Al Qaeda’s top leader was hiding out inside the country with no apparent fear of arrest. Women and religious minorities face systematic oppression, international aid groups say, as the government rolls back basic human rights and steadily imposes a media blackout to cover it up.
That description seems to fit Afghanistan today just as well as it did in the late 1990s when the Taliban’s first reign created one of the world’s most repressive societies and a sanctuary from which Islamic terrorists, led by Osama bin Laden, launched the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
A year after the final U.S. and foreign combat troops left Afghanistan after two decades of war, critics say it is jarring but not at all surprising that the country has fallen so far backward so quickly. Indeed, the Taliban’s second round of power looks eerily similar to the first in its brutality, discrimination and inability or unwillingness to keep the world’s most wanted terrorists out of the country. Now, as then, the leaders of one of the world’s most desperately poor countries are shut off from the West and struggling to jump-start the economy.
It’s an especially bitter pill for President Biden, whose political popularity has yet to recover from the chaotic and bloody events in Kabul in August 2021.
For the Biden administration, any hope that the Taliban would follow a different playbook this time has been dashed.
“There has not been any mystery or surprise about Taliban rule. They are unrepentantly brutal and ideological. They never changed, despite promises to the contrary,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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Mr. Rubin studies Afghanistan extensively and has been highly critical of the U.S. withdrawal and the lack of accountability of high-level Biden administration officials involved in the operation.
“The only real surprise is just how uninterested Congress has been in holding to account those who botched the withdrawal,” Mr. Rubin said.
In executing the pullout, Mr. Biden followed through with a plan set into motion by his predecessor. President Trump negotiated the initial withdrawal deal with the Taliban. That pact was predicated on several promises, including a guarantee that the Taliban would sever all ties with al Qaeda and not allow the country to become a terrorist sanctuary for foreign attacks ever again.
Although the U.S. drone strike last week that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri was a success for U.S. intelligence and the military, it called into question the wisdom of trusting the Taliban. Al-Zawahri apparently had set up a base of operations in Kabul, sparking questions about the long-term impact of Taliban rule on U.S. security.
Lawmakers, foreign policy analysts and others say the U.S. made a historic blunder by handing over Afghanistan to the Taliban. Adding fuel to their argument is al-Zawahri’s presence in the heart of the Afghan capital, combined with the Kabul regime’s rapid reneging on promises that women and girls would retain fundamental rights such as access to secondary school.
The consequences, they say, stretch far beyond Afghanistan. America’s perceived willingness to walk away may have changed the calculus for decision-makers in Moscow, Beijing and elsewhere.
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“Biden may have wanted to end a war, but how wars end matters,” Mr. Rubin said. “Biden’s team may want to put the episode down the memory hole, but there is no denying that the weakness so brazenly on display has not been forgotten outside Washington.
“Millions of Ukrainians now pay the price, and tens of millions of Taiwanese may soon join them,” he said, referencing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and increased Chinese aggression toward the self-governing island of Taiwan.
A scathing report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan released last month found a sharp deterioration in civil liberties and public security since the Taliban takeover.
“It is beyond time for all Afghans to be able to live in peace and rebuild their lives after 20 years of armed conflict,” the U.N. analysts wrote. “Our monitoring reveals that despite the improved security situation since [August 2021], the people of Afghanistan, in particular women and girls, are deprived of the full enjoyment of their human rights.”
Although the end of the war has brought higher levels of public safety in major cities, the U.N. mission counted more than 2,100 civilian casualties in 11 months, mainly from terrorist attacks by an Islamic State offshoot targeting ethnic and religious groups.
Afghanistan’s rapid backslide also may bolster the argument that U.S. efforts to transform the country into a functioning democracy and a partner against extremism were destined to fail. Top Pentagon officials acknowledged that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan evolved into something difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
“I will tell you, I don’t believe Afghanistan is ungovernable. I believe Afghanistan is ungovernable with the Western model that will be imposed on it,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, who led U.S. Central Command during the military withdrawal, told NPR in an interview this month.
“We lost track of why we were there, and we did not keep the main thing the main thing,” he said. “That being said, preventing al Qaeda from being able to gather strength and conduct attacks against us — and ISIS, too, once it began to manifest itself in Afghanistan. Clearly, you need an Afghan military to help you do that. But I think we grew far beyond the original scope and scale of our mission, the original mission.”
History repeats itself?
Mr. Biden undoubtedly secured a major political victory with the death of al-Zawahri. The president has faced persistent criticism for his decisions in the national security realm, including his opposition to the 2011 raid that killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. In the short term, the strike on al-Zawahri also will surely have an impact on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and could hamper it from rebuilding operations in the country.
By greenlighting the strike on al-Zawahri in Kabul, Mr. Biden said he was making good on his vow that the U.S. would continue to hunt down terrorists after ground troops left Afghanistan. His pledge drew considerable skepticism after the U.S. military withdrawal.
“I made a promise to the American people that we’d continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond,” Mr. Biden said. “We’ve done just that.”
Other administration officials reject the idea that al-Zawahri’s very presence in Kabul proves that Afghanistan has already reverted to a terrorist home base.
“Ask the members of al Qaeda how safe they feel in Afghanistan right now,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters last week. “I think we proved … that it isn’t a safe haven and it isn’t going to be going forward.”
Indeed, the strike partly answers the key question of U.S. counterterrorism capabilities in the post-withdrawal era in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials have stressed that such missions would be far more difficult without U.S. military assets on the ground, but the ability to successfully take out al-Zawahri indicates that the American military can still conduct missions in Afghanistan when necessary.
The deeper question is whether al-Zawahri’s comfortable headquarters in Kabul hints at a much deeper problem.
“What this is very telling is if you’re standing, you know, comfortable and free on a balcony, you can bet there are other terrorists all over Afghanistan,” Nikki Haley, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Mr. Trump, told “Fox News Sunday.”
Other observers say it has become crystal clear that the Taliban government poses a grave danger to its people and to the Americans and Afghan allies who have worked with the U.S. over two decades.
“Just as we predicted, Afghanistan is once again harboring terrorists with American blood on their hands less than a year since the U.S. withdrawal,” said Bryan Stern, co-founder of Project Dynamo, a nonprofit organization that helps rescue Americans trapped in Afghanistan, Ukraine and other hostile corners of the world.
“As the mastermind of the attacks on 9/11, the idea that Ayman al-Zawahri can freely walk around Kabul and visit his family with impunity while those who served alongside the U.S. and NATO lost their homes, families, and many cases their lives confirms that Americans and allies who aided America remain in extreme danger from al Qaeda, other terrorist groups, and by proxy the new Afghan government itself,” he said.
In following through with the planned U.S. military exit, the Biden administration seemed to bank on the hope that the Taliban leaders, chastened by two decades out of power, would keep their promise not to revert to the strict version of Islamic law that defined their rule in the late 1990s. Taliban leaders offered public assurances that they would adopt a more liberal governing style, including allowing girls to attend secondary school. They outlawed that practice during their first reign.
The early results are grim. The Taliban have barred girls from secondary school, instituted a host of restrictive policies that have marginalized women, and eliminated many of the gains they made in Afghan society during the 20 years of a U.S.-backed government in control.
“Less than one year after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, their draconian policies are depriving millions of women and girls of their right to lead safe, free and fulfilling lives,” said Agnes Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International. The organization released a comprehensive report late last month detailing the Taliban’s abuses, particularly those directed toward women.
“Taken together, these policies form a system of repression that discriminates against women and girls in almost every aspect of their lives. Every daily detail — whether they go to school, if and how they work, if and how they leave the house — is controlled and heavily restricted. This suffocating crackdown against Afghanistan’s female population is increasing day by day. The international community must urgently demand that the Taliban respect and protect the rights of women and girls.”
The report detailed practices of detention on the grounds of “moral corruption,” forced marriage and other policies that the West hoped the Taliban would abandon.
Instead, Biden administration officials have been forced to confront the reality that the U.S. pullout has led to a significant rollback in human rights in Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged in a speech late last month how quickly the Taliban have reinstituted many of their harshest practices.
“Since the Taliban took over a year ago, they’ve reversed a great deal of the openness and progress that had been made over the previous decades. They’ve silenced civil society and journalists,” Mr. Blinken said. “In March, they banned independent international media like Voice of America and BBC from airing in Afghanistan. They continue to intimidate and censor Afghan media outlets. They stifled the free practice of religion for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
“Perhaps most notably, they failed to respect the human rights of women and girls,” he said. “Instead, under the Taliban, women and girls have largely been erased from public life.”
Mr. Blinken spoke at a U.S. Institute of Peace event marking the launch of the State Department’s U.S.-Afghan Consultative Mechanism, a platform designed to allow the U.S. to better engage Afghan women and blunt the impact of Taliban restrictions.
It’s unclear how much of an effect such initiatives can have given the Taliban’s track record. Critics say the administration has missed its opportunity to influence the future of Afghanistan, partly because of a reluctance to more aggressively back Afghan resistance groups that could have presented an alternative to full Taliban control.
“It would be hard to give Biden’s team a letter grade for the past 12 months. Rather, they have just been chronically absent,” said Mr. Rubin, the AEI scholar.
Meanwhile, specialists say the Taliban’s abuses extend beyond the limits on girls attending school.
“The Taliban has clearly prioritized its religious and ideological agenda over the economy and the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people,” Justine Fleischner, director of research at Afghan Peace Watch, told The Diplomat magazine in a recent interview.
“The human rights situation in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly problematic as former Afghan security forces, ethnic and religious minorities, women’s rights activists and journalists are subjected to forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings, now widely documented by human rights groups,” she said.