After three days of being completely absent, President Joe Biden gave his speech on the situation in Afghanistan on Monday, August 16. In summary, he defended his decision to withdraw American troops. However, he charged Donald Trump for the agreement reached with the Taliban, and criticized the Afghan army and allies for not defending their country.
Biden admitted that there was a miscalculation, as his administration and American intelligence thought that Kabul, the Afghan capital, could hold out for up to six months without falling into Taliban hands. The mistake is incredibly painful. It did not last a week. In fact, during July, Biden told the world that the Taliban siege and conquest was not “inevitable” because Afghanistan had a 300,000-strong U.S.-trained army ready to fight. Now there are many doubts about that supposed army that could have stood up to the Taliban.
The results are downright disastrous for the United States. The New York Times was clear on its front page: 20 years down the drain in a few days. The UK’s Daily Mail asked a blunt question on its cover: “What the hell did they all die for?”, alluding to the thousands who gave their lives serving in Afghanistan.
Now, why did the U.S. get into a war in the Middle East, why did it have a military presence in Afghanistan for two decades, what will be the repercussions of defeat? There are many important clues about this conflict involving Afghans, Taliban and Americans.
The Twin Towers attack
Twenty years ago, one of the most important events of the century took place: the planes that hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in the state of Pennsylvania. That image of the towers collapsing, taking thousands of American lives with them, was the triggering point for the beginning of the war on terrorism. Americans, regardless of ideology, enlisted en masse to defend their country beyond their borders.
The Taliban militia was the main target of supporting and serving as a sanctuary for the terrorist group Al Qaeda, the group credited with the 2001 attack, which was then led by Osama Bin Laden.
“Al Qaeda wannabes were going to the country to train for holy war. The 9/11 terrorists had honed their skills and hatched their plan there. The elimination of the Taliban and the fight against Al Qaeda became critical to global security,” wrote Jon Sopel, North America editor at the BBC.
It was then that former President George W. Bush declared war on the Taliban in the same year of the attack and within months regained control of Afghanistan and all its major cities and established a democratic Afghan government. The Taliban retreated. They went to mountainous areas that were difficult to access and to places close to the Pakistani border.
The problem, as David Frum writes in The Atlantic, is that the main U.S. objective in Afghanistan was to hunt down Bin Laden. That did not happen and frustrated what, for Frum, would have been a swift and harsh revenge; avoiding the extension of the fateful war that for years has frustrated so many presidents.
“If the United States had captured and killed Osama bin Laden in December 2001, the American military presence in Afghanistan would have vanished almost immediately thereafter. I can’t prove that. It’s just an opinion from my point of view as one of President George W. Bush’s speechwriters in 2001 and 2002,” Frum wielded in his article.
In the end, the extension of the war and the failure to meet the Osama target in time was deadly for the US. Killing Bin Laden in 2001 was not the same as doing it in 2011, there were already other needs and another approach in Afghanistan: that of establishing a liberal democracy, with all that that implies.
The Taliban simply spent decades without surrendering, waiting for the right moment to start an offensive that finally succeeded in the last months; taking back village after village, city after city until reaching the capital Kabul in the face of the imminent withdrawal of the American army.
The failed attempt to build liberal democracy in the Middle East
During his speech this August 16, President Joe Biden clearly stated that U.S. efforts in Afghanistan were never about nation-building. That is factually false. And he should know better than anyone, because he was part of the Obama Administration, the one that pushed the hardest for this attempt to impose democracy in the Middle East.
Whether the US should have tried to export democracy or not is another debate, but that policy happened, and it did not succeed as expected.
Certainly, with American support for 20 years, there was some stability and an advancement of rights and freedoms inside Afghanistan that impacted for the better on the quality of life of Afghans. However, that could not build the foundation for exporting a liberal democracy in the Middle East with reliable institutions and a military that could defend the rights of the Afghans. How much longer was it going to take for this to be established? How many more years was the United States going to spend millions to maintain its military in the Middle East? Was such a system of government plausible in a country where the rule of law is not known?
