Afghans Left Behind: Consequences For U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan

On August 12 the Taliban seized the southeastern city of Kandahar, the former capital of the jihadist group before 2001. As the 20-year American military presence ended, the country has tragically fallen back into the hands of the Taliban. Al Jazeera reports that Afghans were shocked at the ease with which both Kandahar and the western city of Herat were taken. The Taliban now control nearly all major provinces and are set to march on the capital of Kabul this week. While the Taliban regains lost territory, Afghans fear the regression of women’s rights and individual freedoms that the U.S. worked to maintain during its 20-year presence. Afghans who have aided the U.S. are at an especially high risk of being arrested, tortured, and killed. Women are also at high risk as forced marriages, compulsory hijabs, and male companionship have returned.

In an interview with The New Yorker, Richard Fontaine, head of the Center for New American Security, stated “This is tragic, but it’s not our tragedy.” While this is the overarching sentiment in Washington, Afghans who helped the U.S. are feeling betrayed and living in fear. Patricia Gossman, Associate Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, noted that “The Taliban have a long record of abusing or killing civilians they deem ‘enemies.’” Gossman also stated that “Whether from inside or outside Afghanistan, governments and UN [United Nations] offices should provide protection and assistance to at-risk Afghans and make processing travel documents and transportation a priority.”

In reference to his decision to leave Afghanistan in April 2021, President Biden stated, “I do not regret my decision.” While Biden may not regret his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, it is likely that he regrets the countless civilian lives lost as a consequence. It is clear the U.S. will no longer have a military presence in Afghanistan, but does that mean that it should have no presence at all? According to Charli Carpenter, Director of Human Security Lab and professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the U.S. should maintain a humanitarian presence in Afghanistan. Carpenter references humanitarian missions in Kosovo and Libya as examples of how the U.S. might help in Afghanistan. He calls for the UN to back an American air-power mission with the intent of protecting civilians.

But what should be done about Afghans who are trying to flee the country? According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), governments should “suspend all deportations and forced returns to Afghanistan…all countries should publicly recognize that Afghans fleeing Afghanistan should be given meaningful opportunities to seek asylum.” HRW also argues for increased government support of nongovernmental organizations, emergency services, and resettlement services both inside and outside of Afghanistan. Finally, HRW urges the Human Rights Council in Geneva to pass a resolution allowing for the collection of evidence to be used against human rights abusers in an independent court.

If the human rights consequences are not compelling enough, then perhaps the national security risks will be. By hastily withdrawing from Afghanistan, the U.S. has left a major gap in security, courts, and law enforcement that is being filled by the Taliban. Soon, Afghanistan will once again become a safe haven for terrorist groups, with some experts alleging that the Taliban is already sheltering Al-Qaeda. As the U.S. approaches the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it is essential to remember where the terrorists planned their attack from in the first place—Afghanistan. As the Taliban advances towards Kabul, the Chinese have begun talks with the group’s leaders in preparation to recognize the jihadist group as a legitimate government. The withdrawal of American forces leaves room for Chinese power and influence in the region.

Ultimately, the U.S. must take accountability for its actions by forming an airpower humanitarian mission backed by the UN. The hasty withdrawal lacked a concrete exit strategy and left Afghan forces vulnerable to the Taliban. The U.S. has lost credibility in its commitments and jeopardized its relationships with allies. It has left millions of people displaced, abused, and fearing for their lives. It has created a safe haven for terrorist groups and a new ally for China. Now, the international community must step in to increase humanitarian assistance, suspend deportations and forced returns to Afghanistan, and prioritize processing travel documents for Afghans. The international community must support emergency evacuations and relocation and resettlement services to help as many Afghans as possible flee the Taliban’s harsh rule.