Next Steps in Afghanistan
As I am writing this, the evacuation of Kabul airport and recriminations in Washington are ongoing. Assuming they go as expected (we get some Afghans out but not nearly enough; politicians and pundits create much heat and little light), we can now shift our gaze to the future and determine our next steps in Afghanistan.
What’s that, you say? You thought it was over when the Taliban entered Kabul?
Even if we wanted to “move on” from Afghanistan, the enemy won’t allow it. If they are left to their own devices, al Qaeda will rebuild under the protection of the Taliban, putting themselves in position to strike the American homeland yet again. Moreover, they now have the added confidence that they can do this and suffer little long-term consequence, and that assumes we could even build up the political will to send military force to Afghanistan again.
In short, al Qaeda and the Taliban will be stronger, more dangerous, and more deadly than at any time in their history, if they are left to their own devices.
The one thing about Afghanistan that nearly every American supported was the disruption and degrading of al Qaeda’s operations. With the Taliban in power rather than on the ash heap of history, that will be much more difficult now … but not impossible. Now the Taliban will do what tyrants do: brutalize, terrorize, and create their own internal opposition. Already, there are protests in Kabul and a nascent resistance from Acting President Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud (AFP). There will be more.
For now, though, we are (or should be) in analysis and planning mode. For what little it’s worth, here are my recommendations.
Bring as many Afghan refugees as we can into the United States: The moral argument to protect those who sacrificed for us and the reputational argument for avoiding leaving allies behind are self-evident to me, but there is another reason to take in as many refugees as we can. Those who will resist the Taliban from within Afghanistan will need outside help. Refugees can provide intelligence, build up international support (including financial), and be the voice of those currently silenced by the Taliban. The more refugees we have, the more resources we will have for all three.
Provide support to the resistance as much as practicable: Saleh and Massoud are well positioned to build an anti-Taliban force. The former is a longtime anti-Taliban leader and friend of American intelligence; the latter is the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary guerrilla leader who was assassinated two days before 9/11. It’s too early to tell if they have staying power, although as long as Saleh is alive and fighting, we can and should recognize him as the leader of Afghanistan rather than the Taliban’s latest mouthpiece. More to the point, as I wrote above, a robust opposition will come forth, whether it’s led by these men or someone else. I will confess, “as practicable” is doing a lot of work here. There will be some anti-terrorist forces who will be little better than the al Qaedists they’re fighting. We should be leery of those. The more they are led by folks like Acting President Saleh and Massoud, the more they should get American support.
Pay close attention to non-Pashtun Afghans: Contrary to appearances, the Pashtun ethnic group is not a majority in Afghanistan. Indeed, the pre-Taliban government was given the Northern Alliance label in part because it was a mix of Hazares, Tajiks, and Uzbeks that together outnumber the Pashtuns. To the extent the Taliban has support in Afghanistan (as opposed to terror-imposed acquiescence), it’s among the Pashtuns, who also make up the overwhelming majority of the Taliban’s membership. I’m not recommending an anti-Pashtun movement, but I am saying we need to recognize that those who aren’t Pashtun not only would have an added incentive to fight the Taliban, but, again, are actually in the majority in the country.
Always be disruptive of al Qaeda: Given the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance, this shouldn’t be so hard from a military perspective, but it’s about more than that. The foreign fighters of al Qaeda were its own recruiting incentive for the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban forces before 2001. It will almost certainly be so again today. The assassination of Massoud’s father was an al Qaeda operation (and almost certainly was a requirement for bin Laden before 9/11 could go ahead). Unlike in Syria, where Assad and ISIS pretended to be enemies, every Afghan resistance fighter will know that hurting al Qaeda hurts the Taliban.
To be sure, the Taliban and al Qaeda will be stronger than they would have been had we kept a military presence (or even a logistical contractor presence), but just as al Qaeda has never stopped fighting us, there are and will be Afghans who will never stop fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban. The more we help them, the more we help ourselves.
Because this isn’t over for any of us.