President Joe Biden said August 16, 2021; he made the right call to pull American troops out of Afghanistan even though he said the Taliban’s swift seizure of Kabul unfolded faster than expected. “I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said during a speech at the White House.
Biden said Afghan officials – including former President Ashraf Ghani – had assured him Afghan forces would fight the insurgents. “The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Biden said. Without specifying any particular mistakes that were made, Biden said the withdrawal process has been “hard and messy – and yes, far from perfect.”
Biden partially blamed Trump but mostly laid the failure on the Afghanistan people for not defending themselves. When listening to Biden’s speech, though he never called them “red lines,” Biden seemed to be setting policy that the Taliban can then respond to. Here were Biden’s two takeaways.
- America is leaving Afghanistan, succeeding the region to the Taliban and potentially other foreign players.
- The only reason America would go back into Afghanistan is if the Taliban does not allow safe passage for Americans and allies to leave the region.
Biden chose to deliver a dishonest strawman speech. He failed to explain or justify rapid withdrawal without securing all US assets, human as a priority, on the ground in advance. He misrepresented his predecessors’ agreement and strategic plan for withdrawal while omitting his administration’s choice to remove all air capability from the Afghan forces which would have stopped the Taliban’s advance. Instead, he argued that withdrawal was the right and moral choice, a point that supports Trump’s Foreign Policy, and very few disagree. Former President Trump said it best,” Joe, It’s not that we left Afghanistan. It’s the grossly incompetent way we left!”
A suspicious and cynical person might ask if this administration willfully abandoned allies and set up a scenario that would result in America ramping up a war in the region rather than exiting one?
See Joe Biden’s address to the nation where Biden apparently lays out his redlines.
Why Biden thought it was necessary to telegraph these “redlines” to our enemies is a head shaker, but one wonders if you were the Taliban what your next steps would be given these Biden “redlines.” The Taliban, like the Biden administration, perhaps were surprised about the swiftness of their victory. So this brings us to two strategic possibilities they may be thinking.
- Consolidate power – The Taliban will be content to rule over Afghanistan. They may have ambitions to further some wider caliphate, but they have a job to consolidate their power for now. Once power is consolidated, they then may launch new efforts – but this may be further down the timeline.
- Caliphate imperative – The Taliban have America and its allies on the run – I.e., strike while the iron is hot. Their benefactors may also not be content with merely conquering Afghanistan – it’s about sowing chaos in the world for a wider agenda. For the Taliban, the ideological ideas for a wider caliphate may be imperative. The Taliban may want to trigger a Biden “redline” and bring America and its allies back into the conflict – via further horrific events (e.g., barbaric violence, sizable loss of life, and/or hostage-taking) as America tries to exit the region.
To understand which strategy the Taliban may take, perhaps it is useful to understand their mindset and who their benefactors are that they may be beholding to.
Who are the key Taliban leaders?
The overall leader of the Taliban is Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. He is thought to have been born in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar Province in Afghanistan. Akhundzada prefers to operate in the shadows rather than post bloodthirsty videos. Even his missives to his followers are said not to be written in his own handwriting. While Akhundzada may not be a fighter, he was quite prepared to let his son, 23, die in a suicide bombing mission on an Afghan base.
Due to Akhundzada being a reclusive figure, little is known about him, and some have even questioned if he really exists, referring to him as a “ghost.” He only occasionally issues written communiques and avoids public appearances due to fears of being assassinated.
But it seems he rose through the ranks not as a fighter but as a religious scholar, upholding the group’s hardline edicts through the feared “vice and virtue” police. Questions have also been raised about just how hardline Akhundzada is. Some claim he is against softening the Taliban’s edicts against music and dancing, while others say he is open to women’s education. Akhundzada though does appear to want to curb the more extreme Taliban brutality, even if it is only a way to prevent resistance to their rule.
He is once said to have told a group of Taliban officials: “Do you know why people support the government militias? It’s because you people cut off their heads for receiving minor help from an aid agency.” Read more about the other leaders of the Taliban here.
While Akhundzada is the Taliban’s overall leader, Baradar is its political chief and its most public face. Baradar, born in Uruzgan province in 1968, fought in the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s. After the Russians were driven out in 1989 and the country fell into civil war between rival warlords, Baradar set up a madrassa in Kandahar with his former commander and reputed brother-in-law, Mohammad Omar. Together, the two mullahs founded the Taliban, a movement spearheaded by young Islamic scholars dedicated to the religious purification of the country and the creation of an emirate.
Fueled by religious fervor, widespread hatred of the warlords, and substantial support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, the Taliban swept to power in 1996 after a series of stunning conquests of provincial capitals that took the world by surprise, just as the movement has done in recent weeks. Baradar, Mullah Omar’s deputy, who was widely believed to be a highly effective strategist, was a key architect of those victories.
Who has the Taliban leaders been talking with that may indicate who their benefactors are?
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Taliban commander Abdul Ghani Baradar in China on July 28, 2021. Discussions between China and the Taliban are likely to continue this week even as other countries evacuate their citizenry. Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said on Monday that while most Chinese nationals had returned to the mainland, the Chinese Embassy in Afghanistan is “operating as usual.” Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way – see more of the bromance of the Chinese and Taliban here.
Taliban representatives in July of 2021 met Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, in Moscow to stress that its recent territorial gains in the country do not pose a threat to Russia or its Central Asian allies, according to the Washington Post. The Russian Foreign Ministry said Kabulov shared Russia’s concerns about the escalation in fighting in northern Afghanistan and called on the Taliban to prevent the conflict from spreading beyond the country’s borders, according to TASS, Russia’s state news agency. The Russian Embassy in Afghanistan is also “operating as usual.”
Perhaps the best way to see who will be the friends of the Taliban are those countries that are not on the run since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
So, which strategy going forward will the Taliban take? Time will tell, but the Afghan situation is fluid. Don’t be surprised if the strategy of building a wider caliphate comes into play. If true, this could make the situation in Afghanistan if possible even more grave.
What this means for the internal politics in America, considering all the other issues going on in America (e.g., immigration, Covid, economy/inflation, 2020 midterms, to name a few), will become highly problematic. The future is getting even more unsure under the Biden administration’s leadership.