Our nightmarish exit from Afghanistan got worse on Thursday when a suicide attack at the Kabul airport killed 13 U.S. troops, as well as dozens of Afghan civilians.
It was the heaviest combat loss for the U.S. since the downing of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan a decade ago.
Prior to Thursday, we hadn’t lost anyone in combat in Afghanistan since February 2020.
The attack was awful, but not surprising given that President Biden had outsourced external security at the airport to the Taliban, and the chaos and the crowds — often waiting outside the gates for days — inevitably made for an inviting target.
The ISIS offshoot in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so-called ISIS-K, a truly heinous and remorseless group of killers, claimed responsibility. It and the Taliban have fought one another, but there have also been suggestions that Taliban forces have used ISIS-K as a cut-out for their own attacks. Nonetheless, the U.S. military says that there is no indication that the Taliban were complicit.
A sensible approach to the attack would be to make our presence in Kabul more muscular to provide for more security for our forces and for evacuees. We should have retaken Bagram Air Base or an equivalent facility that would be much easier to defend than Kabul airport and use it to provide air cover for our operations. We should explain to the Taliban that, given the disruption from the attack and given their obstruction of Afghan allies (and sometimes Americans) at the airport, we haven’t been able to evacuate everyone we need to and we are staying until we do. We should run missions to pick up Americans and legal residents, as well as SIVs. And, even if we can’t yet identify those directly responsible for the Thursday attack, we should target ISIS-K leaders.
This tack would have the advantage of sending the message that we aren’t rushing out of Afghanistan under fire, of fulfilling our moral obligation to our countrymen and closest allies, and of making it clear that harming our troops is intolerable.
It wouldn’t be without risk, but, as we’ve seen, adopting a defensive crouch and relying on the Taliban for our security also is not without risk.
Biden, of course, shows no inclination to change. He said the right things about tracking down the ISIS-K killers, but, soon enough, we won’t be in the country, or anywhere in the vicinity, to do it.
He spoke of completing the mission, which he essentially defines as leaving by August 31 no matter what. It seems likely that the aperture for Americans and Afghans to get through to the airport is going to get even smaller and that, if we really are going to remove our 6,000 troops by this coming Tuesday, the focus will have to shift within days to that part of the operation rather than processing evacuees.
After all the brave assurances about getting everyone out, Biden implicitly acknowledged yesterday that it isn’t going to happen. “We will continue after our troops are withdrawn,” he said, “to find means by which we can find any American who wishes to get out of Afghanistan.” He ventured, absurdly, that he knows of no conflict where one side has been able to extract everyone it would like from another country.
Biden has gone from saying that the withdrawal didn’t risk the overthrow of the Afghan government, to saying that the rapid Taliban takeover showed he was right about the withdrawal all along but everything was under control, to saying that it was inevitable we’d leave Americans and allies behind enemy lines.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said yesterday that the Taliban have made commitments to permit safe passage of Americans, foreign nationals, and “Afghans at risk” past August 31. Since these Afghans are at risk from the Taliban, this commitment doesn’t seem worth much, not to mention the Taliban have already been blocking Afghans at the airport. There is also a good chance that the security situation is going to deteriorate further, and there’s no guarantee that the airport will even be operating after we are gone.
The Biden team, nonetheless, is treating the Taliban as a trusted partner, even though they have never broken their relationship with al-Qaeda and even though the Haqqani network, a key player in the Taliban, is closely allied with the terror group.
An astonishing report in Politico says that we provided names to the Taliban of Americans, green-card holders, and Afghan allies whom we wanted to get through to the airport. An outraged defense official referred to the names as basically “a kill list.” Asked about the report at his press conference, Biden said we have occasionally given the Taliban a list of people on, say, a bus we want to get through, but otherwise pleaded ignorance.
We’ve been dependent on the Taliban the last two weeks, and the Biden plan is to become even more dependent on them after August 31. His approach joins fecklessness with dishonor, and we may yet pay an even steeper price for it.
Even as suicide bombers attacked the Kabul airport on August 26 — killing at least 13 U.S. servicemen and scores of civilians — visitors to the Al Jazeera website could read an interview with Khalil Ur-Rahman Haqqani, the Taliban official and U.S.-designated terrorist who is responsible for security in the Afghan capital. “If we can defeat superpowers, surely we can provide safety to the Afghan people,” said Haqqani, whose guards brandish the helmets, night-vision goggles, small arms, and camouflage the Americans left behind. “All of those people who left this country, we will assure them of their safety,” Haqqani went on. “You’re all welcome back in Afghanistan.”
He’s lying, of course. Lying is what terrorists do. Haqqani’s forces can’t protect the Afghan people from ISIS, or, apparently, from the Taliban itself. The Islamic militia is executing civilians and former members of the Afghan National Army, according to the United Nations. And Haqqani’s colleague, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, warned Afghan women and girls the other day that they should avoid the outdoors and public spaces, since Taliban soldiers “have not been yet trained very well.” And “we don’t want our forces, God forbid, to harm or harass women.”
Just to subjugate them.
