Afghanistan: Balancing Responsibility with Restraint

By Kateryna Halstead 

A Marine trains in advance of deployment to Afghanistan in 2011
Image Credit: Reece Lodder/DVIDS

On August 16, 2021, Taliban forces swarmed into Kabul. The collapse of the Afghan capital offered both symbolic and very physical proof of the breakdown of the Afghan government, and along with it, the hopes for democratic reforms in the nation. 

Meanwhile, on that very same Monday, Laura Ingraham asked a crucial question on her Fox News show: “Is it really our responsibility to welcome thousands of potentially unvetted refugees from Afghanistan? All day we’ve heard phrases like ‘We promised them.’ Well, who did? Did you?”

In light of the realities on the ground, this is an interesting question to raise from the comfort of American shores. It highlights an American oversight and, more generally, the pitfalls of informal or inferred alliances. How can a foreign policy of restraint and prioritizing bilateral cooperation be balanced with responsibilities to the allied citizens of the nations in which the United States has attempted to inject its democratic ideals?

When it comes to forging “grassroots” alliances, the kind which were predominant and key to tactical gains in Afghanistan, the United States cannot be relied upon to protect the people on the ground. 

These people were changemakers and activists, oftentimes women, and they fully devoted themselves to the cause. Somehow, they were not a priority of the American foreign policy agenda. 

In the case of Afghanistan, both the Trump and Biden administrations remained committed to an agreement struck with a historically fundamentalist and hard-liner group. Hyper-focusing on negotiations with the Taliban while neglecting to craft much-needed contingency plans for American allies sent a grim foreign policy message. 

In February 2020, the Trump administration signed the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” with the Taliban (better known as the Doha Agreement). This peace agreement was ambitious from the beginning, as it relied heavily on developing a sense of trust with the Taliban and offered many concessions to it. For example, the negotiated Taliban/Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) prisoner release favored the Taliban by a five to one margin. 

The U.S. was not able to approach the negotiation table from a position of power. The agreement hinged on the scheduled withdrawal of US troops, contractors and nonmilitary personnel. With the exception of the Biden administration’s extension from May 2021 to August 2021, the US military followed this timeline. 

The Taliban, on the other hand, did not adhere to the pact. A recent Congressional report on Afghanistan explicitly noted that the Taliban was not adhering to the stipulations of the peace talks, and intra-government negotiations within Afghanistan proceeded haphazardly and without commitment from the Taliban. 

Furthermore, and more worryingly, the Taliban has ignored the stipulation of the Doha Agreement requiring it to cease affiliation and cooperation with al Qaeda (and other terrorist groups).

The fault lines fracturing the peace talks were evident from the beginning, and the Taliban’s lack of commitment to peace was a glaring indicator of failures to come in the future. 

While spearheading “diplomatic” dialogues with a historically radical and violet group—one which promoted individuals such as Sirajuddin Haqqani, a United States designated terrorist on the FBI’s most wanted list, to a deputy position within its ranks and a ministerial government posting — there was little priority given to ensuring the ongoing protections of the vulnerable Afghans who had committed to the U.S. cause — and the cause of progress for a democratic Afghanistan. 

Besides a lack of adequate protection guidelines and expectations within the Doha Agreement in terms of assuring human dignities and rights for Afghan citizens who had worked with U.S. forces or those who actively promoted American values, there was little regard given to holding the Taliban to even the bare guidelines of the agreement in the first place. 

The willingness to overlook these telling indications of future violence and regression, in favor of maintaining tenuous diplomatic dialogue, could have been balanced out by a serious approach to an early-start diplomatic immunity and protection strategy for vulnerable Afghans who had stepped out of the shadows of Taliban oppression to publicly champion the message of democratic progress. 

Although the negotiations and withdrawal were rife with structural errors, the scope of the interagency efforts, dedication to the task, and bravery of U.S. servicemembers deserves commendation. The magnitude of the task at hand, in terms of undertaking such a monumental logistical operation under chaotic and hazardous conditions and with little precedent and notice, cannot be underscored enough. 

Additionally, as evidenced by the visits of Representatives Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Peter Meijer (R-MI) to Afghanistan during the evacuation process, the desire for an effective plan and oversight of the situation had bipartisan support. In the final hours of the Taliban takeover, there was no shortage of commitment, effort, and sacrifice to come to the aid of those in need.

Criticism of the situation is better aimed at the actions taken before the Taliban’s weeklong sweep across the nation. For example, many experts now point to the solution of an earlier evacuation process, which could have neutralized many of the hazards of the chaotic and violent situation that transpired. 

The administration justified its timeline on the basis of a need to preserve the integrity of Ashraf Ghani’s government and perception of its stability and power. It was reported that “[President Biden] wanted the United States to be ‘conservative’ in granting exit visas to the interpreters and others, and ‘low key’ about their leaving the country so it would not look as if America lacked faith in his government.” 

Foreign policy leaders are often tasked with the unpleasant and difficult choices, and in this case, the difficult choice translated to prioritizing an autocratic government and leaving the Afghan people vulnerable — the very people who composed the grassroots citizenry which had been the backbone of U.S. efforts for two decades. 

More worryingly, this foreign policy approach not only sent the message of lesser regard to the “little guys on the ground,” in favor of alliances with propped up government figures, but it also was contradictory to previous U.S. statements. 

The United States Institute of Peace, with Congressional mandate, formed the Afghanistan Study Group with the aims of guiding foreign policy decision making during the peace negotiations and withdrawal plans. One of the priorities highlighted by the report was “continued support for courageous members of Afghan civil society who have been instrumental in securing essential gains in rights, education, and health and who have been and will continue to be key in supporting a sustained peace.” 

Outside of visible evacuation efforts, administrative processes and logistical chains could and should have been prioritized to create a stable foundation should the worst come to pass, as inevitably it did. The lack of both a concrete, early-process evacuation, as well as even a minimal approach to expediting administrative processes, is a clear display of miscalculations and avoidable failures that should be prevented from occurring in the future.

Washington’s responsibilities to the Afghan government and foreign policy objectives with the Taliban negotiations should never have been allowed to eclipse the responsibility and protection owed to the Afghan people. 

The failures to see beyond the “full-steam ahead” plan and utter faith in each administration’s policy approach, despite obvious signs of its flaws, left U.S. agencies and its military at a significant disadvantage, undertaking an unprecedented logistical, coordination, and evacuation effort, and their operational and logistical success in the face of utter chaos does not exonerate the shortcomings of policymakers. 

America didn’t learn from Vietnam, and despite the outrage and heartbreak of the military personnel who worked alongside them, the Kurds faced a similar fate from allying with the United States. Now, after Afghanistan, hearing excuses and deflections rather than serious introspection, perhaps it is future potential allies who will learn the lesson, and America will find itself without the lifeblood of foreign policy and diplomacy: the support of friendly locals. 

Kateryna Halstead is a writer for the Realist Review. A 2020 CSIS Trinity Fellow, she graduated from Norwich University with a degree in International Studies.

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