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Experts react

August 15, 2021

Experts react: The Taliban has taken Kabul. Now what?

By Atlantic Council experts

The Taliban has completed its lightning advance across Afghanistan by taking control of the country’s capital—all but guaranteeing a long-feared national takeover.

With President Ashraf Ghani having fled the country and the United States rushing to evacuate its personnel from Kabul as Afghan leaders work to form a transitional government, reality is setting in: After two decades and some $2 trillion spent, Washington’s nation-building effort appears to have failed.

That will likely have far-reaching consequences not only for Afghanistan, but also for American foreign policy and the world at large.

Our experts, many of whom have spent many years in the trenches on Afghanistan policy, are sending their reactions as these historic developments unfold. This post will be continuously updated as more come in and we track this fast-moving story.

Jump to an expert reaction

James Cunningham: Biden’s defense obscures his safer options

Shuja Nawaz: Biden was right—but we must salvage the tragic situation

Safiya Ghori-Ahmad: Is America weaker?

Shamila N. Chaudhary: The United States faces an uphill battle

Irfan Nooruddin on Biden’s speech: ‘Afghans deserve better’ 

Andrew L. Peek: ‘A debacle in many acts’

Kirsten Fontenrose: Don’t be fooled by the Taliban’s overtures

James Cunningham: Biden had a choice. He made the wrong one.

Kamal Alam: The resistance lives on

Barry Pavel: A worse security threat than pre-9/11?

Thomas S. Warrick: Build a ‘fence around Afghanistan’ to track terrorists

Christopher Preble: The mistakes of the ‘war on terror’ are laid bare

William F. Wechsler: Time for a mass evacuation. Here’s how.

Irfan Nooruddin: How to avert a humanitarian catastrophe

Evanna Hu: The secret to the Taliban’s success: PsyOps

Daniel Fried: Is US credibility forever damaged?

Nathan Sales: Big winner? Al-Qaeda

Arun Iyer: Don’t let China and Russia exploit this setback

C. Anthony Pfaff: The US needs to flex its diplomatic muscles

Jennifer Counter: Why ‘hope’ wasn’t enough to save Afghanistan

Peter Watkins: The view from London: Worrying questions arise

Matthew Kroenig and Jeffrey Cimmino: A point on the trend line toward democratic decline

Reactions to Biden’s address to the nation

Biden’s defense obscures his safer options

The president made a series of claims in defense of his ‘the buck stops here’ decision that obscure other, safer options he had. He also claimed his team had planned for every contingency, despite every indication to the contrary. His decision left the administration scrambling to implement a risky, hasty withdrawal with no realistic plan to provide the ample support promised to the Afghan security forces, evacuate the many tens of thousands of Afghans who had partnered with us, or defend Afghan women.

His choice was not between ‘the hard decision’ to follow through on the Doha commitment to withdraw or to send thousands of troops back into conflict with the Taliban with US troops ‘bearing the brunt of the fighting’ for the Afghans. Afghans have been doing their own fighting, and dying, for years now. The choice was whether or not to maintain a small military presence, with contractor and intel support for the Afghans, that would maintain Afghan capability to fight and to partner with us on counterterrorism, while an intensive diplomatic campaign pressed for genuine negotiations. At this point, relying on diplomacy and ‘rallying the world to join us’ seems like a long shot in the face of the blow to confidence in US leadership and consistency landed by the debacle, which China and Russia are already exploiting.

—James B. Cunningham is a nonresident senior fellow in the South Asia Center and former US ambassador to Afghanistan.

Biden was right—but we must salvage the tragic situation

America won the war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001, but overstayed and lost the battle for Afghanistan over two decades. It could have left after killing Osama bin Laden in 2011; it could also have left in 2014, as promised by President Barack Obama in 2009. 

But it didn’t. It ignored the abundant evidence and barrage of criticism from our own officials about the kleptocratic government we were supporting.

Americans lost interest in the endless war, but our commanders kept telling us we were “turning the corner.” You cannot win a civil war in a foreign country with military force. Biden was right: Staying would not have changed the outcome unless Afghans decided to change things for themselves. We trusted our partners in Afghanistan and the region too much—and became accessories to their misdeeds.

Still, we can salvage the chaotic and tragic situation unfolding at Hamid Karzai International Airport. For instance, we can reclaim and re-open the US embassy in Kabul, protect it, and create safe access for the thousands of Americans, allies, and Afghan civilians who helped us over the past two decades. If we fail to do that, we risk damaging our image around the world. 

Bring all those who wish to leave to temporary safe havens in neighboring countries, then speed up their entry into the United States. Protected land convoys to Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan may be a possibility, in addition to airlifting people. Finally, tell the Taliban in no uncertain terms to release the last known American hostage, Mark Frerich. Leave no one behind.

Even as it begins a post-mortem of its tragic experience in Afghanistan, America needs to stand by the people of that country and honor the sacrifices they, as well as American and allied soldiers, have made over the past two decades by remaining engaged and helping them rebuild their shattered homeland.

—Shuja Nawaz is a distinguished fellow at the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council and author of The Battle for Pakistan: A Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighborhood. Follow him on Twitter at @shujanwaz.

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Is America now weaker?

President Biden’s speech likely resonated with many Americans. He has been decisive and clear in this thinking. Further American involvement, in his view, is not in the national security interest of the United States. And the speed of events over the last seventy-two hours came as a shock to many of us who have worked on Afghanistan-Pakistan policy.

