The Cost of Betrayal in Afghanistan | Opinion

The Taliban and its allies have won their war of attrition in Afghanistan. With President Ashraf Ghani escaping to the UAE, U.S. diplomats fleeing the embassy, Afghan National Army troops bribed to surrender en masse and Afghan civilians mobbing the Kabul airport, President Joe Biden has inscribed himself in the history books with his rush to proceed with the August 31 deadline for troop pullout set earlier this year. The planned departure quickly turned into America's rout.

Prematurely exiting Afghanistan has far-reaching implications, and will cause friends and foes alike to question America's foreign policy commitments. It is a major blow to U.S. credibility, capacity and geopolitical leverage.

In his speech to the nation Monday, Biden doubled down on his justifications for withdrawal but failed to elaborate on the rapid success of the Taliban. He pointed the finger at several culprits, including now president-in-exile Ashraf Ghani, the feckless Afghan military (despite the hundreds of billions of dollars of U.S. support it received) and the Trump administration's poorly negotiated peace deal. Everyone was to blame, except the commander in chief.

Politically, Biden had better hope he is right. American voters have shown some eagerness to "end forever wars." But not like this. As horrific images emerge, preliminary polling shows 49 percent of Americans continue to support the withdrawal, down from 69 percent in April. If the next few weeks see every American and our Afghan auxiliaries evacuated safe from harm, the president may attempt to construe it as a win. If Americans are killed or taken hostage, Biden will have a hard time declaring victory. It will be Jimmy Carter all over again, complete with the inflation.

No matter what happens over the following weeks and months, the initial images from Kabul evoke the fall of Saigon in 1975. That too was a victory for an inhumane ideology over attempts by the United States to build a liberal democracy. But in Vietnam—unlike Afghanistan—the United States conducted Operation Frequent Wind, evacuating soldiers, diplomats and civilians from harm's way and onto the ships of the Seventh Fleet, along with as many refugees as the United States and its partners could afford to house.

Thousands of U.S. citizens are still trapped in Afghanistan, without instruction or insight on how to be safely evacuated. Afghan translators, journalists and others who helped in the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban are in a similar limbo. More than 80,000 have applied for special immigrant visas, including family members. Joe Biden said that only 2,500 visas were granted in the last seven months. This is inexcusable.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby suggested that the military could presently facilitate the evacuation of 5,000 people per day—if the visas are granted and those who need them are even able to apply amidst the chaos and fear of the Taliban takeover.

This evacuation is a catastrophic failure which America's allies and enemies will not soon forget.

Taliban fighters in Kabul
Taliban fighters stand along a road in Kabul on August 18, 2021, after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. Wakil KOHSAR / AFP/Getty Images

Supporters of the Biden administration will point to the collapse as proof that another year or 10 years would have made no difference in bolstering the corrupt Afghan government and military, and that senior military leaders should be disregarded in response to their inability to build a democratic Afghanistan. The truth, however, is that the ineptitude of the withdrawal belongs to the commander in chief and to America's political leaders. In trusting the Ghani regime to hold the line and disregarding guidance to retain a modest presence, President Biden set the stage for this debacle.

Responsibility for this failure is bipartisan. We should remember that the previous administration initially set a May 1 withdrawal deadline. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo negotiated the release of roughly 5,000 Taliban prisoners—among them Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Afghanistan should be a wake-up call across the political spectrum.

The incompetent pullout and shameful abandonment of Afghans who fought honorably for our shared goals delivers a massive blow to America's already damaged credibility. Our allies will be justifiably nervous, remembering that we allowed Saddam Hussein to attack the Kurds with poison gas, and later betrayed our Kurdish allies in Syria.

The withdrawal debacle weakens our geopolitical leverage and will allow Russia and China to push the narrative that America is not a reliable partner. Many Americans do not remember the fall of Saigon, or before that, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's failure to help Hungarians as the Soviets suppressed the 1956 revolution, killing thousands. But those events still have an effect on global perceptions of the United States.

Every betrayal leaves our partners less willing to rely on us in the future. Afghanistan is our fault, and Americans do not fully grasp what will happen in the wake of our failure. Afghanistan will become a breeding ground for violent extremist groups, as it was before our invasion. The Taliban has ties to al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, Hizb ut-Tahrir and other jihadi groups. Now that it is back in power, it may further support these groups' murderous missions.

Afghanistan's neighbors will face fears of renewed terrorism, massive flows of refugees and trade disruption. America has sought to strengthen its ties to countries in Central Asia as a counterweight to an increasingly aggressive China. Now our partners in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will be holding their breath, preparing for the storm and wondering if America can be counted on.

The United States' withdrawal will create a strategic vacuum for the Taliban, Pakistan, Iran and China to fill. By yielding global leadership, America consents to a Chinese century, replete with trade imperialism and democratic backsliding. The regrets may come too late. Today, for America's stature in the world and for the Afghan people, we must come together to demand better from our leaders, or the world will turn its back on us and our values as we sink into an irreversible decline.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Director, Energy, Growth and Security Program at International Tax and Investment Center.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.