The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Reality of Afghanistan

Cipher Brief Expert View

Cipher Brief Expert John McLaughlin served as Acting CIA Director from July to September 2004 and as Deputy Director from October 2000 to July 2004. He is the Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE – President Joe Biden’s decision to bring all U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by September 11 has provoked enormous controversy across the political spectrum.  Opinion divides between those outraged by what they see as a potentially disastrous “cut and run” decision and those who insist that keeping troops there would just prolong an unwinnable war that has already consumed 20 years and many lives. Critics and supporters are about equally divided, and each side can make a good case, so let’s peel back the arguments to see what’s underneath.

Biden has long been skeptical of prolonged involvement in Afghanistan. He argues that Washington has accomplished its goal of defeating Al Qaeda terrorists there, killing Osama bin Ladin and ensuring the country is no longer a haven for terrorists like him. He said we were never there to unify Afghanistan, which he said had “never been done.”

Those who agree with Biden’s decision add that Afghanistan must be pushed down the priority list at a time when competition from major powers like China outweighs continuing concerns about terrorists — even though we must continue to monitor and keep pressure on them.  Others simply argue that America cannot stay as long as it would take to ensure a modern state takes hold in Afghanistan — so let’s acknowledge that now.

Those arguments have two major virtues. One is demonstrably true: Bin Ladin is dead, and al-Qaida is weaker. The other argument realistically recognizes something seldom acknowledged: The U.S. must establish priorities because it cannot do everything at once around the globe with equal resources, energy and fidelity.

The arguments of those who oppose Biden’s decision fall into two categories. The first is that we have no lasting assurance that Afghanistan will not turn once again into a haven for terrorists seeking to harm the United States. The other is that an extremist Taliban government likely will retake the government and erase the fragile elements of democracy and respect for human rights that we have managed to instill — especially the rights of women.

Evidence can be found to make a case for or against Biden’s decision.  Casting doubt on a terrorist resurgence in Afghanistan is the fact that al-Qaida’s operations are now decentralized and its affiliated cells in places such as Yemen, Syria and North Africa are today more active and successful than what remains in Afghanistan. Another terrorist group, the Islamic State (ISIS) is still capable of bloody attacks in Afghanistan but has been weakened by counter-terror operations and is opposed by the Taliban. And the Taliban did sign a peace agreement in May 2020 under which it said it would break ties with al-Qaida.

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On the other hand, there’s no way to know the Taliban’s true intentions or whether the often-fractious group has a united view. So, skepticism is certainly warranted, especially after a 2020 UN monitoring report asserted that the group still has strong ties to al-Qaida. The current elected president, Ashraf Ghani, says he wants a settlement that integrates the Taliban into government and moves to elections. But he expresses this as a hope more than a conviction.

Nothing in Taliban ideology or history supports elections. The Sunni Islamist movement is stronger than at any time since 2001, according to credible estimates, and controls about 20 percent of the country and contests the 40 percent the government does not control. And the truth is that once the U.S. military is gone, Washington will have to monitor terrorism more remotely — which can work, but less reliably than on the ground. Afghan security forces have improved, but without U.S. logistics, equipment maintenance, and leadership support, their effectiveness against Taliban and terrorist targets is likely to fall sharply.

As for the second big worry, the human rights situation, the Taliban claims it will work cooperatively and will respect civil rights, including those of women, whose lot has improved substantially since 2001 (39 percent of women were enrolled in secondary education by 2017 versus 6 percent in 2003, and 27 percent of the seats in parliament are reserved for women). However, field research by one scholar found a mixed record, determined mostly by the proclivities of local Taliban commanders in areas they control; some had a modestly more liberal view, while others adhered to previous Taliban practice of severely restricting women’s rights and punishing them harshly for minor deviations from Sharia law. The surer bet is that the Taliban in power would pull back many of the rights women have gained — although they are likely to face more resistance today from a population that has now experienced a better life.

Looking at all of the conflicting arguments drives me reluctantly to a “time will tell” as the outlook — although it is obviously easier to be pessimistic based on history and the experience of 20 years of war.

Another way to think about all of this is short-term versus long term. In the short term, it’s a safe bet to say it won’t be pretty. The Taliban are strong and well-armed, the elected government is weak, corruption is rife and government security forces are struggling. It’s logical to expect the Taliban to push as far as they can from a position of strength and, if they succeed, to expect a geographical and societal milieu more congenial to terrorists whether the Taliban wishes or not.

Thinking longer-term, however, there is much we cannot yet know. How much has the fabric of Afghan society changed in 20 years because of Western presence and engagement, exposure to omnipresent broadcast and social media, increased education of young people, and generational change? And will the Taliban moderate themselves to draw international recognition and much-needed economic assistance?  If change has produced stronger resistance to Taliban domination, will it take the form of a new civil war or an ability to moderate Taliban behavior? Or will force and brutality triumph over all, as happened before 9/11?

As so often happens in foreign affairs, decision makers must place bets on all these questions based on judgment, history, incomplete data and — inevitably — politics. The Afghan case is harder than most, and Biden deserves credit for at least deciding. For the other iron rule of foreign affairs is that failure to decide … is actually a decision. And usually not a good one.

This column by Cipher Brief Expert and former Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin was first published by our friends at Ozy.

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