By AP and Atlantic Council
Reviewed by Adeze Ojukwu
The Taliban swept into Afghanistan’s capital, on Sunday, after the government collapsed and the embattled president joined an exodus of his fellow citizens and foreigners, signaling the end of a costly two-decade U.S. campaign to remake the country.
Heavily armed Taliban fighters fanned out across the capital, and several entered Kabul’s abandoned presidential palace. Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman and negotiator, told The Associated Press that the militants would hold talks in the coming days aimed at forming an “open, inclusive Islamic government.”
.Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 15, 2021. (AP/Zabi Karimi)
Afghans crowd at the tarmac of the Kabul airport. AFP Photo
Families are staying at makeshift camps in Kabul after fleeing the violence. Getty images
Heavily armed Taliban fighters fanned out across the capital, and several entered Kabul’s abandoned presidential palace. Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman and negotiator, told The Associated Press that the militants would hold talks in the coming days aimed at forming an “open, inclusive Islamic government.”
Earlier, a Taliban official said the group would announce from the palace the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the formal name of the country under Taliban rule before the militants were ousted by U.S.-led forces in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which were orchestrated by al-Qaida while it was being sheltered by the Taliban. But that plan appeared to be on hold.
Kabul was gripped by panic. Helicopters raced overhead throughout the day to evacuate personnel from the U.S. Embassy. Smoke rose near the compound as staff destroyed important documents, and the American flag was lowered. Several other Western missions also prepared to pull their people out.
Fearful that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women’s rights, Afghans rushed to leave the country, lining up at cash machines to withdraw their life savings. The desperately poor — who had left homes in the countryside for the presumed safety of the capital — remained in parks and open spaces throughout the city.
Though the Taliban had promised a peaceful transition, the U.S. Embassy suspended operations and warned Americans late in the day to shelter in place and not try to get to the airport.
Commercial flights were suspended after sporadic gunfire erupted at the Kabul airport, according to two senior U.S. military officials. Evacuations continued on military flights, but the halt to commercial traffic closed off one of the last routes available for fleeing Afghans.
Dozens of nations called on all parties involved to respect and facilitate the departure of foreigners and Afghans who wish to leave.
More than 60 nations released the joint statement distributed by the U.S. State Department late Sunday night Washington time. The statement says that those in power and authority across Afghanistan “bear responsibility — and accountability — for the protection of human life and property, and for the immediate restoration of security and civil order.”
The nations’ statement also says that roads, airports and border crossings must remain open, and that calm must be maintained.
Many people watched in disbelief as helicopters landed in the U.S. Embassy compound to take diplomats to a new outpost at the airport. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected comparisons to the U.S. pullout from Vietnam.
“This is manifestly not Saigon,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
The American ambassador was among those evacuated, officials said. He was asking to return to the embassy, but it was not clear if he would be allowed to. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations.
As the insurgents closed in, President Ashraf Ghani flew out of the country.
“The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation,” said Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council and a longtime rival of Ghani. “God should hold him accountable.”
Ghani later posted on Facebook that he left to avert bloodshed in the capital, without saying where he had gone.
As night fell, Taliban fighters deployed across Kabul, taking over abandoned police posts and pledging to maintain law and order during the transition. Residents reported looting in parts of the city, including in the upscale diplomatic district, and messages circulating on social media advised people to stay inside and lock their gates.
In a stunning rout, the Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week, despite the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. and NATO over nearly 20 years to build up Afghan security forces. Just days earlier, an American military assessment estimated that the capital would not come under insurgent pressure for a month.
The fall of Kabul marks the final chapter of America’s longest war, which began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. A U.S.-led invasion dislodged the Taliban and beat them back, but America lost focus on the conflict in the chaos of the Iraq war.
It is sad indeed not just for US, Afghanistan but for other terrorised countries including Nigeria, Caneroun, Nigeria and Chad.
Atlantic Council experts in a report published few hours ago, said ‘The Taliban has completed its lightning advance across Afghanistan by taking control of the country’s capital—all but guaranteeing a long-feared national takeover.’
They raised several poignant questions in the analysis tagged:Taliban has taken Kabul. Now what? Published on their portal at https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/experts-react-the-taliban-has-taken-kabul-now-what/
Certainly, this invasion, though unexpected, has set the world reeling with reactions and strategies, to manage the dangerous development.
Excerpts are below:
With President Ashraf Ghani reportedly having fled the country and the United States rushing to evacuate its personnel from Kabul as Afghan leaders work to form a transitional government, reality is setting in.
