BRAHMA CHELLANEY, SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Afghanistan is turning out to be U.S. President Joe Biden’s first foreign-policy disaster.
Ending America’s 20-year war there made sense, but the sudden and poorly planned U.S. military exit has facilitated the Taliban’s rapid advances, which have included the capture of a string of provincial capitals. The Taliban, long-standing proxies of Pakistan, have already managed to expand their control to two-thirds of the country, leaving the Afghan government in Kabul teetering on the brink, with its forces retreating from rural areas to defend cities.
The hasty exit order is especially foolhardy given that Mr. Biden, who has been quick to overturn many of his predecessor’s actions, is honouring Donald Trump’s one-sided deal with the Taliban. The U.S. could have quit Afghanistan without getting into bed with the world’s deadliest terrorists and thereby undermining the security of the country and the region. Instead, by following in Mr. Trump’s footsteps in Afghanistan, the White House has undercut U.S. leverage by vacating all its bases there, leaving the administration to chant the mantra that “there’s no military solution in Afghanistan” – even as the Taliban demonstrate in blood and territory that one indeed exists.
The geopolitical fallout from the Taliban’s success in forcing out Americawill extend far beyond Afghanistan. By signifying U.S. defeat, it will energize and embolden other terrorist groups in the global jihadist movement. If the Taliban seize Kabul, they are likely to declare an Islamic caliphate, as they did in 1996, when they seized power and ruled brutally until the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Make no mistake: The disaster in Afghanistan is unfolding just the way top U.S. generals had forewarned in the event of a hurried U.S. exit. But Mr. Biden overruled them in April and ordered all U.S. troops home. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost.
The U.S. has launched air strikes, but they have failed to halt the Taliban’s ruthless offensive. With the situation on the ground increasingly dire, many embassies in Kabul have advised their nationals to flee Afghanistan before commercial flight operations cease. Canada is bringing in Afghans who assisted the Canadian military’s mission in the country.
When Mr. Biden took office, there were just 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, compared with more than 100,000 at the height of the war. After the U.S. combat role ceased at the end of 2014, U.S. financial costs and casualties dramatically plummeted. In the period since, Afghan security forces have lost tens of thousands of men while the Americans suffered just 99 fatalities, including in non-hostile incidents.
Mr. Biden could have left behind a small residual force to provide critical air support and reassurance to Afghan forces in a cost-effective way. This would have prevented the security and humanitarian nightmare that is now developing. But the President, seeking to safeguard a deal that the Taliban had already been violating, ruled that option out.
Clinging to a blighted deal, Mr. Biden has compounded a Trump-initiated pattern of undermining the elected Afghan government, including Mr. Trump’s actions in striking a deal with the Taliban behind Kabul’s back and then forcing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to release 5,000 jailed Taliban terrorists, many of whom are now in the vanguard of the latest onslaughts. Just before Mr. Biden’s withdrawal decision was announced, a leak of his administration’s draft peace proposal revealed that he sought to replace Mr. Ghani with a transitional government in which the Taliban held half of all positions – which only further emboldened them.
The primarily ethnic-Pashtun Taliban have now stepped up their campaign of targeted killings while seeking to militarily oust Mr. Ghani’s government. Their capture of key cities in the north – dominated by ethnic-minority groups – is part of a strategy to forestall the re-emergence of the “Northern Alliance,” whose ground operations aided U.S. air power in overthrowing the Taliban regime in 2001.
The Taliban’s brutal record in power, including destroying historic and cultural artifacts, evoked some of the horrors perpetrated by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. A recent United Nations Security Council report said the Taliban and al-Qaeda “remain closely aligned” and co-operate through the Pakistani-based Haqqani Network, known as an arm of Pakistani intelligence.
The Taliban’s swift advances raise the spectre of a reconstituted extremist emirate emerging in Kabul – one that is likely to deliver the rebirth of global terror. And just as the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq led to U.S. reintervention, a Taliban emirate in Kabul will likely trigger the same awful cost eventually – which would only affirm Mr. Biden’s decision as a historic blunder.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water: Asia’s New Battleground.