As the Taliban’s forces closed in on Kabul on Sunday, August 15, 2021, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani left his country, the acting U.S. ambassador was evacuated, the American flag on the embassy in the country’s capital lowered—and the Biden administration’s plans for an orderly withdrawal of troops, diplomats, and Afghan aids and translators by the anniversary of 9/11 dashed as a scramble for the door becomes more chaotic. After twenty years, 2 trillion dollars, and the lives of almost 2,500 American personnel lost, President Biden said it was time to let the Afghan government and military stand on its own. Here, Stanford Law national security law expert Allen Weiner discusses the American mission to Afghanistan, the U.S. military withdrawal, and potential consequences.
What was the American/NATO objective when we invaded Afghanistan almost twenty years ago?
The immediate United States objective at the time of the 2001 invasion was to destroy Al Qaeda’s base of operations in Afghanistan and to kill or capture senior Al Qaeda leaders there. As those of us who are old enough to remember will recall, the invasion (“Operation Enduring Freedom”) was the U.S.-led response to the 9/11 attacks against World Trade Center twin towers and the Pentagon that were carried out by Al Qaeda. Because the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had a symbiotic relationship with—and provided a safe haven to—Al Qaeda on Afghanistan’s territory, the U.S. and its NATO allies also sought to drive the Taliban from power. At the time, the Taliban was fighting a civil war in Afghanistan and by October 2001 had achieved effective control over most of the country. President Bush and others quickly began to emphasize an additional objective for overthrowing the Taliban— to liberate the Afghan people from the regime’s repressive practices. We sought to promote basic human rights and to end the Taliban’s oppression of women.
Were those objectives met?
The U.S. and its NATO allies largely met those initial goals. Al Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan were destroyed, many of its leaders were killed and captured (although some, including Osama bin Laden, managed to escape at least initially), and its ability to plan, finance, and execute major global terrorist operations was severely diminished. U.S. and NATO forces drove the Taliban from power, and after a transitional period, a new government led by Hamid Karzai was established. Women and girls resumed participation in public life in Afghanistan, including education.
But those successes were fleeting?
As we know, the successes did not last. Although Al Qaeda never resumed significant operations in Afghanistan, the organization metastasized, and lethal variants of the organization arose in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, and the Maghreb, among other places. Other terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State and al Shabaab, either grew out of or have affiliations of varying degrees of intensity with Al Qaeda. We have also seen attacks carried out by homegrown terrorist organizations with only loose affiliations to Al Qaeda, sometimes only ideological affinities. So, while Operation Enduring Freedom significantly disrupted terrorist operations originating from Afghanistan, it cannot be said to have eliminated the threat of transnational terrorism.
And the Taliban continued to be a simmering problem in Afghanistan, didn’t it?
The goal of eradicating the Taliban, obviously, also was unmet. Although then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared an end to major combat operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in May 2003, a revitalized Taliban renewed an intense civil war in the summer of 2006. That civil war against the Afghanistan government—which appears now to have been won by the Taliban—continued with varying degrees of intensity until the past few days. And if another of the goals of the invasion was to improve the protection of human rights in Afghanistan, we must recognize that civilians suffered terribly during the civil war.
Are there any (hopefully) enduring successes from the twenty-year investment by the U.S. and NATO?
Afghanistan did make significant progress in terms of economic development and the realization of at least some civil and political rights. Per capita GDP rose dramatically in the decades after the U.S. invasion. The status of women and girls improved along many dimensions, including health, life expectancy, education levels, and participation in government institutions. The Taliban’s victory clearly imperils these gains.
The Trump Administration negotiated an agreement with Taliban in 2020 providing for the withdrawal of U.S. Forces from Afghanistan by May 2021, as part of which the Taliban promised not to deliberatively attack U.S. troops during the withdrawal period. Since then, the Taliban has been steadily gaining control over provinces in the county, and civilian casualties have been rising. Was it pure fantasy that the US was maintaining the peace?