After two decades and some $2 trillion spent, Washington’s nation-building effort appears to have failed.
That will likely have far-reaching consequences not only for Afghanistan, but also for American foreign policy and the world at large.
Our experts, many of whom have spent many years in the trenches on Afghanistan policy, are sending their reactions as these historic developments unfold. This post will be continuously updated as more come in and we track this fast-moving story.
‘A debacle in many acts’
The decision to withdraw was defensible, and like many who fought there, I supported it. There was a vast chasm between the Afghanistan that was talked about in policy circles and the flimsiness of the institutions we were building on the ground.
But the execution of that decision was appalling—even more so for an administration that has been praised for its professionalism and expertise. There are many victims of this poor planning: interpreters who will never escape, Afghan soldiers who are attempting to hide, and the women and children who are now left without a future.
By April of this year, however, the United States was also well past any decision points that would have altered the outcome of the war in a strategic way. Over the past two decades, none of the three troop surges—one in each prior administration—had a demonstrable, lasting effect on either the battlefield or the Afghans themselves. They are a wary people: As my former commander, John R. Allen, used to note, they have been in a civil war for the past forty years. They hedge their bets. We did not go into Tora Bora; we neglected Afghanistan for Iraq; and we failed to force Pakistan to sever ties with the Taliban.
We built an Afghanistan in our own image, not theirs.
Our single worst failure came at the beginning, with our attempt to create a strong, multiethnic central government with control over the entire country—something which had never existed before in Afghan history. A more realistic, if pessimistic, strategy would have been to reinforce ethnic militias to create a strong Kabul and north, then rely on local allies and traditional leaders to keep the Taliban out of surrounding provinces. Through a constant practice of give-and-take, in which local power centers are alternately bought off and bullied by the central government, something resembling lasting stability may have been achieved. It would have ben a stability bought at the cost of our more aspirational goals, certainly, but also a stability which would not have melted away in a week.
Instead we are left with nothing: no government, no counterterrorism, no pluralism, no women’s rights. Only a mob scene at Kabul airport, and disgrace.
—Andrew L. Peek is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. He was previously the senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council and the deputy assistant secretary for Iran and Iraq at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
Don’t be fooled by the Taliban’s overtures
In a move showing strategic thinking at the top, the Taliban stated its willingness to undertake a peaceful transfer of power in Afghanistan. This is being met with a sigh of relief by the international community. But guards should not drop. This is not noblesse oblige. It is a tactic that buys the Taliban time to consolidate its gains from a rapid sweep of provincial capitals. It is a tactic to avoid international condemnation, sidestep an emergency resolution at the UN Security Council, and ensure aid distribution continues so the group is not blamed for a humanitarian crisis.
Ali Jalali is a level-headed choice to head the interim government. His restraint and use of brains over brawn was noted during his time as interior minister, when some argued that only a strongman could impose order in Afghanistan. As a professor at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, he educated military officers and diplomats from the United States and Middle East on the Afghan theater with unemotional objectivity. He will be an honest broker.
We can’t say the same for the Taliban. We’ve seen a version of this movie before—in Yemen.
Expect protracted negotiations about power-sharing, tax and resource distribution, and cabinet slots. (The Taliban won’t only argue for high-profile cabinet positions; watch Justice and Education, the roles that shape society.) Expect the Taliban to stay engaged in talks about government formation in order to hold off UN sanctions against them for human-rights abuses. Don’t expect much more.
—Kirsten Fontenrose is the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council and former US national-security official.
How to avert a humanitarian catastrophe
The Taliban victory in Afghanistan is now all but complete. The speed of the collapse of the central government and its military has been stunning and will spur endless postmortems about what went wrong and who is to blame. But the immediate situation demands attention to minimize a massive humanitarian disaster.
The failure of Afghanistan’s American and European partners to protect it from the Taliban is clear. But this guilt will be compounded if these countries fail to facilitate a mass evacuation of those most directly under threat by the Taliban. Pointless bureaucracy hindering the processing of refugee and other special visas must be eliminated, and caps on the number of asylum-seekers from Afghanistan must be lifted.
The international community must state unequivocally to the Taliban that atrocities against women and girls will be met with harsh sanctions. Regional actors that have aided and abetted the Taliban over the past two decades should face similar consequences.
The hollowness of American statements about democracy and human rights has long been understood by those outside the Washington bubble—but the long-term damage to the credibility of American rhetoric from the disaster will be felt for years to come. The Biden administration’s callous April announcement might be the straw that broke the camel’s back, but every US administration since 2001 is culpable and must be held accountable. America owes itself—and Afghans—that much.
