What Becomes of the Afghans?
After twenty years of fighting, the Taliban still controls about one-fifth of the territory of Afghanistan, and it’s likely stronger than at any point since 2001. Meanwhile, the Afghan government is still mired in corruption and its security forces have proven incapable of resisting the Taliban’s advances across the country. Afghanistan is the United States’ longest war—a significant proportion of the American military was born after the 9/11 attacks. These are just a few of the reasons why it’s understandable for Americans to feel that the war should have ended long ago, but they’re also the reasons President Joe Biden is about to make a disastrous mistake by completely withdrawing from the country.
As the Biden administration prepares to remove all remaining U.S. forces from Afghanistan on the twentieth anniversary of September 11, the United States and its partners just have to hope that the Taliban will no longer allow al Qaeda or other terror groups to operate from territory under its control. This hope is almost certainly in vain. A recent United Nations report found that the Taliban still has a strong relationship with al Qaeda. But at least the Taliban has an incentive (avoiding the redeployment of U.S. troops) to prevent al Qaeda and other terror groups from launching attacks from Afghanistan. The hope for Afghan civil society and all the people who have fought for years to move the country from a backward theocracy toward a more modern and pluralistic state is even dimmer. These are the people about whom President Biden expressed a level of indifference bordering on contempt when he said “our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unclear” during his address to the nation about the withdrawal.
Those who wish to see the United States out of Afghanistan regard the length of the war as a grim absurdity, as if the exit strategy has been obvious all along. Biden captured this attitude well when he observed that Osama bin Laden has been dead since 2011: “That was 10 years ago. Think about that. We delivered justice to bin Laden a decade ago, and we’ve stayed in Afghanistan for a decade since.” Biden’s incredulity about the fact that the United States stayed in Afghanistan after the raid that killed bin Laden (which he counseled against) betrays a refusal to acknowledge the wrenching trade-offs that have always defined the war.
After September 11, there was significant international support for military action against the Taliban. NATO invoked its collective defense provision for the first time in its history, world leaders lined up behind the United States, and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan consisted of 130,000 troops from 50 countries at its height. There was also overwhelming domestic support for the war, with 80 percent of Americans backing a ground invasion in November 2001—an invasion then-Senator Biden voted for and strongly supported. Despite his suggestion that the United States had no business in Afghanistan beyond “deliver[ing] justice” to bin Laden, Biden had a radically different view several months after the invasion: “Security is the basic issue in Afghanistan,” he said in February 2002. “Whatever it takes, we should do it. History will judge us harshly if we allow the hope of a liberated Afghanistan to evaporate because we failed to stay the course.”
During the 2008 Democratic primary, Biden mocked Barack Obama for his “Johnny-Come-Lately Position” on sending more troops and aid to Afghanistan, pointing out that he had co-authored the first bill which authorized reconstruction assistance (his early demand for billions in aid to Afghanistan was rebuffed) and boasting about his calls for more investment and a greater commitment of U.S. forces. But after he became vice president, Biden almost immediately reversed his position. When the time came to decide whether the Obama administration would authorize a troop surge in late 2009, Biden told the president that sending a large influx of U.S. forces to Afghanistan was a catastrophic mistake. Biden became the in-house skeptic on Afghanistan from that point onward, arguing that the corruption of Hamid Karzai’s government was intractable, expressing doubt that the United States could stabilize the country with more time and troops, and making the case for a modest deployment focused on counterterrorism forces instead.
To the extent that Biden ever cared about human rights in Afghanistan, this concern disappeared when he became vice president—the latest in a string of reconfigurations of his principles and priorities. In the early 1990s, Biden pushed for intervention in Bosnia, and he was unsparing in his criticism of the Clinton administration’s inaction: “We have turned our backs on aggression,” he said. “We have turned our backs on atrocity. We have turned our backs on conscience.” After refusing to support the Gulf War, Biden decided that the United States should march on Baghdad and remove Saddam Hussein from power: He supported the invasion of Iraq a decade later. But despite his grand statements about being on the right side of history after the “liberation” of Afghanistan, his commitment to the Afghan people was fickle. One senior Obama administration official observed that Biden “had . . . empathy for the people in the Balkans. He even had it for people in Iraq. I never saw it in Afghanistan.”
