The Taliban didn’t wait for the end of the movie President Donald Trump began directing a year and a half ago. Last week they clicked on fast forward and advanced quickly toward Kabul, the capital, shoving Washington into a struggle to avoid a remake of the scene in 1979 when Iranian Islamic revolutionaries captured the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
Just last month President Joe Biden said optimistically, “The jury is still out. But the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” It’s doubtful that his rosy prediction had any basis in concrete intelligence, after the Taliban had already taken control of 60 percent of Afghanistan and the talks held in Doha, Qatar up to the last minute fell apart completely. Now all Biden can do is to hope that the 3,000 soldiers he sent into Afghanistan to extract embassy staff and any remaining U.S. citizens can complete their mission without adding to the toll of American fatalities in the country’s longest war since World War II, a war in which thousands of U.S. soldiers died and that cost about $1 trillion during its 20-year duration.
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This is the second time that the U.S. has abandoned Afghanistan. The first time, it helped the Mujahedeen rebels fighting the Soviet occupation of their country, which began in 1979 and ended when the Soviet forces withdrew in 1989. Moscow’s defeat also eliminated the pretext for continuing to support the rebels (though it continued to provide arms and funding via Pakistan. The administration of George H.W. Bush turned its back on a state it considered a critical outpost in the Cold War against the USSR, and soon afterward a destructive civil war between tribal leaders erupted. It ended only in 1996, the year the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan, turned it into rubble, imposed Muslim extremism, destroyed the foundations of culture, implemented sharia in accordance with their own draconian interpretations, stripped women of their rights and embraced Al-Qaida.
No one has any illusions today about the devastation Afghanistan can expect under the restored leadership of the Taliban. Kabul is set to fall within days, or a few weeks at most. The government of President Ashraf Ghani, 72, a U.S.-educated anthropologist and economist who won elections in 2014 and 2019, lost its authority. The army, whose 300,000 soldiers were trained by the U.S. and its allies in the war, has already given up fighting the Taliban. High-ranking officers and combat soldiers alike laid down their arms and began searching for refuge, and more than 400,000 citizens have fled their homes in the wake of the battles and the massacres carried out by the Taliban.
Washington has made it clear that it has no interest in getting involved in the new war and that the Afghan government must solve its own problems. The U.S. or the international community will likely intervene only if Afghanistan once again develops into an international terror threat or targets Western interests abroad. But the Taliban, which has gained diplomatic and political experience over the past two decades, is unlikely to remain shunned and isolated. In the past year its leaders have held intensive talks with Russia and China, and its representatives have held contacts with Iran, despite their religious and ideological differences. They have even received massive economic support from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. The Taliban’s traditional ally, Pakistan, will now reap the fruits of its dealings with the Taliban, in exchange for political influence.
According to spokesmen for the Taliban, they will pursue international legitimacy for their regime and of course endeavor to avoid international sanctions. That aspiration may offer a way to have at least some leverage over the regime’s treatment of Afghan citizens, though I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for China, Iran or Russia to have a positive effect on human rights in Afghanistan.
The collapse of Afghanistan is shattering another diplomatic “achievement,” boastfully touted by Trump, the artist of the deal, who bequeathed Biden an impossible legacy. The festive atmosphere in which the agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban (The Islamic Emirate, as it was called in that agreement) was signed in February 2020, under the auspices of the Americans and Qataris, held up only briefly. According to the agreement, the U.S. committed to completely withdraw from Afghan territory; the Afghan side presented a mechanism which would prevent the use of its territory as a base for attacks against American targets; the Afghan government and the Taliban would hold negotiations (over joint rule) in the course of which conditions and dates would be established for a general cease-fire. Of these basic principles, only one practical one remains.
- Taliban launch assault on northern city, seize province south of capital
- Taliban captures two major cities in Afghanistan as insurgent push continues
- Taliban surge will force Iran to forge a new defense strategy
The U.S. set August 31 as the date for the completion of its withdrawal. The cease-fire never took hold and negotiations between the Taliban and the government never began. The commitment to prevent anti-American activities in or from Afghan territory will have to be tested by the U.S. shortly. None of this prevented Trump from relating to this agreement as an important diplomatic document that would consolidate his decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan. Biden can only be thankful that Trump is the one responsible for the agreement, which allows him to use if for the same purpose. But given the strident final chord of the American adventure in Afghanistan, one might wonder why it was necessary to draw it out for 20 years.
George W. Bush, who conquered the country in 2001, had powerful reasons for doing so, which afforded the war international legitimacy. The U.S. was obliged to avenge the 9/11 attacks and destroy the Taliban regime that refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden, along with eliminating Al-Qaida’s infrastructure. Bin Laden himself was eliminated in May 2011, during Barack Obama’s term, but the war against Al-Qaida continued around the world, its intensity subsiding with the rise of ISIS, a successor of Al-Qaida. In Afghanistan, paradoxically, some Taliban forces were partners to the campaign against ISIS, thereby serving American interests, as well as those of Iran, which was concerned about ISIS infiltration into its territory.
Was it necessary to continue keeping large American forces in Afghanistan to continue the fight against Al-Qaida after 2011, or had America become captive to a policy which no one dared change even though it had long been clear that it could not guarantee the local government’s control over the country’s entire territory? Should this even be a goal of a patron power? More importantly, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and later from Iraq, poses questions regarding the paradigm of direct and prolonged conquest as a strategic means of ensuring diplomatic interests. It seems the U.S. has already reached its conclusion.