The two top officials in Afghanistan are meeting Friday with President Joe Biden at a moment when much of their country is in danger of being swallowed up by the Taliban.
Habiba Sarabi, an Afghan government negotiator engaging in talks with the Taliban, told CNN, “With the imminent removal of all United States forces in just a few weeks, the Taliban are moving rapidly, resulting in a swift deterioration in the security environment. We were caught off guard by the scale and scope of setbacks in the north.”
The United States has contributed to the deteriorating security situation by consistently saying for more than a decade that it is leaving Afghanistan, which has undermined the Afghan government and strengthened the resolve of the Taliban who have won at the negotiating table from the Americans what they failed to win on the battlefield.
Without swift action by the Biden administration we could see in Afghanistan a remix of the disastrous US pullout from Saigon in 1975 and the summer of 2014 in Iraq when ISIS took over much of the country following the US pullout from the country three years earlier. That withdrawal was negotiated by then-vice president Biden.
The premise of the many years of US-Taliban negotiations has been that the United States will draw down militarily in exchange for the Taliban severing relations with al-Qaeda — the terrorist organization it harbored at the time of the planning and execution of the terrorist attacks against the US on September 11, 2001.
This has been, to put it charitably, a charade, according to the United Nations, which reported just this month that the two groups remain “closely aligned and show no signs of breaking ties.” The UN report notes that Taliban-al Qaeda ties have actually “grown deeper.”
Meanwhile, US presidents going back to Barack Obama have consistently said the United States is leaving Afghanistan, but in the end, Obama left 8,400 troops when he completed his second term. Donald Trump also wanted to go to zero, but he left at least 2,500 soldiers.
In both the case of Obama and Trump, the Pentagon made the case that leaving a relatively small number of troops in Afghanistan acted as an insurance policy to prevent the Taliban taking over much of the country.
Now comes Biden, who has promised to go to zero troops by the 20th anniversary of 9/11; a more inappropriate end-date for the US presence would be hard to conjure.
And, of course, all the hard-won gains made by women and minorities in Afghanistan over the past two decades now stand to be lost.
Afghan women are understandably frightened that as the Taliban assert their power they will lose their rights to work and to be educated.
So how might anything be salvaged from this mess?
First, American contractors who are willing to stay in Afghanistan to service the planes and helicopters of the Afghan air force should be allowed to stay. Those contractors could be secured by elite Afghan commando forces.
Second, Afghans who have helped the US military must have their visas processed expeditiously, even if it means doing so in neighboring countries such as Pakistan. And if the visas can’t be issued in a timely fashion, the US government should have a plan to evacuate the thousands of Afghans whose lives may be at risk.
Fourth, the United States should make clear to the Taliban that it will intervene militarily in Afghanistan using airstrikes if the Taliban don’t sustain their agreements to sever ties with al-Qaeda and engage in genuine peace negotiations with the Afghan government.