BRYAN-COLLEGE STATION, Aug. 16, 2021 – Editor’s Note: This article was published through a partnership between Texas A&M University and KSAT. You can also read it on Texas A&M Today.
After more than 20 years and billions of dollars of support from the United States, the Afghan national security forces have collapsed to Taliban fighters just days after President Joe Biden withdrew troops.
Texas A&M Today spoke with Gregory Gause, professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, about the collapse of the Afghanistan government to the Taliban. Gause is an expert on the international politics of the Middle East.
The U.S. trained and equipped 300,000 Afghan soldiers to defend their country. Why did the country fall to the Taliban so fast?
Armies do not collapse on an arithmetic timeline. Collapse is geometric. Once units see that other units have collapsed and that nothing is being done to try to stem the enemy tide, they tend to give up pretty quickly. A fighting retreat might be the most difficult thing an army has to do. Moreover, if the government for which the army is fighting does not have the support of the army, the incentives to fight are reduced even more. This is clearly the case in Afghanistan.
Is this the same Taliban as 20 years ago?
This is the big question. All we can do now is speculate; the tests of Taliban intentions will come very shortly. It is possible that the leadership will be less likely to harbor jihadi Islamist groups with international goals, like al-Qaeda, given the experience of 2001 (the U.S invasion to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan). However, we do not know that with any certainty. Likewise, we have no idea if the Taliban leadership has drawn any lessons from its previous experience regarding the enforcement of their extremely strict notions of Islamic law on social issues. They ruled the country from 1996 until our invasion in 2001, and I think that they will be as powerful now as they were then.
What is going to happen to the women and girls of the region? Who will help them?
We do not know, but we can be certain that the social gains for women and girls in major Afghan cities will be reversed. How much they will be reversed remains to be seen. Who will help them? No one.
Did Biden do the wrong thing by pulling out? Or was it the right thing to do but executed poorly?
We can distinguish between the overall strategy of withdrawal and how it was accomplished. There are some who argue that the U.S. should have stayed in Afghanistan with force levels in the thousands, but not the tens of thousands, indefinitely. They are clearly a minority in our political class. Both the last Republican president and the last Democratic president talked about withdrawal from Afghanistan. The last Republican president negotiated a withdrawal timetable with the Taliban. The current president is implementing the withdrawal, which is fairly bipartisan.
The issue of how it was done will be the matter of criticism for most, I think. Clearly the Biden administration thought it had months to wind down the diplomatic presence and evacuate Americans and Afghanis who worked for the United States. It turned out that it only had days. The finger pointing has already begun in the government, with the military blaming the State Department and the CIA, the State Department questioning the military and the CIA leaking to reporters that it was not listened to. The knives are out in Washington.
What are your predictions for the next few weeks and months?
The Taliban will entrench themselves in power. There will be reprisals against Afghani citizens who worked with the U.S. and the previous government. Russia and China will reach out to the new Taliban government, though the path ahead for them is complicated, as both worry about Sunni Islamists in their own borders. If the Taliban open Afghanistan to be a base for other Sunni Islamist groups, relations with Russia and China will deteriorate. Pakistan will be the new government’s best international partner, as it was when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan previously.
What, if anything, does this mean for Israel?
In the short term, really nothing. Will it embolden Iran and Islamist groups like Hizballah to further challenge Israel? Probably not, because Shia Muslims (Iran is overwhelmingly Shia and Hizballah is a Lebanese Shia organization allied with Iran) have had real problems with the version of Sunni Islam to which the Taliban adhere. In 1998, Iran almost went to war with the Taliban government in Afghanistan over their treatment of the Shia minority in Afghanistan. Will Sunni groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda be emboldened against Israel? I doubt any short-term change there. But if the Taliban allow these groups to develop bases in Afghanistan, that might change the equation.
How would you recommend people best learn the history related to these current events?
Two books to read on this:
- Steven Coll, Ghost Wars (Penguin Books, 2004). A great account of the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the U.S. role in that, and the lead up to the U.S. invasion of 2001.
- Ahmed Rashid, Taliban (Yale University Press, 2000). Rashid is a Pakistani journalist who covered the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban.