Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen has reported from Afghanistan since 1993. His new book is, “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
A group of religious warriors, riding on captured American military vehicles, vanquish a US-trained military, which relinquishes much of its power without a fight.
That’s what happened in Iraq after the US withdrawal of troops from the country at the end of 2011. Within three years, an army of ISIS fighters was only a few miles from the gates of Baghdad and had taken many of the significant cities in Iraq.
It was then-Vice President Joe Biden who had negotiated the Obama administration’s drawdown from Iraq.
In 2014, after ISIS began ethnic cleansing in Iraq and murdering American journalists and aid workers, then-President Barack Obama reversed that decision and sent additional military support – upping the troop presence to 2,900.
Now Biden is presiding over a debacle entirely of his own making in Afghanistan – and one that has unfolded more swiftly than even the most dire prognostications.
Since Biden announced a total US withdrawal in April, the Taliban have taken over more than one-third of the 34 provincial capitals in Afghanistan, and they now control more than half of the country’s some 400 districts.
The Taliban have also seized control of much of northern Afghanistan, far from their traditional strongholds in the south and east of the country, demonstrating a well-thought-out military strategy. In fact, the Taliban now control the key cities of Herat and Ghanzi, the latter of which is less than 100 miles from Kabul and is located on the most important road in the country – the Kabul to Kandahar highway.
The US State Department is urging all US citizens to leave the country “immediately,” and the Pentagon announced it will send an additional 3,000 troops to assist in US diplomats’ departures and evacuations. Meanwhile, the US government is also considering moving its embassy to Kabul airport. Apparently, the Biden administration doesn’t want a replay of the iconic images of the hasty evacuation of the US Embassy in Saigon in 1975.
Just as ISIS had done in Iraq, the Taliban is also attacking prisons across Afghanistan and releasing fighters who are joining the insurgency. The Afghan government has said most of these inmates, however, are criminals – sentenced for offenses ranging from drug smuggling to armed robbery.
The Taliban ‘peace’ fantasy
For Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the key US negotiator with the Taliban, and academics like Professor Barnett Rubin at New York University, both of whom promoted the fantasy that the Taliban would seek a genuine negotiated peace deal with the Afghan government, a harsh reality is setting in. The chances of such a deal are next to none.
Khalilzad traveled to Doha this week where he has led “peace” negotiations with the Taliban for the past three years “to help formulate a joint international response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.”
Good luck with that. During the last rounds of negotiations that started under the Trump administration, Khalilzad entered into agreements with the Taliban that stated in exchange for a total US withdrawal, they would break with al Qaeda and enter into genuine peace talks with the Afghan government. The Taliban have reneged on those agreements, according to the United Nations and the Afghan government.
Meanwhile, Khalilzad agreed to pressure the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, several of whom simply rejoined their old comrades on the battlefield once they were released. It’s hard to recall a more failed and counterproductive diplomatic effort. Maybe British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to reach a lasting peace agreement with Adolf Hitler in 1938 in Munich on the cusp of World War II?
The withdrawal date of US troops from Afghanistan was initially supposed to be September 11, 2021, but the Biden administration seems to have realized that removing all troops on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, which was masterminded by al Qaeda from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, would not be a PR triumph, and so the new date for the completion of the US withdrawal is August 31.
Nonetheless, when the 20th anniversary is memorialized at the World Trade Center and elsewhere in the US, the Taliban will surely be celebrating their great victory in Afghanistan.
According to reporting by CNN, one US intelligence assessment estimates that the Afghan capital Kabul may be fully surrounded by the Taliban come September 11 – and that it could fall shortly after that.
A global jihadist victory
For the global jihadist movement, the victory of the Taliban will be as significant as ISIS victories were in Iraq and Syria. Just as they did after those ISIS victories, many thousands of foreign fighters are likely to pour into Afghanistan to join the victorious “holy warriors” and receive military training.
There they will join the 10,000 foreign fighters that are already based in Afghanistan from 20 foreign jihadist groups, including al Qaeda and ISIS, according to Afghanistan’s ambassador to the UN, Ghulam M. Isacza.
Was the complete American withdrawal necessary? Of course not. In Iraq, around 2,500 US troops remain in the country – the same number that were in Afghanistan at the beginning of this year. In July, Biden announced an agreement with the Iraqi government that effectively relabeled the American troops in Iraq as “non-combat” service personnel, while still leaving them in place. Biden could have taken a similar approach in Afghanistan. He didn’t.
Why Biden chose one path in Iraq and another in Afghanistan isn’t clear. But what is clear is that a predictable debacle is now unfolding under Biden’s watch in Afghanistan.