—Irfan Nooruddin is the director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
Biden had a choice. He made the wrong one.
Today is the culmination of President Biden’s strategic error in directing the rapid and complete withdrawal of US— and thus all international—forces and the failure to have done the planning necessary to prevent the resulting catastrophic collapse of the Afghan government. Despite administration protestations that the president had no better choice, he indeed did have a choice.
The Afghan forces have proved their willingness to fight, and die in the thousands, since they took the combat lead in 2014. They did so with the training and support of a steadily declining number of US forces, and invaluable contractors who provided essential logistics, intelligence, and air support. They learned to fight with the skills, tactics, and capabilities that we taught them. Crucially, US support provided reassurance and confidence until the fatally flawed Doha agreement called into question whether America had the back of the Afghan fighting force, as had been the case for the last decade.
The Afghans themselves, and particularly the Afghan political class, bear a large portion of responsibility for the debacle. But for all the problems, Afghans were still holding against the Taliban until the shock of Biden’s decision to uphold, without conditions, the Doha commitment to withdraw. Given Taliban failure to abide by the Doha agreement, Biden could have declared that US withdrawal was conditioned on a genuine peace agreement and ceasefire, and focused on that objective with an extensive diplomatic effort. That is what most, perhaps all, of our NATO partners wanted. I believe that the majority of the American people and Congress would have accepted that alternative to the predictable outcome we are witnessing today and will see in the coming days. As for the claim that a decision to stay would have led to major US casualties as the Taliban resumed attacks, in 2019, before the 2020 Doha agreement, there were more deaths in the US military from training accidents than from combat in Afghanistan.
The damage to the security of the United States, our allies, and the region has been done, as has the damage to the credibility of US leadership. Attempts to claim the humiliating exit from Afghanistan will strengthen the administration’s hand in dealing with the challenges posed by Russia and China ring hollow. Apart from the moral debt we still owe to the Afghan people to help them weather the storm as well as possible, the larger strategic challenge going forward may be the erosion of confidence in US leadership and commitment.
—James B. Cunningham is a nonresident senior fellow in the South Asia Center and former US ambassador to Afghanistan.
A worse security threat than pre-9/11?
Looking forward, the United States and its former coalition partners must adjust their policies and posture to protect national security interests under a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan—which could be even more dangerous than it was in the 1990s, and in particular on September 11, 2001. A Taliban-led Afghanistan that provides tech-savvy global terrorists safe haven to remotely recruit new followers is a different level of security threat than it was previously.
More broadly, the United States should undertake an urgent policy review for how a Taliban-led Afghanistan might affect US-China competition, then develop specific policies that would cover a wide range of relevant issues from access to rare-earth minerals to regional influence. The impacts of the Taliban takeover on US security alliances and partnership globally should not be underestimated.
Looking backward, meanwhile, the United States should undertake a fundamental review of how it wields national instruments, both military and civilian, to help stabilize fragile and conflict-ridden states. Despite the funds expended and lives lost in Afghanistan, it appears that US-led efforts were highly ineffective. Yet such situations will emerge again, and the United States will have direct national interests in helping to stabilize them.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the United States invaded Afghanistan for a single purpose: not to build a new nation in its own image, but to neutralize al-Qaeda and prevent the country from being used as a terrorist base. That mission was accomplished—but then massive mission creep ensued. In future interventions, US-led coalitions should focus on the highest-priority achievable objectives, and not allow the broadening of those objectives under a “while we’re here” ethos.
—Barry Pavel is senior vice president and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.
The mistakes of the ‘war on terror’ are laid bare
Opponents of President Biden’s decision to end America’s longest war have been quick to lay the tragedy now unfolding in Afghanistan at his feet. But this tragedy was a long time coming. The even greater tragedy would be if we failed to learn the right lessons from it. Together, we must commit to never repeating these errors again.
Foreign forces often struggle when waging counterinsurgency on behalf of a beleaguered client, and the conditions in Afghanistan were never auspicious. The fallacy at the core of the “stay longer/leave better” chorus—most of whom admit that they opposed withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan effectively ever—is that withdrawing the “right” way would have prevented the recent Taliban gains. But after nearly twenty years and almost eighty-nine billion dollars spent to train Afghan security forces, it is now painfully apparent that that effort was a complete and utter failure. For years, government watchdogs and journalists have documented the rampant corruption of this enterprise, but these warnings were ignored. Those officials who told the American people that progress was right around the corner, and who pleaded for just a little more time to make things right, must be held accountable.
