While Afghanistan has largely receded from public memory, the two-year anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal revives the shocking scenes of bedlam at the Kabul airport as desperate civilians tried to flee the country. Amidst the confusion, thirteen U.S. service members were tragically killed in a horrific terror bombing attack. Some distraught family members recently traveled to Washington demanding answers from senior military and civilian leaders. In defending the Biden administration’s actions, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby conceded there was no easy way to end America’s longest war but “that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing.” This somber occasion provides an opportunity for reflection on the war and the consequences of the withdrawal for Afghanistan and U.S. interests.
Unfortunately, there has been little progress in Afghanistan’s governance, economic prosperity, and security over the last two years. If not for a close inspection of the dates, one could easily mistake last year’s commemoration news reports for an analysis of the situation in Afghanistan today. Despite international conferences and donor pledges for billions of dollars in humanitarian relief and other forms of assistance, these well-intentioned initiatives have little chance of meaningfully changing the status quo. Moreover, those who optimistically believed in Taliban reform have seen their hopes repeatedly dashed by their hardline policies and brutal governance.
How does the stagnant and dreary situation in Afghanistan affect U.S. foreign policy going forward? Just as his predecessors “muddled through” a two-decade war without a clear plan for ‘winning’ in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden seems content to continue this approach in the post-withdrawal era. Given the intense domestic and international criticism surrounding the withdrawal fiasco—including U.S. allies and partners in Europe—his administration will attempt to remain low-key and get by with minimal effort and attention (while secretly hoping the entire affair fades from memory) so they can focus on other foreign policy priorities. One expects that John Kirby prefers touting the landmark trilateral summit at Camp David with Japan and South Korea than answering difficult questions about Afghanistan. Sadly, this does not bode well for the Afghan people.
While Kabul celebrates the second anniversary of Taliban rule, the country has deteriorated by most metrics and its citizenry continues to suffer the consequences. The World Bank reports the Afghan economy shrank by 35 percent between 2021 and 2022 and more than nine in ten people are living in poverty. Even the Taliban’s “war on drugs,” which significantly reduced opium cultivation in the country because of voluntary compliance and strict enforcement of a government ban, has economically hurt subsistence farmers who lost income by growing less-profitable crops like wheat. Consequently, some 6 million Afghans are “one step away from famine” and rely on the World Food Program for rations. To make matters worse, the Taliban banned Afghan women from working with the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations, exacerbating the distribution challenge for humanitarian assistance. Finally, the Taliban continues its repressive ban on female education despite public criticism from religious scholars within the country.
The Taliban remains a pariah government, and has only itself to blame for the international community’s unwillingness to grant formal diplomatic recognition that would instill legitimacy and incentivize greater financial assistance and foreign direct investment in the country. Thus far, diplomatic and economic pressure has failed to moderate the Taliban’s behavior, and there is concern that tougher sanctions will only inflict further harm on the Afghan people. Given this conundrum, opinion in Washington remains divided on whether to engage—let alone formally recognize—the brutish Taliban regime in Kabul.
As an example, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul sent a scathing letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing sharp opposition to any U.S. government officials traveling to meet with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He argued such attempts are “an egregious betrayal of the memories of the fallen and the millions of Afghans who continue to hope for a free, prosperous, democratic Afghanistan,” while raising national security concerns about “normalizing” the regime that continues egregious human rights abuses and its “active support of al-Qaeda.” McCaul sent the letter soon after Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko testified that he could not assure Congress the more than $8 billion in U.S. foreign aid dispersed since the U.S. withdrawal is not being diverted from the intended recipients (i.e., the Afghan people) to the Taliban and terror groups in the country.
Although Biden claimed Al Qaeda is no longer present in Afghanistan, a recent United Nations report assessed the terror group maintains a “close and symbiotic” relationship with the Taliban and is currently “rebuilding operational capability.” To mitigate the danger of resurgent terror groups, the administration views last year’s drone strike that killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul as validation of its “over-the-horizon” approach to counterterrorism. Nevertheless, the intelligence community remains concerned about safe havens in Afghanistan that could facilitate future attacks against the United States and its interests. Moreover, U.S. Central Commander General Michael Kurilla recently testified that “the reduction in collection, analytical resources, and intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance assets means our campaign against Al Qaeda and ISIS Khorasan is challenged; while we can see the broad contours of attack planning, we lack the granularity to see the complete threat picture.”
Despite the risks, Biden is unlikely to announce major policy changes anytime soon; especially as the hyper-charged presidential election cycle begins in earnest. Instead, the administration will continue muddling through the post-U.S. withdrawal era and redirecting its foreign policy focus—and the public’s attention—on geopolitical challenges in Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific. If these efforts to “turn the page” are successful, Afghanistan will remain an afterthought that only resurfaces during emotionally charged congressional hearings and annual remembrances.
Jim Cook is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College.
The views expressed here are entirely his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Naval War College, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.