However, the immediate issue is not the wisdom of withdrawing from Afghanistan. Instead, the world is asking whether it had to happen in the way we are now all watching on our screens. What was our process for evacuating people before sending an additional six thousand troops? What was our messaging to the Afghan people? To our allies? Even now, major questions remain unanswered: What is the plan and timeline for this withdrawal, and what is the vision for US-Afghan relations?

This all leads to the biggest question of all, one whose answer remains unclear and which President Biden did not address: Is America weaker or stronger than it was a week ago? The administration’s task in the upcoming days is to demonstrate to our friends, allies, and adversaries that the United States is willing and able to stand by our global partners.

—Safiya Ghori-Ahmad is a nonresident senior fellow at the South Asia Center. She previously served on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, covering South and Central Asia.

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The United States faces an uphill battle

In his first public speech since the Taliban took over the presidential palace in Kabul, President Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. He is right: the United States cannot stay in Afghanistan if its own government and forces cannot hold down the fort. To an American audience largely uninvolved in Afghanistan, this is enough. 

But the nature of withdrawal comes at great risk to US national security and to America’s standing in the world. What is happening on the ground is a complete collapse of the US-led negotiations with the Taliban, which left the United States flat footed to respond to the events rapidly unfolding on the ground. The world will not view this as a logical transition away from a country in which the United States does not belong. 

Instead, Biden’s realpolitik message juxtaposed against the chaotic scenes in Kabul simply reinforces longstanding global opinions of America’s unreliability and diminished superpower standing in the world. Biden tried to assure Americans, and the world, that Washington would continue to fight global terrorism—just not with a military footprint. Here, it faces an uphill battle if it is to once again convince the international community of its commitments and capabilities in overseas interventions. 

Finally, the United States still needs eyes on Afghanistan. The Taliban is not our ally; we clearly do not fully understand them, and they continue to surprise us. The Biden administration must move quickly to evacuate Americans from Afghanistan and then begin the hard work of developing a plan for protecting its long-term national security interests in South Asia.

—Shamila N. Chaudhary is a nonresident fellow at the South Asia Center and president of the American Pakistan Foundation. She is an international affairs analyst specializing in US foreign policy with a focus on US-Pakistan relations, Pakistan internal politics, and regional issues in South Asia.

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‘Afghans deserve better’

US President Joe Biden is to be applauded for his willingness to be transparent about his reasoning and to defend his decision to the American people in his speech given Monday. There will be much deserved criticism of the execution of the endgame of America’s military engagement in Afghanistan, and Biden accepted that. But to blame the Biden administration for the mistakes of the last three presidents would be unfair and prevent the full account of how things went so wrong so quickly. Perhaps if his predecessors had been willing to tell the truth about the mission’s likelihood of success, or perhaps if the United States had not allowed itself to be distracted by false intelligence about Iraq, things would have turned out differently. But Biden cannot be held solely responsible for twenty years of poor choices; he could merely play the hand he was dealt, and it was a poor one indeed. 

Regrettably while the president was clear-eyed about what he considers America’s strategic interests, he betrayed the same reflexive tendencies common to all American leaders. First, while his pride, affection, and concern for US troops was palpable, the tone he used to describe the Afghan military and civilian government was uncharitable and tone-deaf at a time when the airwaves are dominated by heart-wrenching scenes of desperate Afghans trying to escape a nightmare they thought they’d awakened from long ago. Even more telling was the single passing mention of women and girls and the unimaginable future they face under a restored, emboldened Taliban. 

Biden did take the opportunity to blame China and Russia, and China’s shadow loomed large over the speech. For all of Biden’s arguably correct analysis of the pros and cons of continuing military involvement in Afghanistan, one fact remains: For this administration, as for the last one and the one before that, China is the true threat that animates action. Being bogged down in Afghanistan any longer was a distraction from that mission, but the goals of the China mission are no less ill-defined and vague than the nation-building exercise Biden so clearly disagreed with in Afghanistan. 

In the end, Biden was right about one thing: This was never about America, but about Afghans. It was about Afghan children, women, poor and marginalized people, and religious minorities. Four decades of violence have scarred their land, and they have been betrayed by the foreigners who promised to fight for them and, even more painfully, by their own leaders in whose hands they entrusted their future. Afghans deserve better. 

—Irfan Nooruddin is the director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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Reactions to the fall of Kabul

A debacle in many acts’

The decision to withdraw was defensible, and like many who fought there, I supported it. There was a vast chasm between the Afghanistan that was talked about in policy circles and the flimsiness of the institutions we were building on the ground. 

But the execution of that decision was appalling—even more so for an administration that has been praised for its professionalism and expertise. There are many victims of this poor planning: interpreters who will never escape, Afghan soldiers who are attempting to hide, and the women and children who are now left without a future. 

By April of this year, however, the United States was also well past any decision points that would have altered the outcome of the war in a strategic way. Over the past two decades, none of the three troop surges—one in each prior administration—had a demonstrable, lasting effect on either the battlefield or the Afghans themselves. They are a wary people: As my former commander, John R. Allen, used to note, they have been in a civil war for the past forty years. They hedge their bets. We did not go into Tora Bora; we neglected Afghanistan for Iraq; and we failed to force Pakistan to sever ties with the Taliban.

We built an Afghanistan in our own image, not theirs. 

