The tragic news of a truck bombing near the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday that took the lives of 12 American service members, and injured 15, has dropped the nation to an even deeper level of heartache.
Until now, the silver lining in the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the seizing of power by the Taliban was the relative lack of bloodshed. Now, even that solace has been destroyed.
So what should the Biden administration do next? The temptation will be to accelerate America’s withdrawal, and that of our allies. This would be a mistake.
Taliban already violated accord
More than before, we should be prepared to leave troops in the country past President Joe Biden’s arbitrary deadline of Tuesday, which never should have been viewed as binding – especially when dealing with an emergent Taliban government in violation of its own obligations under the Feb. 29, 2020, accord with the United States.
It’s impossible to fully assess the likelihood of further attacks of this type – attacks that are very hard to stop at the final line of defense. None of us has the tactical information that the president and our troops on the ground have. Historically in Afghanistan, we have tried to stop terrorist acts with a complex and interlocking system of intelligence sources, Afghan troops at various checkpoints, airstrikes on suspected enemy assets and multiple barriers around major American positions.
Almost all of those methods have been lost with the unfortunate developments that have resulted from Biden’s misguided April decision to end the assistance mission and bring home even the modest number of troops we still had in country this spring.
Even so, there must be a strong presumption against racing for the exits. It is not just that doing so would potentially leave a number of Americans, and many friendly Afghans who have worked with us, with even less hope of leaving the country.
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It would also signal to ISIS-K and the Taliban that we don’t have the stomach to stand up to them – possibly putting any remaining Americans at even greater risk.
Beyond that, to leave now or on any imminent timetable would concede further public relations victories to ISIS-K – the Afghanistan chapter of the Islamic State group that held power in Iraq and Syria some years ago – and to the Taliban as well. Although the Taliban and ISIS are not known to coordinate their efforts, and in fact have fought each other in the past, they share a common and publicly stated desire to drive the United States out of Afghanistan as soon as possible.
Recruiting more terrorists
Both would use an American departure as proof of their success and our decline. They would crow about it loudly and often. Their message of triumph would, just as it did in 2014 and 2015 in Iraq and Syria, allow them to recruit and motivate followers from around the world more successfully.
Back then, when ISIS established its so-called caliphate in the Middle East, it wound up attracting supporters from dozens of countries, and organizing or inspiring bloody attacks from Paris to Brussels to San Bernardino, California. In the terrorist world, and especially those of al-Qaida and ISIS, success begets success, and facing down a superpower accords major bragging rights.
The Taliban are in a different category. Their leadership is capable of being strategic, and of showing restraint. We do not yet know whether they will do so consistently going forward. I doubt the Taliban have become kinder and gentler; we should not trust them, nor feel confident that their relatively more moderate behavior will continue.
Nonetheless we have incentives – in the form of possible diplomatic recognition, access to Afghanistan’s financial holdings around the world, possible humanitarian aid in the months and years to come – that we can employ to reduce the odds they will use violence against us or our friends if we stay beyond Tuesday, something we must do at this point for the sake of human rights and American credibility. We should attack the Taliban militarily if they attack us in the future.
After we do leave, those same instruments of diplomacy, finance and aid can be used to try to induce the Taliban to govern and to treat their own citizens, including women and non-Sunni Muslims, with dignity and equality. No approach is a guarantee. But remaining for at least another month can constitute real leverage. We want Americans and Afghans to be safe, and to leave the country as safely as possible. That means trying to push the Taliban in the most humane and least dangerous direction possible for longer-term gains.
Yes, ISIS may attack us again in the days to come – that reality is a consequence of our decision to leave, and it is tragic. The United States needs to rescue its people and close friends, demonstrate its resolve, and regain its foreign-policy footing after a catastrophic decision to leave made by the president.
At a time of fear and uncertainty, we need to keep those core goals in mind. And we need to set our nation on a course for long-term success.