Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen’s new paperback is “The Rise and fall of Osama bin Laden.” from which this article is, in part, adapted. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
In 1961, after a CIA-backed invasion of Cuba failed spectacularly, President John F. Kennedy said of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, “Victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.”
Last week, President Joe Biden took a victory lap when he announced that the US had tracked down and killed its most wanted terrorist, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was living in a house in Kabul, Afghanistan. Don’t expect a similar celebration on August 30, the first anniversary of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, which ended the longest war in American history. Any realistic assessment of that action shows that it will long be seen as a defeat rather than a victory – and it’s likely no one will own up to the responsibility for the decision.
The US launched a war against Afghanistan in 2001 after the Taliban regime harbored Osama bin Laden, giving him the ability to plot and carry out the 9/11 terrorist attacks which killed almost 3,000 Americans.
As US and NATO troops battled Taliban and al Qaeda forces, the new US-backed government in Kabul also presided over two decades of progress in Afghanistan. To be sure, Afghanistan wasn’t Norway, but it was becoming a somewhat functional, democratizing Central Asian state that saw striking progress in reducing child mortality and increasing life expectancy, one that provided jobs for women and education for millions of girls; it nurtured scores of independent media outlets, and held regular, if flawed, presidential elections.
All of that changed when the US began withdrawing and the Taliban took over the entire country on August 15, 2021. Women’s rights evaporated. They have no right to work, except in a narrow set of female-related jobs such as cleaning women’s toilets in Kabul; when they travel distances of more than 45 miles they must be accompanied by a male relative, and the Taliban have ordered women to stay at home and to cover themselves completely should they ever venture out. Their male relatives will be punished by the Taliban if women don’t follow these directives. Girls do not have the right to be educated after the age of 12.
On the Taliban’s management of Afghanistan, one data point suffices to underline the group’s gross incompetence: Around half of the Afghan population are today “facing acute hunger,” according to the UN.
On the Taliban’s respect for other ethnic Afghan groups: There is no evidence that the Taliban are creating an “inclusive” government as their leaders claimed they would. Pashtuns make up almost all the leadership of the Taliban, while other ethnic groups in Afghanistan such as the Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks are almost entirely excluded from leadership roles.
On their respect for democracy: The Taliban, conveniently, don’t believe in elections. Instead, they are a theocracy; their leader is known as the “Commander of the Faithful,” a title that claims he is the leader of all Muslims. In the past year under Taliban rule, 40% of Afghanistan’s independent media outlets have closed.
On the Taliban’s alliance with al Qaeda: Well, last week’s news made clear the relationship is thriving. The fact that the leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri was living in downtown Kabul for months – with what the Biden administration describes as the awareness of some Taliban officials – speaks for itself. Zawahiri was killed late last month in a US drone strike.
After the news broke that Zawahiri had been hiding in Kabul, Lisa Curtis, the top official at the White House for Afghanistan during the Trump administration, tweeted “#Taliban basically asserting Doha agreement allows them to shelter #AlQaeda. Proves it was the worst agreement in US history. Not worth the paper on which it’s written.” This was a particularly damning assessment coming from a senior American official who was working on Afghanistan while the Doha agreement between the US and the Taliban was being negotiated.
One of the most powerful men in Afghanistan today is the acting Minister of Interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has ties to al Qaeda, according to a United Nations report that said he is “assessed to be a member of the wider Al-Qaida leadership, but not of the Al-Qaida core leadership.”
A February 2020 opinion piece in The New York Times with Haqqani’s byline blandly identified him only as “the deputy leader of the Taliban.” What the Times didn’t tell its readers is that Haqqani was also on the FBI’s most wanted list and that his men had kidnapped a reporter for … The New York Times.
This op-ed featured ludicrous lies including, “We together will find a way to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam – from the right to education to the right to work – are protected” and “reports about foreign [terrorist] groups in Afghanistan are politically motivated exaggerations by the warmongering players on all sides of the war.”
How it happened
The US pullout from Afghanistan a year ago was orchestrated by a successive series of decisions by former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden and the chief US negotiator with the Taliban, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. None of these men are ever likely to fully acknowledge their paternity of the debacle that unfolded in Afghanistan, which followed the worst diplomatic agreement in US history that enabled the Taliban to win at the negotiating table in Doha, Qatar what they could never win on the battlefield.
Khalilzad has defended the deal saying, “The negotiation was a result of–based on the judgment that we weren’t winning the war and therefore time was not on our side and better to make a deal sooner than later.”
By the end of the Trump administration, the fledgling Afghan state was supported by only some 2,500 US troops, a tiny fraction of the more than two million men and women in the active-duty US military, reserves, and National Guard