The United States’ recent decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 will bring a two-decade-long presence to a close. Many regard the move as strategically sound, emitting a sigh of relief at the prospect of ending “America’s longest war.”
But our exit won’t be without consequences — for both the Afghan people and the United States.
Indeed, the Taliban has stepped in quickly, and now control nearly two-thirds of the war-torn country.
Province by province, the Taliban’s measures have been swift and violent, from conducting door-to-door executions of civilians to murdering civil society leaders. While government troops have become increasingly overwhelmed, many Afghans have fled towards Kabul.
It is Afghan women in particular who have been targeted by Taliban violence as the group engulfs the country. Girls schools have been shuttered. Communities have been forced to hand over any unmarried girls between the ages of 15 and 45 for marriage to Taliban fighters, reminiscent of the sexual slavery that became the gruesome hallmark of ISIS.
In areas overrun with insurgents, women have been pushed out of public roles and are not permitted to leave the house without a male companion. As a visible reminder, the compulsory hijab has returned.
The withdrawal didn’t have to go this way. What has rendered the situation substantially worse is that the US exit — anticipated to be complete in a matter of weeks — has been far from careful and deliberate. We did not set up Afghan troops for success.
Last month, the United States evacuated Bagram Airfield in the middle of the night and cut off electricity to the massive base without notifying the new Afghan commander. By morning, looters had already arrived in search of weapons, ammunitions, armored vehicles and various other pieces of military equipment, managing to raid barracks and storage tents before being stopped by security forces. Given the prime role that Bagram held in offensives against insurgents, the responsible move would have been to ensure the smooth transfer of control from US troops to Afghan troops.
Meanwhile, a “sluggish supply chain” threatens to jeopardize the already modest capabilities of the Afghan air force, which has become the main tool of Afghan troops for curbing Taliban aggression. Given the hastiness of the US exit, the supply of laser-guided weaponry has been depleted without any concrete indication of when Afghan forces might expect additional smart bombs. Furthermore, a plan has not been devised for maintenance of the Afghan planes, which US contractors have been responsible for repairing. As of a few weeks ago, roughly a third of the Afghan fleet was grounded due to maintenance issues.
The national security risks to the US are real. The Taliban is likely to transform Afghanistan into a safe haven for terrorists (the group is already sheltering al Qaeda). Likewise, the US withdrawal plays clumsily into China’s hand. If the main purpose of the withdrawal is to redirect US energies towards China’s expansionist aims, it is unclear how ceding territory to China’s orbit forwards that objective. Indeed, Beijing and the Taliban have already begun tepid talks.
With the impending exit, the message to US allies and partners might very well be that the US is unreliable. As Gen. David Petraeus recently reiterated, we are not ending a war — we are simply leaving one. And after 20 years, it is understandable to seek an exit. We just must be prepared for the first- and second-order consequences that are to follow, both to the Afghan people and to US security interests.
Erielle Davidson is senior policy analyst for the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.
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