Opinion: Trump and Biden were both foolish about Afghanistan. Now we’re all paying the price

By Peter Bergen

(CNN) Whether it’s providing a safe haven for terrorist groups like al Qaeda or installing officials who face United Nations sanctions in cabinet positions, the Taliban is up to its old ways, according to a new report issued by the UN on Friday. While the report does not mention former President Donald Trump or President Joe Biden by name, it is an indictment of their administrations’ failed policies in Afghanistan. The 25-page report says that the Taliban “remains close” with al Qaeda, which now has “increased freedom of action” in Afghanistan.

Underlining that increased freedom of action, the leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, “has issued more frequent recorded messages,” appearing in eight videos since the Taliban took over Afghanistan last August, according to the UN report. And al Qaeda has renewed its pledge of allegiance to the leader of the Taliban.

The UN also points out that an astonishing 41 members of the Taliban who are on the UN sanctions list have been appointed to the cabinet and other senior-level positions in Afghanistan. Among them is Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Taliban Haqqani Network, which the UN says now controls key Afghan ministries such as the interior ministry and the departments of intelligence, passports and migration.
A previous UN report identified Haqqani, Afghanistan’s acting interior minister, as being part of the leadership of al Qaeda, marking the first time that the terrorist group has had a member in a senior cabinet position anywhere in the world. Haqqani is also on the FBI’s most-wanted list.
All of this demonstrates how deeply flawed a strategy it was for the Trump administration to negotiate a “peace” agreement with the Taliban — and how misguided it was for Biden to abide by that agreement once he assumed office.
In 2018, the Trump administration started negotiating directly with the Taliban, eventually coming to an agreement that the United States would withdraw from Afghanistan providing that the Taliban would not let the country become a haven for terrorists and agree to enter into genuine peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
The Trump team signed the agreement with the Taliban in 2020 and Biden, who said he was forced to either abide by that deal or escalate the fighting in Afghanistan, chose to pull out all US troops in August last year.
It’s worth noting this agreement wasn’t ratified by the US Senate, and instead was a deal negotiated with a terrorist/insurgent group that failed to stick to their end of the agreement. It was also a deal that had been struck without any substantive involvement of the elected Afghan government.
As the new UN report makes clear, the Taliban did not break with al Qaeda, noting that the terrorist group has instead “used the Taliban’s takeover to attract new recruits and funding” while the core al Qaeda leadership “is reported to remain in Afghanistan: more specifically, the eastern region from Zabul Province north towards Kunar and along the border with Pakistan.”
And of course, the Taliban didn’t come to a peace agreement with the Afghan government. As the Americans hastily withdrew from Afghanistan, the Taliban instead overthrew the elected Afghan government.
After they seized power in Afghanistan in August, Taliban leaders gave their first press conference and told the assembled journalists bald-faced lies about how they respected women’s rights. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said, “Our sisters, our men have the same rights; they will be able to benefit from their rights.”
This was, of course, nonsense, but some wishful thinkers had bought into the fantasy of some kind of “Taliban 2.0.”
Instead, we now have just the same old Taliban. They have banned girls from school above the sixth grade; they have insisted that women need a close male relative to escort them if they travel long distances; they have declared that women need to be covered from head to toe and have instituted punishments for male “guardians” who don’t enforce this; more than 200 media outlets have closed in Afghanistan, and the Taliban have presided over an economy that is in free fall.
The UN report states that the Taliban “are, in large part, the same Taliban movement that was deposed in 2001.” The UN also notes that the top posts in the Taliban government “have been given to the Taliban’s ‘old guard.'”
Meanwhile, the Taliban continue to allow foreign terrorist groups to use Afghanistan as a base. The largest such group is the Pakistani Taliban, which numbers several thousand fighters, according to the UN.
For the past six months, the Taliban have also imprisoned without charge five British citizens, including businessman Peter Jouvenal, a friend of mine who once worked with CNN as a cameraman. The Taliban have also held American contractor Mark Frerichs for more than two years.
The UN report does have some qualified good news, concluding that the Afghanistan branch of ISIS and al Qaeda are not believed to be “capable of mounting international attacks until 2023 at the earliest.”
This is a more optimistic projection than the one delivered by a top Pentagon official, Colin Kahl, in October 2021. Kahl testified before a US congressional committee that ISIS’s affiliate in Afghanistan could mount external operations “somewhere between six and 12 months” while “al Qaeda would take a year or two to reconstitute that capability.”
That said, the Taliban is in a stronger position today than the last time it was in power. That was before the 9/11 attacks, when it was fighting the Northern Alliance, a not insignificant opposition force.
The Taliban today hasn’t significantly changed any of its social policies, nor has it abandoned its alliance with al-Qaeda. We have seen how this movie plays out in the past. To paraphrase an observation attributed to Mark Twain, while history may not repeat itself, it certainly may rhyme.
Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His forthcoming paperback is “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. View more opinion on CNN.
Opinion: Trump and Biden were both foolish about Afghanistan. Now we’re all paying the price