For their part, the American people—including solid majorities among the men and women who have actually fought in Afghanistan—are unlikely to change their minds about the war. They concluded long ago that the benefits did not outweigh the costs. Supporters of an open-ended US war obviously believe otherwise, but they must reckon with their failure to craft a sustainable strategy that could command broad public support or that had a reasonable chance of succeeding at the level of effort that Americans were willing to bear.
Lastly, as we approach the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, critics will invoke the specter of future acts of terrorism planned from Afghanistan to discredit President Biden’s decision. That argument has lost its purchase, too. The claim that terrorists require a physical safe haven in order to plan attacks, and that Afghanistan is uniquely suited to be that platform, is belied by the facts. But more broadly, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that our fears of terrorism greatly exceeded the actual danger—and the costs of our overreaction is measured in the trillions of dollars spent and many millions of lives lost or disrupted. The militarized war on terror diverted precious attention and resources away from more proximate threats to human life, from global pandemics to climate change to domestic terrorism and political unrest. Active global engagement with allies and partners is now urgently needed to tackle these other challenges.
—Christopher Preble is the co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Time for a mass evacuation. Here’s how.
The fall of the legitimate national government in Afghanistan will undoubtedly trigger a cacophony of recriminations and finger-pointing in Washington. In the end, it will all be a necessary part of the process of learning the right lessons from this unfolding tragedy.
There are a number of more strategic decisions that need to be made in the days and weeks ahead. These include necessary policies intended to mitigate the damage done to US standing more generally in the wake of what will be widely perceived as an undeniable American defeat.
But right now, the Biden administration has several critical, immediate policy decisions before it. The first should be to vastly expand the current effort to withdraw American personnel and instead order a full-fledged noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO). Ideally this would formally be a NATO-led effort, but the vast majority of resources involved would be American. Neither the Trump administration nor the Obama administration oversaw a large NEO, but the Clinton administration had to conduct several in short order in the late 1990s, which led to the establishment of a formal policymaking process that still stands. The forces required for the NEO, backed by continuous direct diplomacy with the Taliban, should be sufficient to deter any disruption of the evacuation process.
The second immediate policy decision should be to include a long list of categories of personnel eligible for extraction under the NEO. It should not be limited to only officials of NATO countries but should of course include all persons from those countries (foreign contractors, employees of nongovernmental organizations, journalists, etc.) who wish to depart and from other countries that the State Department concludes merit prioritization. Moreover, it should include the likely tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who are likely to be in physical danger under Taliban rule because they have actively worked with US forces, Western diplomats, or in the previous government.
A third set of near-term policy decisions will determine the distribution of new Afghan refugees extracted through the NEO to the NATO countries that participated in it. Acceptance of a reasonable number of Afghan refugees should be a requirement for any country that seeks assistance from the US to extract its nationals through the NEO.
The fourth immediate policy decision should be to anticipate the likelihood that Taliban forces or adjacent groups will take foreign hostages during this process, even if they are deterred from disrupting the NEO itself. Hostage-taking is already a tool that the Taliban uses without shame. A dedicated US special operations team should be reinserted to move quickly to rescue such hostages if the opportunity arises during the NEO.
—William F. Wechsler is the director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs and former US deputy assistant secretary of defense
The secret to the Taliban’s success: PsyOps
A large portion of Taliban-conquered territories saw little to no fighting, thanks to the group’s strategically mounted psychological operations toward the Afghan military and high-level government officials, as well as the Afghan population.
When targeting the former, the Taliban have made political promises and inflated the number of troops they have. They have also formed a narrative that the Afghan government’s allies, chiefly the United States, have abandoned them, in addition to highlighting the government’s wrongdoings over the past two decades, particularly widespread corruption.
To the population, meanwhile, the group is promising stability and communicating the fact that their lives under the government aren’t any better. Coupled with the psychological-cultural role of the Taliban as a “boogeyman,” the group has successfully fashioned itself into a larger-than-life threat.
Evanna Hu is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and the CEO and partner of Omelas, an artificial intelligence and machine learning company working on mapping the online information environment.
Is US credibility forever damaged?
Frustration over the “forever war” in Afghanistan, felt by the current administration and the two previous ones, is understandable. But frustration is a poor basis for policy. Before President Joe Biden’s decision to pull out US forces and contractors, the situation in Afghanistan seemed to have entered a stalemate. There might have been no path to defeat the Taliban in the short term.
