Two Years after Fall of Kabul, US Still Has Work to Do in Afghanistan
By EARL ANTHONY WAYNE
It has been just over two years since the dramatic fall of Kabul and the chaotic U.S. evacuation from its airport, and the outlook is dark and gloomy for Afghanistan. This is especially true for Afghan women and girls, who have progressively had their rights and futures restricted.
The Taliban regime is well ensconced and focused on implementing its fundamentalist Islamic doctrine. The UN documents that it is carrying out revenge killings of former Afghan government officials and security forces.
The non-Taliban elites from the previous republic are divided and dispersed around the world. Many are discredited. The only organized opposition is from the even more radical, violent and conservative Afghan branch of ISIS (the Islamic State Khorasan or IS-K).
Neither the United States and its international partners nor the UN have identified effective levers to influence the Taliban government on key issues. They have very limited options at present to bring about positive change in the Taliban’s social and human rights policies that have justifiably generated international outrage.
Plus, from a U.S. perspective, many tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with and supported the United States remain in Afghanistan, neighboring countries and other parts of the globe, seeking to use the slow and ineffective U.S. visa and refugee systems to get to the United States. (Like many colleagues who worked in Afghanistan, I hear frequently from Afghans via internet and phone calls seeking help.) Even for those Afghans who made it to the United States after Kabul’s fall, the U.S. Congress has been unable to pass legislation to give them a more permanent status and security.
The continued presence of Islamic radicals and terrorists, including Al-Qaida members, living and operating in Afghanistan, should also be of serious concern to the United States and others, including Afghanistan’s neighbors. Recent reports, for example, detail Afghan Taliban fighters helping the Pakistani Taliban (known as Tehrik-i-Taliban or TTP) carry out attacks in Pakistan, which is sparking tensions with Pakistan’s government.
Experts suggest that humanitarian aid donations might drop by $1 billion this year, even as many Afghans find themselves on the edge of disaster.
In addition, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan remains dire, and requires aid inflows on a scale that donors are increasingly hesitant to provide — given the Taliban’s policies, the international sanctions on many Taliban leaders and the humanitarian needs from crises elsewhere in the world, especially the war in Ukraine. Experts suggest that humanitarian aid donations might drop by $1 billion this year, even as many Afghans find themselves on the edge of disaster.
As noted above, the United States and its partners, as well as interested regional states, have found that though the Taliban are willing to talk, these governments have very little leverage over the Taliban’s inward-looking power structure to influence what the Taliban consider to be important religious and social policies.
The Taliban regime, since it retook power two years ago, has been just as fundamentalist, parochial and backward-looking as many feared. Decision-making is dominated by its most conservative elements, led by the group’s supreme leader, mullah Habibullah Akhundzada. The apparent priority is to secure the success of a Taliban-dominated theocratic revolution that represses women and girls, and makes little pretense of including Afghans of other religious, ethnic or political views in the group’s and the government’s deliberations and decision-making processes.
Expert observers have suggested that there are relative “pragmatists” amid the Taliban leadership who favor more positive engagement with the international community and less restrictive policies vis-à-vis women and girls. Observers have pointed to some who have had more international contact, including during the negotiations with the United States over the Doha agreement, such as Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and the Acting Minister of Interior (and a former leader of the Haqqani terror network) Sirajuddin Haqqani. Such Taliban “pragmatists,” to the extent they exist, however, appear to be beholden to the Taliban’s ultra-conservative supreme leader and his supporters, who prioritize consolidating the group’s victory with its oppressive policies and male-dominated system — and not seeking accommodation with foreign governments whose assistance had kept the previous Afghan Republic afloat, or reaching out and including in the administration members of the non-Taliban Afghan diaspora.
In considering what Washington should do going forward, it is important to recall that the United States bears a good deal of responsibility for where we are today.
In considering what Washington should do going forward, it is important to recall that the United States bears a good deal of responsibility for where we are today. Driven by President Donald Trump’s desire to pull U.S. troops out, the United States devised and followed a flawed exit strategy that was built around a poorly designed agreement with the Taliban in 2020 and a rapid U.S. withdrawal. The United States did not make serious efforts or use levers that could have gotten the Taliban to keep the commitments and promises it made in the context of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, known as the Doha Accord. Rather, the United States undermined the Afghan Republic’s status and perceived legitimacy through a series of moves, including publicly forcing the Ashraf Ghani government to release thousands of Taliban prisoners. On the other hand, the Taliban used the time and space provided by its agreement with the United States to prepare the terrain for a major push to take over the country once the U.S. military forces left. To be fair, the Kabul government dithered and remained seriously divided during this period.
