Afghanistan is on the brink of catastrophe, and it is US President Joe Biden’s fault. By overruling America’s top generals and ordering the hasty withdrawal of US troops, Biden opened the way for Taliban terrorists to capture more than a quarter of Afghanistan’s districts. Now, the Taliban are pushing towards Kabul, and the United States is looking weaker than ever.
The US effectively ended its military operations in Afghanistan on 1 July when it handed over to the Afghan government the sprawling Bagram airbase, which long served as the staging ground for US operations in the country. In fact, ‘handover’ is too generous a description. In a sign of what’s to come, US forces quietly slipped out of the base overnight after shutting off the electricity. The resulting security lapse allowed looters to scavenge the facilities before Afghan troops arrived and gained control.
Biden has vehemently defended his decision to withdraw, arguing that the US ‘did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build’ and that ‘staying would have meant US troops taking casualties’. He has also stood by his rushed approach, insisting that ‘speed is safety’ in this context. ‘How many thousands more of America’s daughters and sons are you willing to risk?’
The implication was clear: questioning the wisdom of the US withdrawal is tantamount to supporting the endangerment of Americans. But it is Afghans who are really in jeopardy.
Recall the last time the US left a war unfinished: in 1973, it hastily abandoned its allies in South Vietnam. The next year, 80,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were reportedly killed as a result of the conflict, making it the deadliest year of the entire Vietnam War. It’s also worth noting that in 1975, the US effectively handed Cambodia to the China-backed ultra-communist Khmer Rouge, who went on to carry out unimaginable horrors.
Now, the US is leaving Afghans at the mercy of a marauding Islamist force—one with a long history of savage behaviour. Already, the Taliban offensive has displaced tens of thousands of civilians. And while the Afghan government in Kabul teeters, the Taliban are seizingAmerican weapons from the Afghan military and showing them off as they march across the country.
America’s justification for rushing out of Afghanistan is much weaker than its reasoning for leaving Vietnam. Whereas 58,220 Americans (largely draftees) died in Vietnam, only 2,448US soldiers (all volunteers) died over the course of 20 years in Afghanistan. Moreover, since it formally ended its combat mission on 1 January 2015, the US have suffered just 99 fatalities, including in non-hostile incidents. During the same period, more than 28,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have been killed.
None of this is to minimise the blood and treasure the US has sacrificed in Afghanistan, let alone suggest that American troops should stay indefinitely. On the contrary, ending America’s longest war is a worthy goal. But Biden’s approach entails effectively admittingthat a terrorist militia has defeated the world’s most powerful military, and then handing Afghanistan back to that militia. This undercuts global trust in the US, jeopardises Afghan and regional security, and threatens to trigger a resurgence of terror worldwide.
The Taliban’s impending return to power will surely energise and embolden other terrorist groups in the larger global jihadist movement. Furthermore, the Taliban, a creature of Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, still receive significant aid from Pakistan’s military. So, while Biden says that Afghanistan’s future is now in its own hands, it is actually mostly in Pakistani hands, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently noted.
Among those facing the most acute risks is India. When the Taliban were last in power, from 1996 to 2001, they allowed Pakistan to use Afghan territory to train terrorists for missions in India. The group’s return to power could thus open a new front for terrorism against India, which would then have to shift its focus from the intensifying military standoffs with China in the Himalayas.
The Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan helps China in other ways, too. Given that Pakistan is a Chinese client, the US withdrawal paves the way for China to make strategic inroads into Afghanistan, with its substantial mineral wealth and strategic location between Pakistan and Iran.
China would achieve this by offering the Taliban the two things they desperately need: international recognition and economic aid. With Russia also likely to recognise the Taliban’s leadership in Afghanistan, the group will have little incentive to moderate its violence, despite its current attempts to polish its image.
Biden had a better option: the US could have maintained a small residual force in Afghanistan, in order to provide critical air support and reassurance to Afghan forces. Yes, that would have violated the deal Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, struck with the Taliban in February 2020. But the Taliban have already violated that Faustian bargain. Biden was happy to overturn many of Trump’s other actions, making his insistence on upholding this deal difficult to understand.
Biden says the US is ‘developing a counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability’ that doesn’t require a physical presence in Afghanistan. But if Afghan security continues to unravel, over-the-horizon operations will make little difference. The more likely scenario will be an emergency evacuation of US embassy personnel and other American citizens from Kabul, much like the evacuation from Saigon in 1975. India, for one, has already begun such an exodus, evacuating its consulate staff from Kandahar.
Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defence under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wrote in 2014 that Biden ‘has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades’. The hurried US withdrawal from Afghanistan is set to extend that pattern.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi–based Centre for Policy Research and fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian juggernaut, Water: Asia’s new battleground and Water, peace, and war: confronting the global water crisis.
This article is presented in partnership with Project Syndicate © 2021.
This article was published by our strategic partner ASPI on July 15, 2021.