But there is a difference between stalemate and defeat—particularly the sort of cataclysmic one currently unfolding there. I would bet a large amount that there are many at senior levels in the Biden administration who wish they could roll back the clock a few months. Even if one accepts the administration’s reasoning behind the withdrawal, the hasty execution made disaster more likely. The White House looks feckless and ignorant about the situation on the ground and appears to have made its key decision based on bad assessments—or no assessments at all.
What now, and what does the US failure in Afghanistan mean?
The United States, as well as other governments that had troops in Afghanistan, have obligations to the many thousands of Afghans who worked with us and our allies over many years. They trusted us, and now we must act to save them. US forces in Kabul may be able to provide a window of escape for our partners, not just fellow Americans.
The United States overthrew the Taliban in 2001 for good reason—I was in the White House on September 11, 2001—and the danger of a terrorist presence reestablishing itself there is real. The White House must be prepared to act against it. What happens in Afghanistan doesn’t necessarily stay in Afghanistan, and the United States cannot walk away from the regional and security consequences of a Taliban victory. That means working with Afghanistan’s neighbors—even Iran, to the degree possible, and especially Pakistan, which for years harbored the Taliban for reasons of its own—to contain the damage.
What will be the damage to US credibility worldwide?
There will be some, just as after the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. For their part, the Russians and Chinese will certainly make a meal out of the mess in Afghanistan.
But also like in Vietnam, the collapse of US policy in Afghanistan does not mean that US security commitments and support—toward NATO, Asian, or Middle Eastern allies—are worthless. Nor does it mean that the Kremlin has a green light to launch new attacks on Ukraine, for example, or other US partners through military, energy, or hybrid means. Rather, this debacle spotlights the differences among alliances in Europe, more developed parts of Asia and the Middle East, and countries where institutions are weak and governments lack roots.
During the Cold War, the United States found that it wasn’t easy to universally apply the successful model of alliances and development across Europe and Northeast Asia. Vietnam’s fall did not mean that US security guarantees toward Germany were worthless. In much the same way, Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban does not mean that Washington will fail to defend Poland or South Korea, where we have troops stationed, or the Baltics, where NATO allies have troops. Those countries are cohesive and prepared to also fight for themselves.
It’s a dark time for US strategy. The Biden administration needs to do the right thing by its Afghan friends and contain the damage. It must also reassure its allies throughout the world that its words can be backed up by deeds.
—Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and former National Security Council senior director, ambassador to Poland, and assistant Secretary of State for Europe.
Big winner? Al-Qaeda
The Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is the best news al-Qaeda has had in decades. With the Taliban back in charge of the country, it is virtually certain that al-Qaeda will reestablish a safe haven in Afghanistan and use it to plot attacks on the United States. The terrorist group responsible for 9/11 will soon find itself flush with cash looted from Afghanistan’s central bank, with weapons seized from the defeated Afghan army, and with fighters freed from prison.
All of this will unfold as the United States’ intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan are severely degraded. With no military or diplomatic presence on the ground, it will be far more difficult to monitor al-Qaeda as it reconstitutes itself, trains, and plans attacks. And with US drones and fighters now based hundreds of miles away in the Gulf, it will be far more difficult to take terrorists off the battlefield even when they can be located.
As the dust settles in Kabul, it is of paramount importance that the Biden administration maintain, to the maximum extent possible, our military’s ability to find, fix, and finish the terrorists who threaten our homeland.
—Nathan Sales is a nonresident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and Middle East Programs and former US ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism.
Don’t let China and Russia exploit this defeat
Anyone who has followed Afghanistan in the last decade knew that this was exactly how the story would play out either ten years ago, or ten years in the future—though we’d hoped to be proven wrong. Many will rightfully conclude that the US exit could have been better executed, but it’s hard to imagine a compelling argument to stay more than ten years after Osama bin Ladin was killed in Pakistan and nearly twenty years after his planned attacks on the United States that provoked our response.
If neutralizing the threat from al-Qaeda and denying them safe haven in Afghanistan had actually remained the yardstick of success, Washington and its allies could have left the country a decade ago without the nausea we now collectively feel from our failed nation-building effort.
A pivot to long-term strategic competition with China has been overdue for some time, and our prolonged effort in Afghanistan was recognized by the Trump and Biden administrations as distracting the United States from that necessary shift. We can, however, fully expect that this episode will be strategically used by China and Russia to diminish US standing in the world and undermine its leadership of the free-market world order.
