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With stunning speed, the Taliban’s lightning onslaught across Afghanistan has reached the gates of Kabul. President Ashraf Ghani is holding emergency talks. The US faces a humiliation akin to the 1975 fall of Saigon — which just last month President Joe Biden dismissed as implausible. This is a tragedy for the people of the country, and a betrayal of the thousands of US and allied troops — and more than 120,000 Afghan citizens — who died in 20 years of war. It is a grave setback, too, for the credibility of the US and of the community of democracies Biden hoped to cement.
It was President Donald Trump who announced US troops would leave by 2021 provided the Taliban fulfilled commitments in a peace accord signed, over the heads of the Afghan government, last year. But going ahead with the pullout was Biden’s choice.
True, the domestic political cost is likely to be low. Polls show Americans are as weary today of the “forever wars” as they were under Trump. Preserving the messy military stalemate into which Afghanistan had settled was a hard political sell. In terms of America’s global standing, however, the miscalculation will haunt the rest of the Biden presidency.
Biden might still have been able to argue for much reduced US forces — which since 2015 had also suffered much reduced casualties — to remain as a backstop to the Afghan military, just as the US retained a long-term presence in Germany and South Korea. Instead, either the White House went ahead with the pullout regardless of intelligence warnings of what would follow, or the speed of the offensive was indeed unforeseen — a startling lack of insight in a country where America has had a ground presence for two decades.
Yet the Afghan collapse reflects not just a military and intelligence failure but the failure in 20 years to have built a more functional state across the territory. The initial goal of the post-9/11 intervention was to prevent al-Qaeda from using the country as a base for further attacks. Though President George W Bush invoked the Marshall Plan when pledging to reconstruct Afghanistan in 2002, and the US has now spent more than a trillion dollars on its campaign, it was never prepared to commit sufficient resources for the kind of nation-building it undertook after the second world war. It did devote time and money to training and equipping the military. But Afghan forces’ strategy to contain the Taliban depended on US backing, especially air support.
Successive Afghan governments bear responsibility too. Corruption and dysfunctional management badly hampered efforts at state-building. Afghan leaders also declined to reach accords with the Taliban, notably in 2011-12, when the Islamist fighters were weaker and their demands relatively limited.
Some longtime Afghanistan watchers now suggest a restoration of Taliban rule, bloody and oppressive as it would be, might be less disastrous than the alternative of a slide into all-out civil war, with different countries supporting different factions.
Not just Afghanistan’s long-suffering population, however, but the US and its allies will have to live with the consequences. A wave of refugees fleeing Afghanistan has already started. The country is at risk of becoming, once again, a base for jihadis.
A desire in the White House to wrap up nagging foreign policy problems so it can focus on China is understandable. But the abandonment of Afghanistan raises doubts over the depth of US commitment to supposed allies, and its determination to see military entanglements through to the bitter end. As one of the north Atlantic alliance’s biggest and most costly foreign policy priorities of this century implodes, those lessons will not be lost on Beijing.