The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is a debacle for the United States; the consequences will take shape fast. The Biden administration and President Joe Biden himself have an overwhelming responsibility for what is taking place and what will follow. Pictured: Biden speaks about the evacuations of US citizens and vulnerable Afghans, in the White House on August 20, 2021. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is a debacle for the United States; the consequences will take shape fast. The Biden administration and President Joe Biden himself have an overwhelming responsibility for what is taking place and what will follow; they have shown a degree of incompetence unseen in the United States since the calamitous Carter years.
On July 8, President Biden said, "the Afghan troops have 300,000 well equipped — as well equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban". A Taliban takeover of the country, he added, was "not inevitable". He was wrong. Most of the Afghan army, probably after they saw the American military pulling out of the Bagram air base, understandably decided not even to try to fight.
The "trillion dollars spent training and equipping hundreds of thousands of Afghan National Security and Defense Forces" with "advanced weaponry" has led to that US-provided "advanced weaponry" falling into the hands of terrorists it was meant to fight -- a donation from US taxpayers to what is now the world's best-armed terrorist state.
Contrary to the latest fabrication endlessly repeated in an apparent effort to make it true -- that "after 20 years, everyone wanted the US out of Afghanistan" -- the US has had troops in Germany and South Korea for about 70 years – a relatively modest "insurance policy" that never seemed "forever." Ironically, by handing over Afghanistan to the same Taliban that hosted Al Qaeda, which murdered nearly 3,000 people on 9/11, the US is not only making a mockery of these victims; it will soon find itself having to fight at an even greater cost in life and treasure as countries trying to eliminate America can now do it without American troops nearby, and with America's military equipment.
On August 15, on CNN's "State of the Union," host Jake Tapper asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken if the Biden administration was in a "Saigon moment" -- the hasty 1975 evacuation by helicopter of the American Embassy in Saigon, when the city fell to communist North Vietnamese troops. "This is not Saigon", Blinken replied. It was worse. The only difference was that the embassy was in Kabul, not Saigon, and those who took the city were Islamists, not communists. At Kabul airport, for days, thousands of Afghans have been trying to board American planes leaving the country. Some who clung to them while taking off fell to their death. "We've succeeded in achieving our objectives", Blinken said.
President Biden and Secretary Blinken claimed that the US Intelligence community did not inform them that the Taliban could gain power in a few weeks and that the Afghan government would quickly collapse. Six months ago, however, on February 3, a report from a Congressionally-commissioned report stated that the Biden administration would have to change its plans: "withdrawing U.S. troops irresponsibly would likely lead to a new civil war in Afghanistan, inviting the reconstitution of anti-U.S. terrorist groups that could threaten our homeland, and providing them with a narrative of victory". More warnings followed. The Biden administration went ahead anyhow.
Even though Kabul's downfall was foreseeable long before August 15, the US Embassy in Kabul seemed caught off guard. After the Taliban arrived at the gates of the city, embassy personnel began destroying documents and were transported to the airport at the last minute. The embassy is now in the hands of the Taliban.
Afghans trying to flee the Taliban overran the runway, Kabul airport was plunged into chaos, and American soldiers took control of the airport. 7,000 US troops were sent back into Afghanistan in an environment more dangerous than the one the US had abandoned, one entirely controlled by the Taliban. Up to 40,000 Americans remained stranded in Afghanistan. Those requesting the embassy's help first received a message telling them to proceed to Kabul airport, but with a warning: "THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT CANNOT ENSURE SAFE PASSAGE TO THE HAMID KARZAI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT", followed by a warning not to go the airport, at least before receiving instructions.
Meanwhile, the Taliban, despite claims by President Biden, have been blocking access to it. Americans trying to reach it have been beaten by the Taliban and their passports taken. There are reports of the Taliban "with lists" going door-to-door, killing people who had worked with the US.
Americans left to their fate in Kabul run the risk of being taken hostage by the Taliban or other Islamist groups; they have every reason to feel abandoned by their government and terrified for their lives. The French, British, Germans, Australians and Czechs have been venturing behind enemy lines to rescue their stranded citizens hiding there; Americans have not. The Pentagon and the State Department have admitted that they do not even know how many Americans are in the country; how could they know where they are?
Women in Afghanistan are being raped, beaten to death, murdered for not wearing a burka, and had their eyes gouged out . "Hit lists" are being drawn up for women and children to be hunted as sex slaves or for forced marriages to "fighters".
