The images were harrowing. Desperate Afghans clung to a US Air Force jet and walked alongside it as it descended the runaway runway and prepared for takeoff. The American occupation of Afghanistan came to an end. Tens of thousands of Afghans had been evacuated. But many still wanted out badly.
Those who were unable to leave have been living under newly restored Taliban rule for a year now. How have they fared?
Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, not well.
“We want to have good relations with the US and the world,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said shortly after the end of the US airlift from Kabul last August. The Taliban stressed that women had access to education and their rights were protected. Many were skeptical.
Rights were severely curtailed during the Taliban’s first term of office from 1996 to 2001. A strict interpretation of Islamic law was required of the Afghans. Severe penalties were imposed for minor infractions. Women in particular suffered from it.
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Hopes that Taliban rule would be less repressive in its latest version were soon dashed. Sharia was quickly introduced. After the Taliban promised that girls and women would be allowed to go back to school, they broke it off. Life in Afghanistan, it seemed, was quickly reverting to what it was before the US invasion.
The Taliban’s return to power left Afghanistan isolated. Foreign aid, which funded 75% of government spending, was halted. This brought Afghanistan into great distress. The economy collapsed and hunger spread. Some Afghans were safer due to less armed conflict. But for most, life in Afghanistan is a struggle for a living.
The US withdrawal had the most immediate impact on the lives of Afghans. But it also influenced the worldview of the United States.
The defeat in Afghanistan showed that the world’s most powerful military power can be humiliated by a weak, dysfunctional, quasi-failed state. The United States spent $2 trillion on the Afghan war. Two thousand American lives were lost. And yet the US was unable to achieve its goals.
The result, some feared, would embolden US opponents. Jihadists would “find a divine hand” in America’s defeat, predicted The Economist. And China would bask in the humiliation of the United States. Like the Vietnam War, the war showed that power does not always equate to political influence.
The withdrawal may also have weakened relations with allies by challenging the United States’ reliability. India, which has increasingly allied itself with the United States to oppose China, has been dismayed by Islamic extremists and India’s main competitor, Pakistan, who have gained influence following the Taliban takeover. Some in Europe felt abandoned. Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang said the withdrawal shows Taiwan must be ready to defend itself.
The withdrawal could have significant political ramifications in the United States. Prior to the evacuation, President Biden had presided over what many in the US saw as a return to normal after the Trump presidency. Biden appeared to be competently handling the pandemic and restoring America’s image to the world. But the botched evacuation called into question the competence of the administration.
By the midterm elections this fall, withdrawal may be a distant memory. And foreign policy tends to play a smaller role in elections (particularly midterms) than domestic issues. But the pullback was the start of a slide from Biden’s approval rating, which is now at an all-time low.
There was no easy answer to what to do in Afghanistan when Biden became president. After two decades, the United States had not achieved its goals. A longer stay would probably only have delayed the inevitable.
Nonetheless, the withdrawal left Afghanistan in dire need of assistance today.
We witnessed the consequences of the withdrawal last year. Dealing with an unsavory regime like the Taliban can be morally compromising. But we must find a way to reach the Afghan people. Your life depends on it.
David R. Dreyer is Professor of Political Science at Lenoir-Rhyne University.