Nearly 20 years after American troops entered Afghanistan, the situation boils down to: the government has actually collapsed and President Ashraf Ghani has left the country. The army lost its will to fight and collapsed. The barbaric and bold march of the Taliban has taken over Kabul, and they have established a strict legal system and restricted women’s rights in areas under their control. The people have fallen into a new humanitarian crisis. American soldiers and diplomats are sprinting towards the exit.
The Taliban, allied with al-Qaeda, are now about to gain maximum political power, if not all power.
Many people blame the current chaos in Afghanistan on the withdrawal of US President Joe Biden, which is understandable. But the reason also stems from the long-term strength of the Taliban and the fundamental weakness of the Afghan country.
Over the years, the Taliban have prepared for this final battle. The Taliban forces have established deep footprints throughout the country, including areas near cities, and eventually controlled them, thus preparing for the city offensive in recent days. They have accumulated a large amount of heavy weapons seized from the Afghan army. They diversified their sources of funding and went beyond the drug trade to make a wealthy armed group richer. The current progress of the Taliban does not come out of thin air.
At the same time, since the NATO war officially ended in 2014, the Afghan army—despite training, advice, and substantial funding from Washington—has been trying to lead the counter-insurgency from the front. The Afghan special forces-the most effective combat unit in the Afghan army-are overused, placing a burden on the military’s best assets.
In recent years, as the Taliban’s offensive has intensified, infantrymen have struggled with insufficient equipment and are often not paid. Corruption is rampant and morale is low. The Afghan army has almost no support from the government, which is working hard to develop a counter-insurgency strategy.
To be sure, Biden’s withdrawal statement contributed to the current crisis in Afghanistan. His statement had an intoxicating effect on the Taliban and its allies. For a long time, the foreign military presence has been the potential dissatisfaction of “Islamist” radical organizations. Al Qaeda was born out of Osama bin Laden’s hatred of American soldiers stationed on Saudi soil.
The withdrawal of the United States will surely inject vitality into the Taliban and prompt it to step up its attacks on the Afghan countries that have long received American troops. Since April, 20 armed groups, including al Qaeda, have fought side by side with the Taliban.
Biden’s withdrawal statement was both frustrating for the Afghan army and intoxicating for the Taliban. Already in trouble, they knew that they would lose the critical American safety net, from airpower support—a powerful tool for repelling fighter jets into cities—to the technical expertise to maintain military equipment. Due to the lack of strong government leadership and clear strategy, they disappeared from the Taliban’s offensive, leading to surrender and handover to the Taliban through negotiations.
The withdrawal demonstrated the strength of the Taliban and also exposed the weaknesses of the Afghan nation. But long before Biden made a decision, the two were already deeply entrenched. Washington’s inability to adapt to these factors faster is tantamount to a major policy failure.
However, it is worth noting that even if Biden chooses not to withdraw, Afghanistan will fall into a deeper level of instability. The Taliban will not respond well to the U.S. decision to abandon its commitment to withdraw troops in the 2020 agreement with the Trump administration. They could have launched a new offensive against the Afghan army, and American soldiers — who have been spared by the Taliban since the signing of the 2020 agreement — were also their goal.
The U.S. military presence is neither a brake for the Taliban nor a broader stabilizer. Even with boots on the ground in recent years, Afghanistan has suffered record-breaking civilian casualties and relentless targeted killings against civil society. Even in March, a few weeks before Biden announced his withdrawal, the Taliban controlled more territory than at any time since the US military entered the country.
Nevertheless, this is not to underestimate the severity of the political, military, security, and humanitarian crises caused by the withdrawal.
The mess in Afghanistan is also the mess in the United States. Washington owes Afghanistan to help clean it up—not for charitable reasons, but out of self-interest. The Taliban-led government itself will not pose a direct threat to the security interests of the United States. But this will provide space for al Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations. If the war restarts and intensifies, regional spillover effects — refugee flows, drug trade, and cross-border terrorism — could endanger America’s goals of stability in the wider region.
It is true that the United States has limited policy options. The leaving US military took away most of the US influence. Washington can no longer threaten to postpone the withdrawal of troops to influence the Taliban’s behavior. Now the Taliban have taken control.
Only when Washington recognizes the new Taliban regime can the United States fulfill its promise to continue to provide financial assistance to Afghanistan. Even if it does-a big assumption-the departure of most American diplomats will complicate efforts to monitor this aid. Moreover, since there is no base agreement with Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, the surveillance plan after the withdrawal and the “terrorist” targets to be attacked if necessary will be restricted by Washington’s reliance on military installations in the farther regions of the Middle East.
Washington’s top priority should be the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan — Washington is strangely silent about this crisis. It should increase funding for refugee organizations and Afghan women’s groups that assist displaced Afghans. It should continue to expedite the withdrawal of Afghans working for the US military. The image of a large number of people climbing up and holding on to the departing American plane is shocking and should not be ignored.
The United States should also play legal cards with the Taliban-the Taliban is its only leverage tool. The Taliban gained international recognition after reaching an agreement with the Trump administration. The organization took full advantage of its newly acquired legitimacy, held numerous meetings with foreign diplomats, and accepted many media interviews.
The Biden administration has previously warned the Taliban that if they seize power by force, it will lose legitimacy. The Taliban have now seized power in Kabul without the use of force. But if the Taliban continue to commit atrocities, refuse to include non-Taliban leaders in the new government, resist the ceasefire and refuse to contact refugees and others in need, Washington should not recognize the new government.
The Taliban have received too many free passes. After the signing of the 2020 agreement, it refused to reduce violence (excluding the Eid al-Fitr truce) or participate in any meaningful peace negotiations. It carried out retaliatory killings and executed soldiers who had surrendered. The Taliban often talk about peace. But it did not say it, but mocked it.
If necessary, Washington should deprive the Taliban of the benefits of legitimacy. It cannot stop the media from serving as a platform for the Taliban, but it can refuse to meet with Taliban leaders — and urge other governments to do the same. It can also force Afghanistan’s neighbors to cut off trade with border areas controlled by the Taliban. In fact, the United States should not hesitate to test the so-called legitimacy aspirations of the Taliban.
However, in the final analysis, we should not exaggerate Washington’s involvement after its withdrawal. The Biden administration said it wants to focus on other priorities, such as strategic competition with China, the threat of terrorism in other parts of the world, and climate change.
Ultimately, the United States will break away from the Afghan script, and regional players will play a more important role. Some of these countries—China, Iran, and Russia—are America’s main competitors, but like Washington, they all want Afghanistan to be more stable and reduce terrorism.
The United States should hold summits with Afghanistan’s neighbors to discuss how to help mitigate potential regional spillover effects. This is at least it can do. Unlike Washington, regional participants do not have the luxury of leaving.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.