Any actions taken from this point forward should account for full Taliban control of Afghanistan. It should likely not involve boots on the ground, and instead rely on allied levers of power that the Taliban care about and leverage military superiority to salvage what we can of our twenty-year legacy, while also protecting against clear human rights violations. We should honor the implicit and explicit promises made to those brave Afghans on the ground who helped allied forces during those two decades.
All of this should be done not just because it is the “right” thing, but because the United States needs to prevent its longest war from being the case study that China and Russia use to convince the rest of the world that they are the better partners. But we should also not allow other regional players to drag the United States back in to serve their interests. We will need discipline to keep our eye on the threat of long-term strategic competition with China.
—Arun Iyer is a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. A lifelong New Yorker, he left his career in the financial services industry for military and government service following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The US needs to flex its diplomatic muscles
With the fall of Kabul, arguments about the prudence of the United States’ abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan are moot. What matters now is what happens next.
In the short term, Washington should take whatever steps it can to mitigate the impending humanitarian crisis a Taliban takeover might produce. First, it should continue the evacuation of Afghans who worked with the United States, even if it requires committing additional military force. Fortunately, that seems to be happening—though it is unclear if the additional troops President Biden has sent will simply cover the evacuation of the embassy, or Afghans as well. It should do both. Second, the United States should embark on an intensive diplomatic initiative to engage states and other actors who have ties with the Taliban to pressure the group to stop the killing and allow the evacuation to continue.
In the medium term, the United States needs to address concerns regarding its credibility as a security partner. Simply reassuring allies and partners, of course, will not be enough. Credibility is a function of whether acting on a threat is less costly than failing to act. Deterrence is a function of one’s adversaries believing that cost-benefit balance to be true, as well as the belief that the deterrent threat is capable enough that they will be worse off if they act than if they do not. That’s why US credibility will depend on choosing interests that are clearly worth the cost of achieving them and communicating that to partners and adversaries alike.
In the long term, the United States should build on any previous diplomatic initiative to curtail the Taliban’s humanitarian abuses to further isolate a Taliban government and provide additional leverage, should they decide to violate their agreement with the United States and continue to export terror attacks. Such engagement should not only include traditional partners, such as those in Europe and the Arab Gulf, but also states like China and Pakistan, which could stand to lose if the Taliban takeover disrupts China’s Belt Road Initiative or the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Finally, it may be worth observing that as the Taliban seek to govern Afghanistan, they will become vulnerable in ways they had not been previously. As the Islamic State learned in Iraq and Syria, it is relatively straightforward to hide a guerrilla army in the desert or the mountains. It is much harder to hide a government, an organized military or security force—or, for that matter, an economy. Of course, the United States should not exploit these vulnerabilities gratuitously. However, these are levers that can be pulled not only by the United States, but also by like-minded partners to encourage the Taliban to choose good governance in Afghanistan rather than exporting terror.
—C. Anthony Pfaff is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative and the research professor for the Military Profession and Ethic at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College in Carlisle, PA.
Why ‘hope’ wasn’t enough to save Afghanistan…
Hope is not good foreign policy. While this may seem intuitive, recent events would suggest it’s a topic worth exploring further.
The Biden administration’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan was built on hope that the Afghan military and security services would step up. But hope is an irresponsible concept upon which to base foreign policy—especially when it was widely acknowledged in national security circles that the Afghans were not ready.
It is, or was, common knowledge among those who served in Afghanistan that the Afghan military and security services needed more to succeed: more time for an Afghan identity to take hold in the country; more time to train and professionalize; more support from Afghan political leaders; more outside oversight to reduce corruption and build government institutions.
With the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 rapidly approaching, the abandonment of Afghanistan leaves the country in worse shape than it was when the CIA’s Jawbreaker team arrived in northern Afghanistan to partner up with the Northern Alliance. At least in 2001, there was a credible opposition to the Taliban—which does not exist today. In recent days, hope did not ensure that traditional militia leaders were prepared to remobilize and defend their turf in the north from the anticipated Taliban offensive.
Was the Biden administration hopeful that these traditional leaders would somehow just figure it out? Why did it not provide them any support in the days, weeks, and months before coalition forces were withdrawn, even as just an insurance policy?
One can only hope that the Taliban has somehow transformed over the last twenty years into a liberal, forward-looking political entity that respects those it governs. But I doubt it.
…and why Afghanistan’s women will suffer
Every day that the United States and its coalition partners were in Afghanistan was one more day that girls and women were able to attend school and university, go to work, and move around freely to run errands and visit family and friends.
