The final US troops departed Afghanistan on Monday shortly before midnight local time, ceding the country to Taliban control ahead of US President Joe Biden’s August 31 deadline—and nearly twenty years after the United States first invaded the country.
What’s next for Afghanistan? How will evacuations proceed without the US military controlling Kabul airport? What’s next for the counterterrorism mission? How will other regional and global powers shape the country the United States leaves behind?
We reached out to experts from across the Atlantic Council, many of whom have worked on Afghanistan policy at the highest levels of government, for their reactions and thoughts on what comes next. This post will be continuously updated as we receive more expert assessments of the withdrawal and its aftermath.
Jump to an expert reaction:
Now comes the race against the terrorists
The US withdrawal is complete, but our interests and thus missions remain. As has been the case since Osama bin Laden moved there from Sudan back in 1996, we have one vital national security interest in Afghanistan: the need to prevent it from being used as a base from which terrorists can attack Americans. Unfortunately, the Taliban reconquest has made securing this interest much more of a challenge. We are now in a race with the Salafi Jihadist groups there to see who will succeed first: the terrorists in achieving a safe haven and then building their external attack capabilities, or us constructing a consistently effective over-the-horizon counterterrorism program. I don’t know how long it will take before this race will be decided, but I suspect we will know the likely results by the end of President Biden’s first term.
We have other interests there as well, but not vital ones. At the top of that list is the need to ensure the safety of the Americans left behind, which reportedly number in the hundreds. Many of them chose to stay but will soon become kidnapping targets, potentially joining Mark Frerichs as hostages being held by the Taliban or adjacent organizations in an attempt to maximize their leverage for the negotiations to come. Below that group is the need to stand by our former Afghan allies, likely numbering in the tens of thousands. Many of these individuals wanted to depart but were stopped by the Taliban, and some have already gone into hiding and—despite the distrust they undoubtedly feel from our abandonment—may eventually form the core of an irregular proxy force that will assist our over-the-horizon counterterrorism campaign. Below that is the need to help protect the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have a legitimate fear of persecution under a Taliban regime and so would qualify for asylum if they ever made it to our shores. The same set of smugglers who made so much money as people and materiel was making its way into Afghanistan over the last twenty years will now become rich once again, charging exorbitant amounts to get people out.
And even further below that is a general humanitarian concern for the Afghan people, who are about to see their economy and governance, unnaturally propped up for years by foreign funding, collapse more rapidly than they likely currently appreciate—even before the inevitable wave of US and international sanctions are imposed and enforced in response to Taliban atrocities. It is likely that a low-grade civil war will continue in Afghanistan for some time, as the Taliban learns the same lesson that we somehow never did: that no single entity can effectively control the entirety of Afghanistan as a centralized state. The only sustainable system there is one that is a product of continuous negotiations, deals, and renegotiations between the center and the local powers on the periphery.
—William F. Wechsler is the director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs and former US deputy assistant secretary of defense
The war’s not over. This is what the next phase looks like.
While the United States has officially declared an end to its military operations in Afghanistan, military operations will not really be terminated, but will transition to a new phase. The United States still retains vital interests in evacuating US citizens and coalition and Afghan allies, and in preventing additional terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda and others. Both of these objectives, as well as others, will require a lot more work (both diplomatic and military), a lot more time, and additional national resources. The United States also now has a lot of work to do to shore up its alliances in the wake of the poorly executed withdrawal. This, too, will require new efforts if the United States seeks to navigate this dangerous new era in a way that protects American security and prosperity.
—Barry Pavel is senior vice president and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.
Time for hard questions: Why did US policy fail?
Now that the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan is finally complete, the American people have a right to ask why US policy there failed so catastrophically. And they deserve honest answers, even if that is uncomfortable for those responsible for crafting and implementing those policies. A thorough inquiry should begin by scrutinizing the statements of civilian leaders and US government officials who claimed that success was right around the corner, and who ignored—and sometimes suppressed—information that should have caused them to revisit US objectives. The brave men and women of the US military expended enormous effort, and endured unspeakable hardships, on a nearly twenty-year-long mission that many suspected at the time was not vital to US national security. These misgivings have tragically been proved correct. We owe it to them, and to future generations, to understand what went wrong, and commit as a nation to avoid these errors in the future.
