On August 15, 2021, Taliban forces took control of Kabul, the last major stronghold for the U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan. In the weeks leading up to the takeover, the military organization swept through Afghanistan’s countryside and other major cities much faster than many in the U.S. government and military had expected.
The collapse of the Afghan government comes just weeks before the U.S. deadline to completely withdraw all military personnel from the country on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The vast majority of U.S. troops had already left Afghanistan in the months leading up to the Taliban’s victory in Kabul.
The Taliban’s sudden power grab is likely to have dire consequences for many Afghan civilians, nearly 50,000 of whom were killed in the preceding 20 years of conflict. In total, at least 170,000 people are estimated to have died as a direct result of the War in Afghanistan.
Geopolitical implications of the takeover are set to be similarly tumultuous, posing profound questions about terrorism and the United States’ credibility in the region. To assess the rapidly changing landscape in Afghanistan, SFS faculty members have been called upon to provide their clarity and expertise. In op-eds and interviews, they offer detailed insights into U.S. political and military missteps, impacts on Afghan women and the future of regional terrorism and U.S. power.
Read more in the following sections:
America’s Longest War
Role of Regional Geopolitics
The Impact of Corruption
Afghan Women’s Situation Grows “More Dire by the Hour”
For Nooruddin, the Biden administration’s April announcement that all U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan by September 11 “might be the straw that broke the camel’s back, but every U.S. administration since 2001 is culpable and must be held accountable.”
In The Dispatch, SFS Professor Paul Miller — who served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and as National Security Council director for Afghanistan and Pakistan — also implicates previous administrations in the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Miller, who is co-chair of the global politics and security concentration in the Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) program , tracks ill-defined objectives and wavering commitments across the Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden administrations.
“George W. Bush’s light footprint and war in Iraq, Barack Obama’s self-defeating doubts and withdrawal timetables, Donald Trump’s peace deal and now Joe Biden’s withdrawal,” he writes, all contributed to the Taliban’s recent takeover. “These errors share in common a failure to understand what America’s interests were in Afghanistan and how to achieve them at acceptable cost within the constraints imposed by external circumstances.”
He argues that the U.S. could have achieved its objectives in Afghanistan through better strategizing and a firmer commitment to keeping troops in the country. “That is a convenient ex post facto justification that washes our hands of responsibility,” Miller writes of those who would argue U.S. failure in Afghanistan was inevitable. “We are making a choice to stop trying.”
Role of Regional Geopolitics
The U.S. and Afghanistan, however, are not the only states involved in the still-unfolding crisis. Quoted in Reuters, Security Studies Professor Christine Fair, who specializes in South Asian political and military affairs and served as a political officer for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, points to the integral role of Pakistan in supporting the Taliban. “Without Pakistan, the Taliban would simply be a nuisance,” she says. “They would not be a competent fighting force.”
Fair also authored a piece in Foreign Policy that explores the ways that Pakistan and the U.S. have endangered the Afghan people by aiding and abetting Taliban activities. She criticizes U.S. presidential administrations for deciding not to take a harder stance toward the national government in Islamabad. “The United States has steadfastly refused to do the one thing it could have done long ago: targeted sanctions against those in Pakistan’s deep state who sponsor Islamist militants,” Fair writes.
Going forward, Fair believes that Pakistan will remain involved with the Taliban fighters who now control Afghanistan. In a statement quoted in Foreign Policy, she predicted continued support for the military organization. “Pakistan is not going to turn its back on the Taliban. Why would it do so now that the Taliban have ‘won’ thanks to Pakistan’s own unrelenting efforts?”
“It’s very, very difficult — even when you’re a large occupying force with a lot of money — to actually change governance structures,” she said. “That’s really got to be done by internal actors.”
Rampant corruption, she argued, hampered opportunities for Afghan citizens to participate in governance by undermining faith in democratic processes and civil society. “[It] closed off the political, the economic and the security space for average Afghans,” she said.
