Column: Kabul’s fall was a debacle, but long-term impact hasn’t been as catastrophic as feared
One year ago, as President Biden was withdrawing the last American troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban swept into Kabul and abruptly brought a 20-year, $2.3-trillion U.S. war to an ignominious end.
It was Biden’s worst foreign policy failure, and prompted warnings that more catastrophes would follow: not only the tragedy of Taliban rule over 38 million Afghans, but a resurgence of international terrorism and a collapse of U.S. influence around the world.
“It is hard to overstate the damage to U.S. credibility wreaked by this fiasco,” wrote Kori Schake of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “The disastrous withdrawal will make it harder for Washington to put together [international] coalitions in the future.”
“Biden broke NATO,” the Wall Street Journal editorial page pronounced.
“The terrorism risk to the United States is going to get dramatically worse,” predicted Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counter-terrorism chief under President Trump.
Most of those worst-case forecasts haven’t come true.
Yes, Taliban rule in Afghanistan has been violent, repressive and chaotic — an economic and human catastrophe for Afghans, especially women. That isn’t a surprise.
Beyond the country’s borders, though, the consequences of America’s failure have been more limited.
Terrorism? Contrary to pessimists’ fears, the Afghan-based core of Al Qaeda hasn’t succeeded in rebuilding.
A U.S. drone strike killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri on his Kabul balcony last month. That served as proof that the Taliban — or at least one faction, the Haqqani clan — was harboring the group. But it also showed that the United States can conduct counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan despite having far fewer intelligence assets on the ground.
Al Qaeda has loomed large to Americans since its Sept. 11, 2001, attack on New York and the Pentagon. But the group hasn’t pulled off a major transnational plot since July 2005, when it detonated four suicide bombs in London’s transit system. In 2020, a Saudi Air Force cadet influenced by Al Qaeda killed three American sailors in Florida, but it isn’t clear whether the organization directed the attack.
“Al Qaeda still has grand aspirations, but its core is actually very weak,” Daniel L. Byman, a terrorism scholar at Georgetown University, told me last week.
The organization can’t be counted out forever, he warned, and might be able to launch major attacks again someday. But they’re not at that stage yet.
As for broader damage to U.S. credibility, reports of our demise appear to have been exaggerated.
Amid the chaos in Kabul last year, Biden defended his withdrawal from Afghanistan as a way to extricate the United States from a war it had long been losing and concentrate on bigger problems: China and Russia.
“My dad used to have an expression: If everything is equally important to you, nothing is important to you,” the president said then. “We should be focusing on where the threat is the greatest.”
To Biden’s credit, he followed through, building international coalitions to counter China’s growing power (the oddly named AUKUS military alliance with Britain and Australia and the ostensibly nonmilitary Quad with Japan, India and Australia), and so expansively assuring Taiwan that the United States would come to its aid that State Department officials tried to tone down his remarks.
He also worked to assure NATO allies that the withdrawal from Afghanistan, where more than 50 other countries also sent troops, would not weaken the U.S. commitment to Europe.
Those relationships were tested within months, when Russia’s Vladimir Putin threatened to invade Ukraine. Biden and his aides took a leading role in organizing an allied response, including warnings that Western countries would impose joint economic sanctions on Russia if Putin launched an invasion.
To Putin’s apparent surprise, the NATO allies were serious.
Even more surprisingly, the outbreak of war in Eastern Europe prompted Sweden and Finland to abandon their long-held status as neutral countries and apply hurriedly for membership in the U.S.-led alliance.
If Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan “broke NATO,” the organization didn’t stay broken for long.
None of those well-executed foreign policy decisions erases the failure of the long U.S. effort in Afghanistan or the short-term debacle of its final days. None spares Afghans from the consequences of the country’s economic collapse or protect the country’s women from repression.
Nor do they diminish the violence and instability created by regional terrorism, including in Pakistan, Afghanistan’s nuclear-armed neighbor, where the Taliban victory appears to have emboldened homegrown extremists.
But those effects, lamentable though they be, are local, not global.
In that sense, the fall of Kabul in 2021 looks broadly similar to the fall of Saigon in 1975: a stinging defeat for the United States, but one whose consequences beyond the immediate region have been surprisingly modest.
And a year later, Biden’s decision to withdraw, however disastrous appeared at the time, looks more defensible.