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The writer is president of the Brookings Institution and a former commander of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan
As the humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan continues, US leadership faces a series of major challenges. The crisis that now afflicts us, our allies and the Afghans is urgent. While the decision to withdraw was correct, history will be harsh in its judgment of the way we did it. Much of that judgment will depend on how the evacuation in Kabul is resolved. However, basic political discussions must follow quickly if the United States 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 evacuees, to harboring jihadists and potential criminals, to international relations — will be crucial. As well as how the democratic world chooses to identify them.
So far, the Taliban have sought to portray themselves as moderate. But the facts on the ground tell a different story, and we are likely to witness a violent new phase in the struggle for Afghanistan. Given the Taliban’s weak leadership and control, and their inexperience in real governance, their ultimate regional and global identity is far from certain.
jihadists and foreign fighters will They are now flocking to Afghanistan. The Taliban has not separated from al-Qaeda, and never will. Such groups would have a safe haven, allowing them to once again use the country as a platform for terrorism and transnational crime.
The Biden administration has talked at length about counterterrorism capabilities “over the horizon.” Citing operations against Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and others, they argue that even with the Taliban in charge, terrorism will not thrive in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, being able to is the problem in OTH strategies. The lack of regional bases and potential restrictions on overflights would make such strategies very difficult, if not impossible. Did leaving Afghanistan really make us and our allies safer?
We are already seeing Afghanistan described as a humiliating failure of American leadership by our adversaries and competitors. Since the Trump administration, China has woven a general narrative that the United States is in absolute decline. This novel has now developed into open satire, as did Russia. China’s extractive interests in Afghanistan are obvious, given the abundance of natural resources. The Central Asia Economic Corridor from Kazakhstan through Afghanistan to the Pakistani port of Gwadar represents an imaginable geo-economic outcome – potentially excluding the United States.
The Pakistani terrorists, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, will undoubtedly feel encouraged with Kabul in their back. The Pakistan-India relationship will also move to a new stage. India will be particularly attentive to the anti-India terrorist groups which can now grow unmolested. The nuclear fallout from a repeat attack like Mumbai in 2008 should get all of our attention.
With its exit from Afghanistan, the United States has lost almost all of its influence as a major player in Central Asia. The Biden administration claims that our vital interests were only in the fight against terrorism, but this is inconsistent with its stated foreign policy oriented toward human rights. Amid the insecurity of women and minorities, Afghanistan faces the end of its access to modernity.
The Biden administration believes that diplomatic, financial, and aid leverage will pressure the Taliban to uphold human rights. However, will the threat of international isolation, diplomatic pressure or financial sanctions have any weight when it comes to protecting Afghan minorities? Will they protect young girls from being trafficked as “brides” for Taliban fighters? Will they prevent the expansion of the Taliban drug establishment? What about the inevitable mass proliferation of former army and police weapons?
We must be very realistic about the limits of US influence over the Taliban. Mobilizing allies for our remaining human interests will also be difficult. Many of our European allies now feel betrayed: our decision created unexpected issues for them, too.
It is vital that our eyes are clear in seeing the repercussions of this moment and preparing for the future. As our young forces grapple with the humanitarian catastrophe still unfolding at Kabul airport, the Biden administration, and our allies who will join us, must now turn to a collective strategy. Afghanistan has become, once again, the “cemetery of empires”. Is it also the graveyard of the US administration’s foreign policy and international democratic agenda?
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