The massacre at Hamid Karzai airport was the consequence of President Biden’s decision to rely on the Taliban for security. Despite the lunacy of taking the Taliban at their word, the Biden administration sounded in recent days as if Haqqani, Mujahid, and the rest of their deranged crew were U.S. partners. Not only did Biden’s botched withdrawal result in America’s departure from Central Asia, Taliban rule in Afghanistan, a catastrophe for democracy and human rights, and a propaganda boon for the global jihadist-Salafist movement. It guaranteed our dependence on a gang of medieval holy warriors whose loyalty to al-Qaeda is the reason the United States invaded Afghanistan in the first place. This historical irony is strategically dubious and morally debased. The loss of life in Kabul is a taste of what’s to come.
Biden pretended as if the Taliban had changed. On August 19, he told George Stephanopoulos that the Taliban, like a group of unruly teenagers, are “going through sort of an existential crisis about do they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government.” Later, in the same interview, he added, “I’m not sure I would’ve predicted, George, nor would you or anyone else, that when we decided to leave, that they’d provide safe passage for Americans to get out.” Nor did he predict that there would be more American casualties on the way out of Afghanistan than there had been in seven years.
In his remarks on August 24, Biden said, “Thus far, the Taliban have been taking steps to work with us so we can get our people out.” The terrorist threat, he cautioned, came not from the Taliban but from ISIS, “which is the sworn enemy of the Taliban as well.”
Biden didn’t mention that ISIS and the Taliban share a common adversary: the United States. Acknowledging that reality might have jeopardized the drawdown of American forces and evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport even before the terrorists struck on August 26. But it might also explain how the suicide bombers caused so much damage. The Kabul airport is surrounded by Taliban checkpoints. The Taliban won’t let Afghans pass through. How did the bombers get by?
Biden won’t violate the Taliban’s “red line” that America must leave by the end of the month because he fears that to do so would put U.S. soldiers and citizenry at further risk. On August 25, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reminded the world that the safety of Americans depends on the Taliban’s good graces. “The Taliban,” he said, “have made public and private commitments to provide and permit safe passage for Americans, for third-country nationals, and Afghans at risk” — at risk of what and from whom, one might ask the Taliban — “going forward past August 31st.”
In his August 25 remarks, Blinken said, “The United States, our allies and partners, and more than half of the world’s countries — 114 in all — issued a statement making it clear to the Taliban that they have a responsibility to hold to that commitment and provide safe passage for anyone who wishes to leave the country — not just for the duration of our evacuation and relocation mission, but for every day thereafter.” And if the Taliban shirk this responsibility — as they clearly did before the massacre at the airport? Well, another strongly worded note is sure to follow.
It’s not just that the Taliban hold all the cards in this game. Biden doesn’t even want to play. He’s made U.S. national security contingent on the Taliban’s ability to act like a “normal” government and not a terrorist crazy state. Earlier this week, CIA director William Burns met in secret with Taliban chief Abdul Ghani Baradar. According to David Ignatius of the Washington Post, “Burns was delivering a personal message from Biden, who evidently has decided his best course for now is to cooperate with the former adversary.”
Former? When did the Taliban renounce their hatred of America — or their allegiance to al-Qaeda?
They haven’t. Yet Biden and his foreign policy team dangled in front of the Taliban the carrot of financial assistance and international legitimacy in exchange for cooperation on counterterrorism and regional stability. As for sticks, Treasury secretary Janet Yellen crashed the Afghan financial system and economy two weeks ago when she froze Afghan government reserves in U.S. banks. The Taliban are broke. They haven’t quelled the resistance in Panjshir Valley. Which is why they’re negotiating with Hamid Karzai and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah to establish a government that would cross the threshold for renewed foreign aid and participation in global markets.
“We will judge our engagement with any Taliban-led government in Afghanistan based on one simple proposition: our interests, and does it help us advance them or not,” said Secretary of State Blinken. “If engagement with the government can advance the enduring interests we will have in counterterrorism, the enduring interest we’ll have in trying to help the Afghan people who need humanitarian assistance, in the enduring interest we have in seeing that the rights of all Afghans, especially women and girls, are upheld, then we’ll do it.”
That sounded like a secretary of state ready to engage. Precedent suggests that deteriorating conditions on the ground won’t matter. Yasser Arafat’s incitement to violence and militarization of the Palestinian security forces did not prevent Bill Clinton from indulging in the farcical Israeli–Palestinian “peace process.” Neither Obama nor Biden thought twice about promising (and in Obama’s case delivering) cash money to the terrorist-sponsoring Iranian regime if it stopped spinning a few nuclear centrifuges for a while.
Nor will the violence in Afghanistan this week derail the U.S.–Taliban “partnership.” The Taliban’s string of broken promises didn’t pause the “strategic dialogue” that has been taking place in Qatar for the last several years between their personnel and U.S. special representative Zalmay Khalilzad. Indeed, the mayhem in Kabul might reaffirm the administration’s belief that the Taliban can be separated from, and used to combat, ISIS. In a briefing on the afternoon of August 26, General McKenzie, head of Central Command, said there was “no reason” to think that the Taliban were involved in the assault on our troops. Our forces have been sharing intel with the Taliban since August 14. “We will continue to coordinate with the Taliban on preventing terrorist attacks,” McKenzie said.
“Any relationship or partnership with the Taliban is going to be deeply frustrating for us,” former State Department official Carter Malkasian said It already is. The terrible events of Thursday morning have made that clear. More terrible events await. How depressing to contemplate that the 20th anniversary of 9/11 arrives with the Taliban in power, terrorism resurgent, and America at the mercy of evil men.