Afghans are under no illusions. Once the United States is out of the country, the Taliban will be part of any future government. And despite American fantasies of power-sharing, the group will likely become a dominant part of that government—an outcome President Ashraf Ghani and members of the current Afghan government have vowed to resist.
As peace negotiations stall amid the U.S. withdrawal—which destroyed the last traces of leverage Washington had in the “peace” process—the Taliban’s behavior and rhetoric have become increasingly menacing and triumphalist. Consider this statement from Sirajuddin Haqqani, a high-ranking Taliban official: “No mujahid ever thought that one day we would face such an improved state, or that we will crush the arrogance of the rebellious emperors, and force them to admit their defeat at our hands.” This isn’t the attitude of leaders preparing to work toward an orderly process of political reintegration. It’s the attitude of conquering warlords.
That’s exactly what the leaders of the Taliban are. They know it, the Afghan government knows it, the Afghan people know it, and Washington knows it. Why would the Taliban make concessions now, when victory after two decades of grinding warfare is so near at hand? The Afghan security forces are incapable of capturing and holding large tracts of territory even with U.S. and NATO support. NATO has announced that it will withdraw along with the United States, and all the Taliban has to do is wait a few more months. The Taliban shows every indication of attempting to seize as much power as possible after the departure of international forces—a process that will entail the brutal punishment of many Afghans who will be branded collaborators, and the suppression of those who wish to observe and maintain some semblance of liberal values.
Meanwhile, the current government in Kabul has no intention of submitting to Taliban domination, and militias elsewhere in the country are preparing for protracted fighting, perhaps even civil war. As the New York Times reports: “Longtime power brokers in the country’s west and north have rallied fighters to defend against the Taliban, if necessary,” also observing that the “Taliban rely on fear to keep local populations in rural areas quiescent. An effective tool is the insurgents’ hidden network of ad hoc underground prisons where torture and punishment are meted out to those suspected of working for, or with, the government.” This is a glimpse of post-withdrawal Afghanistan. The only difference is the Taliban’s power will be institutionalized rather than ad hoc, open rather than secret, and less contained. Parts of Afghanistan will soon revert to the theocratic nightmare that existed before the intervention, while other parts will be violently contested.
When NATO announced that it would withdraw from Afghanistan along with the United States, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the move marked the “start of a new chapter” in the alliance’s relationship with Afghanistan and declared that “Allies and partners will continue to stand with the Afghan people, but it is now for the Afghan people to build a sustainable peace.” In his speech announcing the full withdrawal of U.S. forces, Biden assured us that the United States would “support peace talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban.” He asked for neighboring countries to “do more to support Afghanistan” and said it’s time to “determine what a continued U.S. diplomatic presence in Afghanistan will look like.” He promised that the U.S. would “continue to support the rights of Afghan women and girls by maintaining significant humanitarian and development assistance.”
But it’s no secret that securing these rights is low on Biden’s list of concerns. When Richard Holbrooke, then serving as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, suggested in 2010 that the United States couldn’t abandon the people of Afghanistan, particularly the women, Biden snapped: “I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights.”
Despite his avowed humanitarian concern and his empty promises of diplomacy without leverage, Biden doesn’t seem particularly to care what happens in Afghanistan after U.S forces depart. Of course he wants to prevent future terror attacks launched from Afghan soil, but his apparent tolerance for the future suffering of the Afghan people—including many who worked with the United States and took its promises to help them build a free and democratic society seriously—is extremely high. As he put it in his speech last month, he believes it’s time to “fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20.” There will be no “new chapter” or “sustainable peace” in Afghanistan. There will only be more bloodshed and repression while the rest of the world watches helplessly.
One of the most suggestive moments of Biden’s speech on Afghanistan was when he insisted that he’s bound by a slapdash agreement with the Taliban pieced together by President Trump months before he left the White House. “When I came to office,” Biden said, “I inherited a diplomatic agreement, duly negotiated between the government of the United States and the Taliban, that all U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, just three months after my inauguration. That’s what we inherited—that commitment.” He continued:
It is perhaps not what I would have negotiated myself, but it was an agreement made by the United States government, and that means something. So, in keeping with that agreement and with our national interests, the United States will begin our final withdrawal—begin it on May 1 of this year.
While many of Biden’s arguments—about the cost and length of the war, for instance—are made in good faith, this one is an exception. Biden clearly doesn’t consider himself bound by a vast range of other agreements made by the U.S. government while Trump was in charge of it (to take just one example, the Biden administration is suspending the Trump-approved sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia), but he’s willing to cynically use the agreement on Afghanistan to suggest that he has no choice but to withdraw. He’s echoing the Obama administration’s equally disingenuous assertion that the end of the 2008 status-of-forces agreement with Iraq left him no choice but to withdraw entirely. As if the transparent opportunism of Biden’s statement wasn’t bad enough, he publicly shackled himself to a terrible policy, as Dexter Filkins recently explained in the New Yorker:
Trump was clearly desperate to make a deal that would allow him to say that he had ended the war. When the Taliban refused to include the Afghan government in the talks, the U.S. did not insist. [A] senior American official told me, “The Trump people were saying, ‘Fuck this—the Afghans are never going to make peace anyway. Besides, who cares whether they agree or not?’” As the talks progressed, Trump repeatedly announced troop withdrawals, depriving his negotiators of leverage.
Filkins cited a CBS report which revealed that senior Taliban leaders were fans of Trump. One of them observed that “Trump might be ridiculous for the rest of the world, but he is [a] sane and wise man for the Taliban.” It’s no surprise that the Taliban was fond of Trump—Filkins relayed the complaints of an American negotiator that Trump was “steadily undermining us. The trouble with the Taliban was, they were getting it for free.”
None of this matters to those who are desperate to see the United States out of Afghanistan at any cost. In an essay celebrating the “far-sighted, bold, and risky” decision to withdraw, Peter Beinart praised Biden for his willingness to countenance a “potential Taliban takeover of Kabul, let alone terrorist attacks from Afghan soil.” These risks are well worth running in Beinart’s mind, but has he considered what will actually happen if a mass casualty terror attack is launched from Afghan soil? Just as the Obama administration was forced to redeploy troops to Iraq when the Islamic State tore through the country a few years after the American exit, Biden may find that the conflicts of the past 20 years can’t be shrugged off so easily. Beinart believes the Biden administration and “Democratic foreign policy types” want to “clear the deck” to focus on China, which is exactly what the Obama administration tried to do with its “pivot” to Asia. We know how that turned out. The rest of the world isn’t going to stand down and comfortably squeeze itself into whatever new grand strategy “Democratic foreign policy types” want to pursue.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden said he believed the United States should maintain a residual force of “several thousand people [in Afghanistan] to make sure that we have a place from which we can operate, if in fact, you find that there’s a re-amassing . . . of al-Qaeda and or ISIS capacity to strike the United States.” While Biden has long been wary of expanding the United States’s mission in Afghanistan, it’s clear that he’s also aware of the immense danger of a complete withdrawal. Now that he has reversed his position on keeping a modest contingent of U.S. forces in Afghanistan—hardly the sort of commitment that would have kept the United States from addressing the threat posed by China, by the way—it’s worth asking why. As Beinart notes, one possible answer isn’t edifying.
Beyond Biden’s desire to reorient the United States’s focus on China, Beinart believes the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is the result of a simple political calculation: “It wasn’t just that Trump had already promised to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan,” he wrote, echoing Biden’s attempt to present the withdrawal as somehow inevitable. Beinart argues that Trump “showed Democrats like Biden that the old conventional wisdom about ‘losing’ wars may no longer hold. Unless Afghanistan incubates another major attack on the U.S., most ordinary Republicans—as well as most Democrats—won’t blame Biden for leaving it to its fate.” In other words, it doesn’t matter how horrible things get for the civil society we helped to build or the friends we promised to protect in Afghanistan—Biden doesn’t believe he’ll pay a political price for letting the country collapse. This isn’t just a risky bet. It’s an ugly one.