When President Joe Biden accelerated the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan over the summer of 2021, Taliban forces quickly reasserted control in a coordinated effort that culminated in the Aug. 15 fall of the country’s capital city, Kabul. As Afghanistan natives, world leaders and U.S. citizens wonder what is next, The Miami Hurricane sat down with UM Middle East scholar and Senior Lecturer Bradford McGuinn for insight.
Q: What does the fall of Afghanistan’s U.S. backed regime to the Taliban mean for college students in the U.S.? Why should it matter to UM students and what is its significance to them?
A: Students from Afghanistan and the surrounding region will certainly be impacted by the dramatic events we have been witnessing, as they have been since the American invasion in 2001. The well-being of their communities is at stake. Outside of those directly impacted, the end of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan will be important for student members of the armed forces, as well as students who have family members that have served or have served themselves during the long Afghanistan War, in view of the service and sacrifices of so many in the service. All students will be connected with the larger issues involved in terms of the role they would like to see the U.S. play in the world and the well-being of countries that have seen so much conflict.
Q: The U.S. spent $143 billion, $88 billion on security forces alone, to stabilize Afghanistan’s leadership over the last 20 years. How could this collapse happen at the hands of a Taliban force with significantly less financial resources in only a matter of months?
A: The war in Afghanistan has always been complicated. Unlike war in a traditional sense, in which one side defeats the other, here, counter-terrorism existed alongside counter-insurgency and nation-building. The men and women of the United States armed services, the coalition actors and the security personnel of Afghanistan accomplished important objectives in terms of counter-terrorism and the protection of civil society. Maintaining the operation of the governmental institutions fashioned after 2001 and garnering the trust necessary to support them was always a challenge for Afghanistan, traumatized by years of foreign intervention and domestic upheaval, and for the United States due to the limits of its understanding of the Afghan context and the extent of its influence. The swift collapse of the American-dominated order in Afghanistan can be read as either confirmation that the presence of U.S. forces was essential, as without U.S. military cover, the Afghan military was forced to make arrangements with the Taliban, or that the enterprise was not viable in the first instance. For its part, the Taliban has proven itself a movement of considerable resiliency.
Q: What can we expect to see as the Taliban reasserts control in terms of U.S./Afghanistan relations, potential military intervention and the intervention of other international powers?
A: In armed opposition for two decades but engaged diplomatically with the United States over the last few years, the Taliban has proven itself a presence with remarkable adaptability and durability. Its challenge will be to make the transition from a militia to a governing body in a complex country and subsequently securing a place for Afghanistan within the international community or risk isolation. The possibility of continued strife can obviously not be ruled out. Concerns for human rights abuses toward minorities and women and escalation in terrorist activity will be factors to bear in mind. Neighboring countries, aware of the possibility of further instability in Afghanistan and the prospect of civil war, may find this new era a difficult one. The international community will also be challenged to manage the imperatives of security and humanitarian concern for Afghanistan and its wider region.
Q: How can universities like UM prepare the next generation of leaders to prevent such failures, if you consider this a failure, and how can students stay informed and educated?
A: Decisions at the highest levels of leadership are both difficult and consequential: difficult because they often involve choices between bad options and consequential because their impact will be felt in very tangible ways. As we have seen since President Biden’s decision to remove U.S. military personnel, he inherited a problematic situation with little support for escalation of American involvement in the war on the one hand, and a sense that the status quo was untenable on the other. The decision to announce a certain date by which U.S. forces would depart and to move as quickly as he did to do so over the past weeks will be debated for some time. The relationship between an overall direction of policy, intelligence assessments and the assumptions supporting planning processes is complex, involving multiple actors, pressures and viewpoints. For the next generation of leaders, the “lessons” of past successes and failures will provide guidance, as will a critical spirit of inquiry by which assumptions are tested across multiple perspectives. This guards against the inclination to assume harmony between one’s policy preference and the “facts on the ground,” as many U.S. leaders have done when making major foreign policy moves. But under any circumstances, such decisions are complicated, difficult and always consequential. Students today have a wealth of information before them on which they may base their decisions in Afghanistan and elsewhere. A country with an extraordinary history and fascinating society, Afghanistan merits our careful study and support.