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New Atlanticist September 10, 2021

Confronting the disaster left behind in Afghanistan

By Mir Sadat

In the weeks preceding the August 30 withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan, I joined a coalition of military members, veterans, human-rights advocates, and ordinary Americans who banded together to evacuate thousands of American citizens, green-card holders, special immigrant visa (SIV) applicants, and others. This unprecedented effort demonstrated the United States’ greatest values: honor, courage, commitment, and integrity. In the absence of bold US government leadership, these volunteers represented the voiceless and helpless US citizens, US permanent residents, and Afghan allies left stranded in enemy territory after US forces accelerated their withdrawal in June.

There will be plenty of time to debate and write books about the merits of withdrawing from Afghanistan. But putting that aside, history will judge the United States by the appalling manner in which this withdrawal was planned, communicated, and executed—not once but twice, as troops were redeployed to facilitate evacuations.

The series of strategic miscalculations started with the initial US-Taliban peace deal in February 2020, perceived by the Taliban as the United States’ proposed terms of surrender, and the mistakes accelerated in velocity and magnitude this year under the new US administration. These errors included everything from withdrawing forces too quickly at the same time as the summer fighting season so there was no adjustment period for the Afghan military, to removing contractors who served as technical support and connective tissue for the Afghan military, to giving up Bagram Air Base, to not taking up the Taliban’s August 15 offer to allow the US military to secure Kabul, to not unleashing US special operations forces around Kabul to eliminate the terrorist threat.

These miscalculations resulted in the deaths of US service members, the inability to retrieve US citizens and green-card holders throughout the country, restrictive Taliban checkpoints, and a humanitarian disaster at the gates of the airport.

Saturday marks the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda, the terrorist group harbored by the Taliban. It is a sad reminder that Afghanistan has become an exponentially more dangerous war zone ruled by terrorists and violent jihadi extremists than it was before the withdrawal—and perhaps more dangerous than it was in 2001. This time the regime, composed of a nexus between the Taliban (an Islamist movement) and the Haqqani Network (a designated terrorist organization), is stronger, better equipped, more resilient, more organized, and more ambitious. Members of the new Taliban regime include a terrorist leader on the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “most wanted” list and five former Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Who’s left behind?

Now that its troops have departed, the United States must hold to its promise that every American citizen, permanent resident, SIV applicant, and Afghan ally who wants to leave Afghanistan can do so. Until then, this US mission in Afghanistan is not complete and should be considered failed.

The United States and ninety-seven other nations reached an agreement with the Taliban to allow evacuations to continue, but that deal has been slow to materialize. US officials have been pleading with Qatari and other Middle Eastern nations to exert influence over the Taliban to permit US citizens to leave Afghanistan, with leaders such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken at times bending over backwards not to criticize the Taliban.

The first international flights finally left Kabul Thursday, including US citizens, but a weeklong Taliban blockade continues for charter flights leaving Mazar-i-Sharif. The harsh reality remains that Taliban members often have not allowed US citizens, US permanent residents, and Afghans even with the proper paperwork to bypass their checkpoints. General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of US Central Command, estimated on August 30 that hundreds of Americans were still left in Afghanistan, saying: “We did not get everyone out who we wanted to get out.” The US government has yet to provide a definitive answer to the number of US citizens or green-card holders who are left behind.

The Department of Homeland Security says it will admit more than 50,000 Afghans into the United States, but there are an estimated 250,000 Afghans approved or eligible for US visas across the various databases for non-governmental organizations, civil society, and others. Plus, thousands more visa-eligible people who are not captured in any database are working hard to make themselves known to a network of volunteer groups trying to conduct evacuations. Since there are no longer US boots on the ground in Afghanistan, it is important that the US government support the ongoing private evacuation efforts.   

Those Afghan allies who are unable to evade the Taliban and escape to the United States or another friendly country could be condemned to death. The Taliban can identify and hunt down Afghans who assisted the US military using biometric systems abandoned by the United States and Afghan government databases. It will require bold global leadership by the United States and other powers to save more lives and protect US interests in the region.

Holding the US—and the Taliban—to account

Congress must hold the executive branch accountable, especially because in the months and weeks ahead of the withdrawal the US government did not engage in an active, repetitive public-awareness campaign to encourage American citizens and green-card holders to leave Afghanistan. In fact, the US government seemed like it was caught off-guard after the fall of Kabul and struggled to ascertain the number of Americans in Afghanistan. The American public—particularly Gold Star families, veterans, and military members—needs to know how our government planned this withdrawal, what alternative scenarios were considered, how those courses of action were fleshed out, and who made key decisions.

Meanwhile, the atrocities in Afghanistan are only beginning. Taliban militants have reportedly started summary executions of former government officials, minorities, artists, and human-rights advocates. There are reports of women forced into marriages with Taliban fighters as well. The United Nations and other human-rights commissions must document the Taliban regime’s violations and levy additional sanctions on Taliban leaders.

Now that the United States has withdrawn its fighting forces for the second time, the US government can save lives and protect the homeland by:

  • convincing the international community to not recognize the Taliban regime for at least two years until it can demonstrate basic adherence to human rights,
  • sanctioning other nations’ intelligence services and political leaders who provide guidance and mentorship to the Taliban regime,
  • working with non-governmental organizations to address the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and convincing Uzbekistan to allow in Afghan refugees via its land border,
  • setting up an Afghan/American Resettlement Task Force to resettle Afghan allies and prevent non-Afghans from exploiting the emigration process,
  • extending the refugee and special immigrant visa available to Afghans because many are currently trapped in Afghanistan,
  • placing rescued Afghan minors with qualified Afghan-American families to minimize the psychological and cultural impact on these children and to combat Taliban propaganda that Afghan children are being converted to other religions. 

After the Soviets’ 1989 withdrawal, the United States and the global community disengaged from Afghanistan, helping give rise eventually to the Taliban’s horrors and then the 9/11 attacks. Twenty years later, with Americans left behind in enemy territory, the United States must not disengage again as other competitors fill the vacuum and exploit Afghanistan’s natural resources and strategic location, while creating a permissive environment for terrorist organizations to flourish. Sending rockets, drones, or jet fighters from one thousand miles away does not eliminate threats and causes unnecessary civilian casualties, which only feeds the narratives of terrorist groups.

The US government cannot victim-shame or blame its way out of responsibility in the Afghan withdrawal debacle. In describing the aftermath of US support to the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Union, former congressman Charlie Wilson said: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we f—ed up the endgame.” The United States has simply screwed up the endgame again.

However, there still is a window of opportunity to make things right if the White House and State Department work with allies in Congress and the international community—and back the efforts of the extraordinary volunteer network that has already mobilized to save lives in Afghanistan.

Mir Sadat is a nonresident senior fellow in the Forward Defense practice of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He is a former National Security Council policy director, and a previous strategic advisor to two International Security Assistance Force commanding generals. Follow him on Twitter @Dr_Sadat_USN.

This piece represents the author’s views solely and does not necessarily represent the official policy or position of any department or agency of the US government.

Image: Taliban forces stand guard in front of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 2, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer