One year after the United States ended its longest war, there remains considerable disagreement over whether the war in Afghanistan was winnable or worth fighting. Congress has chartered a bipartisan commission to investigate the war and draw lessons for the future. But however one views the conflict, few would dispute that the exit from Afghanistan at the end of August 2021 was a chaotic mess—or that the United States has limited options for dealing with the Taliban regime.
A year ago, thousands of Afghans swarmed the Kabul airport in a desperate bid to escape, and a suicide bomber killed thirteen U.S. service members who were defending the airport. While the United States evacuated 120,000 people, tens of thousands of Afghans who had helped U.S. forces remain trapped. Even though the U.S. withdrawal was negotiated by the Donald Trump administration, President Joe Biden has paid a heavy political price for it: his approval rating began to slump in August 2021 and, for a variety of reasons, has never recovered.
The situation looks a little better for the administration after a U.S. drone strike on July 31 killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. His death buttresses President Biden’s contention that the U.S. can successfully conduct “over the horizon” counterterrorism missions. But the fact that Zawahiri was living in a house that reportedly belongs to a top aide to acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani shows that the Taliban have no intention of breaking ties with al-Qaeda, as they had promised to do in negotiations with U.S. envoys.
A U.S. intelligence assessment leaked to the New York Times supports the administration’s position by concluding that, despite Zawahiri’s safe haven in Kabul, “al-Qaeda has not reconstituted its presence in Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrawal” and that only a few longtime al-Qaeda members are in the country. But that finding is disputed by outside researchers, including CFR’s Bruce Hoffman.
Much of the historical verdict on the U.S. withdrawal will depend on what happens in the coming years: Will Afghanistan become a launching point for terrorist attacks on the West? If it does, Biden will be judged harshly, and historians are likely to conclude that he should not have overruled the recommendations of military commanders who argued for keeping a few thousand U.S. advisors in the country. But if there are no further terrorist strikes emanating from Afghanistan, Biden’s risky pullout could be vindicated. In the meantime, the administration will have to grapple with the Taliban regime that took power a year ago.
Before Zawahiri’s death, the administration had been negotiating with the Taliban to release some of the $7 billion in Afghan assets that have been frozen in the United States. But the administration is unlikely to release any funds now that the Taliban were found to be sheltering the leader of al-Qaeda—and while they continue to systemically repress Afghan women and girls. Those factors also mitigate against the United States offering assistance to the Taliban in fighting their mutual foes in the Islamic State. In the current environment, it would simply be unthinkable for the Biden administration to work with the Taliban.
If the Taliban truly cared about the people of Afghanistan, they would pursue a more moderate course that would make Western aid more likely. There are some in the regime who counsel pragmatism (e.g., allowing girls to go to school past the sixth grade), but their voices have been drowned out by the hard-liners led by the supreme leader, Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. The victims of the Taliban’s cruelty and indifference are their own people.
The United Nations reports that at least twenty million Afghans—or half the population—require food aid. Starvation looms for many. The U.S. government remains the largest single humanitarian donor, providing more than $774 million in assistance since the withdrawal, but that is not enough to stave off a catastrophe. Other states—in particular, China, Pakistan, and Russia, which are establishing diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime—should be providing more aid.
The United States will continue gathering intelligence in Afghanistan and could carry out further drone strikes if there is actionable intelligence on a high-value target. But it is doubtful that drone strikes will ever again become routine in Afghanistan; the one that killed Zawahiri was the first since last August. The United States also has little credibility to threaten larger-scale military action against the Taliban to force them to evict al-Qaeda fighters, since there would be no support in the United States to resume the war. Even U.S. attempts to leverage aid to entice the Taliban into moderating their policies have been a dismal failure.
When it comes to safeguarding U.S. interests in Afghanistan, and the interests of the Afghan people, Washington has few good options left. The U.S. ability to affect Afghanistan’s future—always more limited than many American officials would care to admit—is now nearly nonexistent. The Taliban are in control, and the people of Afghanistan are at their mercy.