By Arab News
By Luke Coffey*
Last week, President Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union address to a joint session of the US Congress. He started his speech by focusing on the situation in Ukraine but then quickly dived into promoting his domestic agenda.
It was a lengthy speech, running to more than 6,500 words. However, one defining moment of his presidency so far was not mentioned at all: The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and America’s defeat by the Taliban.
Biden’s critics were quick to point out this glaring omission. Instead of ignoring the obvious, the president should have used the spotlight provided by the State of the Union to explain to the American people his thinking behind the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Then he could have laid out his strategy to counter global terrorism while helping to address the dire humanitarian situation in Afghanistan.
At a minimum, Biden could have paid tribute to the 13 US troops who were killed in a suicide attack at Kabul airport, and apologized for the botched drone strike that left 10 innocent Afghans dead during the final days of the evacuation. Instead, nothing was said.
While the world watches the horrific situation in Ukraine play out, the Taliban has been terrorizing people in Kabul and other parts of the country. Late last month, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid announced the beginning of “clearance operations” in Kabul and nearby provinces to find weapons and “criminals.” In reality, the purpose of these house-to-house searches has been to hunt down Afghans with connections to the international forces stationed in the country for two decades.
Even though Biden remains silent about Afghanistan, his officials cannot ignore the situation. There are three major challenges his administration needs to tackle in the coming months.
The first thing that needs to be done is sorting out America’s counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan. It has been six months since the Taliban takeover. At the time, assurances were made by the Biden administration that an “over the horizon” counterterrorism capability could strike at emerging terrorist threats in Afghanistan from bases outside the region.
Half a year later, there is no indication that the US has the ability to launch such long-range strikes and there is every indication that terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh are increasingly active in the country. This problem needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Secondly, the US needs to get serious about the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan. The NRF, led by Ahmad Massoud, son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, is the only genuine resistance against the Taliban. As the Taliban’s brutality increases, the NRF is likely to grow in size and popularity. Most NRF leaders are not considered to be part of the corrupt political class that existed before the Taliban takeover last August. Many were involved in opposition politics and had been demanding reforms from successive Afghan governments for years.
It looks like the NRF not only survived the winter in its mountainous holdout in Panjshir but has also had some small tactical victories against the Taliban in recent weeks. The US needs to establish contact with the group and start building a relationship that might prove to be important in the future.
Finally, the Biden administration needs to figure out sophisticated ways to help the Afghan people in their humanitarian plight, without helping the Taliban. This will be a difficult needle to thread.
Since coming to power, the Taliban have shown utter incompetence when it comes to governing. The militants can barely divide power between the competing factions inside their own movement, much less form a government that can serve and represent the diverse people of Afghanistan. Clearly, they are not capable of handling the humanitarian crisis facing the country.
If money and resources are given directly to the Taliban it is likely that most of it will be siphoned off. The Taliban will not allow any aid to go directly to the people. Whatever the Biden administration and the international community plan to do about this, they had better do it quickly. According to a report published by the Observer Research Foundation in India, 11 million people in Afghanistan are experiencing food insecurity, and 97 percent of the country’s population will be on the brink of universal poverty by mid-2022.
Biden must operate in the world he is in and not in the world he wants to be in. He might think it is OK to ignore the situation in Afghanistan during his biggest speech of the year but the reality on the ground reveals a different story.
Since the US left and the Taliban returned to power last year, the situation across the country has been bleak. Millions of girls are still not allowed to attend school. There are acute food shortages. The Afghan branch of Daesh has launched numerous deadly attacks. Senior members of Al-Qaeda, who had not set foot in Afghanistan for almost two decades, are now roaming the land freely.
While Biden has his eye on Ukraine, he cannot afford to ignore Afghanistan.
- Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey