Afghanistan is a land-locked, mountainous region the population of which is an agglomeration of numerous unrelated tribes and groups that have been warring with one another and with outside invaders since time immemorial. Some of them still rely on a medieval barter economy instead of money and modern banking practices. The common threads that run through all of these hostile, disparate elements are (1) a very traditional, ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, and (2) rampant corruption.
Since the U.S. foray into this unconquerable and ungovernable land twenty years ago, we have lost 4,100 lives, suffered 20,000 additional casualties, and frittered away more than $2 trillion, the bulk of which has been illegally diverted into the pockets of crooked politicians, drug dealers—Afghanistan is the world leader in illicit drug production—and Taliban fanatics.
Today there are 2,500 American and an additional number of allied troops in Afghanistan. Without the participation of the Afghan government, the Trump administration reached an agreement with the Taliban wherein the U.S. agreed to pull out our remaining troops by May 1, 2021. In return, the Taliban pledged nothing more than to “be nice.” So much for The Great Dealmaker’s negotiating prowess. The Biden administration is now hedging on the pull-out date, at a loss as to what makes the most sense to do.
The Taliban currently control more Afghan territory than the government. In the districts it controls, the harshest form of Sharia law has been reintroduced, making women’s lives a living hell. Girls are no longer allowed in schools; women must remain largely behind walls in their homes/prisons and wear head-to-toe burkhas; and honor killings are sanctioned.
If the U.S. leaves, the weak, corrupt central government will be unable to defeat the Taliban and will eventually collapse. The calamitous situation that prevailed before the U.S. invasion in 2001 will come back in full force. From a human rights standpoint, this is intolerable.
Moreover, the Taliban will be incapable of, and/or uninterested in, suppressing al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization that used the safe harbor of Afghanistan to plan the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. This time it is not only al-Qaeda that we must worry about. It has been joined in the country by ISIS and the indigenous Haqqani Network, Islamic jihadists that will have the freedom to plan and organize new terrorist attacks on the West.
There are no good answers. This is one of these impossible situations that fall into the category of “damned if we do, damned if we don’t.” Staying or leaving are each highly problematic. If we leave Afghanistan, it must be done with the stated commitment to return with overwhelming force (in keeping with the Powell Doctrine) if we find that the Taliban are hosting anti-Western terrorists that we must root out and destroy.
The calculus will come down to which option is the least distasteful. It is a very close call.
March 26, 2021