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Afghan Terror's Return

Afghan Terror's Return

There are overhead costs for peace and security.

Jeffrey Gedmin

Last week, Mark Milley and Kenneth McKenzie, Jr. testified before Congress on the United States' exit from Afghanistan. Republicans blamed President Biden for the debacle. Democrats blamed President Trump for his deal with the Taliban. The two men who led the withdrawal—Milley, the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chair, and McKenzie, the ex-chief of Central Command—blamed both sides. In the midst of our chaotic departure, on August 26, 2021, an Islamic State suicide bomber killed thirteen U.S. service members and more than 150 Afghans outside an airport gate in Kabul. 

Last Friday, Afghanistan roared back into the news with the horrific attack on Russian concertgoers that left at least 137 dead and more than 180 injured. Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility. Behind the attack, U.S. officials believe, is IS-affiliate Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) in Afghanistan. ISIS-K has been stepping up activity at home. Last Thursday, the group sent a suicide bomber into a crowd of Taliban members at a bank in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. Islamic State and the Taliban despise one another.

I suspect we’re starting to see the costs of foreign policy light. In Ukraine we decided against boots on the ground and pilots in the sky. We have provided large amounts of military assistance. But our reluctance to give Ukrainians the tanks, air power, and long-range missiles they need to defeat Russian invaders is showing its effect. Our worries about escalation paved the way for Vladimir Putin’s forces to overcome early setbacks. 

President Biden took credit for ending America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan. But at the time of our exit there was no significant push from the American public for withdrawal. At the start of the Biden Administration we were already down to 2,500 troops, a level that might well have held the fragile country together. Security had improved. 

That’s not all. Life expectancy had improved for both men and women. Fewer infants were dying and more women were surviving childbirth. Nine million Afghan children had started going to school over the time of our presence, some 40 percent of them girls. The bet was to buy time, said former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, “for a young generation of Afghans to come of age.”

The calculation ended with our withdrawal. Women are oppressed again. Girls are barred from schools. Music is banned, even at weddings. 

March 20th marked the holiday called Nowruz, the first day of spring and the beginning of the new year. Family and friends celebrate. Children receive new clothes and other gifts. This belongs to the Afghanistan I know, through RFE/RL colleagues and my own in-country experience. Afghanistan is religious, tribal, traditional—and a naturally loving and lyrical place. RFE/RL’s radio network Azadi, for instance, doesn’t so much communicate with its audience as it communes, swoons, and dances. This is reflected in the fan mail its producers receive that is replete with tributes, songs, poems, petitions, and paintings. Azadi’s audience includes teachers and soldiers, shepherds and refugees all dreaming of a better life. They suffer their country’s culture wars. 

Days after the U.S. withdrawal in late August 2021, the Taliban painted over the protective barriers and concrete blast walls of Kabul that had been adorned with dedications to fallen journalists, portraits of iconic musicians, and pop art depictions of young children. Bright and colorful messages were replaced with black-and-white texts proclaiming the Taliban was back as “protectors of the land and people.” Last week, the Taliban canceled Nowruz. 

Far grimmer: The Taliban is back to flogging, stoning, and amputating body parts for theft or suspected adultery. A twelve-year-old boy received public lashings in eastern Laghman province recently for immorality, Voice of America reports. Executions are carried out again in soccer stadiums. “The judiciary has been gutted,” says RFE/RL analyst Abubakar Siddique who questions whether any of this is even allowed under strict Sharia law. “It’s all about creating an atmosphere of fear. Terror and terrorism have returned,” he says. 

But the vacuum that’s been created by our departure has done more than destroy progress in human rights. Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been on the rise since the Taliban returned to power. Qadir Habib, who directs Azadi with its programming in Dari and Pashto languages, notes that “Islamabad now openly accuses the Taliban of harboring Pakistani militants on its territory and allowing them to carry out cross-border attacks in Pakistan.”  

Pakistan's pressure on the Taliban is a major shift. Pakistani warplanes conduct strikes inside Afghan territory. Conflict is escalating, reports RFE/RL’s outlet Maashal that serves audiences in Pakistan’s border regions. Pakistan is threatening to close an important trade route from Afghanistan to India that goes through Pakistan. 

As part of its response, the Taliban has been turning to Iran. The Taliban announced recently that it will invest in Iran's strategic Chabahar Port, located in the country’s southeast, a move aimed at reducing landlocked Afghanistan's dependence on Pakistani ports. In matters including energy and security cooperation, Taliban-Iranian relations keep growing closer.

Former U.S. National Security Council Director Lisa Curtis has been sounding the alarm for some time about U.S. security interests in the region. On the fourth anniversary of the Doha Agreement—the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban that included a deadline for U.S. withdrawal—Curtis argued that “it’s time to set [Doha] aside,” warning that terrorism is coming back and only a joint pressure campaign exerted with other like-minded nations has a chance of improving human rights in Afghanistan. At the time of the Doha Agreement the Taliban had been feigning moderation.

President Biden ended a “forever war” in 2021. The expression appeared back in 2005, four years after 9/11, in a New York Times piece by journalist Mark Danner. The Forever War became a book title for writer Dexter Filkins in 2008.

Seven decades after the end of the Korean War, the U.S. maintains 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. We keep more than 50,000 troops in Japan and Okinawa. You can see this as “forever war,” or view such presence as the overhead cost for peace and security.  

In his testimony on Afghanistan last week, General Milley said we had succeeded in helping to build a military and a state but failed to forge a nation. Sometimes keeping a lid on things ought to be enough.

America sacrificed blood and treasure in Afghanistan. An ongoing mission with two-to-three thousand troops would not have been without additional risk. But in leaving the country entirely, we abandoned partners, unsettled the region, boosted the Iranian regime’s influence, returned a country to unspeakable brutality, and restored opportunity for Islamic State terrorists. Islamic State has established a presence in South Asia, threatened Europe, and its Afghan affiliate has pledged lone-wolf attacks on the United States.

By breaking with Afghanistan, we gave allies but also adversaries something to ponder. China is probably less interested in how Russia and Ukraine war with one another than in how long the United States sticks with our Ukrainian friends. For their alternative vision of world order, our rivals have staying power—and relish seeing ours tested. 

Jeffrey Gedmin, a former president of RFE/RL, is cofounder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose. He’s currently a member of the International Broadcasting Advisory Board. Views expressed are the author’s alone.

Image: A U.S. Army soldier with the 10th Mountain Division stands as security at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, on August 15, 2021. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement. (DVIDS: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Isaiah Campbell)

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