The World

Washington Is Coming to Terms With How Bad Things Could Get in Afghanistan

A new plan to evacuate Afghans who worked for the U.S. is welcome, but not exactly a vote of confidence in the country’s future.

A man squats in front of ornate windows on the exterior of the mosque
Outside the Pul-e Khishti Mosque in Kabul on May 24, 2020. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. policy in Afghanistan has, for some time now, been a seemingly endless series of lose-lose propositions, and this week’s news of a plan to relocate tens of thousands of Afghan citizens who worked for the American government out of the country in the coming months is no different. On the one hand, the plan is long overdue. Even in the best-case scenario, the U.S. departure will put Afghans who worked as interpreters or in other capacities for American troops in danger of Taliban reprisal. On the other hand, it would be hard to think of a move that shows less confidence in the ability of the Afghan government and its president, Ashraf Ghani—who was in Washington to meet with President Joe Biden at the White House this week—to hold off the Taliban onslaught. The U.S. has a moral and strategic obligation to prepare for the worst-case scenario, but the preparations may also make it more likely.

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The plan, reported by several outlets Thursday, is to relocate between 20,000 and 100,000 Afghans—employees of the U.S. as well as their families—out of the country later this summer, ahead of Biden’s Sept. 11 deadline for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops. They would likely be brought to a safe third location for processing before coming to the U.S. mainland—the U.S. territory of Guam is one possibility.

“Those who helped us will not be left behind,” Biden told reporters on Thursday, saying the process of relocation had already begun. The White House is responding to growing political pressure from Congress and human rights groups on this issue, because of the delays and red tape bogging down the Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghans who worked as interpreters or in other capacities for U.S. forces and are in danger of Taliban reprisals as a result. Kemi Giwa, a spokesperson for Rep. Seth Moulton, who has been actively campaigning for the administration to prioritize the evacuations, told me by email that it was too soon to judge the plan, as details had not been released, but named “the three things we need to make this commitment real: (1) A detailed operational plan, (2) someone needs to be in charge and (3) we need a guarantee that the mission will continue until it’s complete.”

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More than 18,000 individuals as well as their family members are currently working their way through a clearance process that takes a minimum of 600 days, with the U.S. departure less than 80 days away.

I still have optimism that this [new effort] can save some lives, but the haphazard way that this is being rolled out is putting people at risk,” says Noah Coburn, an anthropologist at Bennington College who studies Afghanistan and authored a recent report on the SIV program. “It’s really created a massively chaotic situation because all of a sudden there are all these questions about whether the standards have changed or the numbers have changed.”
Coburn notes that the announcement can also be interpreted as a signal that U.S. leaders “don’t have any faith in the Afghan government” to protect its citizens and is “not interested in applying the diplomatic pressure and financial pressure that could sustain the Afghan government.”

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If indeed the Afghans are temporarily relocated to Guam, it would have some historical resonance: It’s where most of the roughly 125,000 Vietnamese refugees who came to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon were processed in 1975. There’s something fairly ghoulish about the way that Biden’s Republican critics seem to be anticipating him facing a “Saigon moment,” but it’s hard to feel optimistic about the Afghan state’s chances against the Taliban at the moment.

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While the government still holds the major cities, the Taliban now fully controls 144 of the country’s 398 districts, according to Long War Journal, up from 75 in April, just before Biden announced the withdrawal. Government forces are rapidly abandoning their positions; on Wednesday 134 Afghan soldiers fled a Taliban attack across the border into Tajikistan, where they have taken refuge. Many Afghan communities are reportedly now forming local militias as national security forces collapse. According to an NBC News report, Taliban commanders have actually been surprised at the pace of their gains and are now purposely slowing down their advance in some places to avoid unnecessarily antagonizing the Americans before they leave.

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The Wall Street Journal reported this week that a recent U.S. intelligence community assessment concluded that the Afghan government could collapse as soon as six months after the withdrawal is completed, a revision from the previous estimate of two years.

None of this is likely to slow the pace of the withdrawal, which is already ahead of schedule and nearly half complete. The debate now is to what extent the U.S. will retain a presence in Afghanistan afterward. The AP reported on Friday that about 650 U.S. troops will remain after the withdrawal, but mainly just to provide diplomatic security. While the U.S. has made clear it may still launch “over-the-horizon” strikes against terrorist targets it deems a threat to the U.S., it’s a little unclear under what circumstances the U.S. would use airpower to halt a Taliban advance. The Biden administration’s recent budget proposal does include $3.3 billion in funding for Afghan security forces—a $300 million increase from last fiscal year—as well as $266 million in humanitarian assistance.

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A few months ago, the best hope for the country appeared to be ongoing talks aimed at forging a power-sharing deal between the Taliban and the government. Given the Taliban’s rapid advance in recent weeks, the group would appear to have little incentive to compromise. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday that the U.S. is now “looking very hard at whether the Taliban is, at all, serious about a peaceful resolution of the conflict.”

While it’s hard to think of what would slow the Taliban’s momentum at this point, what the group will actually do if it attains power is less certain. Given its track record from when it ruled the country before 2001, there’s good reason to fear reprisals against people who worked with international forces or the Afghan government, massacres against minority groups like the Hazaras, and a reversal of the gains in women’s rights over the last 20 years. But some experts also suggest that Taliban leaders don’t want to return to the global pariah status they endured during their time in power and will try to reach at least some sort of accommodation with their opponents. The fact that the best hope of forestalling an absolute humanitarian catastrophe in the coming weeks is the Taliban’s prudence and goodwill is a pretty good indication of where the situation currently stands.

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