| The Current |

Graveyard of Another Empire

Kabul crumbles in the wake of Biden's botched pullout


Photos: AP Images

Television network news carried split-screen images: on one side, a helicopter hovering over the American embassy in Kabul; on the other, the chaotic 1975 evacuation of Saigon, Vietnam, with embassy rooftop crowds clamoring to board Bell UH-1 choppers. The comparison was inescapable.

President Joe Biden had announced America’s intention to withdraw from Afghanistan — no matter what — by September 11, 2021, two decades since the terror attack that sparked the US invasion.

The Taliban, for its part, wasted no time. Vacuums don’t remain unfilled for long in the Middle East. The moment the American departure became a certainty, the Taliban began recapturing one city after another, with the Afghan government offering only token resistance.

The Taliban’s advance was extraordinarily fast. Two weeks ago, intelligence experts estimated that Kabul would fall in three months’ time, revised last week to 30 days. As it turned out, Kabul fell on Sunday this week, long before the most pessimistic prediction.

The sight of Afghanistan’s president fleeing the country, and the every-man-for-himself attitude evident among Kabul’s elite, were painful blows to Biden’s exit strategy. Just six weeks ago the president had denied that the Afghan government would speedily collapse.

“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the United States embassy in Afghanistan,” he insisted, foreshadowing what did in fact happen.

If anything, the situation at Hamid Karzai International Airport (no doubt shortly to be renamed) looked worse than the grainy long-ago Saigon images. Thousands of Afghans thronged the unguarded airfield, desperate to find spots aboard the American C-130 transport planes dispatched to evacuate US citizens. Meanwhile, Kalashnikov-toting Taliban fighters entered the presidential palace and lounged comfortably at a long conference table.

The fear of those swarming the airport desperately trying to get a seat aboard a plane leaving their country was all too justified. Any of the thousands of people who have worked with the evacuating forces are in mortal danger. And even those who are not directly threatened are faced with a return to a brutally oppressive regime.

The last time that Kabul fell in 1996, the prime minister’s mutilated body was hung at an intersection to cow the population. At the local football stadium, the Taliban staged regular execution spectacles watched by a crowd in the stands. Convicts were forced to kneel at the goalposts, or had their limbs amputated for robbery and then hung from the goals. According to Reuters, so much blood had seeped into the soil that in 2008, when the new regime tried to renovate the place, no grass would take root.

As the Taliban’s wild-looking fighters in their pickup trucks closed on Kabul, it was clear that a medieval attitude to everything from girls’ education — which the Taliban forbid — to any signs of Western modernity, such as men shaving, was making a comeback. Millions of Afghans know that a state-sponsored oppression rarely matched even across the Islamic world is about to return.

What was the Biden administration thinking when it embarked on such a harebrained, hurried, and disorganized withdrawal? Wasn’t it obvious what would inevitably result?

Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Biden both refused to address the damaging images of retreat and defeat, and repeated the bottom line that keeping forces in Afghanistan was no longer in America’s interest, trying to sideline the issue of the messy withdrawal. Yes, say Biden’s people, the pullout doesn’t look good. But does this change the fact that America has no interest being there in five, ten, or twenty years?

Biden and his people also pointed out that former president Trump had held talks with the Taliban about a withdrawal, so Biden was only following his predecessor’s lead. And yet, in considering the need to leave Afghanistan, you also have to give some thought to the “how.” Biden ran for president as an expert on foreign affairs, someone who had served for 47 years in every political position possible. He and his men should have realized that the Afghan defense forces, funded and trained by America for 20 years, wouldn’t stand their ground in the moment of truth.

Furthermore, although the US has no interest in remaining in Afghanistan any longer, doesn’t pulling out send all that investment — in the education system, in modernization and democratization, in the local military — down the drain? In the end, the government in Kabul was still too weak to survive without the American military presence, which in recent years dwindled to just 2,500 troops.

Withdrawal opponents will say this minimal presence on the ground was enough to deter the Taliban from trying to recapture the country. Why not just stay?

It’s possible that what tilted the scale is the widespread support for a withdrawal among the American public. A poll conducted for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on August 9 found that 70 percent supported a US withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11. An earlier poll conducted in April by The Hill found similar numbers, with 73 percent support.

Democrats and Republicans were united in a desire to pull out as soon as possible. Biden was also doubtless encouraged to go ahead with the withdrawal because in recent years the American public has become less interested in foreign affairs in general, and interest in Afghanistan waned as well as soon as American casualties began to decrease. In short, although it was a negligent move, badly executed, and constitutes the low of Biden’s foreign policy record, he’s hoping the public opinion price he’ll pay will be negligible.

It is too early to determine what the long-term outcome of the US retreat will be. One immediate fear is that other terror groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, will raise their heads again. On the other hand, some experts would argue that the Afghan case is different, since the US put 20 years of resources into nation-building; if it wasn’t successful until now, it was unlikely to bear fruit later.

