By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
About a year ago, the world witnessed the sights and sounds of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. This withdrawal gradually morphed from an organized, gradual retreat to a full-fledged collapse of the pro-Western government and the establishment of an Islamic emirate controlled by the Taliban.
The retreat and subsequent violence in Afghanistan sent shock waves throughout the globe. It also raised questions about geopolitics in the 21st century, and the last year since has only intensified those questions.
The Economy in Afghanistan Suffered Severe Blows
The takeover by the Taliban caused tens of thousands of people to flee the country and stopped any financial help that world powers had committed to the rebuilding of the Afghan economy and civil society. The Washington Post reported, “The U.S. government suspended…all infrastructure projects funded by the USAID, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank on Aug. 15. These projects provided a livelihood to hundreds of thousands of Afghans. Most of these projects had a progress rate of more than 80 percent, colleagues in the Ministry of Finance told me. Billions of dollars were spent to reach this stage and then stopped overnight.”
Women’s Rights Remain Severely Restricted
Women’s rights are the most visible area of Afghanistan’s regression. For instance, women’s access to employment and education have been significantly reduced despite the Taliban’s previous promises to the contrary.
In a recent anthology, “My Pen Is the Wing of a Bird,” published in the U.S. by Afghan women, the 18 writers described their struggles under the Taliban. A National Public Radio review of the book quotes lines that aptly surmise the new reality: “[They] looked to each other for reassurance. They shared how they couldn’t sleep, how they had dyed their clothes black, how they had soaked away the ink from pages of writing that was now a risk to possess as hard copy. Some took to the streets, others went into hiding; and six crossed borders and are now living in Germany, Italy, Iran, Sweden, Tajikistan, and the USA.”
This anthology, part of a project called Afghanistan – Untold, is geared to give a voice to marginalized women. The project began in 2019, even before the U.S. withdrawal, but became even more relevant after the events of the past year.
The Effect of the Withdrawal on the US
Last year, the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the desperation of Afghan refugees to escape the country reminded many people of the fall of Saigon. This withdrawal did not convey an image of U.S. strength and gave U.S. allies the impression that they might be left on the sidelines, just like the Karzai government.
The failure to create change in Afghanistan after two decades of warfare and investments is a problem; there is no doubt about that. The withdrawal and the quick takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban forces simply made the failure more powerful.
A Pew Research survey conducted in August 2021 showed that 42% of U.S. adults believed that the decision to leave was incorrect and 54% believed the decision was correct. Political affiliations played a part, according to Pew Research’s survey. About 70% of Democrats supported the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, but most Republicans (64%) saw the decision as wrong.
The survey also investigated the opinions of Americans on the entire U.S. project in Afghanistan. A resounding 69% of U.S. adults said that the U.S. failed to reach its goals in Afghanistan, and only 26% said the U.S. succeeded.
America’s Adversaries Celebrated after the Fall of Afghanistan, But Now Have Their Own Problems
After the fall of Afghanistan, countries like Russia, China and Iran could not hide their glee at the end of U.S. hegemony. But the past year taught some of these nations that there is wisdom in the Kings 1 20:11 verse from the Bible: “The one putting on his armor should not boast like one taking it off.”
Under Putin’s leadership, Russia flexed its muscles and began a war with Ukraine, only to be humiliated. Russia has shown to the entire world the demise of its once-mighty army and the minuscule efficacy of its air force.
Similarly, China is now trying to test its power against the U.S. While it has made threats of retaliation against Taiwan, the recent visit of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan showed that Beijing cannot get its way so fast.
The Fall of Afghanistan Should Remain in the Minds of US Decision Makers
The fall of Afghanistan should be on the minds of decision makers in Washington D.C. for the foreseeable future. The U.S. withdrawal sent the wrong message to our adversaries. In the heated political climate in America – with leaders mainly focused on media sound bites and possessing little to no patience with the complexities of international relations – diplomatic decisions are made quickly even when there are long-term effects at stake.
The situation could be worse, however. Putin’s decision to go to war with a disintegrating military based on the memories of the Cold War proved to everyone in the world that U.S. hegemony is not over. However, Russia, China, Iran and international terrorist groups are still here to test the boundaries of U.S. power.