The fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August left an ugly mark on our nation’s history. Some proponents of our withdrawal point to Al Qaeda’s diminished presence in the region and argue that it was time for us to exit America’s longest war. The reality is that America unconditionally surrendered to the terrorists who provided a safe haven to the perpetrators of Sept. 11.
Over the past 20 years, the United States had helped to build a constitutional allied government and developed a counterterrorism strategy that pigeonholed the Taliban and Al Qaeda for at least the last five years. Then, the world watched in real time as America gave it all away.
By breaking our promise to ensure safe passage to the United States for tens of thousands of Afghan allies who served alongside us, we lost enormous credibility with the international community. Our withdrawal also emboldened our regional adversaries and set a human rights catastrophe in motion.
The implications for America’s national security are immediate and serious. Over the course of just a few weeks, a new Taliban caliphate has emerged that has made the world a far more dangerous place. Hopeful terrorists will no doubt find refuge in the militant-controlled country. Current terrorists already have.
The Taliban has formed a unified cabinet that includes major terrorist figures who we sought to target over the last 20 years. Notably, Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani network is serving as the interior minister of the new Taliban caliphate. According to the Department of National Intelligence, the Haqqani network is “considered the most lethal and sophisticated insurgent group targeting U.S., Coalition and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.”1
Included in his duties as interior minister will be oversight of who can enter and leave Afghanistan. In addition to carrying out numerous lethal bombings against the United States and our allies over the years, the Haqqani network has also carried out extortion, kidnapping and smuggling operations to finance their operations.
With figures like Sirajuddin Haqqani filling top regime ministerial roles, we can expect terrorist groups like Al Qaeda to resume pre-Sept. 11 operations. In fact, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley testified that there is “a very real possibility” that Al Qaeda and the Islamic State can rebuild under the current conditions in Afghanistan.2
The Taliban have yet to disavow Al Qaeda and will have little incentive to do so now that we have withdrawn all U.S. forces.
In the wake of our withdrawal, we’ve already seen Al Qaeda begin to resurface.
In September, Ayman al-Zawahri, the current leader of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden’s former second-in-command, released a video commemorating the 20th anniversary of the group’s attacks on the United States. He has sworn allegiance to the current head of the Taliban.3
Further, a U.N. report released in June highlighted that a “significant part of Al Qaeda leadership remains based in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan,” and “Ayman Muhammed Rabi al-Zawahiri is believed to be located somewhere in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”4
It should alarm all Americans that those who helped orchestrate the terrorist attacks on 9/11 still linger today. They face little resistance as they look to plan new attacks against the West.
The Biden administration has repeatedly stressed that the United States can maintain “over the horizon” counterterrorism operations that will allow us to carry out airstrikes against resurgent terror groups. But, as we saw in the botched strike in response to ISIS-K’s airport attack, that argument is fiction.
There are two factors that undercut the Biden administration’s claims: remaining intelligence capabilities and basing options.
In Afghanistan today, we no longer have the robust, on-the-ground intelligence operations that would allow us to coordinate strikes and verify intended targets. In my experience deploying to Afghanistan as a Green Beret, we relied heavily on our Afghan allies to feed us intelligence to confirm targets.
In August, U.S. officials acknowledged that we had lost 90% of the intelligence collection capabilities we used for drone strikes prior to the withdrawal.5
When it became apparent that Kabul would fall to the Taliban, Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh fled to the Panjshir Valley alongside Taliban resistance leader Ahmad Massoud. However, in the following weeks, the once impregnable valley fell to a crushing combination of Taliban and foreign terrorist forces.
Now, the West is left with few political allies on the ground after abandoning those who remain behind terrorist lines. As the Taliban carries out brutal executions across the country, it should come as no surprise that Afghans are unlikely to risk being killed just to feed us intelligence.
Our ability to project air power has also been severely diminished, leaving America with few options to effectively deter Afghanistan’s growing terrorist threat.
Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, we watched as terrorist groups like ISIS filled the power vacuum in the region, establishing a caliphate the size of Indiana to inspire attacks across the West and in the United States.
In response, the United States began conducting over the horizon counterterrorism missions and utilizing a small contingent of American troops to cripple ISIS’s control over the region.
The success of these missions was dependent on the support of nearby U.S. bases in Turkey, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. However, when it comes to conducting drone strikes in Afghanistan, we do not have the luxury of having this same type of access.
Prior to our Afghanistan withdrawal, the United States failed to secure any basing agreements to carry out drone strikes from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or any other neighboring country.
According to retired general and former CIA Director David Petraeus, a U.S. drone will likely burn 60% of its fuel just flying to and from Afghanistan, which will severely limit the time available to carry out strikes over the country.6 To carry out such strikes, we will be forced to fly over hostile nations like Iran and Pakistan or Russian-influenced countries to the north of Afghanistan.
The absence of a U.S. presence in Afghanistan may also contribute to an enormous geopolitical fallout that could spill across the region.
One of the consequences of our withdrawal was the U.S. military’s failure to destroy or extract remaining arms, equipment and transportation. These resources have now fallen into the hands of the Taliban.
