President Biden is trying to put window dressing on the ongoing catastrophe in Afghanistan.
His envoy is working around the clock to get the Taliban to negotiate a political settlement to its military campaign, but what possible incentive does it have?
Only a few hundred Americans remain in the country, and without the recently evacuated Bagram airbase, the air strikes carried out by coalition forces come from locations far afield, limiting their reach. Now, the inevitable consequences of this withdrawal have crashed down on Afghanistan, bringing on a human tragedy of epic proportions and perhaps a resurgence of international jihadism.
Last month, Biden asserted, “Do I trust the Taliban? No. But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more re- — more competent in terms of conducting war.” Yet since Friday, the Taliban has won control of well over half of the country, including nine of its 34 provincial capitals — a number expected to rise in the coming days. The Taliban stepped up its attacks after Biden announced the plan to withdraw in April, but it has only started to retake major cities, such as Kunduz, as the August 31 deadline for completion of the U.S. exit approaches. The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon assesses Kabul could fall within 90 days; some officials predict that’ll happen within a month — which would coincide with the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
This offensive has been accompanied by a spate of attacks within Kabul, and a crisis of governance. The Taliban recently assassinated the government’s media chief, and an unsuccessful attempt on the defense minister’s life left eight other people dead. The Afghan military has been all but absent from battle, with the exception of commando units, and some soldiers are reported to have fled amid Taliban advances. Now under intense pressure on all fronts, the government lacks competent political leadership.
The Biden administration is continuing to provide logistical and intelligence support to Afghan forces, but U.S. involvement in the country is all but over. The Taliban are likely to continue to advance, and come August 31, it’s not even clear that U.S. forces will conduct more air strikes. So when Biden administration officials say that they’re supporting the Afghan government in pursuit of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, they’re merely offering an empty talking point to try to pretty up the brutal truth on the ground.
At the human level, the people facing the most danger are supporters of the Afghan government, anyone who worked with coalition forces in the country (including the interpreters who must now flee for their lives), and the women who flourished in the environment that followed the toppling of the Taliban’s medieval barbarity.
On top of this humanitarian debacle, it’s hard to see how the emergence of a new Islamic caliphate in Afghanistan won’t result in a renewed threat to the U.S. and its interests. It’s widely acknowledged that the Taliban has not broken ties with al-Qaeda, and it will surprise no one that the group has broken its commitment to do so that it made at Doha. Afghanistan might soon again become the launchpad of a global movement that had for years been kept at bay by the presence of U.S. forces — most recently a small, relatively low-cost contingent that served as bulwark against the Taliban sweeping to power again.
It never made sense to believe, and here the Trump administration was the main offender, that the Taliban could be negotiated with. This week, Zalmay Khalilzad, Biden’s special representative (a Trump-era holdover from the Taliban negotiations, as well as George Bush’s ambassador to Afghanistan), delivered the group a warning in Doha. All he could do, though, was say that Washington would prevent any government that comes to power by force from receiving international recognition, a meaningless gesture compared to the U.S. pullout that has constituted a green light to the restoration of the caliphate.
Administration officials insist that the U.S. won’t be drawn back in and that this withdrawal is final. Sadly, everyone on the ground appears to believe them.