Written by: Ken Wang
The United States first stepped into the sphere of Afghanistan in the 1950s. We began our first military operation during the 1970s and further expanded our operations in 2001 after President Bush declared a War on Terror, vowing to hunt down Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for the 9/11 attack that claimed roughly 3,000 lives. After capturing bin Laden and decimating the activities of Al Qaeda, United States armed forces have since remained in Afghanistan in the name of fighting terror. Now, half a century later, the United States has decided to withdraw all its military personnel from Afghanistan.
According to a public opinion poll about the US pullout, much of the American public supports the withdrawal but did not support the way Biden approached the problem at hand. Nevertheless, the withdrawal was an incredibly important decision regarding the future of any US military presence and confidence in the Middle East, as well as foreign policymaking with the Taliban, the group that took over the Afghan government immediately after the US pullout.
The United States military has a long history of global involvement, especially during the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union competed with each other in almost every aspect of international relations and dominated their own political, military, and social hemispheres. To contain the spread of Communism under the Truman Doctrine, the US military fought the Korean War and the Vietnam War, both of which ended with a major US military withdrawal.
Now, history has repeated itself. The fall of Afghanistan can be viewed as another version of the Fall of Saigon, when the United States scrambled to gather itself after the Vietnam War and flee back to Washington. It seems as though the same thing happened in Afghanistan: a hasty, unplanned, and chaotic exit. It also left many questions unanswered. What are the implications of rushing the withdrawal? How will the United States deal with a government that is controlled by a previously known terrorist organization?
The first, most clear implication of rushing the withdrawal is that the United States now has to deal with a better militarily-equipped Taliban. Because of the rush, the United States left military-grade weapons and other strategically important materials behind for the Taliban to use. We all know the Hollywood trope that if the weapon lands in the wrong hands, millions of lives could be lost. Now, the weapons have ended up in the hands of terrorists and Washington seems to have little recourse.
Taliban combatants took over Afghanistan in a matter of days. If the Taliban was able to take over so quickly, the question is raised as to whether the station of US troops in the country helped deter terrorism at all? What we do know is that during more than twenty years in Afghanistan, roughly 6,000 American soldiers died in combat, more than 100,000 Afghan citizens were killed, and more than $2 trillion in tax dollars were spent. The time, the lives, and the money all went to waste: America ended up with a military withdrawal and a terrorist regime in control. Maybe the loss in Afghanistan is a warning sign that the US military should be less involved in other countries and that it no longer has the military and political dominance it once enjoyed during the Cold War.
The second implication is the loss of a strategic position in the Middle East. Similar to Saigon, or any military withdrawal, it makes our country look weak. The loss of Afghanistan means that any US military operation in the Middle Eastern region will be negatively affected, especially given Afghanistan’s strategic position in relation to Pakistan and China, two key states in American foreign policy.
Given its geopolitical importance, Afghanistan hosted multiple drone bases for American forces, now deemed inoperable. Drones have played an irreplaceable role to support all kinds of US-sanctioned operations in the area and it has worked. It is unlikely that the United States will stop military or intelligence operations in Afghanistan or the regions nearby, a key reason as to why the loss of drone bases will become an obstacle for American military and intelligence operations in the region.
The third question that must be asked is how politicians and analysts in Washington will navigate the future US-Taliban relationship. It has always been the case that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists. Well, there is a first time for everything. It has been suggested that the United States do not give the Taliban recognition or use traditional diplomacy, and instead prepare a few counterterrorism strategies.
However, these suggestions are not enough and will only end up in disaster should Washington choose to adopt them. What should happen is that the United States and its NATO allies form a vast intelligence network and a coalition of counterterrorism forces in the region, while monitoring the activities of the Taliban in the area. Although bases in Afghanistan were lost, the United States could still utilize its assets in Pakistan. Moreover, the United States needs to place economic sanctions on the Taliban government. If the Taliban government fails to behave properly or engages in human rights violations, it should face dire consequences.
Lastly, what will the United States do to clean up its own mess in Afghanistan, especially in terms of dealing with a new wave of refugees who fled the country? As the Taliban took control, tens of thousands of Afghans fled their country and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that half a million people could flee from Afghanistan by the end of the year.
Without a doubt, this is another humanitarian crisis in its initial stages that cannot be ignored and must be dealt with. The United States needs to take primary responsibility for such a crisis because it is a mess created by the Biden administration due to the terrible execution of the withdrawal. The United States should fast-track Afghani asylum requests and help families settle down by finding housing, employment, and education for them. Obviously, the burden must be shared among other countries, especially among NATO allies and countries who made commitments to the UNHCR.
As of right now, only time will tell what the future holds for Afghanistan under the Taliban rule and how the United States will utilize diplomacy and its not-yet-lost assets in the Middle East to plan counterterrorism operations. At the same time, Washington must deal with the aforementioned complexity of a second military withdrawal from a country with geopolitical significance for the first time since the Fall of Saigon, especially in its foreign policymaking.