President Biden and Secretary Blinken, as usual, blamed what is happening on former President Donald J. Trump, who had wanted the United States to leave Afghanistan, but not this way. Trump reportedly expected to leave a residual troop force in place, and apparently had a plan for an orderly military withdrawal -- based strictly on conditions on the ground. These presumably included not departing in the middle of the Taliban's summer fighting season, but in winter, when they shelter in Pakistan; not neglecting to consult with America's European allies, and not surrendering the main US air base, Bagram, before evacuating Americans and their allies, whom they had promised to rescue should plans not work out.
Trump seems to have understood what the Biden administration has ignored: that terrorists may not be all that susceptible to diplomacy, but to strength -- as Osama bin Laden put it, "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse." Trump recently recounted what he had said on the phone -- in front of witnesses -- to Hibatullah Akhundzada, Supreme Commander of the Taliban, to help him understand what would happen if the Taliban did not honor their agreements:
"We're going to come back and hit you harder than any country has ever been hit. And your village, where I know you are and where you have everybody, that's going to be the point at which the first bomb is dropped".
Shortly after Trump hung up, the Taliban attacked Afghan forces; US jets immediately responded with an air strike, and Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen posted a Twitter message saying that the group "plans to implement all parts of the agreement one after another to prevent conflict escalation".
After Biden's inauguration, everything was different. Lieutenant General Gregory Guillot, commander of the Ninth Air Force (Air Forces Central), Southwest Asia, said that from the moment the Biden administration took control, there had been a steep decline in airstrikes. Trump maintained fighter jets and armed drones at Bagram airbase; Biden, on July 5, and without notifying the Afghan military, ordered the base evacuated. Immediately after the Americans departed, the Taliban not only looted the base and recovered US military equipment that had been abandoned, they also freed thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda members that the US military had imprisoned there.
When members of the Biden administration saw that the president's disappearance was drawing horrified reactions even from the previously slavish mainstream press, they announced on the morning of August 16 that Biden would hold a press conference in the afternoon. So, on August 16, after days of silence, Biden read a 19-minute speech saying that he stood behind his decision to leave Afghanistan, and even accused he Afghan security forces, which had sacrificed an estimated 66,000 men. Biden left the press conference without answering questions and returned to Camp David where he resumed his vacation". Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi praised his "strong leadership".
On August 11, when it became clear that the Taliban would take power, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said, "The Taliban also has to make an assessment about what they want their role to be in the international community".
The reply arrived on August 15, the day of the capture of Kabul. Taliban commander, Muhammed Arif Mustafa told a journalist:
"One day mujahedeen will have victory and Islamic law will come not just to Afghanistan, but all over the world. We are not in a hurry. We believe it will come one day. Jihad will not end until the last day."
What caused the administration of George W. Bush to destroy the rear bases of al-Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban regime was the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US. They had been organized on Afghan soil by the leaders of al-Qaeda when the Taliban were in power. Twenty years later, there seems no reason why the Taliban would drive out the members of al-Qaeda and ISIS present in the country. Rather, Afghanistan seems poised to become a safe haven for Islamist terrorist groups, already rejoicing to see the weakness of the United States and doubtless perceiving it as encouragement to escalate. The risk of Islamic terrorist attacks across the globe has increased sharply.
Other consequences are taking shape.
Iran, two decades ago, had bad relations with the Taliban, who were hostile to Shiites and Shiism. In 1998, when the Taliban murdered nine Iranians at its consulate in Mazar-e Sharif, Iran nearly declared war on the Taliban. That has changed. In November 2019, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior leader of the Taliban, met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran to "help Afghan peace and security" and again met in January 2021. Now that the Taliban have regained power in Kabul, Iran is likely ready to cooperate with them. Iran, which supports Sunni Islamist organizations if they serve its aims, has been a home to al Qaeda leaders for years, and has apparently understood for at least ten years that funding and arming the Taliban might not only allow closer relations, but also drive the United States out of Afghanistan. "We always wanted to establish relations with Iran," Taliban spokesman Zabihulah Mujahid said on July 31, "because Iran has an Islamic system, and we want an Islamic system. We asked them to recognize us officially". Afghans might seek refuge in Iran; many are already present there. Iran may try to limit the amount.