With the arrival of the Joe Biden administration in late January 2021, rather than taking the time to contemplate a thoughtful course correction from the Trump era errors as some urged, the Biden team chose to move ahead toward a rapid withdrawal. It made a series of missteps and harmful statements that further undermined the morale and capacities of the Afghan security forces, already weakened by two years of the Trump administration’s policies. For example, while trying to justify the decision to continue the troop pullout for U.S. audiences, senior Biden officials started saying that the war was unwinnable, but then the administration did not provide Kabul with the diplomatic and military support that would have been needed to get the Taliban to negotiate seriously (which would likely have taken a longer timeframe than the schedule Biden approved). Afghan security forces, political leaders and others across the country (as well as U.S. international partners and rivals) heard the blunt message clearly: The United States thinks the war is unwinnable and is leaving. This certainly undermined Afghan security force morale.
In the same early 2021 timeframe, the United States sent a concrete and costly message to the Afghan security forces. The United States started to remove vital U.S. contractor support, which was keeping the Afghan air force flying and allowing its special forces to move rapidly around the country as well as to resupply outposts. In January 2021, we now know, the Special Inspector to Afghanistan reported confidentially to the Defense Department that the Afghan air force would not be able to survive a U.S. withdrawal. Observers also began warning publicly of the disastrous results of withdrawing support to the Afghan military. Unfortunately, the Biden administration chose to maintain its drawdown plans instead of strengthening them by providing Kabul with the aid needed to avoid disaster, despite the counter arguments being made by outside observers and reportedly by officials inside the administration. Even by August 2021, observers were arguing on good grounds that the decision to withdraw U.S. contractors was a key turning point leading to the collapse of Afghan security forces.
By early August 2021, many observers could foresee the possibility of a catastrophic outcome, and I joined some in arguing for urgent U.S. action to avoid that result. By late August, however, it was very clear that U.S. policies (and assessments) over the preceding two years had increasingly fed into the stunning collapse of the Afghan security forces and the republic’s divided and progressively inept government.
Looking back even from the perspective of August 2021, a number of experienced observers (including me) concluded that though the United States had promised early in 2021 continued diplomatic, economic and defense support for Afghanistan during and after the troop departure, the U.S. government did not take clear and concrete steps to demonstrate that support. Such support would have boosted the will of those resisting the Taliban, but for myself and others watching closely in the United States and in Afghanistan, it was hard to detect any priority effort to provide additional support to Kabul, especially in the security sector.
Instead, the United States had rushed to pull out in ways that severely weakened and hobbled the ability of Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban. Key elements of those forces had not been trained to fight the Taliban without close air support or U.S.-provided technical support to keep aircraft flying. Suddenly withdrawing that military/contractor support badly undermined the ability of the Afghan air force, which did not have sufficiently trained personnel or parts to fill in the gaps.
Local Afghan units in various parts of the country were left feeling isolated and abandoned.
This, in turn, undermined the ability of well-trained Afghan special forces to respond to needs around the country as the Taliban carried out their campaign to expand control from the periphery toward the big cities. Local Afghan units in various parts of the country were left feeling isolated and abandoned. These problems were highlighted in commentaries and public messages, including from European allies, and no doubt, they were reflected in private discussions and briefings among U.S. officials during 2021. There should have been greater realization of the devastating toll this would take. America still has a vital Afghanistan agenda to pursue. The United States cannot turn its back on the moral responsibility that it retains to the Afghans who worked for and with the United States during the first two decades of this century. Nor should Americans forget the millions of young Afghan men and women who were educated, came of age and learned of the great prospects that living in an Afghanistan linked to the Western world could offer them. They were Afghanistan’s most promising generation, and arguably the most important outcome of the billions of dollars of U.S. and international assistance spent in that country between 2001 and 2021.
To its credit, since the terribly flawed Trump exit strategy and the poorly implemented withdrawal by the Biden administration, the U.S. government has taken some laudable steps, even with very little remaining leverage in Afghanistan and its credibility undermined.
First and foremost, the United States continued to provide the most humanitarian aid of any donor, and that aid kept many Afghans alive during the chaotic transition and collapse of Afghanistan’s already weak economy. The United States has continued to work with others to explore ways to preserve Afghan national funds for future use, and to help the Afghan economy rebound without rewarding the Taliban.
Led by a capable special envoy, Tom West, the United States has undertaken consistent and energetic diplomacy. It maintains a good, ongoing dialogue about Afghanistan with the UN, its traditional European and Asian partners, regional governments and important players like China and Russia. This active diplomacy has helped keep an important degree of international coordination and unity alive, aided by the Taliban’s repulsive behavior.
The United States and others have also kept the spotlight on the Taliban’s progressive repression of women and girls, and its unwillingness to form an inclusive government with non-Taliban Afghans. The United States, including its NGOs, CSOs and select members of Congress, has been a leader in keeping attention on prioritizing the plight of Afghan women and girls.
