The rapid Taliban advance on Kabul and the beginning humanitarian crisis in many ways was predictable since the U.S. had planned to leave Afghanistan for more than a year. Yet, as its final troops withdrew, the United States scrambled to provide flights and visas for up to 20,000 people. Coordination with NATO allies and regional partners was lacking — a situation that mirrors the larger, continuing global crisis of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The absence of coordination on major crises, from Kabul to COVID, appears to have become endemic in international affairs. Let’s start with how the pandemic has been addressed.
When the virus began to spread in spring of 2020, it was understandable that many countries hurriedly put in place regulations they felt suited their populations. Some countries, such as Sweden, eschewed lockdowns. Others, such as New Zealand, closed off travel, essentially sealing themselves away from the world. While some in the United Kingdom thought “herd immunity” might happen, others, such as officials in Australia, chose to try to avoid any COVID-19 cases whatsoever.
When the pandemic took hold, there were no virtual conferences among countries in international groups, such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) or the G-7, to consider how to better coordinate responses to the virus.
Eighteen months later, a surge of Delta variant cases once again has led to some travel concerns and a mishmash of regulations. In June, President BidenJoe BidenPfizer CEO says vaccine data for those under 5 could be available by end of year Omicron coronavirus variant found in at least 10 states Photos of the Week: Schumer, ASU protest and sea turtles MORE met with G-7 leaders and declared that the U.S. was “back at the table” for international discussions and global leadership. However, when it comes to the pandemic, many basic initiatives that Western democracies might have launched continue to be lacking.
For example, countries have not coordinated an attempt to identify and address new variants of the virus. Record hospitalizations and a rise in COVID cases in parts of America illustrate the unforeseen danger of the Delta variant. Israel, a world leader in vaccinations, faces more than 8,000 new cases each day and is considering lockdowns and testing as schools prepare to reopen. One would have thought that, by now, world leaders would have done more to encourage vaccinations and perhaps the creation of large medical or quarantine facilities dedicated solely to COVID-19.
The same lack of urgency and coordination has underpinned efforts to help Afghans stranded in Kabul when the Taliban took control of the city. People rushed the airport and overwhelmed flights. Only days later did the U.S. say it would try to coordinate the evacuation of U.S. citizens and others. Other countries have been trying to do the same, but it’s not clear why this had to be so last-minute when officials had months to process visa requests for thousands of Afghan interpreters and others who now fear for their lives. The fact that there was no reported conference call between leaders of Western countries that have citizens in Kabul, or coordination between the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and others, despite 20 years of working together, indicates a breakdown in the international system. What happened has stunned NATO, said one EU official.
The type of disorganization that has depicted the way countries have dealt with the coronavirus also appears to be central to the failure to deal with the change in government in Afghanistan. Countries put off the need for coordination of the kind that they might have done in the last century when dealing with looming conflicts — for example, the U.S., U.K. and sometimes even the Soviets coordinated mass programs during World War II, from oceangoing convoys to the Lend-Lease plan and later, the Marshall Plan.
Where is the coordinated plan to address COVID-19? Where is the discussion of Afghanistan’s future among the Big Three or the U.S. and its allies? We live in a world that has much better connectivity and globalization than in 1945, yet today’s world leaders seem incapable of taking on large projects together.
With advanced technology, from artificial intelligence to supercomputers, it’s entirely reasonable to demand more of governments in addressing crises and to ask their intelligence agencies to better predict the needs of those on the ground. The fact that chaos reigns in Kabul at the moment, while countries are still putting in place regulations for travel and safety precautions against new strains of COVID-19, demonstrates that the G-7 and other key international groups are not pulling their weight in coordinating responses.
Seth J. Frantzman is the author of “Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future” (Bombardier Books, 2001). He writes for Defense News and The Jerusalem Post, covering the Middle East. His previous book, “After ISIS,” focused on the defeat of ISIS and geopolitical competition in the region. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.