When Kabul falls, America is in danger again

As Baghdad was falling to the forces of the United States and its coalition partners in March 2003, Iraqi Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, better known to Americans as “Baghdad Bob,” was offering an entirely different account of the events taking place on his doorstep. Among his most memorable quotes — and there were many — were  “There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!” and “They are not even [within] 100 miles [of Baghdad]. They are not in any place. They hold no place in Iraq. This is an illusion ... they are trying to sell to the others an illusion.”

As numerous analysts have pointed out, officials in Kabul and Washington appear to be no less delusional than Saddam Hussein’s minister. Moreover, they have been fooling themselves for even longer than Baghdad Bob. American officials have not ceased to believe that the Taliban would abide by the terms of the Feb. 29, 2020, Doha agreement, which was advertised as the first step in a process that would lead both to American and NATO withdrawal of their forces and a settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Yet little has materialized from the Taliban commitment to “intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations.” On the contrary, in a manner reminiscent of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s ultimately successful offensives against the Army of [South] Vietnam, which were stepped up after Henry Kissinger negotiated the 1973 Paris Peace Accords — for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize — the Taliban has stepped up its operations against the Kabul government’s forces throughout the country. 

Nevertheless, even as the Taliban offensive continued to intensify, Biden administration officials believed in the negotiations’ positive outcome and insisted that while the Taliban might control the Afghan countryside, it would not attempt to seize urban areas, and especially provincial capitals. When the Taliban did just that, administration officials posited that the Taliban would not attempt to seize major provincial capitals such as Kunduz, Herat, Kandahar or Mazer-i-Sharif. Kunduz, Lashkar Gah, Herat and Kandahar have fallen; it appears to be only a matter of days before Mazer-i-Sharif falls as well.

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Shades of Baghdad Bob. Unfazed by reality, Biden administration spokesmen project confidence that the Taliban will not try to seize Kabul. Instead, the administration continues to put its faith in negotiations and has dispatched chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad on yet another doomed foray to Doha.

This week, in response to the rapid fall of nine provincial capitals to the Taliban, the Afghan government replaced the army chief of staff. The change appears to have had no impact on increasingly dire forecasts as to when, not if, Kabul will fall. U.S. officials reportedly now predict that Kabul will fall much sooner than expected. Previous assessments predicted that the Afghan capital would surrender to the Taliban in six to 12 months after the departure of American forces. Now officials reportedly assert that Kabul could fall within 90 days. Given the degree to which Afghan government forces have melted away, rather than fight the Taliban, 90 days may be an optimistic prediction — which may be why some officials feel that the city will surrender in as little as a month. 

Subsequent to the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Vietnamese government had no official relations with Washington until they were restored two decades later. But throughout that period, Vietnam did not serve as a base for attacks on the United States. The same cannot be assumed of the Taliban and Afghanistan. 

It is true that the Taliban is unlikely to project its power beyond Afghanistan’s borders. It is hemmed in by several Central Asian states, as well as Pakistan and Iran, all of which harbor varying degrees of suspicion regarding the group. And it can safely be said that the Taliban leadership wisely will refrain from doing anything to provoke China, Afghanistan’s other far more powerful neighbor.

On the other hand, the Taliban’s commitment at Doha to prevent the renewal of an al Qaeda presence in the country — or for that matter, that of terrorist groups such as ISIS — is likely to go the way of American dreams of a coalition Afghan government. There have been numerous reports that the Taliban never ruptured its ties with al Qaeda, nor that it has any quarrel with ISIS. These organizations may, therefore, find that they can operate freely on Afghan soil. If once again they can train terrorists as they did prior to 9/11, another attack on Americans, whether overseas or in America itself, cannot be ruled out. 

The time for Washington’s reverie about an acceptable outcome to what it calls the “forever war” is long past over. There will be no acceptable outcome. If the Biden team remains committed to withdrawing all American forces by the end of this month, it had better come up with another way to ensure that the updated version of Afghanistan circa 2001 does not come back to haunt Americans after two decades of bloody and costly conflict.

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.