The Trump Administration’s February 2020 agreement with Taliban, in which the U.S. promised to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan in a little over a year, even though the Taliban did not agree to even a ceasefire, much less reach any political agreements with the government about ending the civil war, was the beginning of the end. It clearly signaled to both the Taliban and the government that the U.S. was now concerned only with the security of its own forces, and that the Afghan government was on its own. Given that the Taliban was making progress in gaining territory, at least in the countryside, even with U.S. troops present, many analysts—including the U.S. intelligence community—forecast the eventual overthrow of the Afghan government. It is only the shocking speed with which that happened that is a real surprise.
The fall of the Afghan government has taken many, including apparently some in the Biden administration, by surprise. Why did the collapse of the Afghan military happen so swiftly? And what role did the Afghan police force and corruption play?
Many commentators who have been critical of the U.S. effort to build up the Afghan military have long expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), and many analysts predicted that the Taliban would ultimately prevail against the government after the U.S. and its NATO allies withdrew from Afghanistan. That said, I don’t think anyone predicted it would happen as swiftly as it did.
Multiple factors have been cited to explain how the Taliban—a force estimated to comprise some 75,000 fighters—defeated the 300,000-member strong ANDSF. First, despite the seeming superiority of the government forces, conditions for ANDSF soldiers were quite abysmal. Many reportedly went months without being paid. They lacked ammunition and even food. There are reports of incompetent leadership within the armed forces, leaving Afghan soldiers exposed in the middle of pitch battles, without reinforcements.
A second factor is the pervasive and corrosive corruption among Afghan government actors. This helps explain why—despite the U.S. infusion of billions of dollars in military assistance— Afghan soldiers went without pay and lacked adequate ammunition. It also explains why in some cases, after Afghan forces fighting alongside U.S. forces succeeded in clearing territory of Taliban insurgents, the Afghan government would fail to hold it. The notoriously corrupt and unprofessional Afghanistan police forces—who were in charge of security after territory had been cleared of Taliban fighters by the ANDSF—reportedly engaged in predatory practices targeting the local community or could be bought off by the insurgency to cede ground back.
Third, some critics of the U.S. effort to modernize the Afghan army have long argued that the ANDSF lacked resolve to aggressively engage the Taliban insurgency in the absence of active support from U.S. soldiers. Although there are many stories of Afghan soldiers fighting fiercely, there are anecdotal accounts of Afghan armed forces engaging in “mini non-aggression deals” with Taliban fighters in their area of responsibility in an effort to avoid armed engagement.
Fourth, the lack of motivation of Afghan armed forces was exacerbated in recent years by the unpopularity and perceived fecklessness of the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani. Re-elected in 2019 after an election with sharply disputed results, in which voter turnout was less than 20 percent, the Ghani government was widely seen as ineffective in addressing corruption, effectively managing the country, or confronting the growing security threat posed by the Taliban. It became a common refrain among Afghan soldiers that the Ghani government was not one worth fighting for.
Fifth, it appears that in at least some provinces in Afghanistan, the Taliban, in essence, offered government forces negotiated settlements to cede control of territory. In some cases, this involved offering payments to government soldiers to switch sides—a particularly attractive offer for soldiers who had not been paid in months. It is likely that the Taliban offered broader commitments, e.g., not to engage in retribution against government soldiers who abandoned the fight, although I have not yet seen reports of such deals.
Sixth, there a seasonal calendar to armed conflict in Afghanistan, and the Taliban has typically engaged in its major military operations during the spring and summer. Delaying the U.S. withdrawal by six months, so that U.S. forces did not leave during the height of what is known in Afghanistan as “fighting season,” might have given the ANDSF more time to prepare to defend Afghanistan’s cities. Although given how swiftly Afghan government forces were swept aside, this now seems doubtful to me.
Finally, from an operational standpoint, the U.S. has invested billions of dollars in Afghanistan to attempt to build up a military that functions in ways that resemble how a NATO army operates, with air power and advanced weaponry. Such a military depends on extremely complex behind-the-scenes logistics arrangements. In Afghanistan, these logistics systems depended heavily on U.S. contractors, who also began withdrawing from the country after President Biden announced the U.S. withdrawal. Many of the aircraft in Afghanistan’s air force, for instance, were grounded because they lacked parts needed for repairs or routine servicing. One of the lessons of the defeat of the ANDSF is that building a foreign country’s military also requires developing indigenous logistics capacity.