However, unsurprisingly, this work had not yielded breakthroughs, given the Taliban’s focus on consolidating its regime and evident lack of interest in restarting large international aid flows — unless aid arrives on the Taliban’s terms. And those terms include preserving their conservative policies on social issues and women. Indeed, it has been a challenge to keep Taliban interference in aid delivery at acceptable levels, with complaints growing about assistance being diverted through the Taliban.
The Taliban are indeed interested in generating and collecting revenue in trade and investment on terms they can set. They seem to be doing a fair job at collecting customs taxes and minimizing the corruption that characterized the previous Afghan republic.
The Taliban also correctly point to the improvement in overall security as one of their main accomplishments. This was a key theme as Taliban authorities feted the second anniversary of their return to Kabul.
The Taliban also remain very interested in gaining diplomatic recognition. No country in the world has yet done so because of the regime’s abhorrent social practices and rules. Certainly, some governments are tempted to recognize the Taliban, especially as the Taliban seems likely to remain in power and there are good strategic and commercial reasons for others to engage. These include the key position of Afghanistan as a potentially more important transportation and energy transmission hub between Central and South Asia, Afghan mineral resources to develop, bilateral trade in other goods, important water sharing issues with some neighbors, Afghanistan’s role as a major producer and exporter of opium and heroin, and the danger of Afghanistan serving as a refuge for various terrorist groups.
In fact, the United States should do its best to keep human rights issues and support for Afghan civil society at the heart of the international agenda regarding Afghanistan.
As others persuasively argue, however, the United States should work with like-minded partners to keep pressure on others not to move to recognition without significant reversals of the Taliban’s abhorrent human rights policies, especially those toward women and girls. In fact, the United States should do its best to keep human rights issues and support for Afghan civil society at the heart of the international agenda regarding Afghanistan.
This does not mean that the United States should not engage with the Taliban, however. There is a U.S.-Taliban work agenda that reflects important U.S. interests and could allow gradual testing of areas for progress. In late July, for example, U.S. Special Envoy West had a conversation with Taliban officials in Qatar in which he identified “areas for confidence building in support of the Afghan people.” The U.S. team went on to discuss human rights issues (including those related to women and girls), economic steps that could help address poverty and humanitarian needs, counterterrorism, counter-narcotics and releasing detained U.S. citizens. These are all valuable topics to discuss, as are urgent steps to allow more Afghans with ties to the United States to leave quickly and more easily (which will require reform in U.S. procedures too).
It may be that with regular engagement over time, some areas for progress with the Taliban regime might open up, especially if the Taliban also evolve in their attitudes. But this will take time and patience.
In the meantime, in bilateral, international and regional forums, the United States needs to work hard with partners to maintain unity on focusing on the Taliban’s approaches to human rights and inclusion of other Afghans, with priority attention to the treatment of women and girls. The United States should also work diplomatically (and with Congress) to sustain support for providing vital humanitarian aid and assuring that the aid gets to those in need via the UN and other international organizations. The United States and others must also keep a close eye on any evidence of terrorist and violent actions emanating from Afghanistan. The United States and its partners must maintain a regular dialogue with the Afghan diaspora and Afghan civil society groups.
At home, the Biden administration and Congress need urgently to agree on reforms and resources to greatly improve the speed and efficiency of issuing Special Immigrant Visas to those who worked for the United States, and similarly take steps to deal much more effectively with those deserving refugee status to come to the United States. Congress also needs to pass legislation to improve the status of Afghans already allowed to enter the United States, which was blocked again this year.
None of this will be easy, but the United States has an enduring responsibility that should not be forgotten, even if many would prefer to do so. As a nation, we made serious mistakes throughout our nearly 20 years in Afghanistan, but we also did much good that touched the lives of millions of Afghans.
The United States needs to try to build on the lessons from the last 20-plus years, to patiently persist in helping care for those we owe support, to vigorously support the human rights of Afghans, to find the right balance of pragmatism and principle to deal with Afghanistan’s current rulers and to assure enduring U.S. interests in the region. (U.S. interests range from preventing terrorism from again emanating from Afghanistan and engendering regional instability, to sustaining the bonds forged with millions of Afghans — including its women and girls — during the long U.S. presence and investments in the country.) Such an approach to Afghanistan is both possible and desirable.
Former Ambassador EARL ANTHONY WAYNE is teaching as the Distinguished Diplomat in Residence at American University’s School of International Service and is a Fellow at the Wilson Center, among other affiliations and activities. As a diplomat, he worked on Afghanistan affairs from late 2001-early 2003 and served in Afghanistan from 2009-2011. Since 2016, he has been coleading an informal group of former U.S. and international officials desiring to continue support for good outcomes for Afghans. His written work on Afghanistan can be found at www.eawayne.com.
The above article first appeared on the Wilson Center blog.