America’s longest war was sparked by a terrorist attack, and it’s now been bookended by another. A suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. service members, two British nationals and nearly 200 Afghans in an attack yesterday at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, just days before America finishes withdrawing its troops from the country on Tuesday. The Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) group, a self-proclaimed branch of the Islamic State militant group, has claimed responsibility. The attack came even as the U.S. and its allies were expediting an already hurried evacuation of their citizens and Afghan partners such as interpreters.
Will the killings change America’s withdrawal calculus? What will it mean for the legacy of President Joe Biden? What about Afghanistan? Today’s Global Dispatch connects the dots to answer these questions and shed light on what could come next — because even though the U.S. military is leaving Afghanistan, Thursday’s events show that the shadow of Afghanistan won’t be leaving America anytime soon.
Worst Fears Realized
Wars are complex, and two-decade-long conflicts are particularly knotty. But Biden’s central reason for withdrawing all American troops from Afghanistan has been clear and simple: to avoid further loss of life in that conflict. “How many more American lives is it worth?” he asked as recently as Aug. 16, when faced with criticism over his decision a day after the Taliban had overtaken Kabul. Now he finds himself taking flak again, after Thursday’s deadly terrorist strikes left many in the U.S. angry and eager for retribution.
Carefully Chosen Target
As for the location the attacker struck, Abbey Gate was a logical choice as it is one of the three main entry points to the military side of the airport. That’s where U.S. troops were stationed and where hundreds of Afghans desperate to escape the country have been congregating for weeks. The bomber reportedly walked into the middle of a crowd that included many children before detonating. Dozens of Afghan victims were rushed to local hospitals while a number of injured U.S. personnel were flown to a base in Germany for treatment.
The Hunt Is On
Biden’s initial response to the attack captures the challenge presented by such audacious acts of terrorism: Governments need to show strength without reacting in a way that gives further oxygen to extremists. “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said last night. He also made clear that the U.S. would continue with evacuations until Aug. 31. And even though the president said he wouldn’t extend that deadline to allow for a later withdrawal of troops, he promised that his administration would find other “means” to extract Americans and Afghan partners who remain in Afghanistan beyond that date.
What Is ISK?
It’s the local arm of the Islamic State terrorist group in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it draws its name from the Khorasan region that emcompasses parts of the border region between the two South Asian nations and neighboring Iran. It emerged in 2015, its initial members splintering from the Pakistan branch of the Taliban. It has since become a major worry for coalition forces in Afghanistan. In 2017, the U.S. dropped its biggest non-nuclear bomb — called the “mother of all bombs” — on a suspected ISK hideout in Afghanistan. Despite their similar extremist Islamist ideologies, or perhaps partly because of them, ISK and Taliban are strategic rivals locked in battle for supremacy over the region. But with Thursday’s attack, ISK’s primary message was for the U.S., says Rakesh Sood, a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan. “They were telling the Americans clearly: Do not even think about staying beyond August 31, no matter how the evacuation stands,” Sood tells OZY.
BIDEN’S BIGGEST TEST
Iraq Déjà Vu
There was a tragic irony to the events leading up to yesterday’s devastating loss of life. The very group responsible for the U.S. military deaths in Kabul grew out of yet another American conflict — the invasion of Iraq — started by President George W. Bush. The U.S. went into Afghanistan in October 2001 to kill Osama Bin Laden and wipe out terrorism in the wake of 9/11. The Afghan occupation achieved neither goal. In Iraq, the 2003 invasion to stop the production of what turned out to be nonexistent weapons of mass destruction inadvertently led to the rise of the Islamic State group, which formed in a power vacuum and gained further ground when former President Barack Obama pulled U.S. troops from the country in 2011. The group then established a foothold in Syria, with militants ranging from places such as Mozambique to the Philippines pledging allegiance. What does this all mean for America going forward? “I think it is at this level where China and Russia will gain far more from what has happened in Afghanistan than, for example, extremist groups,” Jasmine Opperman, a counterterrorism expert based in South Africa, tells OZY.
