Featured Image: Afghan Border Police, 2011
Photo in Public Domain via U.S. Department of State from Wikimedia Commons
The collapse of the Afghan government to Taliban forces was remarkably sudden, culminating in the flight of now-former President Ashraf Ghani from Kabul on Sunday, 15 August 2021. The events leading to the fall of Kabul amount to nothing short of a catastrophic failure on policy, tactical, and humanitarian fronts. This palpable multi-dimensional failure will define this moment in history.
We can look upon American involvement in Afghanistan as an example of how not to engage in foreign military endeavors. After nearly twenty years and an unfathomable amount of dollars spent, what exactly has the United States accomplished in Afghanistan? U.S. forces routed the Taliban quickly in 2001 to disrupt the use of the country as a base for terrorist operations and, in the resulting power vacuum, propped up a more friendly and moderate government and trained its security forces.
These operations, though, never addressed root issues. Foreign involvement managed to push the Taliban away for a time, but they never stopped being the metaphorical water waiting behind a cracking dam that would shatter the instant it was no longer propped up.
On 16 August 2021, President Biden stressed in an address to the nation the goal of the twenty-year-long American involvement in Afghanistan as a counterterrorism and not a counterinsurgency operation. He stressed that the goal was never statecraft. The issue here is that the United States did engage in statecraft. It did prop up a corrupt Afghan government that did nothing to sway men from joining the Taliban.
The United States knew that the Taliban would eventually come back, hence the Trump Administration’s negotiating with them regarding the American withdrawal originally to take place in May of this year. And thus, even with a brief delay in the American withdrawal under the new Biden Administration, the metaphorical dam fractured almost instantly when it did finally ramp up.
We are now faced with a humanitarian tragedy. The Taliban routed all remaining Afghan security forces with breathtaking speed and now, at the moment of writing, control basically all of the country except for the Kabul Airport, which is under American military supervision as evacuations ensue. We have seen horrifying footage of Afghans frantically running on the airport’s taxiways and clinging to aircraft, desperate to escape. The rights of women are particularly at risk in the face of radical Taliban beliefs and policies that may well return the country back to the days of the Taliban’s first oppressive period in power.
The most frustrating thing about these recent events is that there really was no great solution. It was clear soon after invasion that Afghanistan would become a geopolitical quagmire. Stay and you keep the Taliban at bay but invest an endless number of forces, time, money, and bodies in a far-off place. Go and you can stem those costly investments but allow the Taliban to come back almost instantly.
Both the Trump and Biden Administrations made grave errors in planning here. Yes, American forces could not stay in Afghanistan forever. That much was clear; for many an election cycle it was an issue for presidential hopefuls in both major political parties. To declare intentions to withdraw so suddenly, as the Trump Administration did, without a real roadmap for the future of Afghanistan that included the soon-to-crumble Ghani government was a mistake.
To actually withdraw without such a roadmap as the Biden Administration has done has similarly been a most serious mistake. American forces certainly could not remain in the country indefinitely, but they could have been withdrawn in defined phases given actual constructive talks to produce transitional agreements between the Afghan government and the Taliban—very much like those that failed to materialize between the two parties before withdrawal began.
President Biden stressed in his speech the need for humanitarian advocacy to be done under diplomatic rather than military auspices. That is good foreign affairs philosophy, but it will be difficult in light of the current chaos.
Now, without a transitional government or written assurances for the rights of all Afghans, there is not much left that can be done in the face of Taliban dominance in the wake of the American withdrawal. The United States should and will continue to operate the airfield for as long as it can to evacuate American personnel, and it should make every attempt to evacuate all those who may face punishment for their assisting in the allied military endeavor of the last two decades.
The protection of human rights within Afghanistan right now should be of critical importance. With what limited diplomatic capabilities they have at this moment, the United States and its allies must vigorously stress the international humanitarian law that protects all individuals and employ all avenues possible to urge the Taliban to follow international laws and statutes that that Afghanistan as a state is bound by and has acceded to.
This is a critical juncture in global history already made exceedingly grave by tactical and policy missteps that squandered twenty years of military involvement in the region. It is one that will certain mark President Biden’s legacy as well as the collective human conscious—the question of how big of a scar it will leave depends entirely on how we can protect who we can in the aftermath of Afghanistan’s collapse.