—Christopher Preble is the co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
The lessons to learn—and not learn
History confounds expectations, especially those made in the immediate aftermath of major events. Who believed in 1975 when the US withdrew from Saigon that years later, Vietnam would welcome the US vice president, seeking American support against a potentially aggressive China? Who expected that the results of American involvement in Iraq would look relatively better than in Afghanistan?
We don’t know how the withdrawal and debacle in Afghanistan will look in twenty years. Much depends on how the United States handles the immediate aftermath of its withdrawal: how it cares for those Afghans it got out and for those at risk it did not, how the US deals with the Taliban and whether the Taliban consolidates control over Afghanistan, how the US deals with the threat of international terrorism again taking root in Afghanistan.
Much also depends on what lessons the United States learns from the Afghanistan War. Good lessons should be those of operational realism: what is (and is not) achievable in a given situation, when to use military force and when not to, when to follow up with long-term presence and when not to.
But even wise lessons are easier to articulate than to apply. The US went into Afghanistan for good reasons and stayed for reasons that seem right at the time. Nobody in policymaking sets out to blow it.
There are bad lessons as well. After defeat in Vietnam, America’s adversaries believed, and many Americans agreed, that the country was overextended, too weak, and too weary for international leadership. Yet, America’s prosperity depends on a world that is prospering and on a world that is as secure, peaceful, and orderly as it can be. These principles steered American grand strategy for generations and, despite blunders, failures, and hypocrisies, American leadership produced much good.
Our friends and allies don’t want America to retreat. They want us to get our act together.
President Biden can speak to America’s enduring purposes when he meets with an embattled American friend, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on September 1. Ukraine has its failings. But it’s defending itself and asks only for US help to do so. It’s shaken by the events in Afghanistan but still looks to America.
The post-Afghanistan period starts now. We can start it right—with humility over our failures, with confidence in our enduring principles, with determination to learn from mistakes but stand with our friends as we want them to stand with us.
—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.
An ‘appalling’ withdrawal
History will judge the United States not by the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, but by the appalling manner this withdrawal was executed, communicated, and planned—twice. The US government made catastrophic mistakes by undercutting both evacuation effort timelines and not expanding the airport perimeter to have more protection from attacks and allow more access points to the airport. The aggregate of this miscalculation, and many others, resulted in the deaths of US service members, the creation of effective Taliban checkpoints, an inability to retrieve US persons throughout Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan, and a humanitarian disaster at the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
Afghanistan has now become a warzone ruled by terrorists and violent jihadi extremists that is exponentially more dangerous than before the US withdrawal. This threat is compounded by the risk of having abandoned Americans in Afghanistan. The United States must hold to its promise that every American citizen, permanent resident, and special immigrant visa (SIV) applicant who wants to leave Afghanistan can do so. Until then, this mission is not complete, but rather it is a failed mission.
American citizens, legal permanent residents, and SIV applicants are located all over the country, with the largest non-Kabul cohorts located in Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Jalalabad. The United States can’t forget the other major cities where safety and security threats have forced people to shelter in place, no matter how much they want to come to the United States.
The Taliban, using biometric systems abandoned by the US military and Afghan government databases, could work to identify and hunt down SIV applicants and our other Afghan allies who assisted the United States and NATO. Furthermore, some Afghans have already begun traveling north—Uzbekistan should gear up for a flood of refugees. Nongovernmental organizations, the United States, and European allies should help Afghans as they evacuate north by harnessing commercially available imagery to plot safe routes away from Taliban-concentrated areas, navigate the routes, and plan for difficult circumstances like weather events. The White House should join the Group of Seven (G7) nations and other United Nations members to declare safe zones throughout Afghanistan. It is perhaps time to consider a blue helmet-like role for the international community in Afghanistan.