“You know as well as I do that the former president made a deal with the Taliban,” Biden said, referring to Donald Trump as he addressed the American deaths in Kabul yesterday. But will voters remember, and will they care? Biden’s popularity ratings have plummeted in polls this week, down to 41% overall and with only 26% of Americans approving his handling of the withdrawal. Most critics are focusing their ire on the short timeline of the withdrawal and how it was conducted, with some Republicans calling for the president’s resignation. And there are also questions from his own side of the aisle, with Democrats calling on the administration to do more to help Afghan refugees who worked with U.S. forces.
But just as critical, Biden has to deliver on his promise of finding and punishing the masterminds of Thursday’s attack. Could that drag America into a fresh war? “No, a couple of missiles could do the job once they’ve pinpointed their targets,” says Sood, the former envoy to Kabul. Yet America’s response to al-Qaida started similarly, with missiles following bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. While there’s very little appetite for war among the American public at the moment, experts worry that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan creates a “permissive” environment for ISK to operate and thrive. Already, U.S. forces are bracing for further attacks from the group in the remaining days that American troops are on Afghan soil. With the Islamic State group losing all its territory in Syria and Iraq, could Afghanistan become its next staging ground for launching strikes against the West?
The World’s Watching
How Biden responds in this moment will also be keenly watched in capitals around the world. Already, the chaotic nature of the exit from Afghanistan has dented America’s image in the eyes of allies and friends, says Sood. “The photo of people falling from the Globemaster plane will likely stick the way the images of the helicopter in Saigon continue to remind us of Vietnam,” he says. Many of Washington’s allies wanted to keep troops in Kabul beyond Aug. 31 until all evacuations could be completed. Biden rejected that proposal and has insisted that the U.S. can evacuate all Americans and Afghan allies, and defeat ISK without needing a military footprint in Afghanistan. Now the onus is on him to prove to America’s friends that he can deliver and that he isn’t just capitulating to threats from the Taliban, and now ISK.
Taliban, the Lesser Evil?
America has fought the Taliban for two decades. Now at the Kabul airport, they’re working together, with the Taliban providing security at the outer perimeter. The two sides are bound by a desire to defeat a common enemy in the Islamic State — specifically the Khorasan chapter. But if the Taliban and ISK are both radical Islamist groups that have killed Americans, why is the U.S. cooperating with the former? Because, unlike the Islamic State, the Taliban have never suggested that they hold territorial ambitions beyond Afghanistan’s borders. ISK, in fact, calls the Taliban “filthy nationalists” for that reason. That makes the Taliban more palatable as a strategic partner in the fight against the Islamic State, not just for the U.S. but also for Russia, China and Iran. “They’re not good guys,” Biden said Thursday of the Taliban. “But they have a keen interest.” The problem? The West has a history of forgetting its avowed commitment to human rights and democracy when it suits its strategic interests.
The Left Behind
Though the evacuation process was halted in the aftermath of Thursday’s attack, officials announced its resumption Friday. But the feared presence of suicide bombers in the immediate area has made it almost impossible for at-risk Afghans to get into the airport for fear of exposing troops to further harm. That’s stymied frantic efforts by Western former colleagues contacting anyone in authority, from members of Congress to European diplomats, to try to get Afghans onto evacuation lists or into places like The Baron Hotel, so that they’ll have a fighting chance of securing a place on a cargo jet headed for Qatar, Abu Dhabi or other refugee way stations. With little hope of joining the airlift before Tuesday’s withdrawal deadline, many Afghans are instead fleeing to border crossings with Pakistan.
Next Terrorist Wave?
So what does this mean for the future of ISK and the Islamic State group in general, and for terrorist groups elsewhere in the world? It’s not good news, says Opperman. In the case of Afghanistan, “With this attack, they’ve shown their ability to move into the Kabul area,” she says. Whether they’ll “be able to do more than suicide bombings remains doubtful, but their presence is there.” In terms of Islamist militant groups elsewhere in the world — in Africa, for example — the U.S. withdrawal and the deadly attack that followed will likely prove an inspiration. “They will see the U.S. having lost the war, viewing the U.S. as running away,” she explains.