Troops had been drawn down to about 3,000 and negotiations that excluded the Afghan gov’t were conducted with the Taliban during the Trump administration. Could Biden, realistically, have rewound the clock–bringing more troops back? Was Biden pushed into a tough corner?
Although the withdrawal agreement the Trump Administration concluded with the Taliban in February 2020 may not have initiated the death spiral for the Afghanistan government and military, it certainly catalyzed it, as I noted above. It did put the Biden Administration in a tough position; the only option would have been to renege on the agreement, leave U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and to seek to renegotiate the agreement. That said, although that may have been a tough position, it was not an impossible one, as evidenced by the fact that the Biden Administration unilaterally changed the agreed upon date by which U.S. forces would withdraw from Afghanistan from May to August.
I’m not a military strategist, so I can’t say whether maintaining a force of 3,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan would have changed the military situation on the ground. But I think if the U.S. had said that it would not withdraw the U.S. military presence until there was a ceasefire and the Taliban and the Afghan government have negotiated a power sharing agreement/end to the civil war, that might have changed the Taliban’s political assessment about how to proceed. I stress that this only “might” have changed the Taliban’s thinking. The fact that the Taliban has been fighting for twenty years suggests that the group was very determined to regain control of Afghanistan and re-establish its vision of life for the Afghan people.
I understand that Russia and other countries have negotiated agreements to ensure the safety of their embassies and diplomatic staff so that they can continue operations in Kabul. Have the Americans done the same? If not, how significant will that be for the future safety of the U.S and the threat of terrorism? Will we have “eyes on the ground” and intelligence sources?
The United States is currently withdrawing all of its diplomatic personnel from Afghanistan and will presumably once again shutter its embassy in Kabul. The U.S. will face a difficult question about whether to recognize the new Taliban regime that will be installed in Afghanistan, and if so, whether to resume diplomatic relations and re-open its embassy. If the Taliban regime pursues the policies that characterized its period of rule in the late 1990s, particularly the severe repression of women and girls, I doubt the U.S. will re-establish relations. Even if the U.S. did re-establish diplomatic relations, it is inconceivable that the Taliban would permit the United States to maintain the large intelligence and security presence we have had in Afghanistan over the past two decades. So, we will not have the ability gather intelligence on the ground or to conduct military operations against any terrorist threats that emerge in Afghanistan.
The Taliban has pledged that it will not allow Afghanistan’s territory to be used by terrorist groups that seek to conduct hostile operations against foreign countries. Although the Taliban learned in 2001 about the potential costs to it of harboring such groups on Afghanistan’s territory—namely, being overthrown by the U.S. and its NATO allies—there are obviously reasons to question the Taliban’s promise.
Is there anything Biden can do now to minimize the damage?
The Biden administration does not have much leverage at this point. The administration will presumably signal to the Taliban that it will closely monitor its conduct with respect to preventing its territory from being used by terrorist groups and its performance on human rights issues, including the treatment of women and girls. Should the Taliban perform poorly on these issues, the U.S. could try to secure sanctions against the Taliban regime through the Security Council; after all, the Council had imposed sanctions on the Taliban in the 1990s in response to its providing a safe haven to Osama bin Laden and its violation of human rights, particularly discrimination against women and girls. Today, however, it is unclear whether Russia and China, which are likely to seek stable relations with the Taliban government, would support such sanctions. That means the U.S. would probably be limited to unilateral sanctions as a way of signaling disapproval of, and seeking to change the behavior of, a prospective Taliban government.
Allen S. Weiner is an international legal scholar with expertise in fields such as international and national security law, the law of war, international conflict resolution, and international criminal law (including transitional justice). His scholarship focuses on international law and the response to the contemporary security threats of international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and situations of widespread humanitarian atrocities. He is a senior lecturer in law, director of the Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law, and director of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation.