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The US botched its Afghanistan withdrawal but can take 3 pragmatic steps forward

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The image of Afghans desperately running alongside U.S. military transport planes as they were left behind this week was a searing reminder of the human tragedy often overlooked by America’s narcissistic and self-absorbed debates on foreign policy.

Afghanistan is not just a war that’s gone wrong or went on too long — it’s an actual country with real people. This point is all too often overlooked in the 20 years when the U.S. military was deeply engaged there and the many years before when conflict ripped apart the country.

The events in Afghanistan this week show that the Biden administration’s efforts to put an end to the post-9/11 period are not going to come without significant costs and possible blowback. There’ll be time enough for counting the many mistakes shared by four presidents, with the current President Joe Biden bearing the responsibility for his own decisions. While the finger-pointing and blame game have already begun, it is important to remain focused on what the United States can do going forward to mitigate the risks.

  1. Protect Americans and Afghans who are endangered by their association working with U.S., NATO allies and non-governmental organizations.

The Biden administration has botched an orderly withdrawal, and it is now scrambling to ensure the safety of diplomats and other Americans in the country. It must not forget the tens of thousands of Afghans who risked their lives working for freedom never fully realized in Afghanistan’s imperfect system. When the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011, it fell short in protecting some of the Iraqis that had worked with it during the early years of that war.

It is maddening to see that it has come to this lowest common denominator, especially after there was strong bipartisan support for efforts to protect and provide safe haven for Afghans who stood with America and the Biden administration’s own stated goal on this front. The fact that America is falling short on this most basic of objectives, the least we could do, shows just how much the broader notions of a shared common good have been pushed to the margins in the debate on Afghanistan.

The Biden administration has sent a temporary surge of U.S. troops this week to get Americans out of harms’ way. It should redouble efforts to help Afghan partners receive protection and safe haven, including women human rights activists, judges and other professionals already targeted by the Taliban.

  1. Monitor the security situation in Afghanistan and work with partners to prevent wider security threats from emerging.

The second priority — like the first one —  made more difficult by the Taliban’s stunning surge — is to prevent the emergence of security threats inside Afghanistan that could spread regionally and globally. Just as we witnessed in Iraq and neighboring Syria with the rise of the Islamic State in 2012-2014, security dynamics can shift dramatically when governing authorities are weak, divided, or captured by one particular faction. In addition to watching for the emergence of new terrorist threats with a regional and global reach, the United States should work with NATO allies and regional partners to prevent the outbreak of another widespread civil war in Afghanistan.

This means leaning on existing relationships inside of the remnants of what remains of Afghanistan’s security forces and government, as well as using whatever remaining leverage the United States has with countries in the region like Pakistan and Arab Gulf states who have relationships within Afghanistan.

  1. Reset regional and international diplomatic efforts.

One of the biggest shortcomings of U.S. strategy in recent years, particularly in the past six months, was the alarming disconnect between diplomatic efforts to pursue peace in Afghanistan on the one hand and security dynamics on the ground. The ideal situation is to have diplomacy backed by a military and security strategy that seeks to eliminate threats and reduce incentives for parties to turn to violence. Both the Biden and Trump administrations did not focus on this gap.

Now that the Taliban have regained power through force, resetting the diplomatic efforts is more complicated, but remains a necessary component. The Biden administration should pursue an international and regional diplomatic strategy that is linked to the second line of effort on the security front. If the Taliban continue to show their true colors and undercut basic freedoms and stability, the United States should work with other global powers to isolate it and deny it recognition. If countries neighboring Afghanistan like Pakistan and Iran do not play constructive roles, then U.S. strategy and diplomacy need to take this into account.

Putting diplomacy first, backed by a more balanced regional security strategy coordinated with partners across the broader region, will require the Biden administration to put into place a full diplomatic team. However, this is something it has been slow going, in part because of some Republicans in Congress holding up nominations.

The situation remains fluid and uncertain across Afghanistan, and the alarming instability and backsliding on basic human rights represent a wake-up call for those who support liberal and progressive values. That’s all the more reason to focus on some practical and pragmatic steps the United States might be able to take to lessen the risks and prevent a wider catastrophe.

But when the dust settles from this current crisis, America should take the time to reflect on how things unfolded this way. In the two decades since 9/11, the United States has too often used other countries and their people as props in our own partisan debates that seem tribal and sectarian in their own way. These debates often took place at the level of slogans, with a wide array of banners from a global war on terror to a freedom agenda to a foreign policy of “restraint” that sought to “end endless wars” without carefully thinking through the steps and commitments actually needed to achieve its goals.

The Biden administration wants to pivot to wider challenges and opportunities in the world. As other U.S. administrations have seen: That is easier said than done when facing thorny challenges to security and values like we see unfolding in Afghanistan today. 

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security strategy, the Middle East and counterterrorism policy. Follow him on Twitter: @katulis

Tags 9/11 Afghanistan Brian Katulis Diplomacy International Joe Biden Kabul Middle East military force Taliban

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