Let’s get one matter straight right away: When it comes to the (always important) optics, and to humanitarian considerations, there is no good way for the United States to end its military involvement in Afghanistan that would meet any sensible or decent person’s definition of “good.”
Indeed, much of the news that’s come out of that war-torn country (and I use that term advisedly) is sickeningly reminiscent of the final U.S. pullout from Vietnam in April, 1975 – complete with the almost certain abandonment of many locals who had cast their lot with the Americans in various ways, and therefore face many forms of retaliation if the jihadist Taliban do indeed triumph.
Further, the U.S. departure could produce an Afghan aftermath far worse than that suffered in Vietnam, as the social and economic strides made by many Afghan women of all ages under the umbrella of the American presence seem to be doomed if the country is taken over by a movement wed to Islam’s most misogynistic version.
In fact, a couple of years ago, by which time the American mission’s failure looked inevitable, I came up with the idea of offering all Afghan females asylum in the United States – complete with transportation expenses. I never published it, but wouldn’t it have served the women-haters right to leave them as women-free as possible?
That chance looks to be gone – though I’m still hoping that somehow the interpreters and other U.S. employees can be saved. Otherwise, the best that Americans can hope for now is figuring out what went wrong and how to avoid such fiascoes going forward. There’s been no shortage of post-mortems, and especially encouraging has been the bipartisan globalist U.S. foreign policy establishment’s (belated) agreement that nation-building where no true nation exists is folly. (See, e.g., here.)
Another big lesson, however, remains largely unlearned – even by long-time opponents of the Afghan War like former President Trump: As I’ve written repeatedly, since the only self-interested (and therefore sensible) reason for direct American involvement in the first place was preventing the country’s re-emergence as an officially sponsored and protected base for September 11-like terrorism, Washington should have focused on seriously securing U.S. borders rather than on fighting the jihadis “over there.”
Trump tried in his own characteristically ragged way to beef up border protection, and achieved some impressive progress. But as made clear here, he never seemed to make the connection fully. And now President Biden appears determined to create the worst of all possible worlds from the U.S. standpoint – an Afghanistan policy unlikely to enable the Tailban’s containment through special forces guerilla-type operations until the U.S. border was strengthened adequately, and an immigration policy that actually opens the border still wider.
Meanwhile, a third big lesson hasn’t evidently even made it onto official or unofficial U.S. policy screens (including mine), but it was suggested in this Bloomberg news item on Monday: A Taliban-run Afghanistan could well have been kept off balance – and frustrated in its efforts undertake the major initiatives needed to foster September 11-scale terrorism – by the nearby countries its extremism would surely have alarmed and antagonized. And these regional concerns seem compelling enough to keep the lid on in Afghanistan by hook or by crook from this point on in the American military’s absence.
As the piece makes clear, in the near term, smallish Afghanistan neighbors like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are anxious to prevent chaos on their borders – including no doubt massive refugee flows. And both countries have long been cooperating with Washington for many years to bolster “overall regional security” – which won’t be helped by a jihadist regime in their midst. (See here and here.)
And don’t forget Russia – whose help those two central Asian countries are seeking. Its own disastrous 1979 invasion and decade-long occupation of much of the country was triggered largely by fears that the rise of Islamic extremism in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East would infect the Muslim populations of adjacent Soviet “republics” (like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). Moscow can’t be anxious to repeat that mistake, but the fear of jihadis persists, and like it or not, Russia’s deep reinvolvement in Afghanistan consequently seems inevitable – and bound to cause big problems for the Taliban.
China’s bound to be pulled in, too. All indications are that Beijing hopes to keep post-U.S.-withdrawal Afghanistan stable in a softer way – with big economic development projects that ironically look a lot like nation-building (though apparently lacking its political dimension). More power to Chinese dictator Xi Jinping if he succeeds. But mainly because it’s had its own huge problems (many surely self-created) with its own Muslim population in Xinjiang province (which also shares a short border with Afghanistan) China’s bottom line clearly is maintaining stability and making sure that Afghanistan doesn’t become “a haven or transit corridor” for the Uyghur militants who have aroused its ire. (See the above-linked Economist piece for the quote.)
As a result, it’s more than a little interesting that a Chinese academic recently felt free to tell a Financial Times reporter that “Even though China has for a long time been extremely cautious about sending military forces overseas, if it is supported by a United Nations resolution, China might join an international peacekeeping team to enter Afghanistan.”
Alternatively, the Chinese bet that they can cultivate the Taliban’s pragmatic instincts by financing massive road-building and mining operations could pay off – in which case, the terror-base scenario feared in the United State may not materialize.
But the crucial strategic insight for Americans is that China and all of Afghanistan’s neighbors have compelling stakes in curbing Taliban jihadism and related terrorism, and that these stakes exist precisely because Afghanistan’s in their own neighborhood – and always has been. In other words, however important Afghanistan’s stability, moderation, etc has been for Americans thousands of miles away, it’s always been and remains far more important for the folks right next door. Even better, because some big powers are involved, a strong case can be made not only for their persistence in addressing the problem but their success.
If they fail, however, or get bogged down in their own forever war, that’s OK from the U.S. perspective as well – because they’ll keep the Taliban too busy to concentrate on attacking America. That’s not to say that the United States can therefore forget about sealing the border. After all, Afghanistan is hardly the world’s only concentration of jihadis.
But it does mean that the strategic case for the United States carrying the burden of intervening in Afghanistan specifically is weakening; that the case may have been weak all along – or at least once the Taliban was ousted from power and significantly weakened right after September 11 – and that as long as the neighbors can be relied on to act in their own self-interest (surely a long time), and especially if Washington tends to its border knitting, this case won’t emerge again.