Our single worst failure came at the beginning, with our attempt to create a strong, multiethnic central government with control over the entire country—something which had never existed before in Afghan history. A more realistic, if pessimistic, strategy would have been to reinforce ethnic militias to create a strong Kabul and north, then rely on local allies and traditional leaders to keep the Taliban out of surrounding provinces. Through a constant practice of give-and-take, in which local power centers are alternately bought off and bullied by the central government, something resembling lasting stability may have been achieved. It would have ben a stability bought at the cost of our more aspirational goals, certainly, but also a stability which would not have melted away in a week. 

Instead we are left with nothing: no government, no counterterrorism, no pluralism, no women’s rights. Only a mob scene at Kabul airport, and disgrace. 

—Andrew L. Peek is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.  He was previously the senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council and the deputy assistant secretary for Iran and Iraq at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

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Don’t be fooled by the Taliban’s overtures

In a move showing strategic thinking at the top, the Taliban stated its willingness to undertake a peaceful transfer of power in Afghanistan. This is being met with a sigh of relief by the international community. But guards should not drop. This is not noblesse oblige. It is a tactic that buys the Taliban time to consolidate its gains from a rapid sweep of provincial capitals. It is a tactic to avoid international condemnation, sidestep an emergency resolution at the UN Security Council, and ensure aid distribution continues so the group is not blamed for a humanitarian crisis.  

The Taliban stated its willingness to undertake a peaceful transfer of power in Afghanistan. This is being met with a sigh of relief by the international community. But guards should not drop. This is not noblesse oblige. It is a tactic that buys the Taliban time.

Kirsten Fontenrose

Ali Jalali is a level-headed choice to head the interim government. His restraint and use of brains over brawn was noted during his time as interior minister, when some argued that only a strongman could impose order in Afghanistan. As a professor at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, he educated military officers and diplomats from the United States and Middle East on the Afghan theater with unemotional objectivity. He will be an honest broker. 

We can’t say the same for the Taliban. We’ve seen a version of this movie before—in Yemen.

Expect protracted negotiations about power-sharing, tax and resource distribution, and cabinet slots. (The Taliban won’t only argue for high-profile cabinet positions; watch Justice and Education, the roles that shape society.) Expect the Taliban to stay engaged in talks about government formation in order to hold off UN sanctions against them for human-rights abuses. Don’t expect much more.

Kirsten Fontenrose is the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council and former US national-security official.

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Biden had a choice. He made the wrong one.

Today is the culmination of President Biden’s strategic error in directing the rapid and complete withdrawal of US— and thus all international—forces and the failure to have done the planning necessary to prevent the resulting catastrophic collapse of the Afghan government. Despite administration protestations that the president had no better choice, he indeed did have a choice.

The Afghan forces have proved their willingness to fight, and die in the thousands, since they took the combat lead in 2014. They did so with the training and support of a steadily declining number of US forces, and invaluable contractors who provided essential logistics, intelligence, and air support. They learned to fight with the skills, tactics, and capabilities that we taught them. Crucially, US support provided reassurance and confidence until the fatally flawed Doha agreement called into question whether America had the back of the Afghan fighting force, as had been the case for the last decade.  

The Afghans themselves, and particularly the Afghan political class, bear a large portion of responsibility for the debacle. But for all the problems, Afghans were still holding against the Taliban until the shock of Biden’s decision to uphold, without conditions, the Doha commitment to withdraw. Given Taliban failure to abide by the Doha agreement, Biden could have declared that US withdrawal was conditioned on a genuine peace agreement and ceasefire, and focused on that objective with an extensive diplomatic effort. That is what most, perhaps all, of our NATO partners wanted. I believe that the majority of the American people and Congress would have accepted that alternative to the predictable outcome we are witnessing today and will see in the coming days. As for the claim that a decision to stay would have led to major US casualties as the Taliban resumed attacks, in 2019, before the 2020 Doha agreement, there were more deaths in the US military from training accidents than from combat in Afghanistan.

Attempts to claim the humiliating exit from Afghanistan will strengthen the administration’s hand in dealing with the challenges posed by Russia and China ring hollow. Apart from the moral debt we still owe to the Afghan people to help them weather the storm as well as possible, the larger strategic challenge going forward may be the erosion of confidence in US leadership and commitment.

Ambassador James Cunningham

The damage to the security of the United States, our allies, and the region has been done, as has the damage to the credibility of US leadership. Attempts to claim the humiliating exit from Afghanistan will strengthen the administration’s hand in dealing with the challenges posed by Russia and China ring hollow. Apart from the moral debt we still owe to the Afghan people to help them weather the storm as well as possible, the larger strategic challenge going forward may be the erosion of confidence in US leadership and commitment.

—James B. Cunningham is a nonresident senior fellow in the South Asia Center and former US ambassador to Afghanistan.

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The resistance lives on

One of the major reasons the Afghan National Army and fellow security forces failed to put up a fight was the massive scale of official corruption—unfortunately a lasting legacy of both President Ashraf Ghani’s government and American involvement. 

No matter the criticism of President Biden, he was right to pull the plug on the Afghan government. They were hated as much as the Taliban, if not more. Biden is right: Twenty years is not a sudden withdrawal. He was also right to oppose former President Barack Obama’s troop surge while serving as vice president.

US soldiers should not die for a corrupt political leadership. However, there are still honest and powerful local leaders whom both the Americans and Ghani did not support. They will now form a resistance, and this is by no means over. The United State should rethink its counterterrorism effort, since the Taliban cannot be trusted as a partner in this endeavor. 

Kamal Alam is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a special adviser and representative of the Massoud Foundation.

