The United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan was a watershed event in 21st-century geopolitics. In leaving Afghanistan, President Biden intended to free the US from unwanted and far-flung obligations. But the end of American presence in Afghanistan will invite a new host of challenges for American policymakers. Our disastrous finale in Afghanistan will stand as an invitation to aggression for America’s enemies.
The immediate damage caused by our shambolic withdrawal was splashed across news headlines for all to see: The abandonment of American citizens and Afghan allies; millions of people left behind to Taliban misrule; billions of dollars in military equipment handed over to an avowed enemy of western values. But the longer-term effects will soon be felt as well.
The US has shown a total lapse in geo-strategic competence, combined with a political surge of neo-isolationism. This combination will put tremendous pressure on our rivals to test American resolve. Our allies, particularly those who are geographically vulnerable like Ukraine and Taiwan, must reassess whether they can stake their survival on US commitments. The world is watching to see whether the fiasco in Afghanistan was a blunder or a signal of the end of American resolve in foreign affairs.
What Went Wrong
The root cause of US failure in Afghanistan was lack of focus. After the escape of Osama Bin Laden in 2001 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, no one could clearly articulate the goals of the American project in Afghanistan. Over time, the practical purpose of American intervention became the maintenance of an unhappy but highly beneficial status quo: The Afghan central government controlled most of the population centers, while the Taliban controlled the hinterland. US military and economic aid propped up the Afghan Republic, which, despite its profound corruption and ineptitude, was a step forward from the fundamentalist theocracy of the Taliban. The US maintained a strategic listening post in Central Asia and could stymie terrorist operations before they matured.
But a narrative had formed and hardened in American domestic politics: Afghanistan was a failure, a quagmire, an example of hubristic distraction from America’s real problems. Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden all promised that the US would leave Afghanistan as soon as possible. American insistence on a near-term withdrawal demoralized our Afghan allies and encouraged the resurgent Taliban.
But American pessimism belied the reality on the ground. Despite frequent condemnation of ‘forever wars’ by politicians and pundits, US and NATO forces were rarely in combat in Afghanistan, and had shifted to a supporting role of Afghan forces. No US personnel were killed in Afghanistan from March 2020 to August 2021, and US expenditures had dropped precipitously since 2012. Afghans were beginning to enjoy the stability and progress of urbanization, public health access, and education. US involvement in Afghanistan was progressing to become a lightweight commitment, similar to what the US provides in Middle Eastern countries and across the Sahel. Nevertheless, President Biden decided the US needed to leave at all costs, so in August 2021, the US left – at great cost indeed. Within weeks, the Taliban overran the country and re-established despotic rule over the Afghan people.
What’s Next for Afghanistan
The Taliban is not interested in governance in the traditional sense. They do not care much about taxation and the administration of government services. They are much more concerned with judicial power. The primary goal of the Taliban Emirate is to promote and safeguard the piety of their subjects under an extremely narrow, fundamentalist reading of Sharia law. To protect the spiritual purity of the Afghan people, the Taliban has indicated they will reinstate the rules they put in place in the 1990s: Banning music, haircuts, and women leaving the home alone. Enforcement of Taliban religious rule will be severe: One of the few opportunities for entertainment, when the Taliban was last in power, was to go to a soccer stadium to watch mass executions and public torture of ‘heretics.’
The Taliban may not grant safe haven to terrorist groups as they did before the World Trade Center attacks. As journalist Peter Bergen documented, the Taliban had a very rocky relationship with al-Qaeda in the days leading up to September 11, 2001. Afghanistan’s leader Mullah Omar had given shelter to al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, but Omar came to regret this decision. Bin Laden’s insatiable desire for media attention and bellicose declarations against Saudi Arabia and the US were destabilizing to Taliban rule even before the 9/11 attacks.
Both the Taliban and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS despise Western liberal values and want to enshrine Taliban-style Emirates across the Muslim world. But the Taliban is fundamentally inward-looking, and is not driven by a need to export terrorism to the West. Nevertheless, much of Afghanistan is inaccessible mountain tribe land, geographically difficult to govern. A haphazard and disorganized central Taliban government that is permissive of Islamic extremism may create a safe haven for terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, whether it explicitly means to or not.
More broadly, the Taliban’s ‘victory’ over the US in Afghanistan is already being used far and wide as a propaganda material for terrorist groups. The Biden administration may learn the painful lesson that you cannot single-handedly decide a war is over if your enemy disagrees.
The Cost of Dishonor
The concept of honor may seem sentimental and squishy in the bareknuckle world of international politics. But people around the world perceive honor as a stand-in for other values: Self-respect, keeping one’s word, fighting for principles. The policy and planning that led to the blundered abandonment of Afghanistan was dishonorable in every sense of the word.
The dismal ending of the US intervention in Afghanistan was not dealt to us by any foreign adversary. It was self-inflicted through lack of vision and poor planning by our political elites. In the short term, the disastrous evacuation of Afghanistan will demoralize American public opinion in a time when we must stare down profound threats from China, Russia, and Iran.
People around the world take note of how the US behaves. Our failures are not our own; they are the failures of liberal democracy, republican values, human rights, and Western ideals. When we break our word and abandon our friends, the betrayal echoes and reverberates through history, far beyond the schemes and plans of policymakers. Our enemies have taken note, too: if the US is a paper tiger, then free people everywhere are less safe than they used to be.
The Withdrawl Gamble
President Biden has taken a gamble. He believes that ending American involvement in Afghanistan is necessary and worthwhile, no matter the cost. With American resources and attention freed up from Afghanistan, US foreign policy can shift to more pressing objectives, like the AUKUS alliance. He believes a critical lesson was learned in Vietnam: There will not be political repercussions for ending support to a stricken client, even if that means leaving behind tens of thousands of allies to death or imprisonment.
Biden may prove to be right. But the cost of his gamble will be borne by the thousands of Afghans who worked to build a new Afghanistan with American support, who have been left behind to face the brutal retribution of their new masters. Millions of Afghan girls will now be denied the chance to become literate and go to school, and Afghan women will be relegated to chattel property. The Afghan people will be dragged backward into a brutal, feudal state under Taliban control.
Meanwhile, for the US this is a time to be vigilant. Our enemies will calculate that the US’ rapid abandonment of Afghanistan is a signal of weakness and irresolution. Even putting principles aside, the US will run a terrible risk if it slackens its commitments to shepherding Western values and standing by our allies. Planners in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran, as well as terrorist cells around the world, will see an opportunity to advance their view of the future in place of ours. In the wake of US withdrawal from Afghanistan, this is an invitation that should not be sent.