I fear the provision of these sophisticated arms — night vision goggles, armor and heavy weapons — to terrorist groups will create new fronts of war in the region.
Notably, these weapons will also help Pakistan’s standing in the region.
For years, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate has quietly helped the Taliban, even while its national government publicly aligned itself with the United States in hopes of maintaining hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. aid annually.7
But, just as the Taliban was beginning its assault on our allies in the Panjshir Valley, Pakistan’s intelligence chief Faiz Hameed was spotted in Afghanistan.8 It’s significant that such a high-ranking Pakistani official would travel to Taliban-led Afghanistan so soon after our withdrawal. I’m concerned that the military equipment we left behind will find its way to the contested region of Kashmir, replenishing Pakistani militants waging attacks against Indian forces.
China will also look to capitalize on our withdrawal from Afghanistan and strengthen its ties with the Taliban caliphate.
The Chinese Communist Party no longer fears a threat from the West now that we’ve left Bagram Air Base, which was just several hundred miles from China’s border and their new intercontinental ballistic missile fields.
With nearly $1 trillion in rare earth metals sitting below the ground in Afghanistan, the Chinese will look to the Taliban to increase their leverage over the rare earth market, while turning a blind eye to the Taliban’s human rights atrocities.9 This will have devastating implications for our already damaged supply chains.
Iran and Russia are downright gleeful that the United States has left the region. Iran no longer fears a U.S. attack on its eastern flank, and Russia can solidify its leverage over Uzbekistan and Tajikistan without U.S. troops along their borders.
The human rights fallout in Afghanistan will also be detrimental for the next generation of women. It represents the worst crisis for women’s rights in a generation.
Following Afghanistan’s liberation from Taliban rule in 2001, women — who had been repressed for nearly a decade — were given new rights to education, employment and government representation.
The Afghan constitution required a quota for women’s representation in Parliament, and, as of this summer, 27% of seats were represented by women — a significant achievement for women’s rights in a developing country.
Girls in Afghanistan will now be robbed of the educational opportunities their relatives enjoyed for nearly 20 years.
Under Taliban rule, only boys are allowed to attend school after the sixth grade. As of October, the Taliban remained firm in not allowing Afghan girls to attend high school — a decision which will have enormous ramifications for future economic opportunities and equal rights in the country.10
Despite the horrid conditions that will undoubtedly continue to unfold, there are steps the United States can take to alleviate this growing catastrophe.
First, the United States needs to identify basing options to establish sound over the horizon counterterrorism capabilities.
One option to do this is to strengthen our ties with the Indian government.
India currently operates Farkhor Air Base in Tajikistan, which gives us the only reasonable base to conduct effective strikes against terrorist groups. But, Russian pressure on the Tajik government to refuse cooperation is tremendous.
Should the U.S. military need to get to Afghanistan quickly — say, following a terrorist attack orchestrated from within Afghanistan — we will need nearby bases such as India’s to help in moving American troops back in.
India is clear-eyed about the threat that looms over their homeland should the billions of dollars of U.S. equipment we left behind flow to Islamist militants in the Kashmir region. One piece of leverage we can deploy is cutting all aid to their adversary Pakistan. We could even consider imposing crippling sanctions on Pakistan.
The United States needs to make clear: Any country that assists a terrorist coup over a constitutionally elected government will face economic ramifications. We badly need to establish deterrence in the region, and we still hold economic leverage over Pakistan.
We also need to assist our allies left on the ground in Afghanistan.
According to the Afghan constitution, the vice president from the legitimate government is the acting president. He chose to fight along with Ahmad Massoud, son of the famed resistance leader. Together they represent formidable allies still on the ground in Afghanistan who are capable of uniting pockets of resistance fighters who want freedom from Taliban rule.
My hope is that Congress will fill the leadership gap left by the Biden administration and force President Joe Biden’s hand in confronting the terrorist regime in Afghanistan. Doing so would require Congress to pass funding measures to help provide resources and arms to the pockets of resistance still remaining.
We will also need to provide incentives to Tajikistan — which borders Afghanistan’s northeast provinces — to help assist in these efforts. By increasing economic and military aid, the United States could sway the Tajik government into helping the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tajiks remaining in Afghanistan escape being brutalized by the Taliban.
Lastly, we cannot turn our backs on the Afghans we abandoned to terrorist rule. To reestablish American credibility, we should refuse to normalize the Taliban’s standing within the international community and find ways to assist the civilians who will suffer in the coming months.
This will require Congress to pass legislation that designates the Taliban as a foreign terrorist organization, so that the Biden administration cannot legally release frozen financial assets or provide any aid to the Taliban regime.
All aid should be strictly vetted and given directly to nongovernmental organizations on the ground to prevent any of it from falling into the hands of the Taliban. In corrupt governments and illegitimate regimes, aid is often skimmed by leaders, leaving much less of the aid to be given directly to intended recipients in need.
The situation in Afghanistan is quite dire. The Biden administration’s withdrawal set back years of investment in the region — investment that made the world a more stable place.
While the best hope to change the tide in Afghanistan will come from new leadership in our executive branch, for now, the burden will fall on Congress and our global allies to change the course of our self-inflicted catastrophe.