The Fall of Afghanistan

Sunday evening, the Taliban took possession of Kabul. Afghanistan’s capital was the last and most important city to fall to the insurgency, after a week in which government military forces unraveled across the country. Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, has fled to the United Arab Emirates. His predecessor, Hamid Karzai, is negotiating the transfer of power to a Taliban-led government. These events, unthinkable but months before, follow the withdrawal of roughly 2,500 American troops from Afghanistan, the last remnants of a military presence that numbered over 130,000 at its height in 2010. Today, both the secular government and allied soldiers who defended it are gone. The Taliban can now restore the authoritarian “Emirate” it lost following the American-led invasion of 2001.  

Stunned by the speed with which the Taliban overpowered the American-trained, equipped, and financed Afghan military, many U.S. lawmakers have sharply questioned the wisdom of the Biden administration’s withdrawal. A common critique is that a continuing U.S. military presence was crucial to Afghanistan’s security. While the Taliban has made worrying encroachments on government positions for over a year, this summer’s wholesale withdrawal of U.S. support made a bad situation decisively worse. Moreover, the Taliban’s advance has left tens of thousands of Afghans vulnerable to persecution for assisting the United States. Biden’s critics argue that he should have planned for the evacuation of these endangered people. The administration has also been faulted for predicting that the Afghan government would persist unassisted for months if not years, rather than collapse in weeks.

For its part, the Biden administration argues that it is acting in a context created by its predecessor: President Trump announced in February 2020 a provisional agreement with the Taliban to remove American forces by May 2021. In exchange, the Taliban forswore support for Al Qaeda. Biden and his team have also invoked a widespread desire at home to end U.S. operations in Afghanistan, which has claimed thousands of American lives and cost trillions of dollars. Ultimately, Biden has asserted, the Afghan government would survive or perish by dint of its own effort. The United States, he argued, could not defend a distant country in perpetuity. What comes next is unclear. Yet the potential ramifications of the Taliban’s triumph are ominous: for the credibility of American commitments, for the efficacy of counterterrorism operations, and above all, for the welfare and dignity of the Afghan people, who are unlikely to see a respite from the suffering they have endured for so many decades. 

Questions and Background

  • Should the Biden administration have maintained a modest troop presence in Afghanistan indefinitely? Can the United States prevent the reemergence of the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan without troops on the ground? 
  • Does the United States have an obligation to evacuate Afghans who not only assisted its security mission but who fear persecution under the Taliban regime?
  • To what extent should the United States have relations with the Taliban-led government, and can it influence the regime to respect human rights?

Why the Afghan Army Folded
Kori Schake. The Atlantic. August 17, 2021. 

In Afghanistan, the Tragic Toll of Washington Delusion
H.R. McMaster and Bradley Bowman. Wall Street Journal. August 15, 2021. 

Biden’s Afghanistan Pullout Could Make the China Problem Harder
Gabriel Scheinmann and Michael Green. Foreign Policy. June 24, 2021. 

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