Fair has also written about the corrosive impacts of corruption and argued that the U.S. and its allies must take accountability for its proliferation during their 20 years in the country. “It’s a story that Americans don’t want to hear: that we contributed to the massive corruption in Afghanistan,” she writes in an op-ed for The Daily Beast.
Fair highlights a number of instances where the U.S., its Western allies and its private partners in Afghanistan fueled corruption, including through lack of oversight of U.S. security contractors, poor monitoring of USAID funds and under-the-table CIA payments to Karzai officials to buy influence.
Vittori called for Afghanistan to be the “final nail in the coffin” for U.S. foreign policy approaches that prioritize security over governance, an urgent reassessment that she believes is necessary to prevent similar outcomes in other regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, which is threatened by Boko Haram.
“Governance needs to be from phase zero of planning all the way through the end of post-conflict reconstruction and everything in between,” she stressed. “It’s not a marginal thing that you throw a few USAID programs at.”
Afghan Women’s Situation Grows “More Dire by the Hour”
As the Taliban entered Kabul, GIWPS launched a public awareness campaign and emergency fund to support Afghan women activists, politicians, journalists and peacebuilders whose leadership and work with the United States has made them targets for the Taliban. GIWPS’s Protect Afghan Women website details how individuals and organizations can support at-risk Afghan women by donating, calling Congress, signing a petition, tweeting at White House staff and more. One-hundred percent of donations collected through the site go directly to supporting Afghan women and their families with support such as temporary housing and resettlement and visa applications.
Celebrities like Reese Witherspoon, Katie Couric, Tori Burch and Jamie Lee Curtis took to social media to help raise awareness for the new campaign. Others, including Dan Levy and Tan France, shared a viral Instagram post about donation options.
In a piece for The Washington Post, GIWPS Director Ambassador Melanne Verveer described the stark realities facing women in the country and outlined four ways that the U.S. government can support them: charter direct evacuation flights; direct a substantial portion of U.S. funding for Afghan refugees toward women activists; grant humanitarian parole to Afghan human rights advocates and establish an interagency refugee coordinator to increase immigration processing capacity and assist with activists’ relocation to the United States.
Reiterating these steps in interviews on MSNBC, CNN, Voice of America and more, Verveer noted that the women most at-risk were those who had worked with the United States to implement gender equality, peace and democracy programs. “Someone needs to stand with those who risk their lives to stand for others,” Verveer writes in The Post. “Shouldn’t it be the United States?”
Marya Hannun, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, focuses her research on the roles of women, transregional networks and Islamic reform in Afghan state formation. In The American Prospect, she argues for an analysis of Afghan women’s situation that centers women and girls themselves — and not the U.S. military — as key actors, criticizing the way women’s rights were used to justify intervention and ignored in the withdrawal.
“This false choice [of whether to withdraw or remain in Afghanistan] yokes an abstract definition of women’s rights to military intervention, while ignoring the demands of women themselves,” she writes. “The dichotomy leaves no possibility to imagine an alternative reality, where women could be stakeholders in Afghanistan’s future, rather than props or moral pawns.”
A Safe Haven for Terrorism?
As the deadline for full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan approached, members of Congress, military analysts and regional specialists expressed concern that such a move will empower al Qaeda forces operating in the country. After U.S. President Joe Biden announced the scheduled withdrawal in the spring, Professor Daniel Byman, chair of the Security Studies Program and Center for Security Studies from 2005 to 2010, evaluated this risk in a May piece for The Washington Post.
He concludes that while U.S. counterterrorism capacities will be diminished by the withdrawal, al Qaeda is still weaker than it was before the September 11 attacks and is unlikely to receive consistent support for international terrorism from the Taliban. “These factors suggest the U.S. troop withdrawal will ease pressure on al Qaeda, but the group is far from its pre-9/11 strength, and it faces many challenges,” he writes. “As a result, it is far from certain that international terrorist attacks are a likely consequence of the departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.”
Byman elaborated on this thesis in an August 18 op-ed for Foreign Affairs, pointing to improved U.S. intelligence coordination, al Qaeda weaknesses and Taliban opposition to ISIS as all reducing the threat.
