The Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan is a disaster for many Afghans, but for Americans, it is mostly just upsetting: a cause of shame, sympathy and even trauma, but not insecurity. Afghanistan’s disaster is largely our fault, but there are good reasons to trust it will not follow us home. President Joe Biden was right when he defended ending the war Tuesday because the United States has no “vital interest” there, and to push back on critics who warn of impending catastrophe now that the last U.S. troops have been pulled out.
The idea that leaving Afghanistan, even messily, undermines U.S. credibility to fight elsewhere is basically backward.
U.S. commentators lament the Taliban’s victory for three main national security reasons. One, leaving Afghanistan, especially in the way the troubled evacuation effort was handled, is supposedly such a blow to U.S. credibility that the alliances it supports will quake and adversaries will advance. Two, Russia or China will fill the “vacuum” left by U.S. forces, gaining influence as Central Asian states seek new protectors and wealth as the new Taliban government looks to make development deals. Three, the Taliban will again offer haven to Al Qaeda terrorists bent on attacking the U.S. or enable the Islamic State Khorasan group, or ISIS-K, terrorists — responsible for this week’s Kabul airport bombing — despite being at war with them.
But the idea that leaving Afghanistan, even messily, undermines U.S. credibility to fight elsewhere is basically backward. Having freed up some troops and funds, the U.S. ability to fight where it really matters is mildly enhanced. Having lingered two decades in a quagmire is testament to an excess of commitment to fight, not a lack of commitment. That Joe Biden, the third president to say he was going to end the war, did so pursuant to the Doha agreement then-President Donald Trump made with the Taliban, albeit a bit tardily, means the U.S. was actually honoring a commitment, not abandoning one. And if you’re worried that the evacuation of Kabul hurt the U.S. reputation for competence, you must have missed the last 15 years of war; it’s long been gone.
Luckily, however, history and common sense tell us that neither enemies nor allies will see Afghanistan as an exemplar. Studies show that U.S. allies and those who threaten them know that their local circumstances are profoundly different and judge the credibility of U.S. threats to fight there mostly by U.S. interests in and capability to do so. Sure, ministers in allied states kvetch about how the war’s end damages American leadership and prestige. But that’s because they liked Americans fighting a war they largely wouldn’t. If they were really worried about U.S resolve to protect them, they would do more than complain; they’d take greater responsibility for their defense or capability to make war without U.S. help. They don’t because U.S. credibility does not ricochet around the world like a pinball but rather follows from concrete U.S. interests.
The idea that leaving Afghanistan means opening a vacuum for rivals in a budding great power competition is even more flawed. For starters, the vacuum U.S. forces left was already filled — swiftly — by the Taliban. And as an impoverished state riven by mountains and well-armed rival sects, Afghanistan is more an occupational burden you’d wish on your worst enemies than a prize. If its fabled mineral wealth were easily exploited, someone would have exploited it. And if it turns out the Chinese can extract mild profits from making infrastructure loans or Russia has greater diplomatic pull with the Taliban government and neighboring states, why should we mind? Maybe they can help Afghanistan develop or do more to keep its instability in check. Competitors pursuing their interests in Afghanistan don’t necessarily contradict America’s aims, and they certainly don’t erode the foundations of U.S. security — its wealth, military might and geography.
The most legitimate security reason stemming from the Taliban retaking Afghanistan is that they will again offer a haven to terrorists who target Americans, just as they provided Al Qaeda in the lead-up to 9/11. Some are already pointing to Thursday’s terrorist attack that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 100 Afghans as the beginning of this new front. But their assertion doesn’t hold together. The Taliban are actually at war with ISIS-K, because of both a raw struggle for power and because the Taliban are focused on Afghanistan, not global jihad. The U.S. and the Taliban share the goal of suppressing ISIS-K, and the U.S. can do so most effectively by working with the Taliban toward that end. In fact, the U.S. has already done this, providing the Taliban with air support in battles against ISIS-K that helped hobble the group. Moreover, the Taliban’s military success suggests they will likely prove more able counterterrorists than the fallen Afghan government, which suffered over 100 ISIS-K attacks in recent years.
The Taliban do reportedly maintain nebulous ties to remnants of the Al Qaeda network. This is worth some worry and intelligence attention, but the absence of the terrorist attacks coming out of Afghanistan over the last 20 years, including the area the Taliban controlled, is not plain luck. A redux of the 1990s alliance between the Taliban and whatever remains of al Qaeda is unlikely due to U.S. capability and Taliban incentives.
If the Taliban fail to police terrorism in Afghanistan, the United States has proven to an excessive degree since 2001 that we have the will and capability to strike suspected anti-American terrorists wherever they are. Losing military bases and partners in Afghanistan will harm such operations but not stop them. We know this from “over the horizon” airstrikes (those that come from long distances without an existing ground presence of U.S. forces) and targeted raids against erstwhile Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria. Improved surveillance and strike capabilities, starting with drones, made anti-American terrorist bases nearly extinct.
Moreover, Al Qaeda originally gained a haven in 1990s Afghanistan because the Taliban imprudently invited it there in hopes it would help with the civil war then underway. Now the Taliban, having lost power thanks to Al Qaeda’s actions and then fighting their way back into it over two decades, are unlikely to repeat that mistake. For one, they need things from foreign powers, like unfrozen funds that sponsoring terrorists will prevent. And they have an evident self-interest in not being bombed back into the hinterlands, which is what the U.S. would do if Al Qaeda rose again with their blessing. Maybe they learned nothing and will give what remains of Al Qaeda free rein anyway, but that requires believing their leaders are suicidal after years of pragmatism, evident in their dealings in Doha.
For the United States, the irony of the Taliban’s swift conquest of Afghanistan is that the failure of the state we were “building” brought that country closer to peace, however unjust, than it was at any time since we arrived. There are various lamentable consequences of this, but U.S. insecurity isn’t among them. A government running Afghanistan, even a bombastically illiberal one, is one we can bargain with and coerce to prevent terrorism and atrocities. The U.S. exit from Afghanistan is a burden lifted, which should reveal that interminable nation-building wars serve neither the United States’ global stature nor its security.