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A worse security threat than pre-9/11?

Looking forward, the United States and its former coalition partners must adjust their policies and posture to protect national security interests under a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan—which could be even more dangerous than it was in the 1990s, and in particular on September 11, 2001. A Taliban-led Afghanistan that provides tech-savvy global terrorists safe haven to remotely recruit new followers is a different level of security threat than it was previously. 

A Taliban-led Afghanistan that provides tech-savvy global terrorists safe haven to remotely recruit new followers is a different level of security threat than it was previously.

Barry Pavel

More broadly, the United States should undertake an urgent policy review for how a Taliban-led Afghanistan might affect US-China competition, then develop specific policies that would cover a wide range of relevant issues from access to rare-earth minerals to regional influence. The impacts of the Taliban takeover on US security alliances and partnership globally should not be underestimated.

Looking backward, meanwhile, the United States should undertake a fundamental review of how it wields national instruments, both military and civilian, to help stabilize fragile and conflict-ridden states. Despite the funds expended and lives lost in Afghanistan, it appears that US-led efforts were highly ineffective. Yet such situations will emerge again, and the United States will have direct national interests in helping to stabilize them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the United States invaded Afghanistan for a single purpose: not to build a new nation in its own image, but to neutralize al-Qaeda and prevent the country from being used as a terrorist base. That mission was accomplished—but then massive mission creep ensued. In future interventions, US-led coalitions should focus on the highest-priority achievable objectives, and not allow the broadening of those objectives under a “while we’re here” ethos.

—Barry Pavel is senior vice president and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.

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Build a ‘fence around Afghanistan’ to track terrorists

The collapse of the US-backed government in Kabul opens up the possibility that terrorist groups will again use Afghanistan as a safe haven from which to plan and train for attacks against the United States and its allies. There is one respect in which the United States has an important advantage we did not have in 2001—but that we need to develop even further now that Kabul has fallen: the ability to understand and disrupt terrorist travel.

Since the founding of the US Department of Homeland Security in 2003, the establishment of the National Counterterrorism Center in 2004, and the increase in US intelligence and homeland security capabilities since then, the United States now has the ability to collect and analyze more information on terrorist travel than existed in 2001. Tools such as Advance Passenger Information, Passenger Name Record data, terrorist watchlists, and biometrics have helped detect and disrupt dozens of terrorist plots against the United States and other countries since 9/11. The United States now partners with more countries to collect and analyze such data since their use was made mandatory by the 2017 adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2396.

The fall of Kabul will test this system more than ever before. The Taliban can now issue passports and hand out cell phones to anyone it chooses. Afghanistan’s landlocked nature, the bane of US and NATO logisticians since 2001, is now a boon for terrorist-travel analysts. There needs to be a “fence around Afghanistan” to track everyone who flies in and out. Land-border crossings also need to be better watched, though this will be harder.

One real test, as in 2001, involves Pakistan. On September 13, 2001, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the Pakistanis to choose a side; as is well-known, Pakistan tried to have it both ways. This time, Pakistan needs to understand—not just from the United States but also its allies, especially in Europe—that it can be outside the “fence,” enjoying the benefits of travel and trade with the West, or inside the “fence” alongside Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Inside the “fence” would put travelers through Pakistan’s airports under the heightened scrutiny necessary to ensure that terrorists do not travel through Pakistan to conduct attacks against the United States and other countries. This choice has regional consequences: India would benefit from Pakistan making the wrong choice, for example. Cooperation on facilitating or disrupting terrorist travel is a choice that only Pakistan can make for itself.

—Thomas S. Warrick is a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Programs and the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice at the Atlantic Council. Previously he was the deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at the US Department of Homeland Security. 

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The mistakes of the ‘war on terror’ are laid bare

Opponents of President Biden’s decision to end America’s longest war have been quick to lay the tragedy now unfolding in Afghanistan at his feet. But this tragedy was a long time coming. The even greater tragedy would be if we failed to learn the right lessons from it. Together, we must commit to never repeating these errors again.

Foreign forces often struggle when waging counterinsurgency on behalf of a beleaguered client, and the conditions in Afghanistan were never auspicious. The fallacy at the core of the “stay longer/leave better” chorus—most of whom admit that they opposed withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan effectively ever—is that withdrawing the “right” way would have prevented the recent Taliban gains. But after nearly twenty years and almost eighty-nine billion dollars spent to train Afghan security forces, it is now painfully apparent that that effort was a complete and utter failure. For years, government watchdogs and journalists have documented the rampant corruption of this enterprise, but these warnings were ignored. Those officials who told the American people that progress was right around the corner, and who pleaded for just a little more time to make things right, must be held accountable.

For their part, the American people—including solid majorities among the men and women who have actually fought in Afghanistan—are unlikely to change their minds about the war. They concluded long ago that the benefits did not outweigh the costs. Supporters of an open-ended US war obviously believe otherwise, but they must reckon with their failure to craft a sustainable strategy that could command broad public support or that had a reasonable chance of succeeding at the level of effort that Americans were willing to bear. 

We can now see that our fears of terrorism greatly exceeded the actual danger—and the costs of our overreaction is measured in the trillions of dollars spent and many millions of lives lost or disrupted. The militarized war on terror diverted precious attention and resources away from more proximate threats to human life, from global pandemics to climate change to domestic terrorism and political unrest.

