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Fast Thinking August 15, 2021

FAST THINKING: What you need to know about the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan

By Atlantic Council


America’s longest war has come to a stunningly swift end. The Taliban took Kabul on Sunday without a fight, nearly twenty years after the militant group was forced out by a US invasion following the 9/11 attacks. The Afghan government’s effective surrender—with President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country and the United States evacuating its embassy—punctuates a rapid withdrawal of US and NATO forces. What can the United States possibly do now to manage the fallout? How will all this reshape America’s global standing? Our experts penetrate the fog of war.


  • Barry Pavel (@BarryPavel) Director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and former top Pentagon and National Security Council official
  • Irfan Nooruddin: Director of the South Asia Center and professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University
  • William Wechsler (@WillWechsler) Director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs and former US deputy assistant secretary of defense

Meet the new boss

  • Barry says Afghanistan could soon become more dangerous to the US homeland than it was before 9/11. “A Taliban-led Afghanistan that provides terrorists from across the world with safe haven—considering that they now have the benefit of social media and other online platforms to exponentially strengthen their ability to plan, organize, recruit, and conduct operations in the US and elsewhere—is a different level of security threat,” he says.
  • What are the Taliban’s immediate goals? In Irfan’s view, to “shore up some domestic legitimacy” by convening traditional Afghan leaders; establish trade ties with China, Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asian countries to ensure continued supplies of food and military equipment; and delegate power throughout the country.
  • “Establishing provincial leadership will pose a challenge to the Taliban’s central leadership, who will now have to deal with factional ambition as well as managing the aspirations of local ethnic leaders who will seek their own bargains,” Irfan says. For the Taliban, he notes, maintaining power will likely prove harder than “taking power from a dispirited Afghan military and enervated government.” 

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How to avert “humanitarian disaster”

  • There will be ample time for “postmortems about what went wrong and who is to blame,” Irfan tells us. “But the immediate situation demands attention to minimize a massive humanitarian disaster.”
  • That means a “mass evacuation” of those most at risk, Irfan adds: “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 removed.” 
  • Barry points out that “the volume and speed of refugee flows could approach the levels we saw in the exodus from Syria, which could destabilize regional and even European politics once again, while also creating great demands for humanitarian assistance.”
  • What can the United States do? In the short term, Will advises President Biden “to vastly expand the current effort to withdraw American personnel, and instead order a full-fledged noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO)” that would include officials, journalists, contractors, non-governmental organization staffers, and others from NATO and allied countries, plus tens of thousands of endangered Afghans. Just days ago, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby pointedly said the United States was not conducting a NEO.
  • Will argues that “the forces required for the NEO, backed by continuous direct diplomacy with the Taliban,” should ensure a fairly smooth evacuation, but there’s one big caveat: “Hostage-taking is already a tool that the Taliban uses without shame.” He advises that a dedicated US special operations team be sent to rescue any hostages.

Hegemon no more

  • Internationally, the US withdrawal will damage Biden’s credibility when he speaks about “democracy and human rights as the centerpiece of his foreign-policy agenda,” Irfan argues. And it “will make clear that the Biden administration’s democracy summit [in December] is even more nakedly an anti-China exercise,” considering that the US president has just abandoned a democratically elected government. 
  • But Irfan says this collapse is really an indictment of US policy under four American presidents dating back to 2001. US allies “increasingly must grapple with an America whose bark is stronger than its bite,” he says, “and that lacks the ability to mobilize consensus around extended international engagement.”
  • Barry predicts that US allies and partners might start to “hedge” their bets more, meaning they will “broaden their policy portfolios to account for scenarios in which the United States either is unable or unwilling to do what it needs to do to live up to its end of the security commitment.”
  • What about US foes? Barry tells us that “China, Russia, and Iran no doubt are very happy with this outcome, and might be further emboldened by these developments to engage in riskier, more aggressive behavior.”

Further reading

Related Experts: Barry Pavel, Irfan Nooruddin, and William F. Wechsler

Image: A US Army Apache helicopter flies over Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 15, 2021. Photo by a Reuters stringer.