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The writer is president of the Brookings Institution and a former commander of Nato and US forces in Afghanistan
As Afghanistan’s humanitarian catastrophe continues to unfold, US leadership faces a series of major challenges. The crisis that has now engulfed us, our allies and the Afghans is urgent. While the decision to withdraw was correct, history will be harsh in its judgment of the manner in which we did it. Much of that judgment will depend on how the evacuation in Kabul is resolved. Nevertheless, essential policy debates must follow quickly if the US is to play a meaningful role in Afghanistan’s future and preserve some semblance of our national security interests in the region.
The form taken by the nascent Taliban government will be one of the most important geopolitical developments of 2021. Their decisions — from supporting the departure of eligible evacuees, to the potential harbouring of jihadis and criminals, to international relations — will be critical. So will how the democratic world chooses to recognise them.
So far the Taliban have sought to portray themselves as moderate. The facts on the ground tell a different story, however, and we will probably see a new, violent phase in the struggle for Afghanistan. Given the Taliban’s weak command and control, and its inexperience with real governance, its ultimate regional and global identity is far from certain.
Jihadis and foreign fighters will now flock to Afghanistan. The Taliban never broke with, and will never break with, al-Qaeda. Such groups will have safe haven, allowing them to use the country again as a platform for terrorism and transnational criminality.
The Biden administration has spoken at length about “over-the-horizon” counter-terrorism capabilities. Citing operations against Boko Haram, AQAP and others, they argue that even with the Taliban in charge, terrorism will not thrive in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, access is the issue in OTH strategies. The lack of regional basing and potential overflight restrictions will make such strategies incredibly challenging, if not impossible. Has departing Afghanistan truly made us and our allies safer?
Already we’re seeing Afghanistan being touted as a humiliating failure of American leadership by our adversaries and competitors. Since the Trump administration, China has spun a public narrative that the US is in absolute decline. That narrative has now evolved into open mockery, as has Russia’s. China’s extractive interests in Afghanistan are obvious, given its bounty of natural resources. A central Asian economic corridor running from Kazakhstan through Afghanistan to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port is an imaginable geoeconomic outcome — potentially excluding the US.
Pakistan’s own terrorists, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, will undoubtedly feel emboldened with Kabul at their back. And the Pakistan-India relationship will also move into a new phase. India will be particularly attentive to the anti-Indian terror groups that can now grow unmolested. The nuclear implications of a repeat attack like Mumbai in 2008 should have all our attention.
With its departure from Afghanistan, the US has lost nearly all its leverage as a principal player in central Asia. The Biden administration contends that our vital interests were solely in countering terror, but this is incompatible with its avowed human rights-oriented foreign policy. Amid the loss of security for women and minorities, Afghanistan faces the end of its reach for modernity.
The Biden administration believes that diplomatic, financial and aid-related levers will pressure the Taliban to support human rights. Yet will the threat of international isolation, diplomatic pressure or financial sanctions carry any weight when it comes to protecting Afghan minorities? Will they protect young girls from being trafficked as “brides” to Taliban fighters? Will they prevent the expansion of the Taliban drug enterprise? And what of the inevitable mass proliferation of former military and police weapons?
We should be very realistic about the limits of US influence over the Taliban. Rallying allies to our residual humanitarian interests will also be difficult. Many of our European allies currently feel betrayed: our decision has created unanticipated issues for them as well.
It is vital that we are clear-eyed in seeing the implications of this moment, and preparing for the future. While our young troops struggle with the humanitarian catastrophe still unfolding at Kabul airport, the Biden administration, and those of our allies who will join us, must now turn to a collective strategy. Afghanistan is turning out to be, once again, “the graveyard of empires”. Is it also the graveyard of the US administration’s foreign policy and international democratic agenda?
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