Reflections on the Fall of Kabul

As soon as President Biden announced last spring that US troops were abandoning Afghanistan, the final chapter that we’re watching unfold of a complete Taliban takeover was written. The only question that remained was how long it would take for the Afghan security forces and government to unravel and collapse. Would they last 1 year? Six months? The answer turned out to be about 4 months from Biden’s April announcement.

Almost everyone inside the US government who studied Afghanistan closely understood this was coming if the US military very rapidly withdrew all support for the Afghan security forces, especially close air support and logistics. I don’t believe this was a major intelligence failure by the US military and intelligence agencies. They fully understood this could happen.

This was purely a political decision by President Biden to ignore these warnings. Biden has considered Afghanistan a lost cause and drain on US resources for more than a decade. He saw in former President Trump’s commitment to have all US troops out by May 1, which he inherited, as a unique opportunity to fulfill his longstanding desire to end America’s military involvement in Afghanistan and he jumped on it.

Biden was warned that in a worst-case scenario, the US-backed government might collapse very quickly and Afghanistan would look like the disastrous and humiliating fall of Saigon and South Vietnam in 1975. Biden made a conscious decision to accept that risk and the potential damage it could inflict on American foreign policy, as well as on his political support in the United States. He likely believes that while the majority of the American people will feel badly about the horrors that now await the Afghan people, they will ultimately be supportive of the decision to finally end this forever war and stop pouring more US blood and treasure into what they consider a lost cause.

War is as much about psychology, morale, and momentum as it is numbers of weapons and troops. The Afghan security forces were built to function with a high degree of US support, especially air cover, logistics, intelligence, and strategic advice. So long as that critical element of US support remained, the Afghan army may not have been capable of militarily defeating the Taliban, but it was capable of keeping the jihadists at bay, managing the conflict, and preventing any terrorist resurgence. With just 2500 troops and Afghans doing almost all the fighting and dying on the ground, it was an entirely sustainable mission for the United States.

That is, until the President of the United States simply gave up and pulled the plug. Without US support, the Afghan army knew it would not be able to continue doing what was necessary to sustain the status quo. They saw the writing on the wall of their eventual defeat. They knew that the Taliban was eventually coming back to power. The only issue was how many members of the Afghan security forces would die in the meantime fighting a battle that they knew they could not win without the Americans. Their morale collapsed. Rather than be the last Afghan to die in service to a lost cause and an absolutely feckless and corrupt government, the Afghan forces made a decision en masse to surrender, put down their weapons, and run away. And once that mob psychology spread like wildfire across the Afghan army, it was effectively all over, and very quickly.

The total collapse of Afghanistan and return of the Taliban is a foreign policy disaster for the United States. The reverberations will be far reaching for Afghanistan, South Asia, and the world, and will play out over the course of the next several years. The Afghan people will be thrust back into a form of totalitarian theocracy. Thousands, if not millions, of Afghan refugees may seek to flee, potentially destabilizing Afghanistan’s neighbors. The Taliban’s success in “defeating” the world’s most powerful nation will likely supercharge the global jihadist movement, including Al Qaeda and ISIS. The risk of Islamist terrorism will very likely increase, not just against governments throughout the Muslim world, but against the West as well. The chances of another 9/11-style catastrophic terrorist attack against the United States in the next decade will increase significantly. American adversaries in places like Iran, Russia, and China will be emboldened by the US defeat and humiliation, and will seek to take advantage by filling the perceived vacuum of US leadership. American allies in the Middle East and around the world, who have hitched their own deterrence and security to US power and credibility, will shudder in concern and fear over what America’s abandonment of its long-standing allies in Afghanistan means for them.

How the disaster in Afghanistan will affect US politics remains to be seen. The American people have grown very tired and frustrated by a long war that never produced success or victory. But the American people also don’t like to be humiliated and perceived as abandoning women and children who depended on us. If they conclude that Biden’s withdrawal was too fast, too reckless, poorly planned, and besmirched America’s good name, then the Afghanistan disaster could yet hurt Biden and Democrats domestically in next year’s midterm elections and in 2024.

As concerns Israel’s situation specifically:

Whenever the world’s most powerful nation suffers a humiliating foreign policy failure, it’s going to have far-reaching international effects, including for countries, like Israel, who have based so much of their own deterrence and national security on the credibility of their strategic partnership with the United States. Because of its own military strength and capabilities, Israel is no doubt far better positioned to weather the reverberations of an American collapse in South Asia than other, much weaker friends of the United States. But anytime American power is laid low, long-standing foreign partners are abandoned, and enemies of the West like the global jihadist movement are emboldened, it’s not a good day for Israel, who’s national security doctrine is so intrinsically wrapped up in the perception of its close relationship with a reliable, powerful United States.

A super-charged jihadist movement across the Middle East, not to mention an Iran, Russia, and China ready to rush into the power vacuum left by America’s retreat, will do nothing to advance the cause of regional stability and security. Even if Israel isn’t directly threatened, many of its weaker neighbors in the Arab Gulf and elsewhere might be to the detriment of Israel’s own security situation.

John Hannah is Senior Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and the former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.