Chris Preble

Lastly, as we approach the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, critics will invoke the specter of future acts of terrorism planned from Afghanistan to discredit President Biden’s decision. That argument has lost its purchase, too. The claim that terrorists require a physical safe haven in order to plan attacks, and that Afghanistan is uniquely suited to be that platform, is belied by the facts. But more broadly, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that our fears of terrorism greatly exceeded the actual danger—and the costs of our overreaction is measured in the trillions of dollars spent and many millions of lives lost or disrupted. The militarized war on terror diverted precious attention and resources away from more proximate threats to human life, from global pandemics to climate change to domestic terrorism and political unrest. Active global engagement with allies and partners is now urgently needed to tackle these other challenges.

—Christopher Preble is the co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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Time for a mass evacuation. Here’s how.

The fall of the legitimate national government in Afghanistan will undoubtedly trigger a cacophony of recriminations and finger-pointing in Washington. In the end, it will all be a necessary part of the process of learning the right lessons from this unfolding tragedy.  

There are a number of more strategic decisions that need to be made in the days and weeks ahead. These include necessary policies intended to mitigate the damage done to US standing more generally in the wake of what will be widely perceived as an undeniable American defeat.  

But right now, the Biden administration has several critical, immediate policy decisions before it. The first should be to vastly expand the current effort to withdraw American personnel and instead order a full-fledged noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO). Ideally this would formally be a NATO-led effort, but the vast majority of resources involved would be American. Neither the Trump administration nor the Obama administration oversaw a large NEO, but the Clinton administration had to conduct several in short order in the late 1990s, which led to the establishment of a formal policymaking process that still stands. The forces required for the NEO, backed by continuous direct diplomacy with the Taliban, should be sufficient to deter any disruption of the evacuation process. 

The second immediate policy decision should be to include a long list of categories of personnel eligible for extraction under the NEO. It should not be limited to only officials of NATO countries but should of course include all persons from those countries (foreign contractors, employees of nongovernmental organizations, journalists, etc.) who wish to depart and from other countries that the State Department concludes merit prioritization. Moreover, it should include the likely tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who are likely to be in physical danger under Taliban rule because they have actively worked with US forces, Western diplomats, or in the previous government.

A third set of near-term policy decisions will determine the distribution of new Afghan refugees extracted through the NEO to the NATO countries that participated in it. Acceptance of a reasonable number of Afghan refugees should be a requirement for any country that seeks assistance from the US to extract its nationals through the NEO.

The fourth immediate policy decision should be to anticipate the likelihood that Taliban forces or adjacent groups will take foreign hostages during this process, even if they are deterred from disrupting the NEO itself. Hostage-taking is already a tool that the Taliban uses without shame. A dedicated US special operations team should be reinserted to move quickly to rescue such hostages if the opportunity arises during the NEO.  

—William F. Wechsler is the director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs and former US deputy assistant secretary of defense

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How to avert a humanitarian catastrophe

The Taliban victory in Afghanistan is now all but complete. The speed of the collapse of the central government and its military has been stunning and will spur endless postmortems about what went wrong and who is to blame. But the immediate situation demands attention to minimize a massive humanitarian disaster.

The failure of Afghanistan’s American and European partners to protect it from the Taliban is clear. But this guilt will be compounded if these countries fail to facilitate a mass evacuation of those most directly under threat by the Taliban. Pointless bureaucracy hindering the processing of refugee and other special visas must be eliminated, and caps on the number of asylum-seekers from Afghanistan must be lifted.

The international community must state unequivocally to the Taliban that atrocities against women and girls will be met with harsh sanctions. Regional actors that have aided and abetted the Taliban over the past two decades should face similar consequences.

The hollowness of American statements about democracy and human rights has long been understood by those outside the Washington bubble—but the long-term damage to the credibility of American rhetoric from the disaster will be felt for years to come. The Biden administration’s callous April announcement might be the straw that broke the camel’s back, but every US administration since 2001 is culpable and must be held accountable. America owes itself—and Afghans—that much.

—Irfan Nooruddin is the director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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The secret to the Taliban’s success: PsyOps

A large portion of Taliban-conquered territories saw little to no fighting, thanks to the group’s strategically mounted psychological operations toward the Afghan military and high-level government officials, as well as the Afghan population.

When targeting the former, the Taliban have made political promises and inflated the number of troops they have. They have also formed a narrative that the Afghan government’s allies, chiefly the United States, have abandoned them, in addition to highlighting the government’s wrongdoings over the past two decades, particularly widespread corruption.

[The Taliban] is promising stability and communicating the fact that their lives under the government aren’t any better. Coupled with the psychological-cultural role of the Taliban as a “boogeyman,” the group has successfully fashioned itself into a larger-than-life threat.

Evanna Hu

To the population, meanwhile, the group is promising stability and communicating the fact that their lives under the government aren’t any better. Coupled with the psychological-cultural role of the Taliban as a “boogeyman,” the group has successfully fashioned itself into a larger-than-life threat.

Evanna Hu is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and the CEO and partner of Omelas, an artificial intelligence and machine learning company working on mapping the online information environment.

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Is US credibility forever damaged?

Frustration over the “forever war” in Afghanistan, felt by the current administration and the two previous ones, is understandable. But frustration is a poor basis for policy. Before President Joe Biden’s decision to pull out US forces and contractors, the situation in Afghanistan seemed to have entered a stalemate. There might have been no path to defeat the Taliban in the short term. 