Through ambient screaming, the young woman on the WhatsApp voice message frantically describes brutal gunfire and rifle-butt clearing of Afghan crowds outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport: “They are about to kill us!”
I heard that forwarded message across my dining room table this weekend. With the miracle of wireless networks operating in spite of a Taliban takeover, we’ve all seen videos of these scenes. Seven people lost their lives on Saturday, among at least 20 deaths surrounding the evacuation. Those included a 2-year-old girl trampled to death Sunday and, in images that will forever follow the history of this moment, young men falling from a U.S. cargo jet as it ascended out of the city.
It is a time of bitter reunion for people I worked with a decade ago in Kabul. We message each other for help in evacuating someone we know. Invariably, the person you contact is already working on the case of yet another Afghan who aided America in the 20-year war. Many are trying to get their families out. Some are stuck themselves, sending images of the badges and permission letters and commendations they’ve accumulated. These credentials could save their lives, or just as well get them killed if they fall into Taliban hands — if widespread expectations prove accurate.
One of my former military colleagues who worked on Capitol Hill shared emails of U.S. Senate aides who were quick to forward the particulars of three family members to the State Department. There’s also an evacuation request form to fill out online. But do you seriously want to rely on that, and maybe an automated reply, when you’re fighting for your family’s safety? Another Afghan former colleague sends me a spreadsheet of at least two dozen relations. I forward it, wondering how I might triage my own loved ones if they were faced with mortal danger.
The responses from those within the American establishment, while sympathetic, are often accompanied by the caveat that U.S. citizens are the priority. They’re followed by translators who’ve at least begun the process of applying for a coveted Special Immigrant Visa. After that, the chances of getting onto an evacuation list fall off precipitously. One Afghan who got the visa some time ago and resettled in the U.S. contacts me about his best friend who’s stuck. His digital collage of memorabilia and confusing identification won’t be much help, another congressional staffer warns. They ask if he can send something better. I ask. Maybe he has an SIV case number? We wait to hear back. Others live far from the capital and international scrutiny. What do you say to someone like that? Thank you for your service?
European friends are also pulling every string they think might work for those who don’t seem to qualify for U.S. help. But with slow claims processing and near-impossible airport access, some countries have sent back almost empty planes, while others are agreeing to fill seats for evacuees processed by other nations. Not being on the ground on the military side of the airport, where I lived and worked as a civilian for a year before I left in 2012, it’s hard to know just where things are going wrong. But it’s easy to believe tweets about British and American troops nearly coming to blows over how to get people in. Or tales of German foreign ministry staff refusing to allow anyone they haven’t processed themselves onto a Luftwaffe flight. I’m not there. But I can understand why the evacuation isn’t being conducted more efficiently than the previous two decades of intervention.
There are small signs of hope: President Joe Biden, whose single-minded stop-the-war mindset got us here to begin with, is using his authority to compel U.S. airliners to ferry those airlifted to crowded camps in the Middle East and elsewhere to places where they’ll be processed as refugees. But at least those in these camps are already out of Afghanistan. The critical challenge is getting evacuees out of Kabul, and that’s a complete shambles, exemplified by ineligible young men reportedly taking the space of more vulnerable Afghans like the young woman I heard in the voice message. The analogies are threatening to devolve from the fall of South Vietnam to Cambodia’s killing fields.
Amid the tales of Taliban door-to-door searches for collaborators and ruthless crowd control outside Kabul airport, I’ve spotted some hopeful headlines: British soldiers helping Afghans outside the gate after the melee, and Taliban fighters roughly forcing evacuation seekers into lines, one British and one American.
Maybe that will inspire Western officials to get their act together.
As I write this, I’m hearing confirmation that the Taliban are cruising the streets of Kabul and that Afghanistan’s Western-backed President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country.
