Harsh V. Pant
There are times when an image can become a defining moment in a leader’s life. US President Joe Biden bowing down his head at a press conference in response to a reporter’s question perhaps sums up Biden’s Afghanistan policy so far.
There is chaos, there is confusion and then there is sheer incompetence. Biden is losing his grip on the narrative and his team looks clueless in even managing a patina of order. Washington’s inability to withdraw with even a semblance of dignity intact will have a great bearing on America’s future conduct in global politics and it is not readily evident that the Biden administration is up to the task of moving ahead purposefully.
More than 90 people are now thought to have died and more than 150 injured as a result of the twin attacks at Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul yesterday. While the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), a regional affiliate of the group, claimed responsibility for the attack, Biden could only vow to seek revenge on the attackers, saying he will “hunt them down.” The fact that he was at pains to absolve the Taliban couldn’t have been more ironical. “There is no evidence thus far that I’ve been given as a consequence by any of the commanders in the field that there has been collusion between the Taliban and ISIS in carrying out what happened today,” Biden suggested rather incredulously.
Once the pressure started mounting on the Biden Administration, it moved fast and furious to once again make a case for the Taliban. It quickly moved to blame ISIS-K for the bombings though the style of attack is quite common and has also been employed by the Taliban and the Haqqani group in the past. But after handing over the power in Afghanistan to a terrorist organization, all that was left for it to do was to go back to the “good” terrorist and “bad” terrorist dichotomy. In this reckoning, the Taliban are the moderates who are struggling to contain violence and chaos in Afghanistan which their detractors like IS-K want to unleash.
In fact, such is their reliability that the US has given the Taliban a list of names of US citizens, green card holders as well as Afghan allies to grant entry into the outer perimeter of the city’s airport. It doesn’t matter that it is well known that IS-K has very little to do with Al Baghdadi but rather has its roots in dissatisfied Talibs and other sectarian groups nurtured by the Pakistani intelligence.
But Washington has long given up on facts and delusion has set in. These attacks happened after the CIA chief secretly went to Kabul to engage the Taliban on the evacuation of the Americans and Biden Administration’s declaration that it publicly that it is ready to work with the Taliban on “counterterrorism.”
The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken has underscored that a Taliban that is willing to uphold “basic rights” and won’t allow Afghanistan territory to be used as a “launching pad for terrorist attacks,” is one that the US government we can work with.
But the only way a regime like the Taliban can govern is by terrorizing. There is no governance agenda here and despite a slick PR campaign, the unravelling has already started. Washington’s bowing down to the Taliban on all the demands and not blaming the terror group for any of the challenges underscores the desperation of the Biden administration struggling to contain the costs of the unholy mess its choices have created.
The US has chosen to install a terror group as the legitimate government of Afghanistan and as a departing gift, offered them an estimated $212 million worth of military aircraft, vehicles and ammunition. For an administration that came to office talking big on multilateralism, the withdrawal has happened unilaterally with the allies left to pick up the pieces.
After two decades of fighting terror, the US Army is leaving in the worst possible manner with 13 soldiers killed during the withdrawal and the remaining withdrawal at the mercy of some of the worst terror groups in the world. In the process, it has abandoned ordinary Afghans and condemned them to a life of despair and misery under the shadow of terror.
Just as throughout the two-decade-long conflict, the US refused to take on Pakistan for its duplicitous behaviour in sustaining insurgency in Afghanistan, today it is taking the easy route of pretending that the Taliban has changed. Pakistan, working through its proxy Taliban, has inflicted one of the worst defeats on the US and has ensured that the South Asian cauldron will continue to boil.
The Biden administration is washing its hands off Afghanistan but if history has taught us anything, extremism and terrorism of the Taliban variety cannot be contained with borders. We were being told for the last several years as Washington searched for a modus vivendi with the Taliban that the Taliban would not allow their territory to be used for terror purposes. It has come undone in a matter of days.
The Taliban remain a terror organization with ideological expansion at the heart of their drive and to expect them to rein in other terror organizations is the biggest joke that the US has perpetrated on its populace. For ordinary Afghans, what is happening today in their homeland is another attempt by Pakistan to invade them using the Taliban.
For the US, the fall of Afghanistan is the most consequential foreign policy crisis and Biden owns it. For a nation that saw unprecedented unity at home and support abroad after the attacks of September 11, 2001, today two decades after finds divisions all around as its leadership struggles to contain the damage unleashed by its incompetence and short-sightedness. Pax Americana may or may not end in Kabul but Washington will have to set new terms of engagement with the world after its disastrous retreat in the face of terror onslaught in South Asia.
The article first appeared in CNBC TV18 Biden’s choices and America’s moment of reckoning on 27th August, 2021.
About the Author
Professor Harsh V Pant, Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations at King’s College, London.