Very few people have given a damn about Afghanistan for the last several years. It doesn’t impact their lives. It’s “over there.” The troop count has been low, Western casualties have been effectively nil, and the country’s situation has rarely punctuated the mainstream headlines. I’ve been guilty of the same apathy, especially during COVID.
Yet, we should all care. The country has now collapsed back under Taliban rule, resurrecting the circumstances that enabled 9/11. This poses a substantial risk to Western security and will also usher in another reign of terror over the Afghan people, especially its women and girls.
Given that there has been no second 9/11, the risk of another such attack may seem negligible. It is not. Throughout history, American withdrawal has emboldened enemies; most recently, after the drawdown in Iraq, the Islamic State established its caliphate and launched or inspired attacks not only in the Middle East but also in Europe.
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The most effective way to prevent a repeat horror is to ensure that terrorists have no safe haven in which to plan, arm, and train for atrocities. Eradicating al-Qa’ida’s host was precisely why the U.S. launched the 2001 invasion in the first place. The Taliban has not changed over 20 years, so its return to power will revive the exact conditions that existed on September 10, 2001. Joe Biden’s claim that the invasion’s original “objective” was achieved is ignorant at best, misleading at worst.
While the risk of Taliban rule to the West remains a potentiality, the risk to the Afghan people is certain. Let’s be explicit about what lies ahead for Afghan women and girls. Under Taliban rule, women have no rights. They cannot leave their houses without the escort of a close male relative (so women without male family are effectively housebound for life, lest they risk a public beating). They cannot attend school, aside from studying the Qu’ran at a young age. They cannot appear on their balconies, wear high heels, or show their faces, and many are forced into marriage with Taliban soldiers. Afghans who defy Taliban Law risk brutal violence, like public execution by stoning.
Imagine someone you love – a sister, brother, daughter, or son – crying in fear and pain as they are slowly murdered by stones hurled at their defenceless bodies, while you, and everyone else in the public square, are made to watch and even participate.
Many people today consider themselves politically active. Yet to claim to be a feminist or civil rights activist and then feel no impulse to act when the objects of one’s efforts are brutalized elsewhere reveals the flimsiness of the title: it only applies stateside, where the hardest battles have already been won. Afghan women don’t have the luxury of fighting for equal pay; they’re too busy fighting to survive.
We do not have to accept the risk of another 9/11 nor condemn Afghans to the dark fate that is quickly descending.
The U.S. and its allies could still turn the ship around, provide support to the deflated Afghan military, reinstate a sustainable military presence, and, importantly, commit symbolically to Afghanistan, as Ronald Reagan did to Eastern Europe. It will be harder now that the Taliban have taken Kabul, but there are no better alternatives.
American participation in such a rescue effort is vital and need not exact a high price over the long term. A misconception of Afghanistan as America’s “forever” war pervades media, but the small presence of 2,500 troops before evacuation hardly qualifies. A continued commitment to countries in which the U.S. has intervened is a regular facet of American foreign policy – people seldom think about the 30,000 Americans stationed in Germany or the same number in South Korea and demand we “bring the boys home” from these 50+-year-old conflicts.
Yet with Afghanistan, the Biden administration is more concerned with P.R. than policy. The decision to withdraw by September 11, 2021 thinly veiled the political motive behind the decision. It wasn’t about the country’s best interests; it was about Joe Biden’s best interests. It sure would have been nice to hold a press conference in the Rose Garden on 9/11’s 20th anniversary and take credit for the return of all troops.
As such celebrations become increasingly unlikely, Biden is now shifting blame by claiming he “inherited” the withdrawal. But as current Commander in Chief, he need not bind himself to flawed past policies. It’s just convenient to do so.
A grim future for Afghanistan, with all the risks it bears for Western security, is not inevitable. That word exists only in hindsight, and the sand has not yet run out the glass, but it is going quickly as the Taliban consolidate gains.
Let’s not sit back and watch the final grain fall. With it will fall 20 years of imperfect yet genuine progress and usher in a new, violent chapter for the Afghan people. Shame on all of us if we let that happen.
Yule Schmidt holds a B.A. in War and Revolutionary History from Stanford University and an M.A. in History from McGill University, where she focused on U.S. policy towards the Middle East.
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