By: Alex Friedman  | 

The Pundit: What the Events in Afghanistan Tell Us About American Foreign Policy

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a new Commentator column called The Pundit, developed in partnership with the Dunner Political Science Society. It is a platform for students to express and share diverse perspectives on politics and current events. For more information about the society, and to write for The Pundit, email Alex at ​​

Recent headlines have been dominated by the drama and horror occurring in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of American forces from the country and the subsequent takeover by the Taliban. While America’s withdrawal was supposed to mark the end of a nearly 20-year-long war, America was forced to send troops back into Afghanistan after the Taliban swept through the country and regained power in a mere 11 days. It is obvious that the withdrawal of forces did not go according to plan, and the scenes of the American embassy being hastily evacuated and the chaos at Kabul Airport have turned the withdrawal into a humanitarian disaster and a crisis for the Biden administration.

Of course, in the days following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, it seemed the focus on every politician’s mind turned to blame, with most of it directed at President Biden. However, Biden was not the only target; many Democrats blamed President Trump for the crisis because of his deal with the Taliban last year, setting a May 31 deadline for American troops to withdraw without handing over a proper plan to the Biden administration. Some commentators even blamed President Obama for Afghanistan’s collapse while some went as far back as President George W. Bush. In reality, the responsibility for recent events in Afghanistan probably lies on the shoulders of all four. However, trying to assign blame does nothing to change what happened, does not immediately tell us what we can do differently in the future and certainly does not help the people of Afghanistan. Instead of casting blame, we should be learning from what happened so we can ensure that US foreign policy changes for the better and that the current events in Afghanistan are never repeated.

While watching all of the coverage from Afghanistan, the thing that struck me most was the Taliban’s attempts to appease the West and launch a PR campaign on Western media outlets. Watching any of the major news outlets, you would see the Taliban’s English spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, speaking to the likes of CNN and the BBC, saying that women’s rights and freedom of speech would be protected and that there will be no retaliation against former Afghan officials. Listening to this spokesperson, as well as to the Taliban Press Conferences in Kabul, it would seem the Taliban is building a pluralistic and democratic state that protects the rights of all. Of course, the reality is far from that. The Taliban has already returned to some of their brutal ways, and the fact that the Taliban is building a sophisticated international PR campaign to show the world that they are upholding Western values is startling.

As New York Times reporter Max Fisher put it: “The result is head-spinning scenes like Mr. Mujahid’s [the Taliban’s spokesman] press event, with hardened fighters toiling to appease the very foreign powers they dedicated their lives to expelling, and trying to smooth over the hard-line ideology that animates their movement.” And the audience could not be clearer. China has already taken steps to recognize the Taliban’s regime, and Russia has indicated they are willing to engage with the Taliban. For the Taliban, the last big prize remaining, and really the most important prize, is legitimacy from America and its partners. This strange dichotomy is not new. Indeed, it has been demonstrated before by newly formed governments.

For example, when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt in 2012, stoking fears that the country would take a radical and anti-Western shift, the new President, Mohammed Morsi, reassured America and its allies such as Israel that Egypt’s agreements would stay intact and that he would undertake a “balanced” foreign policy. But, unlike Morsi and almost any modern government that has come to power, the Taliban has been a sworn enemy of the US for decades, one whose cooperation with American soldiers and diplomats would seem unthinkable just a few years ago. But it is happening right now.

Above all, what this shift in the Taliban’s attitude tells us is how important legitimacy in the eyes of America is for any aspiring government. America has created an international system dominated by itself and its partners, reliant on the US dollar and full of American-led international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. Soon after the Taliban took power, the US froze billions of dollars in Afghan government reserves placed in US bank accounts. This, coupled with existing sanctions by the US and other countries on the Taliban, will make it impossible for the Taliban to govern effectively. These sanctions make it difficult for international and humanitarian aid to enter Afghanistan as well.

After 800,000 American troops deployed, 2,352 Americans killed, 20,000 wounded and more than two trillion dollars spent, it seems we are back to square one — with America’s reputation in international engagements ruined. However, the aftermath of the collapse of Afghanistan has demonstrated that America’s influence and economic power still rule, even when its military’s credibility suffers. Just a few days in governance has shown the Taliban that their only successful path in maintaining their governance is not with Chinese or Russian support but with American support. Will the Taliban change their ways? Most certainly not, but that doesn’t mean America cannot change. The future strength of American foreign policy is not in the Defense Department, but in the State and Treasury Departments, as well as in international organizations. As President Biden himself said at his inauguration speech, “We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”

Photo Caption: Afghanistan, 2011

Photo Credit: CPL Sam Shepherd