Russia, for its part, probably intends to make sure that the Taliban will not try to destabilize Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan (Russia recently completed joint military exercises with troops from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), but seems satisfied to see an American defeat (adviser to Vladimir Putin Fyodor Lukyanov said: "You can't blame Russia for feeling a little smug about what is happening in Kabul") and may well want to forge economic and strategic links with an enemy of the United States. "I have long since decided that the Taliban is much more able to reach agreements than the puppet government in Kabul", Russia's presidential envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said.
Russia happens to be an ally of both Iran and China, which signed a 25-year economic and military agreement with Iran in March 2021. China's communist regime has already announced that it is looking forward to "friendship and cooperation with the Taliban". "Afghanistan's Taliban," China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying added, "has expressed many times a desire for good relations with China.... with an expectation that China will take part in Afghanistan's rebuilding and development process." Afghanistan has abundant natural resources, including a rare earth metals estimated to be worth more than $3 trillion, but has no mining infrastructure.
China doubtless stands ready to make Afghanistan into a Chinese economic colony, so long as the Taliban do not attack China and its allies, or create trouble with the Muslim Uyghur people whom China has been brutally suppressing in Xinjiang province. The Taliban already seem to have shown their "goodwill" towards China by giving it the means to identify Uyghurs present in Afghanistan and by helping to deport them back to China.
The Taliban victory is also a victory for Pakistan, Russia and Iran, which no doubt intend to take advantage of the recent turn of events.
According to the Washington Post, Pakistan is more deeply linked to the Taliban's victory than the United States might care to admit. Pakistan's border with Afghanistan is "notoriously porous;" also, according to Human Rights Watch:
"Of all the foreign powers involved in efforts to sustain and manipulate the ongoing fighting, Pakistan is distinguished both by the sweep of its objectives and the scale of its efforts, which include soliciting funding for the Taliban, bankrolling Taliban operations, providing diplomatic support as the Taliban's virtual emissaries abroad, arranging training for Taliban fighters, recruiting skilled and unskilled manpower to serve in Taliban armies, planning and directing offensives, providing and facilitating shipments of ammunition and fuel, and on several occasions apparently directly providing combat support."
Pakistan has not only historically helped the Taliban militarily and strategically, it also has increasing economic, military and strategic ties with China. China, which has done nothing to curb Pakistan's support for the Taliban, can only benefit from this support.
China, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, and the Taliban have different worldviews, but do possess three things in common: they are enemies of the United States and the Western world, they want to see the United States humiliated and defeated, and they want to eliminate the United States from the region. The United States has been humiliated, defeated and eliminated from the region. Its enemies have won.
For months, Western European leaders did not criticize the Biden administration: they appeared to enjoy seeing a weak, incompetent and destructive administration at the head of the United States. Now, though, they are worried about an additional influx of migrants sweeping into Europe and the consequent heightened terrorist risks.
The people of Taiwan have every reason to be anxious. An article on August 16 in the Communist Chinese Global Times, an organ of the Chinese Communist Party (CPP), said:
"The DPP authorities [the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on the island of Taiwan] need to keep a sober head, and the secessionist forces should reserve the ability to wake up from their dreams. From what happened in Afghanistan, they should perceive that once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island's defense will collapse in hours and the US military won't come to help."
Israelis also have every reason to be concerned. Commenting on Afghanistan, journalist Yoav Limor wrote:
"The implications for Israel's security will be immediate. The terrorist organizations on its borders -- especially those operating under an Iranian umbrella -- can be expected to become more daring."
President Trump appears to have seen that trying to transform a tribal country -- ruled for centuries by warlords and mired in strict Islam -- into Western democracy was most likely a doomed undertaking, and that hundreds of billions of dollars had been spent to the great benefit of freedom and opportunity for women, but that much of the of the US investment might have been in vain.
The enemies of the United States and the West doubtless see the defeat of the United States as an entirely self-inflicted one, resulting from inept decisions by American leaders unable to lead and who seem deliberately to choose incompetence.
Those who love the United States, however, believe that without its strength and power, American liberty and freedom would quickly vanish from creation. Seeing what the Biden administration has done in just seven months to weaken America and strengthen its enemies has been nothing short of shattering. One can only hope for a change of course, a return to real leadership, before more damage is done.
Dr. Guy Millière, a professor at the University of Paris, is the author of 27 books on France and Europe.