“It’s not inevitable,” President Joe Biden insisted this month when asked if the Afghan government that the United States had supported for two decades was doomed. “The likelihood that there’s going to be a Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
The president’s conduct preceding this statement was hardly reassuring. The administration had rushed to withdraw America’s advisory troop presence from Afghanistan, seemingly without preparing for the consequences, and those consequences were materializing rapidly. Would the administration commit to airstrikes on advancing Taliban formations if the terrorist insurgency accelerated? Could the White House evacuate all the Afghans who assisted Americans over the decades, or would they be left to the mercies of this band of medieval paramilitaries? How would the United States preserve its capacity to disrupt terrorist operations in Central and South Asia after withdrawal? The administration seemed to be arguing with itself over these nagging questions in blind quotes provided to media outlets, even as the government in Kabul grew ever more besieged.
Joe Biden was right. The fall of Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban to power were not inevitable. His actions contributed to that increasing likelihood. And now, the tempo of unfortunate events is rapidly accelerating. For evidence, look to the headlines from the region that appeared on Monday alone.
The Biden administration had evinced an inexplicable reluctance to commit publicly to supporting the Afghan government from the air after America’s withdrawal. That reluctance has evaporated as the Taliban’s offensive operations have intensified. The White House had hoped to “dial back on strikes against the Taliban before Aug. 31,” according to the Wall Street Journal, and limiting air operations thereafter only to al-Qaeda-linked targets. The hesitancy was broken when the Taliban began to close in on Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city and the site of some of what were once America’s most critical training and basing facilities in the country.
There have been roughly a dozen strikes on Taliban positions over the last week. The New York Times reports that the strikes have stalled the Taliban’s advance and given Afghan troops time to regroup. But parts of Kandahar are already under Taliban control, and Afghan government forces have not recovered any territory lost to the insurgent militia. And without U.S. combat aircraft based in Afghanistan, U.S. Centcom Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. confessed that “it will be far more difficult than it was” to support Afghan forces. “We are limited.”
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are in uncontested control, life is beginning to return to the status quo that prevailed before the American invasion in 2001. On Monday, Pakistan reopened a key border crossing in the southwestern part of the country that had been closed when fierce fighting erupted between insurgents and pro-government forces. The reopening of the border crossing signals what one local official called Pakistan’s willingness to resume “Afghan transit trade” with the Taliban. With that, Pakistan has legitimized the Taliban as a governing entity. The mundanities that typify relations between states—trade relations, customs, migration, and border enforcement—have resumed. Gen. McKenzie insists that the area remains “contested space,” but who’s doing the contesting?
And with the return of the bad old days looking more unavoidable by the minute, a nascent refugee crisis is brewing. Internally, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been displaced by the Taliban’s advance. Thousands of routed or demoralized Afghan soldiers and civilians have fled across the border into Iran, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. Reuters reports that Pakistan lawmakers were informed of the terrifying prospect that up to 700,000 Afghan refugees could descend on the country, prompting Islamabad to commit to its initial border closures. Iran has already seen a significant influx of Afghan migrants, but not all are looking to settle into Iranian camps. Many already have or are seeking to cross the Iranian border into Turkey—already the scene of a decade-long refugee crisis spurred by the Syrian civil war—with the hopes of making their way into the European Union.
Europe’s experience with the Syrian refugee crisis was not an enviable one. It tested Europe’s commitment to the Schengen Agreement, which permits passport-free travel between European Union nations. It prompted the governments of Hungary and Bulgaria to restore the steel and barbed-wire security fencing on their borders that had fallen along with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It led to an influx not just of migrants but also of aspiring terrorists, and the bloody events some of those elements were able to execute in Germany, France, and Belgium led to the rise of populist political parties and nationalist sentiments that are hostile to European integration. If a wave of Afghan migrants does crash into Europe’s borders, it is sure to be smaller than the human tide that cascaded into the continent in the 2010s. But Europe’s experience over the last decade may have left its political culture far more sensitive to the threat posed by this level of displacement.
Joe Biden was right; this didn’t have to happen. But the president was seduced by the promises of withdrawal. Those promises turned out to be false. Advocates of American retrenchment from Central Asia said our withdrawal would somehow end the war in Afghanistan. Instead, we’ve seen more war. They said it would pave the way for a more stable regional environment. But stability seems a far-off prospect. They said that Americans didn’t care about Afghanistan anymore, and we’d all be glad to wash our hands of this unfulfilling affair. But where are the parades? Where are the plaudits for the Biden administration? Who is celebrating this?
Joe Biden bet that Americans were ready to absorb a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan with far-reaching and unknowable consequences for the United States and the world. But as Americans watch as the Biden administration abrogates our commitments to the Afghan people and abandons our 20-year investment in that nation, their stunned silence is an ominous sign.