Washington’s War in Afghanistan Is Over. What Happens Now?

Questions are everywhere. How did the Taliban, with 75,000 or so scattered forces, defeat the 300,000-strong US-trained, US-armed, and US-supported Afghan government troops? Why didn’t that US-trained military fight? Why did the United States withdraw most of its troops—and shouldn’t Biden send troops back to protect Afghan women from Taliban control?

First, most Afghan soldiers were not defeated militarily by the Taliban at all. Some individual soldiers simply put down their weapons and ran. More frequently, local commanders negotiated with the Taliban to surrender with troops and weapons en masse—directly rejecting the corrupt government in Kabul.

Despite 20 years of occupation, the United States couldn’t “win” militarily either—because there is no military solution to terrorism. After the United States and its allies overthrew the Taliban government in 2001, they created a whole new government. Staffed largely by pro-Western Afghan exiles, it was modeled after Western parliamentary systems—with power concentrated in the president and parliament of a central government in Kabul. It was completely at odds with Afghanistan’s long-standing cultural and political traditions —where power emanates from the family and tribal level, not from the national capital of a modern nation-state. For most Afghans (75 percent of whom live in scattered villages and rural areas, not in cities), what happens in Kabul rarely reaches beyond Kabul.

Negotiations are still underway to determine if there will be some kind of power-sharing arrangement, but the Taliban is now clearly the dominant force in Afghanistan. It remains unclear if the US bombing raids of recent days, involving Vietnam War–era B-52s as well as drones and almost certainly resulting in civilian casualties, are continuing as the Taliban takes control.

Almost 80 percent of the displaced people flooding Kabul and other cities are women and children. The Taliban’s legacy of misogyny and violence against women continues to fuel fear of the group’s return to power, particularly from urban women in Kabul and Kandahar, where US-imposed laws protecting education, employment, public engagement, and more had significant impact on women’s lives. In the villages and rural areas, where 75 percent of Afghans live, those laws and policies changed far less in the lives of most women.

The Taliban of 2021 faces challenges different from their earlier counterparts’. During their five years in power—and their 20 years struggling to return to power—their country and its position in the world changed in significant ways. Although the impact of US-imposed ideas rarely reached beyond the major cities, things like access to cell phones and the Internet has increased Afghans’ awareness of the world outside their isolated villages. While some of today’s Taliban hold to the same or an even more extreme version of religious law, especially regarding the role of women, some of their leadership are certainly more aware of the need for engagement with the rest of the world—particularly for economic assistance—and of what the world may require of them.

It won’t be easy for Afghans going forward, but the withdrawal of US troops is a necessary, if still insufficient, precondition for ending that war.

For those of us working to press the US government for some level of accountability, perhaps these demands would be a good place to start:

• Make the end of the recent bombing/drone raids and CIA death squad activities permanent.

• Support UN and other international efforts to create a humanitarian corridor and guarantees of safe passage for Afghan and international humanitarian workers.

• Fund a massive international Covid assistance program for Afghanistan.

• Expand qualification categories for Afghan refugees and asylum seekers to come to the United States, reduce paperwork required to qualify, and add 20,000 new slots to match Canada’s commitment to accept 20,000 additional vulnerable Afghans for resettlement.

Washington’s War in Afghanistan Is Over. What Happens Now?