US foreign policy updates
Sign up to myFT Daily Digest to be the first to know about US foreign policy news.
On his recent trip to Europe, Joe Biden lost no opportunity to proclaim “America is back”. But actions speak louder than words. In Afghanistan, America is out. The consequences could be tragic for the country and dangerous for the US and the wider world.
The US president is not even pretending that America is leaving behind a stable and successful Afghanistan. Talking to the press earlier this month, Biden conceded that the Taliban is “at its strongest militarily since 2001” — when US and allied forces invaded Afghanistan and ejected the Taliban government from Kabul.
Biden insists that it is “highly unlikely” that the Taliban will now reconquer the whole country. But Mark Milley, America’s most senior general, sounds less confident. His verdict last week was simply that “a Taliban automatic takeover is not a foregone conclusion”.
If the Taliban were to reconquer Afghanistan, it would be a disaster for the people of the country, in particular women, and a humiliation for the US. The baffling thing is the Biden administration could have avoided this risk, at a relatively low cost.
The US president has spoken movingly of the 2,448 Americans who have lost their lives over the course of a 20-year war, and the more than 20,000 who were wounded, as well as the mental toll on veterans of the war. America’s allies have also taken heavy losses, with the UK alone losing 457 troops.
But no American has been killed in Afghanistan for 17 months. Biden argues that this low level of casualties is a consequence of the fact that the US has been engaged in peace talks with the Taliban — posited on American withdrawal from the country. He believes that if the US announced that it intended to stay after all, the Taliban would resume assaults on US troops and casualties would rise again.
But direct talks between the US and the Taliban only really got under way in 2018 — and US casualties have been relatively low since 2015, with fewer than 100 US troops killed over the past five years.
The reality is that the few thousand US and Nato troops left in Afghanistan have not been engaged in direct combat for some years. The real fighting has been left to the Afghan army. However, the withdrawal of American and other Nato troops has had a disastrous effect on the morale of the Afghan government and military. Western experts speak of a surge of contacts from prominent Afghans, looking for any opportunity to get out of the country.
The Taliban, by contrast, sound triumphant and are making rapid gains on the battlefield. The Islamist militants have seized control of vital border crossings and now control roughly half of Afghanistan’s 419 districts. They have not captured any provincial capitals yet. But attacks on major towns could occur within weeks — with the capture of the capital, Kabul, the Taliban’s ultimate goal. Even if the Taliban prove incapable of holding major cities, Afghanistan is clearly in for a period of intensified civil war.
The human rights consequences of the Taliban’s advance are likely to be appalling. There are already reports that the organisation is carrying out summary executions and forcing girls into sex slavery in areas that it has recaptured. Prominent Afghan women have often been targeted in Taliban attacks.
In the 20 years since the fall of the Taliban, millions of Afghan girls have been able to go to school. Women make up over a quarter of the members of the Afghan parliament. If the Taliban retake power, all of these gains will be lost. This unfolding tragedy makes a mockery of the Biden team’s proclamation that it will be a “champion for women and girls around the world”.
The US president is not blind to all this. He recently described a “heartbreaking” encounter he had in Afghanistan with a schoolgirl, who wanted to be a doctor, and begged him to keep US troops in the country. But the US president believes that he cannot ask American soldiers to keep fighting and dying for the rights of people on the other side of the world.
It is true that Biden’s first moral duty is to the American people. But that does not mean that, after a 20-year presence, the US has no continuing moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan. And, with troop losses at low levels, there was no real domestic pressure to pull out of the country completely.
There are also direct American national interests still at stake. The terrorist threat that drew the US into Afghanistan has not disappeared. If the Taliban once again controlled the country, it might well become a safe haven for the likes of al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Jihadis all over the world will also draw heart from the spectacle of the defeat of Nato in Afghanistan.
The resurgence of the Taliban is also likely to cause a new refugee crisis, as millions of Afghans seek to leave the country. European governments now fear that 500,000 or more Afghans may arrive at the borders of the EU within months.
Biden may believe that drawing a line under the Afghan war will allow the US to concentrate on more urgent problems. Sadly, he may just have created a new Afghan crisis that will come back to haunt him.