But there is a difference between stalemate and defeat—particularly the sort of cataclysmic one currently unfolding there. I would bet a large amount that there are many at senior levels in the Biden administration who wish they could roll back the clock a few months. Even if one accepts the administration’s reasoning behind the withdrawal, the hasty execution made disaster more likely. The White House looks feckless and ignorant about the situation on the ground and appears to have made its key decision based on bad assessments—or no assessments at all.

What now, and what does the US failure in Afghanistan mean?

The United States, as well as other governments that had troops in Afghanistan, have obligations to the many thousands of Afghans who worked with us and our allies over many years. They trusted us, and now we must act to save them. US forces in Kabul may be able to provide a window of escape for our partners, not just fellow Americans.

The United States overthrew the Taliban in 2001 for good reason—I was in the White House on September 11, 2001—and the danger of a terrorist presence reestablishing itself there is real. The White House must be prepared to act against it. What happens in Afghanistan doesn’t necessarily stay in Afghanistan, and the United States cannot walk away from the regional and security consequences of a Taliban victory. That means working with Afghanistan’s neighbors—even Iran, to the degree possible, and especially Pakistan, which for years harbored the Taliban for reasons of its own—to contain the damage.

What will be the damage to US credibility worldwide?

There will be some, just as after the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. For their part, the Russians and Chinese will certainly make a meal out of the mess in Afghanistan. 

But also like in Vietnam, the collapse of US policy in Afghanistan does not mean that US security commitments and support—toward NATO, Asian, or Middle Eastern allies—are worthless. Nor does it mean that the Kremlin has a green light to launch new attacks on Ukraine, for example, or other US partners through military, energy, or hybrid means. Rather, this debacle spotlights the differences among alliances in Europe, more developed parts of Asia and the Middle East, and countries where institutions are weak and governments lack roots. 

During the Cold War, the United States found that it wasn’t easy to universally apply the successful model of alliances and development across Europe and Northeast Asia. Vietnam’s fall did not mean that US security guarantees toward Germany were worthless. In much the same way, Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban does not mean that Washington will fail to defend Poland or South Korea, where we have troops stationed, or the Baltics, where NATO allies have troops. Those countries are cohesive and prepared to also fight for themselves. 

It’s a dark time for US strategy. The Biden administration needs to do the right thing by its Afghan friends and contain the damage. It must also reassure its allies throughout the world that its words can be backed up by deeds.

—Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and former National Security Council senior director, ambassador to Poland, and assistant Secretary of State for Europe.

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Big winner? Al-Qaeda

The Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is the best news al-Qaeda has had in decades. With the Taliban back in charge of the country, it is virtually certain that al-Qaeda will reestablish a safe haven in Afghanistan and use it to plot attacks on the United States. The terrorist group responsible for 9/11 will soon find itself flush with cash looted from Afghanistan’s central bank, with weapons seized from the defeated Afghan army, and with fighters freed from prison. 

The Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is the best news al-Qaeda has had in decades. … The terrorist group responsible for 9/11 will soon find itself flush with cash looted from Afghanistan’s central bank, with weapons seized from the defeated Afghan army, and with fighters freed from prison.

Nathan Sales

All of this will unfold as the United States’ intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan are severely degraded. With no military or diplomatic presence on the ground, it will be far more difficult to monitor al-Qaeda as it reconstitutes itself, trains, and plans attacks. And with US drones and fighters now based hundreds of miles away in the Gulf, it will be far more difficult to take terrorists off the battlefield even when they can be located.

As the dust settles in Kabul, it is of paramount importance that the Biden administration maintain, to the maximum extent possible, our military’s ability to find, fix, and finish the terrorists who threaten our homeland.

—Nathan Sales is a nonresident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and Middle East Programs and former US ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism.

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Don’t let China and Russia exploit this setback

Anyone who has followed Afghanistan in the last decade knew that this was exactly how the story would play out either ten years ago, or ten years in the future—though we’d hoped to be proven wrong. Many will rightfully conclude that the US exit could have been better executed, but it’s hard to imagine a compelling argument to stay more than ten years after Osama bin Ladin was killed in Pakistan and nearly twenty years after his planned attacks on the United States that provoked our response.  

If neutralizing the threat from al-Qaeda and denying them safe haven in Afghanistan had actually remained the yardstick of success, Washington and its allies could have left the country a decade ago without the nausea we now collectively feel from our failed nation-building effort.

A pivot to long-term strategic competition with China has been overdue for some time, and our prolonged effort in Afghanistan was recognized by the Trump and Biden administrations as distracting the United States from that necessary shift. We can, however, fully expect that this episode will be strategically used by China and Russia to diminish US standing in the world and undermine its leadership of the free-market world order. 

Any actions taken from this point forward should account for full Taliban control of Afghanistan. It should likely not involve boots on the ground, and instead rely on allied levers of power that the Taliban care about and leverage military superiority to salvage what we can of our twenty-year legacy, while also protecting against clear human rights violations. We should honor the implicit and explicit promises made to those brave Afghans on the ground who helped allied forces during those two decades.  

All of this should be done not just because it is the “right” thing, but because the United States needs to prevent its longest war from being the case study that China and Russia use to convince the rest of the world that they are the better partners. But we should also not allow other regional players to drag the United States back in to serve their interests. We will need discipline to keep our eye on the threat of long-term strategic competition with China.

Arun Iyer is a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.  A lifelong New Yorker, he left his career in the financial services industry for military and government service following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

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The US needs to flex its diplomatic muscles

With the fall of Kabul, arguments about the prudence of the United States’ abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan are moot. What matters now is what happens next. 