Perhaps the darkest chapter in Afghanistan’s tragic recovery has begun, and the United States and its allies cannot stand idly by. History will also judge our inaction and lack of compassion. How would we wish to be remembered?
—Mir Sadat is a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and former strategic adviser to two commanding generals of the war in Afghanistan who has been working to evacuate Afghans in recent weeks.
Taliban carrots and sticks
The contrast of the last US military plane leaving Kabul on the same day that the former head of Osama bin Laden’s Black Guard returned with great fanfare to his birthplace in eastern Afghanistan is emblematic of the shifting Afghanistan mission for the West. Even before the US-led NATO invasion in 2001 seeking to oust al-Qaeda from its base of operations in Afghanistan, the United States and the international community have tried to split the Taliban and al-Qaeda, to little apparent avail. Abandoning any pretense of nation-building in Afghanistan, US and Western security interests now focus on two key goals: 1) prevent the country from becoming a safe-haven for al-Qaeda and other terror groups intent on striking the West, and 2) protect human rights and civil liberties from the predilections of the ruling Taliban.
Military intervention will not be a credible point of leverage for the foreseeable future, which means that the United States must resort to a soft-power approach to pursue those goals. The United States has dangled recognition—and the international aid that represents around half of the economy—as a reward for the Taliban governing responsibly. The stick to that carrot is the renewed use of sanctions. The United States has frozen nearly all of Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves but has been cagily silent on the reach of US and United Nations (UN) sanctions while US forces (aka potential hostages) were still on the ground.
Washington must move quickly now that troops are safely gone to assert the full scope of the UN-mandated asset freeze and full reach of US sanctions authorities to give it much-needed leverage over the Taliban and thwart efforts by Beijing and Moscow to play spoiler. Speed is of the essence if the United States is to preserve any gains from the last twenty years of war.
—Brian O’Toole is a nonresident senior fellow at the GeoEconomics Center and a former senior US Treasury Department official.
How to accelerate refugee processing
On August 29, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan designated the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as the lead federal agency for coordinating the resettlement of Afghans evacuated after the Taliban takeover.
Before August 29, no one agency was in charge on the civilian side. The Department of State issues visas. An alphabet soup of agencies screen and vet refugees and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants—including CIA, DHS, DIA, DOD, FBI, NCTC, and NSA. DHS admits those who pass through the gauntlet of reviews. Health and Human Services (HHS) helps refugees and others (but not everyone) after they are here.
This civilian effort was quietly ramped up in mid-July, but it should have been significantly ramped up in February 2020 when President Donald Trump agreed with the Taliban to pull US forces out of Afghanistan in fourteen months. Instead, the Trump administration deliberately slowed down SIV processing. Efforts could have been ramped up when President Joe Biden in April 2021 set withdrawal for the end of August.
Screening and vetting SIV applicants is a quintessential “back office” function. Some applicants can be quickly approved or denied, but most raise questions that can be answered by unglamorous but effective basic police and security work: checking computer databases and talking to applicants’ references, who are former US military and civilian officials.
The US government needs now to commit the people and resources necessary to clear the number of SIV and refugee cases by a reasonable but ambitious target—say, 95 percent of the cases by the end of the year. Congress should approve money for overtime and for bringing back retired homeland security, intelligence, and military personnel to clear this backlog. The United States needs to honor its debt to those Afghans who risked their lives for the United States by reviewing their claims, thoroughly and fairly, before the end of this year.
—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.
Shaky territory for US alliances
The complacent and haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan impacts US interests, increases the threat against Americans, and puts our security cooperation relationships at risk. In turn, US and European national security and economic security will incur new risks beyond transregional terrorism. The public incandescent rage coming from our stalwart allies, like the United Kingdom, who unquestionably responded to America’s 2001 clarion call for NATO to invoke the Washington Treaty’s Article 5 for collective self-defense, is more than worrisome words. The NATO alliance immediate response to 9/11 saw NATO engage actively in the global fight against terrorism, launch its first operations outside the Euro-Atlantic area, and begin a far-reaching transformation of interoperable capabilities. For NATO to invoke Article 5 for the very first time in history was not just a treaty obligation, it was also a manifestation of trust and an affirmation of the integrity of American security cooperation.
