U.S. President Joe Biden has chosen to finish what his predecessor started in Afghanistan and surrender to the Taliban. Unlike former President Donald Trump, however, Biden may not even have the so-called peace process in Afghanistan to point to as an excuse for abandoning an elected Afghan government made possible by American blood and treasure.
A day before word of Biden’s decision to withdraw by Sept. 11 leaked to the press, the Taliban announced it will not participate in peace talks in Turkey. That means the U.S. will be leaving Afghanistan’s government to fend for itself in the midst of a civil war.
This is an ideal opportunity for a hobbled al-Qaida to rebuild. The Biden administration doesn’t see it that way. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, a senior administration official said the U.S. will still fight al-Qaida even after its forces have left Afghanistan. “We believe that we retain substantial military and intelligence capabilities to disrupt the broader capacity of al-Qaida to successfully reconstitute the sustained homeland threat to the United States,” the official said.
In practice, that means the Biden administration expects to base an arsenal of drones, sensors and counterterrorism personnel in Pakistan, from where it can launch strikes on al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
This plan depends on a Pakistani government that has spent most of the Afghanistan war harboring and funding the Taliban. This is the same government that imprisoned the brave doctor who assisted the CIA in locating Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Another problem with this strategy is that the U.S. will lose the human assets necessary to track al-Qaida and other jihadis in Afghanistan. What chances are there that Afghans who oppose al-Qaida will risk their own lives to aid a superpower that has left the country to fend for itself against the Taliban? Fred Kagan, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who has conducted numerous in-depth military studies of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan since the 2000s, told me: “The U.S. cannot conduct meaningful counterterrorism operations from hundreds of miles away over the sovereign territory of Pakistan against al-Qaida groups.”
The happy talk about being able to counter al-Qaida once the U.S. leaves is not the only reality-challenged promise Biden will make to sell his Afghanistan surrender. There is also the fate of Afghan women. A recent virtual conference on women in Afghanistan featured some of the activists included in the Kabul government’s negotiation team. They warned that a withdrawal now would risk two decades of gains for Afghan women.
It’s easy to see why. If the Taliban takes over the rest of the country, it will turn back the clock to the time before the U.S. invasion. Women will not be allowed to participate in most aspects of public life. Girls will not be allowed to attend schools. Violators of these dictates will risk prison or worse. The Biden administration knows this. The senior official who briefed reporters said that in the last 20 years, the number of children in school has gone from fewer than 900,000 in 2001, almost all of them boys, to 9.2 million today, 3.7 million of them girls.
Unfortunately the Biden administration’s plan to protect those gains relies on sanctions and censure. For example, the U.S. will withhold diplomatic recognition of the Taliban government if it chooses to rule Afghanistan the way it runs its shadow state. It will continue to apply sanctions on Taliban officials that abuse human rights. That might work against an adversary that cared about international recognition or economic growth. But the Taliban is a violent cult that cares only about imposing Islamic rule at any cost.
For more than a decade, the U.S. has faced a terrible choice in Afghanistan: Continue to fight the Taliban to a stalemate, or leave and watch the collapse of the elected government in Kabul. Trump tried to end the Afghanistan war but never did. The only question for Biden is whether he understands that his decision amounts to surrender.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.
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