Like so many others who have worked in Afghanistan, for me it’s gut-wrenching news. Especially so when you know people who learned of these latest developments while frantically trying to leave the capital city. That panic is especially justified for women, and for those connected in any way to Western organizations. No less so for those belonging to ethnic groups and Islamic sects other than the Sunni and predominantly Pashtun Taliban.
Across continents, the prevailing reaction has been profound shock at the speed of the collapse of Kabul’s government after two decades of Western military intervention and support. While I’ve also been surprised, in hindsight I shouldn’t be. Nor should anyone who is familiar with Afghanistan’s recent and past history. I worked as an editor for the U.S.-led coalition’s biweekly magazine in Dari and Pashto between 2008 and 2012. As such, I was compelled to learn — as much as anyone could — how things worked in the country. Or didn’t work.
For every article we published for our small but influential readership, highlighting improved law enforcement training or newly-built medical clinics, there were mainstream media reports of endemic corruption in the Afghan National Police and unstaffed hospitals. For every editorial envisioning a future under the U.S.- and U.N.-backed government, there were stories featuring such damning evidence of corruption as cargo pallets of U.S. currency being flown from Kabul to Dubai. “Democracy” disappeared from the Voice of Freedom’s lexicon, after ballot counts no accountant would have been able to reconcile with local demographics.
One invader exits in ignominy, another force celebrates its triumph.
Not that democracy was the glue holding things together. I believe most Afghans would have settled for autocratic stability and an affordable system of official bribery. Army commanders could skim recruits’ paychecks, but they could at least pay them enough to feed their families. Then maybe they wouldn’t have felt compelled to sell their ammunition. The U.S. and its allies, meanwhile, fumbled through a nebulous mission. Well-meaning nations like Germany touted it back home as humanitarian. The Pentagon combined nation-building and antiterrorism with its counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) that labeled its key bases after its provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs). However it was defined, it meant funneling even more money into an unsustainable system while endangering the Western troops that propped it up.
The Taliban too has had foreign backers. After all, they emerged from the mujahedeen that the CIA bankrolled and Pakistan armed and facilitated in the 1980s — to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The constant feuding, back-and-forth shelling and rapacious corruption of the warring militias inspired a group of religious “students,” which is what Taliban means, to enforce order. Benazir Bhutto, who led Pakistan in the early 1990s, publicly supported the group, only to be assassinated in 2007 in an attack claimed by a Pakistani offshoot of the Taliban. The country’s relationship with the archconservative Islamist fighters became slightly murkier — or duplicitous, as U.S. officials have long lamented — after the prior Taliban regime became America’s avowed enemy. But it was always Pakistan that was the safe haven for Taliban leaders when they were driven into hiding by coalition forces. Though in the 1990s, Texas oil executives also courted the militant group, hoping to build a pipeline from Central Asia cutting through Afghanistan.
Last week, Imran Khan, Pakistan’s current prime minister, made a telling statement. After saying the U.S. was only interested in Pakistan for “settling this mess,” he complained that “the Americans have decided that India is their strategic partner now.”
And there you have it: Afghanistan has become the chessboard for yet another “Great Game.” That’s what it was called when Britain disastrously invaded in 1839 and twice returned to outmaneuver Russia in the region. The cycle continued in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion and America’s support of militias to repel Moscow. Then the U.S. entered more overtly, seeking to avenge 9/11 in the 2000s. Today Pakistan still sees Afghanistan as a pawn in its gambits against India. During my four years there, ending almost a decade ago, one of the most common bombing spots, after coalition bases, was the Indian embassy and guest houses identified with Islamabad’s chief rival.
Luckily, my largely university-educated Afghan former colleagues have in recent years, some with my help, obtained interpreter visas and brought their families to the U.S. But Sunday’s drama is not about those fortunate refugees. It is about people who didn’t have such outs — those desperate for money as banks run out of it, for tickets on flights that may never leave, for recommendation letters from organizations that by themselves could get them arrested or worse.
They’re now at the mercy of other Afghans writing a new page in their nation’s tragic story. One invader exits in ignominy, another force celebrates its triumph. And as before, the ink flows from the veins of Afghans who dared hope that this time, things would be different.