Last year, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted that the U.S. would no longer seek to impose a democratic model and that the future of the Afghans would be up to the Afghans. This occurred during talks and dialogues in Doha with representatives of the recently ousted Afghan government and representatives of the Taliban terrorist militia.
In the face of the failed attempt to establish a democracy in the Middle East, the feeling remains that the effort, the lives lost and the millions spent were in vain. The return of the Taliban to power, which generates memories of the human rights violations during their period of control between 1996-2001, is a true reflection of how it was not possible to build a moderately efficient Status Quo that could keep the fundamentalists at bay without the need for a foreign military presence. It remains in the air that these twenty years were a total waste of time due to the impossibility and the multiple American sins inside Afghanistan.
The withdrawal of troops, an eternal promise at a great cost
From Bush to Biden to Obama to Trump, every American administration promised that soldiers would come home. And Americans, by and large, support this decision. However, the criticism is not the what, but the how.
Clearly the deals struck by the Trump administration between the Taliban and Afghans were not efficient, however, the decision to pull the troops out of the Middle East and the logistics rests solely and exclusively with Biden, his administration and the disastrous intelligence.
The question is: what is the price for withdrawal and the fulfillment of an election promise relatively supported by the majority of Americans? Right now, it is sky-high and may be even higher: there is a humanitarian tragedy in the making, a potential terrorist state is being born in the Middle East (whether or not this will be confirmed over time) and the United States stands before the international community as the decadent great power that is once again leaving its allies to their own devices.
The Taliban, in short, are still those who supported Al Qaeda in those horrible 9/11 attacks and no one can be sure whether or not they will support Islamic terrorism. What if the plans are still to wage a Holy War in the name of Islamic fundamentalism?
In an extremely sensible article, Johan Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Dispatch, wrote a number of interesting thoughts on the withdrawal, including the following: “You can believe that leaving Afghanistan is the right policy —again, I have friends I respect who believe that— while understanding that this was a terrible way to leave Afghanistan. We can all agree that it’s time to leave a party; that doesn’t automatically mean you should jump out the nearest window to make your exit.”
The withdrawal was done very poorly. And now it may have consequences. China and Russia, for example, look favorably, momentarily, on American failure in Afghanistan. Although it remains to be seen how the geopolitical chessboard will look and how the Taliban will act once they gain strength. So far, the Chinese state media mock the United States, send messages to Taiwan and continue to position themselves as the nation destined to take the throne as the dominant power.
The loss of moral authority in the world
One of the main consequences of this new military defeat is that the United States, which preaches unrestricted respect for human rights, has abandoned to their fate the Afghan children and women who will probably be subjugated by a new radical Taliban regime.
The stories about the Taliban are appalling. Extrajudicial executions, rape and subjugation of the civilian population. The recklessly crafted troop withdrawal did not even contemplate that many Afghan allies, who helped the U.S. and the Afghan government for years, are now in real danger of their lives because the new regime is out to get anyone considered a traitor or an ally of the Americans.
Afghan translators and officials today have a dilemma: keep their papers proving their relations with the U.S. to obtain a visa, or destroy them before a Taliban member discovers them and exposes their lives.
A powerless United States
What can Taiwan expect from the United States, or the opponents of communist regimes in Latin America? Today Europe is a laughing stock, with hardly any weight in international decisions, and the United States is apparently in no mood to face potential threats from the so-called “free world”. In fact, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already said that the U.S. would not do anything significant in the face of an eventual Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
As time goes by, it seems that the U.S. is losing more and more weight in geopolitical decisions, and those spaces left behind are perfectly exploited by rivals. For example, during the Obama era, the growth of Iran and allies such as Hezbollah in the Middle East and Latin America was notorious. That growth was a reflection of a soft and condescending administration.
Today Biden is targeting Obama, in symptoms of weakness. To seek a new nuclear deal with Iran, to let China continue to grow, to let Latin America continue to have socialist regimes that wish to destabilize the liberal democracies of the region; now there is the potential Taliban problem and the development of a state that can serve as a terrorist satellite. A United States without clout and influence translates directly into a less secure world.