The way the US left Afghanistan is a stain on the country’s honor and prestige. Hundreds of Americans who wanted to leave Afghanistan remain stranded. Tens of thousands of Afghans who helped the US military over the course of two decades also remain in the country fearing for their lives. Shockingly, the world’s lone superpower found itself dependent on the Taliban to provide security in Kabul. The cost of this was a brutal attack by Daesh that left more than 180 Afghans dead, along with 13 US troops.
Usually, the countries of the G7 — arguably some of the most powerful and influential nations in the world — meet to discuss major global matters. Instead, last week they met to discuss the feasibility of keeping a single airport open. Simply put, the US and the international community looked weak and feeble dealing with the Taliban.
In the meantime, senior US officials have been boasting about “a new chapter of US-Afghan relations” under the Taliban. When National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was asked if the Taliban was an enemy of the US, he meekly responded with “it is hard to put a label on it.”
When Joe Biden entered office, the US had only 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. It also provided air support to the Afghan army. While this was never enough for the Afghan government to win outright, it was enough to keep the Taliban out of power. Now, due to decisions taken by President Biden, the Taliban will control more territory on Sept. 11, 2021, than it did on Sept. 11, 2001. The consequences of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s takeover of the country, remain to be seen, but it is likely these consequences will be felt for years to come.
The consequences of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will also be felt beyond the Hindu Kush. As a global power, what America does in one region can easily impact another — and it often does. The chaotic and incompetent manner of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will invite provocation in other places. Russia, Iran, China and North Korea will be even more willing to push the envelope to see what they can get away with. This week, North Korea restarted a nuclear reactor that is key to its weapons program. This is a test to see how Washington will respond. As for nonstate actors, especially terrorist organizations, a major recruitment drive will now be underway. Nothing attracts new followers like success. Groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda will have people joining in droves.
The chaotic and incompetent manner of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will invite provocation in other places.
Under the Taliban, terrorists are welcome in Afghanistan. It is likely that many terrorist groups will be flocking to the new relative safety of Afghanistan. Just a few days ago, Osama Bin Laden’s former head of security, Amin Al-Haq, returned to his home in Nangarhar province after being out of Afghanistan for 20 years. Sirajuddin Haqqani, a deputy leader of the Taliban and leader of the Haqqani network — a group considered to be a terrorist organization by many around the world — not only roams freely around Afghanistan but is now in charge of Kabul’s security. The FBI is offering a reward of $5 million for his capture.
In addition to empowering America’s adversaries, the actions of the Biden administration in Afghanistan will also impact America’s relations with its allies and partners around the world. Regardless of how administration officials try to spin it, many long-standing partners are now questioning America’s resolve and commitment.
Two weeks ago, the UK’s House of Commons all but formally censured the US president during a debate on Afghanistan. Never in living memory has any American president received such criticism and condemnation by the parliament of the country’s closest ally. Publicly, many senior officials across Europe are now talking about the need for “strategic autonomy” from the US due to the American administration’s aloofness toward global affairs. In Washington, I have recently spoken to more than a dozen diplomats from various countries. Privately, they are all questioning American leadership.
During Britain’s disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842, Afghan tribesmen killed thousands of British and Indian soldiers and civilians. Hundreds more were held hostage. Soon after, Governor-General of India Lord Ellenborough wrote to his top military commander expressing the need to “re-establish our military character beyond the Indus.”
After America’s Afghan debacle, Biden needs to re-establish American character in the eyes of its partners and adversaries. It is not as if the US lacks the power or the resources. It remains the world’s sole superpower, with a conventional military and a nuclear arsenal that are unmatched. The US has the world’s largest economy and is a global center for innovation and technology.
What is missing is statecraft, leadership and political will. America is not a weak nation — but right now it is an unserious nation. Many had high hopes with Biden entering the White House after four tumultuous years with President Donald Trump. After more than 200 days in office, Biden is not meeting expectations.
• Luke Coffey