Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Three Questions About What Comes After Afghanistan

And what the withdrawal means for American politics.
August 31, 2021
Three Questions About What Comes After Afghanistan
In this photo taken on June 12, 2018, Afghan burqa-clad women stands as they wait to receive food donated by a private charity during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, in Mazar-i-Sharif. (FARSHAD USYAN/AFP via Getty Images)

It was August 30 in Washington, but August 31 in Kabul as the last American forces left Afghanistan. The final five C-17 cargo planes lifted off shortly before midnight, local time.

What comes next?

There are three broad areas of unknowability. At this point all we can do is identify them and wait for more information to become available.

(1) What Happens to Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is a changed country since America toppled the Taliban in 2001—and by nearly every available measure, it has changed for the good:

  • Refugees who fled the country under the first Taliban regime returned.
  • Consumption of electricity rose tenfold.
  • The number of healthcare centers increased. Access to drinking water grew much more common.
  • The infant mortality rate fell from 145 per 1,000 to 104 per 1,000—an amazing improvement.
  • Life expectancy for women rose by almost a full decade, from 45.5 years in 2001 to 54.4 years in 2019. (For men, it rose by 5 years—despite the ongoing war.)
  • The literacy rate for women rose by 300 percent and the average Afghan picked up three additional years of education. The number of both men and women attending university exploded:
(Courtesy the Brookings Institution)

The Afghanistan of 2021 is not Belgium. But neither is it the Afghanistan of 2001.

In the best-case scenario, Afghanistan might have become a minimally functioning state, like Uzbekistan.

In the worst-case scenario, it might regress to what it was during the Taliban years. We could see the slaughter of our friends, strict and brutal repression, the return of state-sanctioned terrorism, and a refugee crisis.

In between those extremes, we might see a not-great but not-terrible set of outcomes: “only” “normal” repression of Afghans, the Taliban keeps terrorist groups out, Pakistan remains in control. In other words, Afghanistan becomes a place you would not want to visit—a place very bad for many of the people who live there—but one that does not create regional or global waves of destabilization.

(2) What Happens to the Region?

Pakistan created the Taliban. And now Pakistan has a destabilized mess to the west to go along with its Indian nemesis to the east.

The Iranians opposed the Taliban in 1998 and thought about invading Afghanistan at the time to overthrow them.

Russia has worked with Iran in recent years in an attempt to create a check on American power.

And China is China: An aspiring global hegemon that also shares a border with Afghanistan.

All three of these regional powers will have to deal with Afghanistan and all three of their broader interests run counter to America’s.

(3) What Happens to American Politics?

The desire to withdraw from Afghanistan was a rare piece of bipartisan overlap where both old-school Democrats and nationalist Republicans wanted out.

Does that consensus remain, or does the experience of withdrawal crack it and create divergent foreign policy preferences between the two parties again?

Does the conventional view about the early mess of Biden’s withdrawal give way to a sense that it went as well as it could have?

It it not hard to paint three totally opposed, but equally plausible, scenarios for the near-term future:

Scenario A: As we learn more about the period leading up to and following the fall of Kabul, the Biden administration appears incompetent. Events inside Afghanistan suggest that the withdrawal itself was more costly than anticipated. Maybe there’s a genocide. Maybe there’s an increase in terror attacks against the West. Maybe the Taliban make terrible use of the weapons and other materiel we abandoned. Maybe the Americans and/or our Afghan allies who were left behind are held hostage or executed in a manner that shocks the world and enrages American voters.

In this scenario, Biden and the Democrats are irreparably crippled.

Scenario B: The status quo in Afghanistan holds, less or more, and three weeks from now 70 percent of America doesn’t even remember that it happened. As the events fade, people forget about the initial chaos and while Republicans try to turn the withdrawal into Benghazi 2, a solid majority of Americans believes that Biden did the right thing.

In this scenario, Biden and the Democrats count the withdrawal as a qualified political victory and are able to return to pressing their domestic agenda ahead of the midterms.

Scenario C: Afghanistan is subsumed into the culture war. No one cares about the specifics of the withdrawal, but instead it turns into a fight about immigration. And if/when Republicans retake the House, Afghanistan becomes part of their pretext to begin impeachment proceedings against Biden.

We return to trench warfare where the Democrats hold positions that are slightly more popular, but Republicans hold so much electoral leverage that even a 55-45 split in public opinion becomes a coin flip at the level of electoral control of the government.

Any one of these scenarios is possible. Equally possible is that some other crisis will blow through America—runaway inflation, an even worse COVID variant, a mass shooting or terrorist attack—and whatever scenario we’re in will be swept aside and replaced by an entirely new political topography.

There’s a powerlessness that comes when we stand as witness to events that exist in a world completely out of our control. And that powerlessness sometimes leads us to wild overreactions, one way or another.

For instance, during the height of the crisis, Reps. Seth Moulton and Pete Meijer quietly flew to the Kabul airport to assess the situation firsthand.

There was probably some small cost to this trip—a couple of man-hours devoted to watching after the congressmen that could have been used more productively. But there was also probably some small benefit to the trip: We got an elected Republican and an elected Democrat with recent military experience on the ground to report back and give independent views on what was happening.

Neither the cost nor the benefit were extraordinary and depending on how you balance the scales, this trip was either mildly distracting or mildly helpful.

But instead, we fought a small battle over whether Moulton and Meijer were American Heroes or Grandstanding D-bags.

And the reason people fought so hard over this was precisely because we had no agency over the primary issue. We saw people falling out of airplanes and begging soldiers to take their children and there was nothing we could do about it.

Look: We don’t know what the answers to the above questions will be. And we don’t have much agency over them, either.

Whatever you or I think about Afghanistan, it’s out of our hands now. What lies firmly in our hands is the ability to care for those who have been affected by the war.

You can volunteer to assist our Wounded Warriors.

You can help the refugees who made it out start their new lives.

You can honor all of those who fought and lived and died in Afghanistan by trying to be the kind of American who does not react out of partisan anger; who remembers what happened; who seeks to learn even the lessons that are inconvenient.

Because at the end of the day, for us the biggest question about “what comes next” after Afghanistan is about what we see in the mirror.

Are we a better people today than we were twenty years ago?

And if not, how do we fix that?

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.