In other words, do not draw conclusions for the greater Middle East from the Afghan case. And indeed, only time will tell how big the Biden administration’s failure was here. If other terror groups feel emboldened, it could be remembered as a major turning point in Biden’s term. Likewise if other American adversaries — such as China, probing the US commitment to  Taiwan — take the Afghan debacle as a measure of Biden’s nerve.

To an Israeli, the American withdrawal is reminiscent of the IDF’s 1999 withdrawal from Lebanon. The Israeli public supported the pullout, seeing no rationale for remaining there and continuing to absorb casualties when there was no clearly defined operational goal.

But the moment Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced the withdrawal, Hezbollah intensified its attacks on the IDF. The army began pulling out equipment from the security zone and only a tiny token force remained. Hezbollah wanted to exploit this perceived sign of weakness and attacked ever more aggressively. As a result, the IDF had to hurry its exit, and the day of the departure dissolved into chaos, with a large amount of valuable equipment being left behind. Many fighters of the South Lebanese Army, who had fought by Israel’s side, were also ditched. Although no one wanted to stay, the decision to leave Lebanon etched itself in the Israeli consciousness as a bitter failure and as a depressing final chapter of the war.

I asked USC international relations professor Patrick James how the Taliban was able to move so quickly to recapture such a significant portion of the country.

“The key consideration is about the word ‘country,’ ” he said. “There is no effective national integration, and Afghanistan does not really exist except on a map. This is a by-product of topography more than anything else.

“Afghanistan has been called the ‘graveyard of empires’ for good reason. Here I mean that the latest visitor, the US, has encountered the same problem as those who have tried to control or change Afghanistan before. It is possible to exert full authority, or something close to it, in Kabul, while at the same time having no sustainable authority anywhere else. Local and familial affiliations really make Afghanistan like many separate villages.

“As those in the remote hills encounter the Taliban, there is a collective action problem — they do not resist on an individual basis, and the US-sponsored government has been corrupt and unable to achieve any sense of national unity. The result is that the Taliban enters localities virtually unopposed. In other words, why fight them if no one else does?”

Williams College professor David Edwards told Mishpacha that the Afghan security forces were stretched too thin. “Their top-flight fighters had to respond to too many attacks in too many places, and without the immediate assistance of US air support, they couldn’t put out all of the fires.”

I asked these two experts: Didn’t the US see that coming? What was the point of withdrawing under these circumstances?

“The war violated the Powell Doctrine, and the US is paying the price for doing this sort of thing yet again,” said Professor James of USC. “After Vietnam, Powell said that the US should fight a war to win or not fight at all. Instead, we see a ‘holding pattern’ in Afghanistan. The US sent enough personnel and support to the Afghan government to keep things going.

“But winning was just not realistic in light of the point above. The reason respective US presidents kept things going, rather than withdrawing, is that no one wanted to be the ‘Gerry Ford’ of this war. Here I mean that Ford was in office when the US-sponsored regime in Vietnam collapsed and lost the war in 1975.”

“The US should have seen it coming,” countered Professor Edwards. “Our decision to withdraw when we did was a huge and avoidable mistake. It wasn’t costing us that much in money and few American lives were at risk before Biden announced his decision. It was especially unwise to tie the withdrawal to September 11. In doing so, he gave al-Qaeda the symbolic victory that will come when Kabul falls to the Taliban. There was no point in withdrawing, and to that end, we have left ourselves in a weaker position than we were in before, militarily, politically, diplomatically, and symbolically.”

Although at press time it looked like the Taliban had asserted complete control over the country, I asked them if there was any chance Biden would reverse course and leave US troops there.

“I would say no, except in the short-term to make sure that US personnel and key supporters (i.e., those certain to be executed by the Taliban) can be evacuated safely,” said Professor James. “The Biden government has many problems right now — the resurgent pandemic, inflation, the Mexican border, etc. — and poll numbers are dropping. My guess is that the Biden team will want to swallow the ‘bad medicine’ of the Afghan collapse as quickly as possible, rather than being seen as even more indecisive by dragging things out further and ending up in the same place anyway.”

“I don’t see him reversing course now,” said Professor Edwards. “It would be admitting that he screwed up in April by announcing the withdrawal. He has set this course, and now we all have to live with the consequences.”

I asked the two to assess the long-term significance of the Taliban’s recapture of Kabul.

“In terms of American domestic politics, the Biden team is gambling that public attention to this will be minimal and poll numbers won’t drop significantly as a result of the debacle,” said Professor James. “With regard to foreign policy, the optics of this are not good — enemy states will see it as weakness. At the same time, withdrawal is the rational thing here — much like not throwing any more money into a losing hand at poker after the matter has been decided.”

“The significance will be enormous,” predicted Professor Edwards. “We’ve given them a surge of momentum they didn’t have before. We’ll be living with the consequences of this blunder for years to come.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 874)

Oops! We could not locate your form.