The real nightmare begins: Afghanistan as a failed state

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
President Joe Biden's administration was caught on the horns of an intractable dilemma in Afghanistan.  Photo by Pat Benic/UPI
1 of 5 | President Joe Biden's administration was caught on the horns of an intractable dilemma in Afghanistan.  Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo

Sept. 1 (UPI) -- In thinking about Afghanistan, pick a date over the next four or five months. That could well be when it becomes absolutely clear that the Taliban were incapable of governing Afghanistan and its 38 million people.

The immediate symptoms: electricity, water, food, medical supplies and money became vanishing commodities. Other signs of failure include the insurgency that started in the north, spreading to desperate Afghans who had no future and no operation under Taliban rule except revolt.


The political and military wings of the Taliban remain in direct conflict. The former knew that a "kinder, gentler" version of Sharia law was vital to unblocking sanctions, monetary reserves and restarting the flow of foreign aid without which Afghanistan could not survive as a functioning state. The latter refuses to abandon longstanding tribal customs about the role of women; strict adherence to Sharia law; and pashtunwali, the code in which honor, hospitality and revenge are dominant.


The Islamic State and its Khorasan affiliate, along with other extremist groups, begin an increasingly bitter jihad against the Taliban. Tribal leaders and the recrudescent Northern Alliance likewise begin recapturing lands once controlled by the Taliban. Neighboring states cut off access and egress from and to Afghanistan. Initially, Iran and Pakistan try to work with the still nascent Taliban government in Kabul.

But bitter Shia-Sunni differences metastasize, making Tehran increasingly hostile to the Taliban. In Pakistan, extremist groups supporting the Terek-i-Taliban lead to a slew of terrorist attacks, killing civilians and security forces inside the country. China relearns the lesson when, several years ago, after its personnel were attacked in a copper mine it acquired south of Kabul, Beijing withdraws all its people. Hence, China would decide not to re-engage in Afghanistan.

Russia and the "stans" that bordered much of the northern tier of Afghanistan shut down border crossings, fearful that Islamist terrorism would spread as rampantly as COVID-19 did. India realizes that the chaos was not worth exploiting in its feud with Pakistan. And the West stands by helplessly as Afghanistan's descent into chaos accelerates.

The Biden administration was caught on the horns of an intractable dilemma. After the final retreat from Vietnam in 1975, the North Vietnamese were quite able to govern, and the United States assumed no responsibility. Even after the second Iraq war, with the United States and coalition still maintaining a presence, a governing structure was in place.


But in Afghanistan, the United States could choose to support the Taliban government on the humanitarian basis that cutting off assistance would unduly harm innocent Afghans. So, as it negotiated with the Taliban to end its presence in Afghanistan, and the West evacuated Kabul, the White House and International Monetary Fund released funds based on ensuring some degree of oversight. As the oil for food program in Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1991 empowered Saddam Hussein as he controlled where the food went, Biden was attacked by both sides of the aisle for giving support to the Taliban. Members in Congress have asked and will ask how can you deal with an enemy that you were trying to kill and now are providing relief.

The Biden administration believes and assumes that the Afghan crisis will pass. The elections are 14 months away. If Congress passes at least an infrastructure bill and even a watered-down version of the massive $3.5 bill, that will be taken as a huge victory. Democrats running for the House should be able to use that passage to advantage in seeking re-election. COVID-19 will be important and will dominate the news, regardless of whether the pandemic diminishes or continues to spread.


As the Biden administration failed to anticipate and plan for the stunning collapse of the Afghan government and security forces, it cannot repeat that folly if or when the Taliban likewise cannot govern. That incompetence will drive that country into chaos. What should the Biden administration do now?

Because of domestic politics and the enormous backlash the Biden White House will face, largely but not entirely from Republicans, it needs a subtle strategy. The obvious choice for the lead is the United Nations. The administration should begin a behind-the-scenes effort to build support for a U.N. General Assembly and Security Council resolutions that pledge funds and assistance overseen by a U.N. task force to address all the humanitarian aspects of the crisis. Otherwise, there will be no way of avoiding the moral consequences of this tragedy.Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of the upcoming book "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Scenes from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley deliver remarks about the end of the 20-year military mission in Afghanistan at the Pentagon, in Arlington, Va., on September 1. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

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