Over the Summer we’ve seen the debate over the tactics of withdrawal from Afghanistan ebb and flow as headlines announce more bad news. Those debates are interspersed with biting Weekend Section-length paeans to the failure of U.S. policy, meant to serve as retrospectives both for our effort there and our place in the world.
But what we’ve also seen is a second failure, the abrupt and significant absence of a necessary debate over how and if the United States should respond to the ongoing crisis and civil war in Afghanistan. Our representatives in Washington, most supportive of withdrawal and many very recently elected, saw their policy aim implemented, and they now own the risk that follows. To borrow a phrase from earlier this century, what happens now is “on their watch.”
Our interest in turning away prevented us – the politicians and the people – from considering even the basic elements of a withdrawal plan that does justice to our twenty-year effort. Unladen from all the domestic baggage – the neocons versus the isolationists, Republicans versus Democrats, Obama or Trump versus the reluctant generals – there’s a massive conflict brewing in a country where the implications tend not to remain local.
A majority of Americans support withdrawal, but most Americans probably presumed there was at least some coherent strategy for protecting their safety. There is not. The Biden administration withdrew without basic details worked out in advance. The two identifiable tactics as it relates to supporting the Afghan government are ad hoc airstrikes against the Taliban, and a round of utterly humiliating hashtag diplomacy as U.S. leaders are forced to pretend the peace process has any relevance of credibility. This week the administration even threatened that any government taking power in Afghanistan absent the Doha peace process would be internationally isolated. You might have sensed that will not deter the Taliban.
Not once has the administration provided a clear rationale for when they’ll intervene via air support, leaving both the American people and our own Afghan allies guessing as to when we’ll intervene. Nor are there clear answers – in press conference after press conference – as to the scope or duration of, or authority for, our air support in the current civil war. Further, nor have we squared how U.S. air support to the Afghan government – dependent on Pakistani grant of overflight rights – will be sustainable in the face of Pakistan’s eventual support for the formalization and recognition of a complete Taliban takeover. The most likely explanation is that the administration hopes to use the remaining weeks of their announced timeline to slow the advance of the Taliban, preventing the collapse of the Afghan government until after we depart. At that departure date, we’ll likely cease all air support as well.
The defense and counterterrorism strategy relies on a Drone-First approach. What’s referred to as an ‘over-the-horizon’ plan depends on an ever-harder to sustain intelligence presence sufficient to detect and disrupt terrorist attack planning. To execute that strategy, we fly from bases in the Middle East through the only place to admit us overflight rights so far, Pakistan, a country we suspect tipped off allied militants and terrorists in past strikes.
Not once has the administration provided a clear threshold for CT intervention. It’s unclear what maturity of threat planning they’ll respond to, what degree of overall terrorist activity in Afghanistan poses a threat to the homeland, or how they’ll monitor the threat as our allies are killed and the intelligence picture fades in the wake of sweeping Taliban advances.
For now, the Taliban are poised for an even greater stranglehold over Afghanistan than they had for much of the nineties, with the international supporters of their opponents cowed and Russians, Pakistanis, and Iranians ascendant sponsors of the Taliban or other militias suitable to their regional interests. Taliban control over the country may even include the areas that had been traditional redoubts of resistance and relative safety for ethnic Tajiks and others. Territory matters, both for the ability to extract tribute and weapons from conquered enemies, but also because the Taliban can expand the drug trade it’s already ramping up to include not just heroin but also methamphetamine.
We could be on track for not only a more powerful and defiant Taliban than in the 1990’s but a terrorist safe haven more robust than in the years leading up to 9/11.