Washington can prevent a humanitarian disaster after we leave Afghanistan

Washington can prevent a humanitarian disaster after we leave Afghanistan
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On April 14, President BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE acted upon an impression he developed more than a decade earlier when he visited Afghanistan shortly before he took the oath of office as vice president of the United States. As he explained in his speech announcing the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 20 years after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, “What I saw on that trip reinforced my conviction that only the Afghans have the right and responsibility to lead their country, and that more and endless American military force could not create or sustain a durable Afghan government.”

It is true that Biden remains committed to supporting the government in Kabul even after the military departs the country. As he put it, “Our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue.  We’ll continue to support the government of Afghanistan. We will keep providing assistance to the Afghan National Defenses and Security Forces.” 

But what if the government falls, as it is likely to do?

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The Taliban’s strategy has always been to outwait America. Having seen America tire of Vietnam, the mullahs headquartered in Quetta, Pakistan, expected Washington to tire of Afghanistan. Perhaps it took longer than expected, but their strategy has been vindicated. It is no secret that the Afghan National Army simply has not been able to defeat the Taliban, even with the support of American and NATO forces. Kabul will eventually fall, just as Saigon did.

The result will be nothing less than a humanitarian disaster. Women will see the gains that they have made since 2002 entirely reversed. Once again, those who refused to support the Taliban will be hanged in town squares. And the radical Sunni government again will persecute the Sh’ia Hazara community, as it did before 2001.

The result will be a flood of refugees leaving Afghanistan. Pakistan is unlikely to want them again as it did in the 1990s, however. Neither will the Gulf states nor Europe. These people will have nowhere to go. It would seem that in such circumstances, America’s promises of humanitarian and diplomatic support, much less military assistance to Afghanistan, no longer will have any meaning.

That need not necessarily be the case, however. Just as it is almost a certainty that the Taliban will return to Kabul, so it is equally certain that the Northern Alliance, led by Uzbeks and Tajiks who fought the Taliban’s Pashtun extremists throughout the 1990s, also will be reconstituted. And that should create a new opening for Washington.

Instead of merely providing clandestine assistance to the Alliance as it did when the Taliban ruled the country, Washington should encourage the rival leaders of the Alliance — such as Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Nur — to form a government of Northern Afghanistan, modeled on the Kurdish regional government. The United States and NATO could provide aerial protection, military equipment, and economic and humanitarian support. Refugees would have a safe haven. So, too, would women and the Hazara minority. Afghanistan would be divided in two, but the country never really has been unified for very long.

American support to the Kurds prevented Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from overwhelming the Kurdish Peshmerga. Similar assistance would sustain the Northern Alliance forces against Taliban fighters far less capable than the Iraqi military. In doing so, the United States would avoid becoming yet another victim to be buried in the “graveyard of empires.” Equally important, if not more so, it would demonstrate that America remains a beacon of freedom, offering the promise of a better future for the millions of Afghans who, even more than Americans, have suffered from the “endless war” that Joe Biden has promised to bring to an end.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.