A year on after US troops withdrew, the Biden administration’s policy of pressuring and isolating Kabul has pushed the Taliban (under UN sanctions for terrorism) closer to transnational extremist elements and undermined US chances of influencing the human rights situation in the country, experts told Sputnik.
On August 31, 2021, the Pentagon confirmed that every single US troop had left Afghanistan, marking that history had come full circle. On October 7, 2001 then-President George W. Bush told the American people, as US bombs began falling on Afghanistan, that the Taliban “would pay a price” for not handing over the leadership of al-Qaeda (a terrorist group banned in Russia) in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Today, after two decades of war, tens of thousands of lives lost, and trillions of dollars spent, the Taliban are back in power in Kabul and apparently providing sanctuary to al-Qaeda once again.
The withdrawal featured images of utter chaos at the Kabul airport, which some experts compared to the fall of Saigon, stranded Afghan allies and Americans, and a terror attack that left 13 US troops and 170 Afghan civilians dead. Critics blamed the Biden administration for failing to act in time despite plenty of warnings that the fall of Kabul was imminent.
Although surveys showed a majority of Americans supported the decision to exit, the chaotic withdrawal process struck a, potentially irreversible, blow to Biden’s poll numbers. His approval rating average in the Realclearpolitics.com (RCP) poll of polls plummeted from 51% on August 1, 2021 to 45% a day after the exit.
Aside from one minor uptick a couple weeks later, Biden’s favorability number would never rise above 45% again.
BACKFIRING ON MULTIPLE FRONTS
Ahead of the anniversary of the exit this month, Biden has repeatedly championed his administration’s counterterrorism efforts, including the July 31 drone attack that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Biden administration officials argued that the strike vindicated the president’s decision to extract troops and rely on over-the-horizon strikes to ensure Afghanistan does not become a terrorist safe haven.
Meanwhile, the US and its allies have gone to great lengths to isolate the Taliban, largely over its human rights record, while circumventing Kabul when delivering humanitarian aid. After the Taliban recaptured Kabul, about 40% of Afghanistan’s GDP disappeared overnight when the external aid that had propped up the country’s economy for decades was cut off.
Moreover, Biden froze $7 billion in Afghan central bank assets earlier this year, which Human Rights Watch said has exacerbated “one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.”
Former Indian Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar, who served on diplomatic postings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and the former territories of the Soviet Union, said the Biden administration’s post-withdrawal strategy has not been helpful for stabilizing Afghanistan, especially in trying to force Kabul to implement Washington’s security objectives.
“The [Biden] strategy has been pivoted on pressure tactic and blackmail of the Taliban with the primary intention to ‘return to Afghanistan’ in all security dimensions but cost-effectively without any overt military presence,” Bhadrakumar told Sputnik. “The real danger today is that with such ostracization and hostile attitude by the US, Taliban is once again being driven to the orbit of extremist forces such as al-Qaeda.”
Washington should have constructively engaged with the Taliban, the former ambassador added, and encouraged the group to move in positive directions by patiently using all the means in the US diplomatic tool box.
“To my mind, Taliban as a resistance movement is genuinely interested to switch to issues of governance rather than dabble in international terrorism,” Bhadrakumar said.
Bhadrakumar also said, while Biden’s post-exit policies have been bad for Afghanistan, the decision to withdraw US troops is a positive for the region.
“The US withdrawal from Afghanistan was undoubtedly the right thing to do for the simple reason that the ‘hidden agenda’ of the occupation was quintessentially geopolitical, and in the present international environment, there was the real danger that its continuation could only have aggravated the regional security implications for the countries surrounding Afghanistan and negatively impacted regional stability,” he said.
US policies since leaving Afghanistan, in addition to falling short in fighting terrorism, also failed to completely isolate the Taliban. At least 14 nations have staffed embassies inside Taliban-run Afghanistan, including China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran and a handful of other Central Asian and Gulf states.
Yet, despite these warming ties, not a single state has taken any steps to recognize the Taliban government because of the radical movement’s harsh treatment of women and girls.
However, Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald, the first Western journalists the Afghan communists allowed back into the country during the 1980s, think Biden’s post-exit policies have not helped the situation.
“The American occupation did liberate Afghan women from the grips of the Taliban but the Biden Administration’s incompetent handling of the situation has also put women back into a far more dangerous jeopardy than before,” the couple said.
Gould and Fitzgerald suggested Afghanistan, far from being isolated, appears to be re-entering regional relationships that had been interrupted by great power confrontations of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Washington’s sanctions have already backfired elsewhere and will do nothing to stop the Taliban reaching out to neighboring countries for aid and assistance – drawing them further away from US influence,” the couple said. “That is probably a good thing.”
Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon, who sits on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, is of a different mind, arguing that leaving Afghanistan was “the wrong move” and harmful to the Biden administration. He added, however, that it is unlikely that another 9/11 would be “hatched” from Afghan soil.
“It hurt Biden and his domestic as well as global standing,” O’Hanlon told Sputnik. “And most of all, the Afghan people.”