The US Is Leaving Behind a ‘Nightmare’ in Afghanistan

Frida Ghitis

From the moment President Joe Biden announced in April that the United States would withdraw all its military forces from Afghanistan within a few months, the level of violence there intensified, negotiations sputtered and the prospects for the Afghan people—especially Afghan women—became grim. The seeming rashness of the decision and lack of planning to handle obvious major contingencies were serious missteps for a president that has so far made mostly thoughtful, carefully calibrated moves.

This is not to suggest that U.S. forces should stay in Afghanistan forever. To be sure, Afghanistan is the land of no easy solutions, and Biden faced only poor choices on how to proceed. But he took what was a dismal deal with the Taliban, left in place by former President Donald Trump’s administration, and followed through on it in a way that almost guaranteed chaos and tragedy for the beleaguered Afghan population, with consequences beyond that country.

Long-time Afghan activists for women’s rights are trying not to panic. But the venerable Sakena Yaco-obi, founder and director of the Afghan Institute of Learning, admitted in June that she has “nightmares.”

The reason for them is the near certainty that the ultra-extremist Taliban will quickly take over the country, as it has been doing at lightning speed, and reimpose the kind of rule that made life for women an unending torment when the group was in power before 9/11.

As hellish as life under the Taliban was for all Afghans and women in particular, it was comfortable for other extremists, including Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida followers, who planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks from Taliban-ruled territory.

That’s why Fawzia Koofi, a former member of the Afghan parliament and a member of the Afghan delegation that was ostensibly negotiating with the Taliban in Qatar, likes to remind the West, as she did in a recent webcast, that “the security of Afghanistan affects not only Afghanistan but the whole world, as we saw 20 years ago.” Koofi, one of the few women elected to the Afghan parliament, narrowly survived an assassination attempt last year.

As soon as Biden made the withdrawal announcement, Koofi recounted, the talks in Qatar started going nowhere.

The announcement “undercut negotiations,” because the Taliban would much rather achieve a military victory than negotiate, she said.

Within days of the announcement that all U.S. forces would leave, violence escalated dramatically, and the trademark cruelty of the Taliban came into full view.

The group may claim it has changed, but recent evidence has led some observers to warn that, if anything, it may be even more brutal now. Asked her thoughts about the West’s sudden abandonment of her country, Mahb-ooba Seraj, founder of the Afghan Women’s Network, could barely contain her fury. To world leaders, and to the whole world, she declared, “Shame on you!”

In early May, one week after the U.S. troop withdrawal got underway, a girls school was bombed in Kabul, killing scores of young girls. Recall that the Taliban banned women’s education.

In fact, they essentially banned women from leaving their homes except when fully covered and escorted by a close male relative.

With the pullout by U.S. and NATO troops now all but completed, the Taliban’s onslaught has been further energized. After weeks of conquering less-populated areas and putting women in areas they control under their ruthless heel, they have begun to capture provincial capitals as they steamroll across the country.

Within days of the announcement that all U.S. forces would leave, violence escalated dramatically, and the trademark cruelty of the Taliban came into full view.

The timing of Biden’s decision was prompted by a deadline in Trump’s agreement with the Taliban, which columnist Max Boot branded “the worst deal of the century.” Among other unreciprocated concessions, the deal committed the U.S. to pull out its troops by May 2021. Instead of seeking to extend the deadline, or working out in advance even a meaningful diplomatic and security framework to support the Afghan government, Biden decided to leave abruptly—pull off a bandage, if you will, even if the patient bleeds to death. U.S. military leaders reportedly pleaded with him to leave a few thousand troops, to no avail.

In a move of stunningly ill-conceived symbolism, the president further announced that all U.S. forces would be out by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, as if to highlight the attack’s—and the attackers’—lasting power.

It’s worth noting that at the time Biden announced the withdrawal, the U.S. had about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, roughly the same number as U.S. soldiers currently in Spain. And no Americans had been killed there this year. The Afghan economy was growing, and life had improved for millions, especially for women.

The decision to leave is not exactly unpopular in the United States, where the post-9/11 wars seem like a relic of the period’s achingly misguided foreign policy.

And Afghanistan, to be sure, looks like an unsolvable conundrum. But even if Biden was committed to leaving, there were more responsible ways of managing the withdrawal.

The lack of planning was transparent. There were no provisions made to evacuate the thousands of Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to help U.S. forces.

The gruesome killings of those interpreters and other Afghans who worked with the U.S.—all but guaranteed under an ascendant Talib-an—have already started. After much pressure, the administration finally devised a way to help, but so far less than 1 percent of the more than 80,000 interpreters and families asking for visas under the plan have been evacuated, and the clock is ticking.

There were better ways to withdraw. The U.S. co-uld have helped build a str-ucture of support for the Afghan government, and for the Afghan people, by working with Afghanistan’s neighbors, who have much to lose from chaos in that country.

The pullout could have been made more gradually, allowing Afghan forces to strengthen their position. Instead, U.S. forces abandoned their bases in some cases in the dead of night, with no clear explanation of how much support Washin-gton might offer in the future.

The move was so sudden and so absolute that it has left the Afghan military completely off-balan-ce. Even U.S. contractors a-re rushing out, making it difficult for Afghan forces to maintain their equipme-nt, particularly their aircra-ft.

The uncharacteristically rash move by Biden also made it difficult for Ameri-ca’s intelligence agencies to watch the country from wh-ich the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history was launc-hed. And as always, the worst of it all will befall the Afghan people.

Their tragedy has already started.

The Red Cross says it has already seen some 50,000 people injured in the new surge of combat. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have already been displaced, and more than 30,000 are leaving the country each week, according to the United Nations.

A new refugee crisis is starting in the region, and it could easily reach Europe.

The West may want to forget about Afghanistan, but that won’t be possible. Of the many bad options Biden faced, he chose perhaps the worst.

Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.

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