The Futility in Afghanistan

Terry H. Schwadron

Aug. 14, 2021

Terrible developments in a post-U.S. pullout Afghanistan are coming fast, more quickly than the Biden administration believed, and bringing deaths, Islamic authoritarianism, and a Taliban takeover within a very foreseeable future.

Biden — and Trump, for that matter, agreed without ever talking — that our presence in Afghanistan had to end, come what may. The weirdness here is that Biden apparently thought he had a deal with the Taliban not to move militarily against the sitting Afghan government, but to work through more civil means to a new internal set-up of shared powers.

To no one’s surprise, the Taliban have interest in winning, and are ruthlessly taking over regional cities and provinces, freeing thousands of captives, killing even children, halting any rights for women, and isolating a beleaguered Kabul. Afghan soldiers are reported to be fleeing their posts.

The Taliban doesn’t need no stinking deal. It’s showing that it can do whatever it wants.

And the U.S. and allies are out. Except that Biden just announced we’re sending 3,000 U.S. troops to help the evacuatlon from Kabul — even negotiators negotiating with the Taliban not to attack the U.S. Embassy if the extremist group takes over the country’s government and ever wants to receive foreign aid, The New York Times said. Being forced to put troops back in to be able to withdraw sounds, well, chaotic.

Americans are being forced to withdraw virtually overnight, stranding thousands of Afghans who had helped coalition forces as translators, drivers and workers, and facing an immediate, uncertain future about whether the Taliban will reopen areas for international terrorist training.

The responses to date have been anemic efforts to evacuate surviving Afghan allies in small numbers to safe third countries, and to mobilize a last-ditch international diplomatic effort to persuade the Taliban that it will be toying with world rejection and isolation.

Here’s the question it raises: Where’s the planning, Biden folks? This administration was elected fundamentally as a competent group to handle governmental issues over a Trump team that was shooting from the hip, often in partisan and uncoordinated manner. (Just this week, Trump said he would have attached on-the-ground conditions to any Afghan withdrawal — exactly what he did not do.) Why has none of this been anticipated by a would-be better-coordinated Biden group? Or is our intelligence so far off that we had no way to adjust properly?

An open question, reinforced by new books on the subject, is just how truthful various administrations have been about the varying military status points in Afghanistan over 20 years.

The Intervention

Representatives from the U.S., Russia, China, Europe, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the United Nations, and neighbors except for Iran, are meeting with the Taliban in Qatar. The Washington Post reports that the hope is that by number and a unified stance, the world can persuade the Taliban that they face a cutoff of any diplomacy or assistance if they continue to take over Afghanistan militarily.

Obviously, this international intervention is coming too late. Nightly TV is filled with images of coming fear and repression.

At least 12 of 34 provincial capitals fell last week alone. U.S. intelligence assessments in June that Kabul could be overrun within six to 12 months has now been revised to 30 to 90 days. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has told Americans to leave immediately. Foreign embassies have reduced staffs or closed, and the United States and Turkey are talking about security at the airport as protecting the only way out.

Meanwhile European countries are in disarray about whether to help bring in more Afghans or to suspend tens of thousands of ordered deportations.

For its part, spokesmen for the Taliban said they were “committed to protecting the places, property and lives of the people and even foreigners living in Afghanistan” and that anyone attacking “international embassies and institutions will be punished,” even as people are being killed. The hurried U.S. troop departure is abandoning lots of munitions to Taliban fighters, including aircraft.

Generally, the government of President Ashraf Ghani is hardly effective in ginning up much support. This week, Ghani reportedly replaced both the army chief of staff and the commander for the special operation corps. The finance minister resigned and left the country. Ghani had not helped in making any deals with the Taliban.

Planning for the Inevitable

The Biden message is simple: Afghan’s government and military — U.S. armed and trained Afghanistan military forces outnumber the Taliban by about three to one — need to defend themselves. Still, Biden is not entirely walking away.

In Qatar, there is a lot of talk, and no action; in Afghanistan itself, there is action and no talk. In Washington, there is confusion about why Team Biden has not been better prepared for what, on its face, looks like the inevitable, if rushed, aftermath of pullout announcements.

Generally, the takeaway is that few care who runs Afghanistan so long as it is stable and does not harbor terrorist training camps. That is a position that leaves Afghans who helped, and a generation of women who grew up under U.S.-sponsored liberalizations, totally vulnerable to a vindictive radical Islamic justice system that basically wants to turn the clock back several centuries.

American veterans’ groups who spent 20 years fighting for a cause in Afghanistan are up in arms, of course, since there is no practical answer to the question of why they were there and why this is the moment for withdrawal. Republicans, even those who agree with Biden on this question, are seeing domestic political vulnerabilities in the apparent poor planning by the administration.

Even as Biden and his administration are savoring a political win this week in Congressional approval of an infrastructure bill, we’re seeing slippage in the fights against pandemic, against any logical path for immigration, in growing tensions in the Middle East, with rising gas and consumer prices, and now in handling the fallout from Afghanistan.

What I’ve learned over the years is that our effectiveness is not necessarily based on singular response to a crisis, but rather on ensuring that though information sifting and thinking, we don’t have so many crises, or that we have anticipated the moves needed to reduce the problem to a more solvable one.

A team that won election based on a claim of competence should be able to show some more of it.