“Flash,” the Associated Press boomed at 4:40 p.m. Eastern time Monday. The historic designation is deployed only to signify breaking events of “transcendent importance,” and Monday’s news was historic. After nearly 20 years, “America’s longest war” in Afghanistan “ends” with one last “frantic airlift.” True enough. Officially, the U.S. has declared an end to the “war in Afghanistan.” But if Joe Biden is to be believed—indeed, if he is at all worthy of the position he occupies—America’s mission in Afghanistan isn’t over.
Following last week’s “complex” suicide attack and armed assault on the Kabul airport where NATO troops were engaged in a frenzied effort to evacuate as many people as the rapid collapse of the Afghan government allowed, Joe Biden committed America to a new phase of an old conflict. “We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose and the moment of our choosing,” Biden said. “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
Hours later, the president ordered a strike on targets the Pentagon described only as “planners and facilitators” of the attack that killed more than 150 Afghans, several NATO allies, and 13 U.S. soldiers. It was touted as a demonstration of America’s capability to execute “over-the-horizon” strikes on terrorist targets without permanent basing in the region or the actionable intelligence provided by reliable allies on the ground. But the names of the targets American airpower neutralized were not released—a break from past practice when the U.S. successfully eliminates a terrorist operative with any sort of profile. In response to another imminent threat to the airport, a second strike against ISIS-Khorasan group agents in Kabul reportedly hit its mark. But whether it was U.S. ordnance or the secondary explosion triggered by the strike, the Pentagon does not dispute that the attack also killed 10 civilians, including seven children.
If that’s the extent of America’s efforts to disable ISIS-K’s capabilities inside Afghanistan, it’s going to prove insufficient in short order. America’s allies don’t seem particularly satisfied. “We will continue to apply robust counterterrorism pressure against Daesh/ISIS wherever it operates,” U.K. Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston said on Tuesday. That could include airstrikes against the group and its affiliates in the coming days. If the U.S. joins such an operation, based on whatever intelligence we can glean from the Taliban, it will be acting under its legal authority granted by Congress in 2001 to pursue Islamist terrorism abroad. If it does not, it would be operating under the assumption that intra-terrorist politics will do the work for them.
In effect, our hope—the best-case scenario—would be to consign Afghans to an internal conflict between the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies and the ISIS terrorists with whom they are at odds. That bleak prospect and the failed state that would be the result would do little to preserve either Americans’ safety or that of our allies. As a bleak SIGAR report on the woeful state of Afghan civil society that opponents of America’s mission in Central Asia love to quote from concedes, “there will likely be times in the future when insurgent control or influence over a particular area or population is deemed an imminent threat to U.S. interests.” Joe Biden has already established the predicate to respond proactively to such threats. We should expect that he will.
But the metastatic terror threat is not the only aspect of the American mission in Afghanistan that will continue long after the war’s “end.” In his haste to meet his own self-imposed deadlines and retain the Taliban’s good graces, Joe Biden has left Americans behind enemy lines. The U.S. citizens trapped in Afghanistan after America’s bugout number at least more than 100, but that doesn’t include the permanent residents (whose jobs, families, homes, and bank accounts are here), visa holders, and tens of thousands of visa-eligible applicants who languished on a sprawling waiting list for years before the fall of the Afghan government. They did not remain in Afghanistan of their own accord, as the administration pretends. They sought to run a Taliban-manned gauntlet to get to American custody and failed. As one Afghan veteran observed, we have left them behind to hide in holes from a vengeful militia—changing houses every few hours to avoid being subject to summary execution or to be used as a bargaining chip in the Taliban’s ongoing efforts to extract capital from the West.
America’s elected officials and their functionaries insist that we will not abandon them; that is, we won’t abandon them twice. Our mission continues, but in what form? The White House claims that it has all the leverage in the world to apply to the Taliban, but it’s not clear how. The organization held and continues to hold at least one American in captivity while the U.S. relied on the group to ensure a speedy withdrawal from the country. If the Taliban is less than cooperative and American extraction efforts continue, they may take the form of special forces raids. That’s the best we can hope for. The alternative of abandoning our citizens, legal permanent residents, and allies entirely is unthinkable.
“A new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan has begun,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted. “It’s one in which we will lead with our diplomacy.” That would be great news for ISIS and al-Qaeda, if true, just as it would be a horrific admission from the perspective of the Americans we surrendered to the mercies of an Islamic militia. But it cannot be true—not if this administration is keen on seeing to its core responsibilities involving the preservation of Western security and the inviolable sovereignty of its citizens.
The “war” in Afghanistan is over only because we’ve unilaterally deemed it so. The mission is not.