Over the years, more and more were even lucky enough to begin to take for granted the fact they had agency over their lives and the decisions they made. This was a major success for the international community. The reality that their mothers and grandmothers lived in the 1980s and 1990s was something of a bad dream—not a life they would be forced to live (or relive).
Now, with the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan, the lives of women will be forever changed.
Their talents and dreams will be stifled indefinitely, and their education and development stymied. This will ultimately hold back the development of the country, as educated women ensure that their children are educated. Separately, women’s health will be neglected, likely raising the rates of early deaths. Restrictions on who can treat women will severely reduce their access to even basic medical care and will limit possible interventions in domestic abuse situations. Women will be victims several times over—while those who work to advocate for them will likely be killed or imprisoned by the Taliban, with little care for how the international community reacts.
The trickle-down effects of cutting off daily life, especially education and healthcare, to half the population will be catastrophic in the medium to long term. It will be a visible reminder of how the United State and coalition forces failed them.
—Jennifer Counter is a nonresident senior fellow in the Forward Defense practice of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a vice president at Orbis Operations, where she advises friendly foreign governments on national security matters.
AP said ‘for years, the U.S. sought an exit from Afghanistan. Then-President Donald Trump signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that limited direct military action against the insurgents. That allowed the fighters to gather strength and move quickly to seize key areas when President Joe Biden announced his plans to withdraw all American forces by the end of this month.
After the insurgents entered Kabul, Taliban negotiators discussed a transfer of power, said an Afghan official. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the closed-door negotiations, described them as “tense.”
It remained unclear when that transfer would take place and who among the Taliban was negotiating. The negotiators on the government side included former President Hamid Karzai, leader of Hizb-e-Islami political and paramilitary group Gulbudin Hekmatyar, and Abdullah, who has been a vocal critic of Ghani.
Karzai himself appeared in a video posted online, his three young daughters around him, saying he remained in Kabul.
“We are trying to solve the issue of Afghanistan with the Taliban leadership peacefully,” he said.
Afghanistan’s acting defense minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, did not hold back his criticism of the fleeing president.
“They tied our hands from behind and sold the country,” he wrote on Twitter. “Curse Ghani and his gang.”
The Taliban earlier insisted that their fighters would not enter people’s homes or interfere with businesses and said they would offer “amnesty” to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces.
But there have been reports of revenge killings and other brutal tactics in areas of the country the Taliban have seized in recent days. Reports of gunfire at the airport raised the specter of more violence. One female journalist, weeping, sent voice messages to colleagues after armed men entered her apartment building and banged on her door.
“What should I do? Should I call the police or Taliban?” Getee Azami cried. It wasn’t clear what happened to her after that.
An Afghan university student described feeling betrayed as she watched the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy.
“You failed the younger generation of Afghanistan,” said Aisha Khurram, 22, who is now unsure of whether she will be able to graduate in two months. She said her generation was “hoping to build the country with their own hands. They put blood, efforts and sweat into whatever we had right now.”
Sunday began with the Taliban seizing Jalalabad, the last major city besides the capital not in their hands. Afghan officials said the militants also took the capitals of Maidan Wardak, Khost, Kapisa and Parwan provinces, as well as the country’s last government-held border post.
Later, Afghan forces at Bagram Air Base, home to a prison housing 5,000 inmates, surrendered to the Taliban, according to Bagram district chief Darwaish Raufi. The prison at the former U.S. base held both Taliban and Islamic State group fighters.
Thousands of people packed into the Afghan capital’s airport on Monday, rushing the tarmac and pushing onto planes in desperate attempts to flee the country after the Taliban overthrew the Western-backed government. U.S. troops fired warning shots as they struggled to manage the chaotic evacuation.
The Taliban swept into Kabul on Sunday after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, bringing a stunning end to a two-decade campaign in which the U.S. and its allies had tried to transform Afghanistan. The country’s Western-trained security forces collapsed or fled in the face of an insurgent offensive that tore through the country in just over a week, ahead of the planned withdrawal of the last American troops at the end of the month.
In the capital, a tense calm set in, with most people hiding in their homes as the Taliban deployed fighters at major intersections. There were scattered reports of looting and armed men knocking on doors and gates, and there was less traffic than usual on eerily quiet streets. Fighters could be seen searching vehicles at one of the city’s main squares.