In the short term, Washington should take whatever steps it can to mitigate the impending humanitarian crisis a Taliban takeover might produce. First, it should continue the evacuation of Afghans who worked with the United States, even if it requires committing additional military force. Fortunately, that seems to be happening—though it is unclear if the additional troops President Biden has sent will simply cover the evacuation of the embassy, or Afghans as well. It should do both. Second, the United States should embark on an intensive diplomatic initiative to engage states and other actors who have ties with the Taliban to pressure the group to stop the killing and allow the evacuation to continue.

In the medium term, the United States needs to address concerns regarding its credibility as a security partner. Simply reassuring allies and partners, of course, will not be enough. Credibility is a function of whether acting on a threat is less costly than failing to act. Deterrence is a function of one’s adversaries believing that cost-benefit balance to be true, as well as the belief that the deterrent threat is capable enough that they will be worse off if they act than if they do not. That’s why US credibility will depend on choosing interests that are clearly worth the cost of achieving them and communicating that to partners and adversaries alike.

In the long term, the United States should build on any previous diplomatic initiative to curtail the Taliban’s humanitarian abuses to further isolate a Taliban government and provide additional leverage, should they decide to violate their agreement with the United States and continue to export terror attacks. Such engagement should not only include traditional partners, such as those in Europe and the Arab Gulf, but also states like China and Pakistan, which could stand to lose if the Taliban takeover disrupts China’s Belt Road Initiative or the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Finally, it may be worth observing that as the Taliban seek to govern Afghanistan, they will become vulnerable in ways they had not been previously. As the Islamic State learned in Iraq and Syria, it is relatively straightforward to hide a guerrilla army in the desert or the mountains. It is much harder to hide a government, an organized military or security force—or, for that matter, an economy. Of course, the United States should not exploit these vulnerabilities gratuitously. However, these are levers that can be pulled not only by the United States, but also by like-minded partners to encourage the Taliban to choose good governance in Afghanistan rather than exporting terror.

—C. Anthony Pfaff is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative and the research professor for the Military Profession and Ethic at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College in Carlisle, PA.

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Why ‘hope’ wasn’t enough to save Afghanistan…

Hope is not good foreign policy. While this may seem intuitive, recent events would suggest it’s a topic worth exploring further. 

The Biden administration’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan was built on hope that the Afghan military and security services would step up. But hope is an irresponsible concept upon which to base foreign policy—especially when it was widely acknowledged in national security circles that the Afghans were not ready.

It is, or was, common knowledge among those who served in Afghanistan that the Afghan military and security services needed more to succeed: more time for an Afghan identity to take hold in the country; more time to train and professionalize; more support from Afghan political leaders; more outside oversight to reduce corruption and build government institutions.

With the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 rapidly approaching, the abandonment of Afghanistan leaves the country in worse shape than it was when the CIA’s Jawbreaker team arrived in northern Afghanistan to partner up with the Northern Alliance. At least in 2001, there was a credible opposition to the Taliban—which does not exist today. In recent days, hope did not ensure that traditional militia leaders were prepared to remobilize and defend their turf in the north from the anticipated Taliban offensive. 

Was the Biden administration hopeful that these traditional leaders would somehow just figure it out? Why did it not provide them any support in the days, weeks, and months before coalition forces were withdrawn, even as just an insurance policy? 

One can only hope that the Taliban has somehow transformed over the last twenty years into a liberal, forward-looking political entity that respects those it governs. But I doubt it.

…and why Afghanistan’s women will suffer

Every day that the United States and its coalition partners were in Afghanistan was one more day that girls and women were able to attend school and university, go to work, and move around freely to run errands and visit family and friends. 

Over the years, more and more were even lucky enough to begin to take for granted the fact they had agency over their lives and the decisions they made. This was a major success for the international community. The reality that their mothers and grandmothers lived in the 1980s and 1990s was something of a bad dream—not a life they would be forced to live (or relive).

Now, with the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan, the lives of women will be forever changed.

Women will be victims several times over—while those who work to advocate for them will likely be killed or imprisoned by the Taliban, with little care for how the international community reacts. The trickle-down effects of cutting off daily life, especially education and health care, to half the population will be catastrophic.

Jennifer Counter

Their talents and dreams will be stifled indefinitely, and their education and development stymied. This will ultimately hold back the development of the country, as educated women ensure that their children are educated. Separately, women’s health will be neglected, likely raising the rates of early deaths. Restrictions on who can treat women will severely reduce their access to even basic medical care and will limit possible interventions in domestic abuse situations. Women will be victims several times over—while those who work to advocate for them will likely be killed or imprisoned by the Taliban, with little care for how the international community reacts.

The trickle-down effects of cutting off daily life, especially education and health care, to half the population will be catastrophic in the medium to long term. It will be a visible reminder of how the United States and coalition forces failed them.

—Jennifer Counter is a nonresident senior fellow in the Forward Defense practice of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a vice president at Orbis Operations, where she advises friendly foreign governments on national security matters.

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The view from London: Worrying questions arise

The events of the last few days have prompted anguished public and semi-public debate in the United Kingdom, not only in the media among politicians and commentators, but also among former senior military officers, diplomats, and policy officials. The UK Parliament is set to be recalled from its summer recess on Wednesday. The dividing lines in the UK debate have existed for many years. At one end is the argument that the collapse of the Afghan state and its security forces was inevitable—the roots go back almost two decades to the West’s failure to make Afghan leaders find an authentic and sustainable political framework for managing the country’s complex dynamics. At the other end is the accusation that allowing the Taliban to retake power is a shameful betrayal of the hundreds of British troops who lost their lives or suffered life-changing injuries in the conflict—more could and should have been done in the past, and could even be done now, to avert this outcome. And there are more nuanced positions in between which, for the moment at least, seem to be as much about explaining (or disputing) the decisions of the past two decades as they are about grappling with the implications of these events for the future.   

