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This article is part of a Fox News Digital series examining the consequences of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan one year ago this week.
The international security landscape is more fragile one year after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and the U.S. withdrew its last military forces, according to national security experts.
“The principal concern about Afghanistan for the United States is that the Taliban is a hostile regime that is hunting down American allies, that has made common cause with al-Qaeda and continues to do so, that serially violates every promise they ever made about human rights and rights of girls and women in particular,” Nathan Sales, former coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department and current Vandenberg Coalition advisory board member, told Fox News Digital.
“Other countries that are doing business in Afghanistan might move the needle slightly in one direction or another, but the fundamental dynamic there is we have a hostile medieval death cult in charge of the country that is openly antagonistic to American values and American interests.”
The Taliban assumed control of Kabul – and the country as a whole – after President Biden ordered a hasty withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan that ended in August 2021. In that time, the Taliban eroded a number of the more progressive measures the U.S. helped to install in the country and further complicated an already rocky relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, one of America’s chief allies in the region.
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Bill Roggio, a former active-duty soldier and current managing editor of The Long War Journal, argued that the country – and by extension, the international security landscape – is “of course” more dangerous.
“The world is, of course, a less safe place with the Taliban in control of Afghanistan, as we witnessed with Ayman al-Zawahiri being in Kabul. You know, he wasn't in the provinces,” Roggio told Fox News Digital. “He wasn't hiding in the mountains in the northeast or east or in the deserts in the south.”
President Biden announced on Aug. 1 that the U.S. had killed al-Zawahri, the leader of al-Qaeda, in a “successful” counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan. A senior administration official said the government identified al-Zawahri on “multiple occasions for sustained periods of time on the balcony, where he was ultimately struck.”
However, Taliban officials just days later claimed they were not aware that al-Zawahri had been in Kabul, bringing into question just how safe the country remains while under Taliban control.
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Roggio continued, “He was basically in the heart of Taliban controlled Afghanistan, and he's not the only al-Qaeda leader that's there,” he added. “You can be sure of that.”
The Taliban control of Afghanistan has led to significant complications both within the country and with other nations – most notably regarding the question of legitimacy. No nation has recognized the Taliban as the leaders of Afghanistan, partly due to clear regression under its control: Women’s rights, including access to education, have almost entirely disappeared; and human rights issues, such as alleged extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary arrests and detentions, have increased, according to a U.N. report released in July.
Lisa Curtis, former deputy assistant to the president and NSC senior director for South and Central Asia and current Vandenberg Coalition advisory board member, told Fox News Digital that the U.S. retains some leverage – including the promise of recognition and legitimacy – but that it must wield it far better than it has.
“The Taliban should not be able to go to places like Tashkent … to attend an international conference, because that is giving them legitimacy,” she added. “I think the number one thing that the U.S. should do is lead an effort in the United Nations Security Council to reinstate the travel ban on the Taliban … obviously, there is no longer any peace talks, and so there's no reason that the Taliban should be allowed to travel around the world where they can gain legitimacy at a time when they're denying girls the ability to get an education and harboring international terrorists like Zawahiri.”
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Sales argued that the U.S. could also look to willing partners in the region to build up a network of support – similar to the NATO buffer around Ukraine that allowed it to quickly arm and prepare for an asymmetric war against Russia and perform far above expectations.
“You've got some Central Asian states to the north of Afghanistan … that might work with the U.S., might work with NATO to apply pressure to the Taliban and al-Qaeda,” Sales said. “Those countries have traditionally been reluctant to align themselves too closely with the United States because of fear of angering their neighbor to the north, namely Russia … but I think the war in Ukraine and the threat Russia poses to its former colonies has galvanized countries in Central Asia, and they might be more willing to partner with the U.S. now, if only quietly.”
One of the more concerning complications regarding the approach to Afghanistan post-withdrawal lays in the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. Many experts find it difficult for the U.S. to rely on a nation that, at best, did not do enough to track Usama bin Laden within its borders and, at worst, aided him as he eluded U.S. military and authorities.
“You can forget about Pakistan,” Sales said. “Pakistan has played a double game for 20 years, and they're not going to stop playing that game now, especially with the U.S. out of Afghanistan. Pakistan's on again, off again relationship with the Taliban is on and will remain on for the foreseeable future.”
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This lack of confidence seems at odds with the relationship touted by officials in both nations. The State Department promotes its bilateral ties with the fifth-largest country in the world by population, noting that the U.S. is the largest export market for Pakistan – importing $5 billion in Pakistani goods last year alone.
However, in a New York Times op-ed published in December 2021, Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, called for the U.S. to consider a “reset” of relations between the U.S. and Pakistan because the two nations now stand on “shaky footing.”
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“Resentment is rife,” Afzal wrote. “America sees Pakistan’s support for the Taliban as one reason it lost in Afghanistan; Pakistan sees the Taliban insurgency it faced at home as blowback for partnering with America next door. In Washington the grim mood has led to talk of disengagement and sanctions. Neither approach will work or be satisfactory in the long run.”
Fox News’ Brooke Singman and Caitlin McFall contributed to this report.
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