Now, nearly twenty years later, the debacle in Kabul, including the tragic recent deaths of Americans, further stress-tests the integrity of American security cooperation, but concurrently highlights the blunt necessity of staying the course on security cooperation. Well before August 16, foreign partners were already questioning the reliability of America at a time where the debate in Washington about our global posture along with security assistance and arms-transfers policies appears to be more politicized for domestic posture. The American military colloquial term “integrity check” usually applies when there is either a concern about the capability or trustworthiness of an individual or a unit. The need for an “integrity check” could well apply to the United States and our global security cooperation. It is not the why, but the impact of how the commander-in-chief abruptly withdrew the United States from Afghanistan that puts the United States squarely at the critical “integrity check” point right now.
—R. Clarke Cooper is a non-resident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, former US assistant secretary of state, and US Army combat veteran
A terrorist safe haven again?
After spending some two trillion dollars and sacrificing more than two thousand troops, America’s twenty-year war is finally over. But the question remains: Did it achieve its objective of avenging the 9/11 terror attacks?
The changes over the past weeks have been dramatic. Taliban militants—who still have close ties to al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups—now control Afghanistan. The withdrawal of US and other troops has left the country without a government or political system, its population without protection, as well as an ingrained economic and humanitarian crisis. When combined with dire socioeconomic conditions and a gaping power vacuum, the recent Kabul airport attack created conditions that are ripe for insurgency.
There is no guarantee that Afghanistan won’t revert to its status as a safe haven for terrorists aiming to harm the United States and its global partners.
With this in mind, it’s imperative that Washington leverage its remaining influence to find ways to engage with Afghanistan to counter the emergence and strengthening of terrorist activities. US diplomatic efforts must also address the economic and humanitarian crises. Because the Taliban craves recognition and money, the Biden administration should strategically exert pressure on the group so that it forms an inclusive government and ensures the protection of minorities and women’s rights. With China, Russia, and Iran poised to build closer relationships with the Taliban, it is crucial that Washington start a new phase in its relationship with Afghanistan.
—Nilofar Sakhi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and the director of policy and diplomacy at McColm & Company.
Was Afghanistan really ‘different’?
The downfall of the Kabul government even before the full US military withdrawal from Afghanistan has raised concerns in many other countries, from Europe to East Asia, about America’s willingness to defend them. One key factor in the collapse was that the Afghan government’s own armed forces proved unwilling to defend the country. The Biden administration will undoubtedly argue that “Afghanistan was different,” and that what happened there won’t be repeated anywhere else.
But other governments might worry that the United States could pursue actions that demoralize their armed forces—as occurred when the White House struck a deal with the Taliban without the participation of the Kabul government. The United States will need to expend considerable effort to make sure that similar negative dynamics don’t occur elsewhere.
—Mark N. Katz is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.
It’s time to lead by example
As someone who has lived through the US debacle in Vietnam, the Iranian Revolution and its ensuing hostage crisis, the 9/11 attacks, and the US invasion of Iraq, I find the hysteria over Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan infuriating, unjustified, and historically deaf.
For sure, the US exit from that “graveyard of empires” could have been handled better—but the democratic veneer which the United States and its allies pasted onto Afghanistan has always been thin. Using diplomatic and economic tools, the Biden administration should continue to extract Americans and others wishing to leave Afghanistan and advocate for human—especially women’s—rights.
But its first responsibility should be to strengthen democracy and human rights at home and to ensure that Afghan refugees are properly welcomed, so that they can become productive citizens. A good first step would be to reallocate the $3 billion the Defense Department had slated for the now-collapsed Afghan military toward refugee resettlement. If there is anything we should have learned by now, it’s that the best way for the United States to continue leading the world is by example—not military invasions.
