The Biden administration is under scrutiny from international allies and adversaries over Afghanistan’s fast and furious descent into chaos ahead of the full exit of U.S. troops.
The Taliban’s quick advance across the country and the impotence of Afghan security forces is putting into stark relief the futile cost of two decades of U.S. and international engagement.
U.S. officials are stressing their commitment to Afghanistan’s survival and security. What’s at stake is the safeguarding of hard-won freedoms for women, girls and minorities, who suffer some of the most brutal oppression under Taliban rule, and leaving a void for terrorism networks to flourish.
They also say they are determined to ensure al Qaeda is not revived in the country.
Yet the Taliban's gains and the State Department’s decision on Thursday to evacuate a wide swath of staff under military guard are raising questions over those commitments from the U.S.
“To our enemies, it says that the United States can be beaten,” said Cliff May, founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan policy institute focusing on national security.
“In fact, if it can be beaten by the Taliban, who cannot beat the United States, really,” May added. “As an enemy, we are toothless. As an ally, we are treacherous.”
The Taliban this week captured Afghanistan’s second- and third-largest cities, Kandahar and Herat, as well as the capital of the southern province of Helmand.
The group is believed to be in control of more than two-thirds of the country, reinforcing earlier warnings from the U.S. military that Kabul could fall in 30 days and the whole country in a few months.
Experts say Afghanistan's fall after the U.S.'s exit could be consequential in undermining American credibility on the world stage.
“I think this U.S. withdrawal, and the abrupt way in which it is being executed in the face of rapid Taliban gains, will have an even deeper impact than the U.S. departure from Vietnam in 1975, and far greater than the (temporary) 2011 withdrawal from Iraq,” retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a visiting professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, wrote in an email to The Hill. Barno once commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“Unfortunately, I believe this tragic outcome will be the dominant verdict on U.S. military power and international will for many years to come – unless it is eclipsed by another major conflict. It will be a catalyst for future miscalculation by America's adversaries, and promote a dangerous belief that U.S. military power and political will to defend its friends and allies are both waning,” he added.
The Biden administration has not signaled any second thoughts about its decision, though officials have expressed concerns with the Taliban’s rapid advance.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani “to stress that the United States remains invested in the security and stability of Afghanistan in the face of violence by the Taliban,” according to a readout by the State Department.
The secretary further emphasized that message in separate calls Friday with his counterparts in Canada and Germany and with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
At the same time, an international meeting on Afghanistan taking place in Qatar and convened by the U.S. issued a joint statement on Friday condemning the violence, urging a cease-fire, and calling for the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan to participate in negotiations for peace.
“We demand an immediate end to attacks against cities, urge a political settlement, and warn that a government imposed by force will be a pariah state,” U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted alongside the joint statement.
1/2 After two days of intense consultations & discussions with the Afghan negotiating teams, Qatar, as chair, issued a Chairman's Statement on behalf of regional and international stakeholders. pic.twitter.com/qfMRTjRg4d
— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) August 13, 2021
The signatories included representatives from 13 countries and organizations.
Absent pressure from the U.S. military, experts say the Taliban have no incentive to heed calls from the international community.
“Diplomacy works best when it is backed by the credible threat of force from the U.S. military and unfortunately. The Biden administration took that piece of leverage off the table when they decided to withdraw from Afghanistan over the advice of the military,” said Nathan Sales, who served as ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism during the Trump administration.
“I’m not optimistic that there’s a diplomatic solution here. From a Taliban standpoint, they think that they can get everything they want by continuing to press militarily. Why would they take things off the table that they can get through military force?” he added.
The quick and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan is a boon for China and Russia in their propaganda efforts to discredit American leadership and undermine the dominance of Western democracies.
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao tweeted a political cartoon depicting the U.S. driving away from Afghanistan and leaving behind broken homes and injured civilians, writing, “The U.S. left Afghanistan with ease, but what about all the Afghanistan people who have suffered for 20 years?”
The US left Afghanistan with ease, but what about all the Afghanistan people who have suffered for 20 years? pic.twitter.com/2T0MVrQWcM
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) August 11, 2021
This followed a meeting in Beijing between China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the head of Afghan Taliban Political Commission, Abdul Ghani Baradar, on July 28.
“As the largest neighbor of Afghanistan, China always pursues a friendly policy towards the entire Afghan people. Afghanistan belongs to the Afghan people, and its future and destiny should be in the hands of the Afghan people,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry tweeted with a photo of the top Chinese and Taliban diplomats standing side by side.
As the largest neighbor of #Afghanistan, #China always pursues a friendly policy towards the entire Afghan people. Afghanistan belongs to the Afghan people, and its future and destiny should be in the hands of the Afghan people. pic.twitter.com/QAvbfncAp5
— Spokesperson发言人办公室 (@MFA_China) July 28, 2021
While Beijing and Moscow are not likely to stay quiet on criticizing America’s crisis on the world stage, they are also at risk of instability spilling out from Afghanistan with a Taliban takeover.
“The temptation for China, Russia and other adversary states right now is to have a good laugh at the Biden administration’s expense,” said Sales.
“I think that any mirth those countries feel will be short lived because a Taliban conquest of Afghanistan is going to have dramatic consequences for the region and for other states that aspire to a global leadership role. They're going to have to roll up their sleeves and get to work to address the consequences,” he added.
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