President Biden is making a hell of a gamble — and the stakes are on us.
The reason for invading Afghanistan in 2001 was because the Taliban was harboring al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. We stayed to prevent other terrorist threats from arising there. And it worked. While Islamic extremist killers struck in Europe and the US over the past 20 years, there was nothing on the scale of 9/11.
Now, thanks to Biden’s inept pullout, the Taliban has rolled over the nation. With the administration having been so wrong on everything else, how can Americans trust it when it says the Taliban can be negotiated with?
The biggest question hovering over Biden’s Monday speech was whether his announced shift from nation-building to limited counterterrorist strikes will actually work — or prove a bust.
This is the very doctrine that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld espoused. Rumsfeld never wanted to occupy Afghanistan, let alone Iraq. He was overruled during the George W. Bush administration, which slid into the morass of rebuilding Afghanistan in America’s image. My guess is that Rumsfeld, a staunch foreign-policy realist, would have greeted Biden’s emphasis on counterterrorism with hosannas.
The upshot is that Biden’s political fate will rest not in the exit from Kabul but in whether the Taliban have got religion, so to speak, on supporting terrorist malefactors. So far, it doesn’t look good.
Special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has suggested that the new Taliban are not the old Taliban. Here’s hoping. But they have refused to disavow al Qaeda.
Our intelligence in Afghanistan is not great, even when we were on the ground. Indeed, an abysmal American intelligence failure is at the heart of the current mess in Kabul. Will we be able to detect if ISIS, al Qaeda or any other terror group is plotting a large-scale attack as “guests” of the Taliban?
If Biden is wrong, it will be more than just political. The lives of Americans are at stake.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.
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