with the new authorities and watch the developments from within.
Essentially, Russia’s problem is not who rules Afghanistan, but whether Afghanistan again becomes a base for extremist forces. Over the past two decades, the Kremlin viewed U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, on balance, as more positive than negative for Russia. While they blamed Washington for condoning an explosive rise in drugs production and trafficking from Afghanistan, they also recognized that U.S. troops prevented extremists from taking over the country and thus posing a threat to Russia’s neighbors in Central Asia.
If U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was widely expected, Russian observers were surprised by the virtually instant implosion of the Afghan government and its security and armed forces. Many compare this with the Soviet troops departing from Afghanistan in 1989, leaving in place a government that held out for another two and a half years. The Moscow-friendly regime might have stayed in power longer, if it hadn’t been for the collapse of the Soviet Union itself and Russia’s new authorities deciding to cut all supplies to Kabul.
The present chaotic circumstances have allowed Moscow to spread two messages. One, mostly aimed at the domestic audience, is the accelerating decline of U.S. global leadership. The other one, mostly beamed abroad, is the unreliability of the United States as an ally. This latter message is particularly directed at Ukraine.
Sober strategists, however, understand that America’s defeat is not necessarily Russia’s win. The fall of Kabul to an Islamist radical movement has enthused many extremists across the Muslim world, who are likely to pose a threat to Russia and its neighbors in Central Asia. It was to avert that same threat that provoked Moscow to intervene in Syria in 2015.
Despite all the reputational damage it has sustained, the United States, many Russians would agree, has finally washed its hands of its long and hopeless war. The resultant mess has now landed in the lap of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including China, Iran, and Russia. Unlike Washington, however, Moscow cannot walk away.
Stephen Wertheim: Was Pulling Out of Afghanistan a Mistake?
Kabul’s fall to the Taliban is a horrific event, one that augurs more horrors to come. The United States betrayed the Afghans it protected, particularly women and girls, by promising them a Taliban-free future that it could never fulfill.
What is unfolding in Afghanistan is so tragic that it ought to represent the worst possible outcome. And yet, one alternative was worse still: continuing the U.S. war effort. That would have meant sending more U.S. service members to kill and be killed for the sole purpose of slowing the Afghan government’s defeat. Such a course would have hurt Americans without ultimately helping Afghans. For U.S. President Joe Biden, it was unacceptable.
Biden made a correct and important decision to withdraw U.S. ground troops, even though the immediate humanitarian impact has been even worse than anticipated. For most of the two-decade-long conflict, the United States fought an unnecessary war for an unachievable objective. It aimed to build a centralized, Western-style state in a country that had no such thing, and it tried to make that state, despite being dependent on external support, somehow become independent. The swift collapse of the Afghan security forces confirms what the administration had concluded: no further amount of time or effort would have produced a substantially better result.
As the Afghan army melted away, some in Washington pleaded that Biden reverse the withdrawal and mount a new offensive. Others argued that the war had been a sustainable, low-cost affair before former president Donald Trump and then Biden opted to quit. Because of that war, however, nearly 2,500 U.S. service members are no longer alive to register an opinion on the matter. Nor would the immediate satisfaction of hitting the Taliban once more produce a plan to achieve what two decades, $2.3 trillion, and a peak of 100,000 U.S. troops could not.
The United States still faces two major problems in Afghanistan. The first is how to rescue vulnerable Afghans who wish to leave their country and settle in the United States or elsewhere. The second is how to drive a wedge between Afghanistan’s new government and al-Qaeda so as to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States. These are significant challenges, though they do not diminish the decision to withdraw.
For Americans, a third challenge may prove most important of all: coming to terms with defeat instead of indulging the fantasy that somehow, in some way, an unwinnable war could have been won.