—Barbara Slavin is the director of the Future of Iran Initiative and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Europeans will continue counting on America
To American allies in Europe, the Afghanistan debacle came as a shock following the Nord Stream 2-related decision by the Biden administration. Europeans are angry; in both cases, they were left in the dark while the consequences are owned together. The anger is justified—but beware of those who want to use this temporary short-circuit in the transatlantic relationship to push for a decoupling from America. Yes, it is a wake-up call to Europeans that however counterintuitive, the more they build their own capabilities, the more the United States will be inclined to stick with its allies.
The Afghanistan withdrawal can have a lasting negative impact, but it doesn’t have to be this way. The one big takeaway for the Biden administration should be that the honeymoon with Europe is over. Well-crafted words, no matter how many times they are repeated, are not enough. Simply not being Trump will not convince European allies about the strategic relationship. Secretary of State Antony Blinken should have been on a plane a week ago to meet with his NATO colleagues and the leaders of the European Union.
That is where I was this last week. I spoke to many people, and the good news is this: There is no schadenfreude over America’s failure in Afghanistan. Even better? I heard very strong voices saying, “Move on—we’re in this together.” It made my American heart beat faster.
—András Simonyi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Hungarian ambassador to the United States.
Proof of failing US policy toward Pakistan
Much of the resignation regarding the fall of Kabul and the Afghan government is not to say that the people of Afghanistan never had a chance, but rather reflects that they didn’t have a chance unless certain things were different. At the very top of that list was fixing US policy on Pakistan.
It is tempting to view the heartbreaking events of the last month as failed US policy on Afghanistan. While that is indeed the case, viewing it so narrowly implies that there was ever a chance for a successful policy in Afghanistan, without changing policy toward Pakistan, a primary regional partner in the war on terrorism for the last twenty years.
To study Pakistan is to study a complex territory that is no more accurately defined as a single entity as Afghanistan. There is more than one Pakistan, and as Steve Coll described in Directorate S, there is even more than one Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence. This multi-polarity creates a country that relies on the US for significant foreign aid, while also aligning itself with China. It is a nuclear-armed, state sponsor of terror—that presents itself as the primary partner in regional security matters—and also a partner to the United States in the war on terror for two decades. Within its borders, Osama bin Laden sought and found a safe haven, with the Taliban finding what was, in effect, a cryo-chamber for that same war.
US policy towards Pakistan has not effectively addressed these serious contradictions, and Afghanistan has been blatantly obvious proof that the policy has not protected US or allied national security interests.
—Arun Iyer is a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security who served in the military and government following the 9/11 attacks.
The US should hold itself accountable for its failures
The Associated Press announced the end of the war in Afghanistan by noting that some of the US troops killed in its final days were “barely older than the war.” And for many millennials in particular, the idea that the United States is no longer at war in Afghanistan is almost shocking, as the twenty-year conflict was a constant background presence in our lives. For some of us, it was hearing about casualties on the news, but for others, it was far more personal: deploying and fighting a war that, in retrospect, was unwinnable.
The speed with which things fell apart in Afghanistan—the flight of the Afghan president, the Taliban’s rapid advance, and the chaotic evacuation—adds to the notion that US efforts in Afghanistan failed to achieve much of substance. As a result, it is perhaps no surprise that Americans in general, and veterans in particular, have been strongly supportive of the Biden administration’s choice to withdraw from the conflict. And though ending the war offers an opportunity to look forward for those who have put so much on the line for so little, it is perhaps more important to look back. As revelations like those in the Pentagon Papers suggest, many in Washington, at a minimum, put an overly optimistic face on reports; others misled the public and the congressional representatives charged with their oversight. A full congressional investigation of the twenty-year war would help to uncover this, bring some accountability for these failures where possible, and set up better mechanisms to prevent such mistakes from happening again. We cannot do any less.
