On 8 July, following the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Joe Biden declared: “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” A mere six weeks later, this is precisely the outcome that has occurred.
The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will be defined not, as Mr Biden intended, by the withdrawal of US soldiers, but by the recrudescence of one of the most reactionary forces in the world – the Taliban. On 16 August, Afghans seeking to escape the Islamist group fell to their deaths as they clung to US planes, an eerie historical echo of those stranded in the Twin Towers.
But in his speech on the same day, Mr Biden insisted that he regretted nothing. Despite conceding, with almost comical understatement, that events “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated”, he maintained that “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves”.
It bears remembering that 69,000 Afghan soldiers, as well as 47,000 civilians, died in the conflict, according to Brown University. Nevertheless, Mr Biden’s rhetoric is superficially appealing. The “forever war” that successive presidents vowed to end and that cost as much as $2trn had endured for two decades. As many as 200,000 Afghan troops were “ghost soldiers”, with the money intended for them embezzled by corrupt officials. And Mr Biden inherited an agreement signed with the Taliban by Donald Trump, which committed the US to withdrawing all soldiers by May 2021.
But the president is wrong to insist that he had no option but to preside over a humiliating retreat. The US’s military presence in Afghanistan had already fallen from a peak of 140,000 troops to just 2,500. Though reneging on Mr Trump’s deal would have prompted reprisals, the Congress-mandated Afghanistan Study Group estimated earlier this year that 4,500 soldiers would be sufficient to protect the Afghan government. The US would have maintained a far lighter military footprint there than in countries including Japan (53,938 soldiers), Germany (35,486) and South Korea (26,326).
Intervention has consequences – the US lost 2,442 soldiers in Afghanistan – but so does non-intervention. The return of the Taliban to power is a deadly threat to Afghans and to the world. The Islamist group has insisted that it will establish an “open, inclusive government”, but it should be judged by its actions, not its words. On page 19, the reporter Lynne O’Donnell writes of how the Taliban has “demanded lists of all the girls and women, and said they’d be married off to young insurgent gunmen”.
The advances made in Afghanistan during two decades of Western engagement were fragile but they were real. As the BBC’s world affairs editor John Simpson writes on page 22, female students were able to attend school and university, and women who were previously reduced to chattel were free to work, to travel alone and to dress as they wished. When asked on 8 July whether he would bear responsibility “if the Taliban ends up back in control and women end up losing their rights”, Mr Biden replied: “No, I don’t.” The US president, a man renowned for his empathy, has given the impression that his compassion ends at the border. But the world’s should not. Western governments, not least the UK and major EU countries, have a duty to offer refuge to the millions who will flee the Taliban.
Mr Biden, a cold-eyed realist, is determined to end the US’s foreign entanglements. But as Franklin D Roosevelt and other predecessors learned, there is no such thing as splendid isolation. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan risks once more becoming a haven for terror by providing shelter to Isis and al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, the US’s precipitous retreat has given authoritarian China and Russia every incentive to pursue their expansionist designs. Mr Biden may plead that the Afghans are a faraway people to whom he owes nothing – but he could yet rue betraying them.