August 22, 2021
A week after the Taliban took control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, as the U.S. was withdrawing the forces that have been in the country since 2001, the initial chaos created by the Taliban’s rapid sweep across the country has simmered down into what is at least a temporary pattern.
We knew there was a good chance that the Taliban would regain control of the country when we left, although that was not a foregone conclusion. The former president, Donald Trump, recognized that the American people were tired of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, which was approaching its 20th year, and in February 2020, his administration negotiated with the Taliban to enable the U.S. to withdraw. In exchange for the release of 5000 Taliban fighters and the promise that the U.S. would withdraw within the next 14 months, the Taliban agreed not to attack U.S. soldiers.
Trump’s dislike of the war in Afghanistan reflected the unpopularity of the long engagement, which by 2020 was ill defined. The war had begun in 2001, after terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11 of that year. Taliban leaders in control of Afghanistan sheltered al-Qaeda, and after the attacks, the U.S. president, George W. Bush, demanded that Afghanistan hand over the terrorist leader believed to be behind the terrorist attack on the U.S: Osama bin Laden. In October, after Taliban leaders refused, the U.S. launched a bombing campaign.
That campaign was successful enough that in December 2001 the Taliban offered to surrender. But the U.S. rejected that surrender, determined by then to eradicate the extremist group and fill the vacuum of its collapse with a new, pro-American government. Al-Qaeda leader bin Laden escaped from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and the U.S. project in Afghanistan turned from an anti-terrorism mission into an effort to rebuild the Afghan government into a modern democracy.
By 2002 the Bush administration was articulating a new doctrine in foreign policy, arguing that the U.S. had a right to strike preemptively against countries that harbor terrorists. In 2003, under this doctrine, the U.S. launched a war on Iraq, which diverted money, troops, and attention from Afghanistan. The Taliban regrouped and began to regain the territory it had lost after the U.S. first began its bombing campaign in 2001.
By 2005, Bush administration officials privately worried the war in Afghanistan could not be won on its current terms, especially with the U.S. focused on Iraq. Then, when he took office in 2009, President Barack Obama turned his attention back to Afghanistan. He threw more troops into that country, bringing their numbers close to 100,000. In 2011, the U.S. military located bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and launched a raid on the compound where he was hiding, killing him. By 2014, Obama had drawn troops in Afghanistan down to about 11,000, and in December of that year, he announced that the mission of the war—weakening the Taliban and capturing bin Laden—had been accomplished, and thus the war was over. The troops would come home.
But, of course, they didn’t, leaving Trump to develop his own policy. But his administration’s approach to the chaos in that country was different than his predecessor’s. By negotiating with the Taliban and excluding the Afghan government the U.S. had been supporting, the Trump team essentially accepted that the Taliban were the most important party in Afghanistan. The agreement itself reflected the oddity of the negotiations. Each clause referring to the Taliban began: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban will….”
It was immediately clear that the Taliban was not living up to its side of the bargain. Although it did stop attacking U.S. troops, It began to escalate violence in Afghanistan itself, assassinated political opponents, and maintained ties to al-Qaeda. Nonetheless, the Trump administration put pressure on the leaders of the Afghan government to release the 5000 Taliban prisoners, and they eventually did. Before Biden took office, Trump dropped the U.S. troop engagement in Afghanistan from about 13,000 to about 2500.
When he took office, Biden had to decide whether to follow Trump’s path or to push back on the Taliban on the grounds they were not honoring the agreement Trump’s people had hammered out. Biden himself wanted to get out of the war. At the same time, he recognized that fighting the Taliban again would mean throwing more troops back into Afghanistan, and that the U.S. would again begin to take casualties. He opted to get the troops out, but extended the deadline to September 11, 2021, the twentieth anniversary of the initial attack. (Former president Trump complained that the troops should come out faster.)
What Biden did not foresee was the speed with which the Taliban would retake control of the country. It swept over the regional capitals and then Kabul in about nine days in mid-August with barely a shot fired, and the head of the Afghan government fled the country, leaving it in chaos.
That speed left the U.S. flatfooted. Afghans who had been part of the government or who had helped the U.S. and its allies rushed to the airport to try to escape. In the pandemonium of that first day, up to seven people were killed; two people appear to have clung to a U.S. military plane as it took off, falling to their deaths.
And yet, the Taliban, so far, has promised amnesty for its former opponents and limited rights for women. It has its own problems, as the Afghan government has been supported for the previous 20 years by foreign money, including a large percentage from the U.S. Not only has that money dried up as foreign countries refuse to back the Taliban, but also Biden has put sanctions on Afghanistan and also on some Pakistanis suspected of funding the Taliban. At the same time it appears that no other major sponsor, like Russia or China, has stepped in to fill the vacuum left by U.S. money, leaving the Taliban fishing for whatever goodwill it can find.
Yesterday, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo flagged tweets showing that members of the Afghan government, including the brother of the president who fled, are in what appear from the photos posted on Twitter to be relaxed talks about forming a new government. Other factions in Afghanistan would like to stop this from happening, and today Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan warned that ISIS-K, another extremist group, is threatening to attack the airport to destabilize the Taliban.
Meanwhile, there are 10,000 people crowded into that airport, and U.S. evacuations continue. The Kabul airport is secure—for now—and the U.S. military has created a larger perimeter around it for protection. The U.S. government has asked Americans in Afghanistan to shelter in place until they can be moved out safely; the Qatari ambassador to Afghanistan has been escorting groups of them to the airport. Evacuations have been slower than hoped because of backlogs at the next stage of the journey, but the government has enlisted the help of 18 commercial airlines to move those passengers forward, leaving room for new evacuees.
Yesterday, about 7800 evacuees left the Kabul airport. About 28,000 have been evacuated since August 14.
Interestingly, much of the U.S. media is describing this scenario as a disaster for President Biden. Yet, on CNN this morning, Matthew Dowd, who was the chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2004, noted that more than 20,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan without a single loss of an American life, while in the same period of time, 5000 Americans have died from Covid-19 and 500 have died from gunshots.