Many fear chaos, after the Taliban freed thousands of prisoners and the police simply melted away, or a return to the kind of brutal rule the Taliban imposed when it was last in power. They raced to Kabul’s international airport, where the “civilian side” was closed until further notice, according to Afghanistan’s Civil Aviation Authority. The military was put in control of the airspace.
Videos circulating on social media showed hundreds of people running across the tarmac as U.S. soldiers fired warning shots in the air. One showed a crowd pushing and shoving its way up a staircase, trying to board a plane, with some people hanging off the railings.
In another video, hundreds of people could be seen running alongside a U.S. Air Force transport plane as it moved down a runway. Some climbed onto the side of the jet just before takeoff. That raised questions about how much longer aircraft would be able to safely take off and land.
Massouma Tajik, a 22-year-old data analyst, described scenes of panic at the airport, where she was hoping to board an evacuation flight.
After waiting six hours, she heard shots from outside, where a crowd of men and women were trying to climb aboard a plane. She said U.S. troops sprayed gas and fired into the air to disperse the crowds after people scaled the walls and swarmed onto the tarmac. Gunfire could be heard in the voice messages she sent to The Associated Press.
Shafi Arifi, who had a ticket to travel to Uzbekistan on Sunday, was unable to board her plane because it was packed with people who had raced across the tarmac and climbed aboard, with no police or airport staff in sight.
“There was no room for us to stand,” said the 24-year-old. “Children were crying, women were shouting, young and old men were so angry and upset, no one could hear each other. There was no oxygen to breathe.”
After another woman fainted and was carried off the plane, Arifi gave up and went back home.
The U.S. Embassy has been evacuated and the American flag lowered, with diplomats relocating to the airport to aid with the evacuation. Other Western countries have also closed their missions and are flying out staff and nationals.
Afghans are also trying to leave through land border crossings, all of which are now controlled by the Taliban. Rakhmatula Kuyash, 30, was one of the few people with a visa allowing him to cross into Uzbekistan on Sunday. He said his children and relatives had to stay behind.
“I’m lost and I don’t know what to do. I left everything behind,” he said.
The speed of the Taliban offensive through the country appears to have stunned American officials. Just days before the insurgents entered Kabul with little if any resistance, a U.S. military assessment predicted it could take months for the capital to fall.
The rout threatened to erase 20 years of Western efforts to remake Afghanistan that saw more than 3,500 U.S. and allied troops killed as well as tens of thousands of Afghans. The initial invasion drove the Taliban from power and scattered al-Qaida, which had planned the 9/11 attacks while being sheltered in Afghanistan. Many had hoped the Western-backed Afghan government would usher in a new era of peace and respect for human rights.
As the U.S. lost focus on Afghanistan during the Iraq war, the Taliban eventually regrouped. The militants captured much of the Afghan countryside in recent years and then swept into cities as U.S. forces prepared to withdraw ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline.
Under the Taliban, which ruled in accordance with a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, women were largely confined to their homes and suspected criminals faced amputation or public execution. The insurgents have sought to project greater moderation in recent years, but many Afghans remain skeptical.
Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman, tweeted that fighters had been instructed not to enter any home without permission and to protect “life, property and honor.” The Taliban have also said they will stay out of the upscale diplomatic quarter housing the U.S. Embassy complex and the posh villas of U.S.-allied former warlords who have fled the country or gone into hiding.
Those assurances are part of an effort by the Taliban to “shape the narrative that their accession to power is legitimate — a message for both inside Afghanistan and beyond its borders,” the Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor wrote.
“The speed of the Taliban’s final advance suggests less military dominance than effective political insurgency coupled with an incohesive Afghan political system and security force struggling with flagging morale.”
When the Taliban last seized Kabul in 1996, it had been heavily damaged in the civil war that broke out among rival warlords after the Soviet withdrawal seven years earlier. The city was then home to around a million people, most traveling on dusty roads by bicycle or aging taxi.
Today Kabul is a built-up city home to 5 million people where luxury vehicles and SUVs struggle to push through endemic traffic jams.
Wahidullah Qadiri, a resident of the city, said he hoped for peace after decades of war that have claimed the lives of two of his brothers and a cousin.
“We haven’t seen anything but catastrophes and fighting,” he said, “so we always live with hope for a long-lasting peace.”
Sources: AP, Atlantic Council
Akhgar and Faiez reported from Istanbul and Gambrell from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Guelph, Canada; Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem; Matthew Lee in Washington; James LaPorta in Boca Raton, Florida; Aya Batrawy in Dubai; Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Samya Kullab in Baghdad, Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.