—Emma Ashford is a resident senior fellow with the New American Engagement Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Hold firm against the Taliban’s ‘charm offensive’
August 31 was a dark day for America. Hundreds of American citizens were unable to be evacuated, along with thousands of vulnerable Afghan allies. Our terrorist enemies are emboldened, and with no military presence in the country, it will be much harder to disrupt their plotting. While the situation in Afghanistan is bleak, there are three steps the administration should take to mitigate the fallout from the withdrawal.
First, our top priority must be to bring every American home. The Taliban will certainly try to use them as pawns to extract various concessions, which is why the administration must be firm: Getting Americans to safety is non-negotiable.
Second, the administration must resist pressure to normalize relations with the Taliban. Don’t be fooled by the charm offensive; the new Taliban is very much the same as the old Taliban. It is subject to sweeping terrorism sanctions at the UN and under US law. Those sanctions should stay in place, assets should remain frozen, and there should be no diplomatic recognition. Any gestures should only be offered, if at all, in response to concrete and specific steps by the Taliban—not in the naïve hope of inducing good behavior.
Third, the administration should support Ahmad Massoud—and, indeed, any credible anti-Taliban resistance movement. The son of the legendary Northern Alliance leader has assembled a militia in the Panjshir Valley and is vowing to resist. Not only could this territory be a refuge for women and others fleeing the Taliban’s inevitable human rights atrocities, but it could also serve as a platform for continued counterterrorism operations in the country.
—Ambassador Nathan A. Sales is a nonresident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and Middle East Programs and served as acting Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the State Department.
Biden’s wise words
I joined the US Foreign Service about the same time in 1979 that Iran took American diplomats hostage, and during my 33-year career, I saw many presidents deal with tragedy and failure in the Middle East. That includes the 1983 truck bombing that killed 241 US service members, mostly Marines, in Beirut. But I claim no expertise in Afghanistan—which is why listened to President Biden’s address on Tuesday simply as an American going about his daily business. I was struck by four elements of the speech.
First, the evacuation was extraordinary and the fact that it was carried out without further loss of life is nearly unbelievable, given the chaos of the situation. Biden was right to pay tribute to the US service members and diplomats who gave it their all during the process.
Second, Biden explained his decision in some detail, recognizing that it was his call as commander-in-chief. His description of the situation he faced reflected a fundamental truth about foreign policy: By the time an issue reaches the president, there are no good options—just difficult choices among bad options, all with uncertain outcomes.
Third, Biden stated clearly what he considers to be the primary US national interest: stopping terrorist attacks on the United States. He explained his view that the US role in Afghanistan had strayed from that essential objective at great cost. Changing the political and social culture of Afghanistan was always secondary to that goal.
Fourth, the president expressed the human cost of war in terms people can readily understand. He recognized the toll on veterans and their families, PTSD, and the high suicide rate among military members. His rejection of a “low grade, low cost” continuation of the war was very effective.
Going forward, Biden’s ability to connect with Americans on foreign policy and to bring critical decisions to them in clear terms will become increasingly important as the United States ponders how it will conduct itself around the world.
—Ambassador Richard LeBaron is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council focusing on the Gulf and social change in the MENA region. He is a career diplomat with more than thirty years of experience abroad and in Washington.
Experts react Aug 18, 2021
Experts react: What the fall of Afghanistan means for Europe
By Atlantic Council experts
As policymakers in Washington grapple with the stark reality of losing Afghanistan, their counterparts across Europe are no less flummoxed over what happens next. Will Brussels be as ready to support future American foreign policy initiatives?
New Atlanticist Aug 17, 2021
The Taliban now controls the Afghan economy. Here’s what that means.
By Alex Zerden
The reality of a strengthened Taliban running the Afghan government creates substantial and imminent economic policy challenges for the United States and the international community.
New Atlanticist Aug 25, 2021
PTSD is an endless war for veterans. The news from Afghanistan is making it worse.
By Kirsten Fontenrose
The realities of the Afghanistan withdrawal and its framing as a defeat put service members and veterans at risk for debilitating mental health problems and suicide.