However, he also argues that the Taliban’s victory will provide the jihadi movement with a propaganda boost, similar to the one it gained after the departure of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.
“Al Qaeda will again claim the withdrawal of a foreign power as a victory, even though it was the Taliban whose fighting pushed out the United States and not that of al Qaeda or other foreign jihadis,” he writes. “This time, however, the argument will be more credible, since Washington itself justified the 20-year war as a struggle against international terrorism.”
Ultimately, however, Byman does not believe that Afghanistan will become the safe haven for al Qaeda it once was. The Taliban relies heavily on support from Pakistan, which — Byman says — has no strategic interest in the return of U.S. forces that would inevitably result from any large-scale terror attack orchestrated from Afghanistan. Like Fair, Byman argues that the U.S.’s best option is to make sure that Islamabad knows it will pay a price for any Taliban-sponsored terror attacks.
“Such an approach is hardly the grand victory over terrorism Americans hoped for after 9/11,” he writes. “But it is a manageable and sustainable strategy.”
However, given Afghanistan’s strategic location and the historic threat al Qaeda has posed to the U.S. and its allies, the possibility that the terrorist organization could regroup in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan still weighs heavily the minds of security analysts. SFS Professor and Director of the Center for Jewish Civilization (CJC)Bruce Hoffman argues that this possibility should be taken seriously. In 2008, Hoffman spent time in various Afghan provinces conducting a National Security Council review of the 82nd Airborne Division deployment and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams under its command.
As Hoffman and his co-author, Council on Foreign Relations’ analyst and SFS alumnus Jacob Ware (SSP’19), argue in NBC News, even the relatively low numbers of al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan could have played integral roles in the Taliban’s swift takeover this past month. This support could foreshadow a stronger al Qaeda organization poised to exert influence throughout the region. “Al Qaeda’s core operation has acquired new credibility and energy,” they write. ”Crucially, it has also regained its close governing partner in a historically strategic land — a crossroads of southwest Asia bordering no fewer than half a dozen countries, including China, Iran and nuclear Pakistan.”
Pervasive Myths and an Uncertain Future
Banner image: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images
The Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan has shaken the U.S. military and foreign policy establishment, with many drawing comparisons to the Vietnam War. Professor Caitlin Talmadge unpacked these comparisons in a Twitter thread, later cited in The Economist, arguing for a more detailed examination of the specifics of each case. The rapid fall of Kabul was even more dramatic in military terms than the conquest of Saigon, she says. The North Vietnamese army was an armored force, likely twice the size of the Taliban, backed by a superpower and captured a territory that was just a quarter of the size of Afghanistan.
“All of this makes what is happening on the ground pretty breathtaking even for those who expected Taliban gains,” she writes. “[It] demonstrates the immense importance of political, non-material factors in explaining military power — or lack thereof.”
Separately, Miller contests claims that the U.S. was left with no choice but to withdraw from Afghanistan. In a piece for The Dispatchnewsletter, he describes a relatively low cost of war and level of domestic opposition — contrasting sharply with Vietnam during the administration of U.S. President Richard Nixon. “The intervention was not an unmitigated failure — except that many of these successes are likely to unravel with the Afghan army’s collapse,” Miller writes.
He suggests that if U.S. troops were to remain in the region, they would be able to continue building state capacity and military strength. Scheduled withdrawal, then, jeopardizes this progress and sells short the gains U.S. troops have made over the previous two decades. “We had been making slow, fitful progress building a new Afghan security force from scratch. In 2021, it was better than it had been in 2001— because in 2001 it did not exist.”
For Miller, the collapse of the Ghani government and the re-establishment of Taliban power represents more than just a failure of U.S. security policy. Speaking at the August 20 event, he warned that the international community must not become complacent about the crisis’s potential reverberations.
“The fall of Kabul is another chink in the armor of the liberal world order,” he said. “[It] may sound a little bit dramatic…but, you know, we never knew that the assassination of one minor archduke [Franz Ferdinand] would bring the world crashing down in a few months. I worry how many more of these small chinks we can suffer before something even more dramatic happens.”