Abandoned vehicles at Bagram Air Base after the US withdrawal
Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: Afghan blues

The Taliban’s grimly predictable advance is a reminder that withdrawal is not the end of Biden’s Afghanistan headache

When Joe Biden announced that he would be bringing America’s 20-year presence in Afghanistan to an end earlier this year, two things seemed certain.

First, that US withdrawal was a political no-brainer. Poll after poll showed a solid majority of the American people in favour of an end to the war. The move even elicited a rare thumbs up for his successor from Donald Trump, who welcomed Biden’s policy as “a wonderful and positive thing to do”.

Second, that withdrawal was very good news for the Taliban, who would continue to gain territory and soon be poised to assume overall control of the country. Making the case for withdrawal in a speech last month, Biden was reluctant to acknowledge the possibility of Taliban rule. But a US intelligence report published in June gave the current Afghan government six months before complete collapse.

The Taliban are doing what everyone knew the Taliban would do

A month after all US combat troops upped sticks, abandoning Bagram Air Base in the middle of the night, the Taliban are doing what everyone knew the Taliban would do. They are hunting down, detaining and killing their enemies. Afghans now face the prospect of medieval theocratic rule, bloody civil war or both. The New York Times reports that 330,000 Afghans have been displaced so far this year. According to the International Organisation for Migration, at least 30,000 are fleeing the country each week.

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called these advances and bloody reprisals “deeply, deeply troubling”. Their recent actions, he said with naive understatement, “certainly do not speak well to the Taliban’s intentions for the country as a whole.”

Already, the Taliban’s advances are exposing the contradictions in Biden’s withdrawal plan, which has always been more muddled than the headline decision suggested. The president may have opted for the common sense argument that wars cannot go on forever and that the US military cannot be expected to prop up an Afghan government indefinitely. But when announcing the withdrawal, he also refused to acknowledge that such an approach might mean Taliban rule and reiterated America’s commitment to “prevent the reemergence of terrorists” in the country. He may yet pay for this confused approach.

Even as the August 31 deadline for a full exit approaches, the US has accelerated air strikes against the Taliban to slow its advance. This escalation will only underscore the consequences of America’s departure when it comes to an abrupt end this month.

The Biden administration appears to view war in Afghanistan as a plaster that needs to be pulled off, preferring the short, sharp pain of a quick withdrawal to a prolonged process. But Biden may be storing up problems for himself by not being more honest about this decision. A more unambiguous acknowledgement from Biden that he does not think Afghanistan’s problems should be America’s problems would provoke a sharp backlash, but it would at least be in keeping with the facts of his decision —  and would make things easier for the President when Kabul does fall.

Biden may have saved himself short-term criticism but he has an ignoble and humiliating moment waiting for him when the Afghan government collapses

By being less clear-cut, Biden may have saved himself short-term criticism but he has an ignoble and humiliating moment waiting for him when the Afghan government collapses. Critics will ask why a president who has argued that keeping the Taliban out of power is in America’s interests decided to bring home a skeletal military presence of 2,500 troops. Or why he insisted on a full and fast withdrawal rather than a more gradual retreat.

Those critics will likely make much of toothless diplomatic warnings such as the one issued by Blinken this week when he told reporters that “Presumably [the Taliban] wants its leaders to be able to travel freely in the world, sanctions lifted, et cetera. Well … taking over the country by force and abusing the rights of its people is not the path to achieve those objectives.”

It is already obvious that, politically speaking, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will be less final than it seems. For all that Biden has brought a decisive end to America’s military presence in the country, the fall out from that decision will continue to be a feature of his presidency.

From the rush to save Afghans who helped US forces from a virtual death sentence under the Taliban, to the possibility of an Islamist regime harbouring terrorist organisations who pose a threat to the West, the move creates all kinds of headaches and risks. And as Biden is already learning, an end to the war in Afghanistan will not mean an end to the moral quandaries and difficult decisions that plagued his predecessors.

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