The British government accepted the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan and even gave it lukewarm public support, noting the scale of the Afghan forces and the investment made in them. But there was a sense of unease, not least among longstanding Afghanistan watchers. It had long been recognized here that there would have to come a time when we left Afghan forces to fend for themselves—and “if not now, when?” was not an unreasonable question to ask. But, for many in London, the timing of the US decision seemed to be driven primarily by US domestic political considerations, not the realities on the ground in Afghanistan.  

From a British perspective, the depiction of Afghanistan as a “forever war” doesn’t resonate strongly. By 2021, the US and NATO (including the UK) military presence was a fraction of its size ten years ago and it endured relatively few casualties in recent years. It’s not unusual for fragile countries to be stabilized, or at least saved from sliding into anarchy, by quite small contingents of foreign troops staying for years. Those troops can have an effect that is out of proportion to their numbers, partly because they convey a political as well as military message. If the costs are relatively low, postponing the “inevitable” is not an irrational or ignoble strategy—if the “inevitable” entails collapse or relapse into another civil war (a risk for Afghanistan now). 

What next? Now, the emphasis in London is on consequence management—in the first instance, evacuating people from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Among UK commentators, opinion seems to be divided over whether the Taliban takeover will increase the threat of terrorism on the streets at home. Countering this threat was the main political argument for sustaining the UK military mission in southern Afghanistan during previous periods with high casualties and public disquiet. It is asserted that the Taliban will have learned their lesson from their fate twenty years ago and would not invite similar retribution by harboring al-Qaeda again. I’m not so sure: The Taliban could draw a different lesson from their eventual return to power, while the significantly changed global and regional strategic contexts will constrain the West’s future freedom of action. But there appears to be little appetite in London for any sort of new intervention to try to reverse or limit the Taliban’s gains. Plus, as is often an important consideration from a UK perspective, what would be the legal basis for such an intervention?  

The United States is the United Kingdom’s closest ally, and steps have been taken in just the last few months to deepen cooperation in defense and other fields. Ministers and officials in London will insist that the transatlantic partnership (through the bilateral relationship and through NATO) remains as strong as ever. But for many others across the political spectrum, these events raise worrying questions. The consequences of the Biden administration’s decision—taken with limited consultation with the allies it professes to prize—will embolden our collective adversaries. And even in the United Kingdom, they will raise questions about the wisdom of having become so dependent on US capabilities and leadership.       

—Peter Watkins is a nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council. He is a former senior policy official in the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), where he participated in shaping the United Kingdom’s politico-military strategy for Afghanistan in a number of posts. These are his personal views and are not representative of those of the MOD or any other organization to which he is now affiliated. 

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A point on the trend line toward democratic decline 

Following the swift fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the US government and outside analysts are rightly focused on the immediate crisis, including safely evacuating US personnel. It will soon become clear, however, that America’s loss in Afghanistan will have more important strategic consequences that Washington must address. 

While Biden has expressed that the United States is ready to resume its global leadership role, its retreat from Afghanistan deals a significant blow to its credibility. US global leadership and the stability of the international system depend, in large part, on Washington’s promises to protect friends and defend against adversaries. Will others trust Washington’s word after it reneged on promises made to the Afghan people over two decades? Moreover, an emerging Biden doctrine sees the world at an “inflection point” in a struggle between democracies and autocracies, but in its hasty retreat from Afghanistan, the United States has abandoned a fledgling democratic government and left it in the hands of a Taliban theocracy. The failed experiment in Afghanistan will serve as another data point in worrying trend lines showing a global decline in the number of democracies globally over the past fifteen years. Finally, the Biden administration has vowed to focus on great-power competition with China, but the US withdrawal from Afghanistan weakens Washington’s position vis-à-vis Beijing. Battered US credibility will affect Beijing’s calculations about whether Washington has the stomach to defend US allies in the Indo-Pacific, potentially making a Chinese invasion of Taiwan more tempting. In addition, the United States has squandered significant influence in Central and South Asia, with adversaries Russia, China, and Iran filling the vacuum. 

The fall of Kabul and the disorganized US retreat bear important strategic consequences and undermine Biden’s own foreign-policy agenda. Failing to mitigate those consequences will damage the president’s agenda and US global standing. 

—Matthew Kroenig is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and the director of the Center’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative. Jeffrey Cimmino is assistant director of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. 

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Further reading

Related Experts: Shuja Nawaz, Shamila N. Chaudhary, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, Andrew L. Peek, Kirsten Fontenrose, Irfan Nooruddin, James B. Cunningham, Kamal Alam, Barry Pavel, Christopher Preble, William F. Wechsler, Evanna Hu, Daniel Fried, Nathan Sales, Arun Iyer, C. Anthony Pfaff, Jennifer A. Counter, Peter Watkins, Matthew Kroenig, and Jeffrey Cimmino

Image: Abdul Salam Hanafi, member of the Taliban negotiating team and the Taliban delegation, arrive for Afghan peace talks in Doha, Qatar, on August 12, 2021. Photo by Hussein Sayed/Reuters.