‘America’s Afghanistan’ comes to an end

Taliban fighters take control of the presidential palace in Kabul on Aug. 15 after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan. Photo: The Associated Press
By Bradford R. McGuinn

Taliban fighters take control of the presidential palace in Kabul on Aug. 15 after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan. Photo: The Associated Press

‘America’s Afghanistan’ comes to an end

By Bradford R. McGuinn
Bradford R. McGuinn, a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science, examines the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and its impact on the United States moving forward.

Expected as the blow might be, its impact takes the breath away as we watch the collapse of “America’s Afghanistan.” With Taliban moving into Kabul—as helicopters evacuate United States personnel under perilous conditions, and the Afghan president flees—the country slides toward another season of misfortune. The many people of Afghanistan who have known relative stability over two decades are today thrown into fear and frenzy as the potential for human catastrophe looms. 

But we need to ask: When did this begin? Was it President Joe Biden’s announcement in April that American forces would be removed by Sept. 11? Or was it former president Donald Trump’s desire to end “endless wars?” 

Do we need to reach back to when the Obama administration lost confidence in its surge of forces into a war Barack Obama argued had been neglected when George W. Bush turned his attentions to Iraq in 2003? Perhaps the beginning is meant to harmonize with President Biden’s deadline after all, allowing us to view Afghanistan’s present trials as a reckoning anew with the limits of America’s influence, with a tragic, if earnest, enterprise born of trauma for the United States and ending in tears. 

To remove the Taliban from power—the movement that allowed al-Qaeda to plan its attacks on the United States from Afghanistan and to destroy the group that wounded America—was the objective driving the Bush administration’s decision to invade the country in 2001. It was, however, the failure of another imperative—nation-building—that brings us to the current crisis. The task was always formidable in this land of insecurity. Land-locked, with mountains at its center frustrating national integration, Afghanistan’s mutually suspicious nations, of which the Pashtun are dominant, have rarely extended their circle of trust toward the nation-state. 

Instability for Afghanistan was introduced in the 1970s, with domestic upheaval and Soviet invasion. Shattering warfare of the 1980s followed. The U.S. joined the conflict. So too would a faction that included Osama bin Laden, who led al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. Pakistan then assembled among the Afghan Pashtun refugees a force called Taliban in order to influence events across its frontier with Afghanistan, a region made volatile by an imperial boundary dividing the nation of the Pashtun across two states.

Synergetic more than symmetrical, the designs of al-Qaeda and the Taliban converged in the broken spaces of Afghanistan. By the end of the 1990s, al-Qaeda established an impressive reach for its terrorist campaigns, while the Taliban, animated by southern Pashtun grievance and theology dire in its implications for women and religious minorities, would, at the eve of 9/11, give expression to its emirate. 

The new order created in 2001 proved one of achievement and frustration. Elections were held, advances for women and minorities celebrated, but corruption was deep. Afghan security forces were trained while the Taliban grew. Elements of the Taliban and al-Qaeda were suppressed at great cost to the coalition of nations fighting in the country and the Afghan and Pakistani forces, as the war widened and mutated, delivered new forms of menace across the border to Pakistan—from drones to the violence inflicted on Pakistani activist Malala Yousefzai, who was shot for promoting education for all. 

Not a monolith but a kaleidoscope of factions, the land of Afghanistan does not yield to traditional concepts of victory or defeat in warfare. Over time, the goal for the U.S. became less a matter of winning than the management of a mosaic, configuring its elements to deny the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or the Islamic State strategic purchase upon Afghanistan, while countering terrorism, improving human rights and the quality of Afghan life where coalition authority held sway. 

The government nurtured by the occupier had the form but not the substance of trust. The war—a long series of difficult military operations, civil-affairs actions, infrastructure projects, and diplomatic processes—was also an exercise in playing for time in the hope that Afghanistan’s institutions would be strong enough to withstand the Taliban or able to negotiate favorable terms. War defined as a deteriorating holding operation places a burden upon an American president: asking men and women of the armed forces to risk the ultimate sacrifice not to bring victory, but to forestall the day we are witnessing now. 

The rout is tangible. Some of its effects might be mitigated. The U.S. possesses “over-the-horizon” military capabilities for its counterterrorism agenda, the focal point of which has become more diffused since 9/11. China, Russia and Iran, Turkey, the states of Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf, might in the face of Afghan anarchy or militant sanctuary, contribute to a post-American security order, with efforts toward economic development, but one likely to privilege stability over human rights. Some in Pakistan will welcome the departure of the Americans. But they will be alone with this neo-Taliban and Islamabad’s old anxieties over Kabul’s influence upon the Pashtun of Pakistan. 

The Taliban may demonstrate political maturation by pushing aside its more aggressive expressions, seeking a regional presence commensurate with the respect its resiliency has earned. But having forced the American exit, with accounts to settle, enhanced military capability and unbounded ideological zeal, will the Taliban see virtue in moderation? Afghanistan’s military (without cover from the Americans, compelled to accommodate the Taliban) might devolve to militias, into a new age of “war-lordism,” or civil war, over which the U.S. will have little influence, as humanitarian agencies struggle with a potential   tide of trauma.

Biden’s decision to depart, shaped by his experience with Afghanistan’s problems and by a definition of the American national interest shared by many of his political opponents, will be as consequential as the largely bipartisan decision by George W. Bush to arrive two decades ago. The roads leading away from Saigon and Beirut, Mogadishu, Baghdad, and Kabul have been painful for the U.S., but America has survived to pivot elsewhere. Many of the Afghan people will have no place to go.

Twenty years after 9/11, where does this far-away place exist in an American imagination crowded with crises? Strategic and humanitarian imperatives will be debated, as will the manner by which the Biden administration has managed the end game, as people who had trusted America are left to their fate. Unable to overcome deep sources of mistrust in Afghanistan, a country to which America has extended extraordinary effort, the U.S. faces the challenge of restoring its own domestic trust and a consensus in foreign policy that harmonizes, as much as is possible, the well-being of America with the needs of the world’s most vulnerable. 

Bradford R. McGuinn is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences.