Biden needs to get real on Afghanistan exit to prevent Taliban takeover
The voice of my Afghan friend phoning from Herat was trembling.
“The security situation is getting really worse,” she said. “We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, or what will happen one hour from now. People are confused, scared, uncertain where to go.”
Earlier that day, the Taliban had nearly taken over a provincial capital in neighboring Badghis province, two hours away. Rumors were flying that high-level Afghan forces might surrender districts in Herat province to the Talibs. As someone who runs shelters for battered women in both provinces (a concept anathema to the Taliban), she is under severe threat, as are the women and staff in those shelters.
“Pray for us all,” she implored before she hung up, “particularly for human rights activists.”
Such is the bleak situation for Afghan women, for thousands of Afghan translators who helped the U.S. military, and, indeed, for the entire country. The Taliban are advancing with shocking speed as the U.S. military withdrawal nears completion.
But President Joe Biden still isn’t responding with the urgency the crisis demands.
On Thursday, in a televised address, Biden insisted that a Taliban takeover was “not inevitable.” He also said there was “zero parallel to Vietnam” and there would be no circumstance “where you see people lifted off the roof from the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan.”
And the president pledged to start relocation flights “this month” for translators who worked for the military.
But events are moving so fast in Afghanistan that they appear to be outrunning whatever plans the administration has (or hasn’t) made for after our military exit.
“The Biden administration is ignoring the realities on the ground,” says Bill Roggio, who closely tracks the Taliban’s advance as a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Clearly the situation is dire, but the administration is telling us that what we see happening isn’t real.”
Roggio says the Taliban have nearly tripled the number of districts they control in Afghanistan — to 203 out of 407 — since Biden announced a Sept. 11 exit date (now moved up to Aug. 31). An intelligence report (rebuffed by Biden) hypothesized that the Afghan government could collapse as soon as six months after the withdrawal.
I get that Biden wants to end America’s “longest war” after 20 years. But it would have been smarter, and more cost-effective, to leave 3,000 or so U.S. forces in country as an insurance policy to provide the critical air support and maintenance that could have prevented a Taliban takeover. If that small U.S. force had stayed, which was taking almost no casualties, larger NATO forces and contractors would have stayed as well.
And the president should have junked the fake peace deal with the Taliban inked by former President Donald Trump that gifted the Taliban but undercut the Afghan government.
Instead, Biden insists the 300,000 Afghan troops and air force we trained can keep the Talibs at bay.
Sorry, let’s get real. The lack of critical close U.S. air support — the Afghan air force is simply inadequate — now leaves Afghan cities vulnerable.
Moreover, the swift, total U.S. military withdrawal — and impact on air support — has clearly trashed Afghan military morale; soldiers are fleeing even in the north, once a bastion of anti-Taliban feeling. Yet Biden insisted Thursday that the Afghan army was fully capable of handling the fight.
Meantime, the Afghan government in Kabul seems paralyzed by fear. “There was a false sense of security given to Afghan officials by the U.S. military and U.S. officials,” says Roggio.
Bottom line: Afghanistan could implode from within, sooner rather than later. And the Biden team doesn’t seem prepared for what that would mean.
Let’s just look at the administration’s handling of the morally fraught issue of evacuating translators who helped the U.S. military.
The State Department is trying to speed up a process that can take two to five years at best. But the consular department at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is closed due to COVID-19. And the United States just handed over its last (huge) airfield, Bagram, to the Afghans, which means translators must leave through the civilian airport — a question mark if Kabul becomes increasingly unsafe.
“I was shocked they would close Bagram before they did an evacuation,” I was told by Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat and one of a bipartisan group of legislators pushing for a speedy evacuation. Yet it appears the administration has yet to pin down locations outside Afghanistan where translators and their families could wait for the months (or years?) it would take to finalize their visas.
And it looks as if the administration is preparing to evacuate only a few thousand of the 18,000 translators on its list before the end of August. No one knows what will be possible after that.
Meantime, Afghan women like my friend in Herat don’t have the luxury of ignoring facts on the ground.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.