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The chaotic and humiliating U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has demonstrated once again that bad actors fill the void when the United States retreats. Although there was never an easy way for the United States and the international coalition to leave Afghanistan, their mission had achieved progress on numerous fronts and there was no reason it should have come to such an embarrassing end.
The world should not draw the wrong lessons from Afghanistan. This fiasco was far from inevitable. It would also compound the folly if the world’s developed democracies stopped supporting the quest for freedom and democracy in authoritarian states and war-torn countries. That includes Afghanistan, where the United States and its partners should lend their support to the ongoing resistance efforts to oppose the Taliban.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan violated three basic principles of conflict management. First, don’t tell the enemy when you’re going to withdraw. The United States unilaterally fixed August 31, 2021, as the date by which all U.S. forces would depart, removing any incentive for the Taliban to seek a peaceful transition. Instead, the group waited for the U.S. withdrawal and then began taking over the country through force, bribery, and intimidation. It took only weeks before the Taliban reached Kabul. The lesson is clear: never let the enemy know your plans. A withdrawal must be conditions-based, not calendar-driven.
Second, don’t abandon your friends. In 2018, the administration of President Donald Trump struck a deal with the Taliban without conditioning the agreement on the Taliban refraining from attacking Afghan security forces. When it circumvented Kabul instead by negotiating directly with the Taliban, local tribes and warlords saw the writing on the wall. They had every incentive to negotiate side deals with the Taliban, in the hope that it would allow them to avoid retribution. By cutting the Afghan government out of the negotiation process, Washington and the international coalition failed their partners and undermined their own credibility.
The United States and its partners did not abandon just the Afghan government—they abandoned the men and women who had worked with them most closely. Despite the decision to leave Afghanistan by the end of August, most countries did not prepare evacuation plans for their own citizens or for the interpreters and other Afghans who helped the coalition. Many of these brave Afghans are now at grave risk of retribution from the Taliban. The scenes of thousands of Afghans amassed at Kabul airport, seeking protection and freedom abroad, are heart-rending.
The world should not draw the wrong lessons from Afghanistan.
If the United States and its allies do not help people who have assisted them during the operation in Afghanistan, how can they expect people to support them in future military operations? Countries that launch military interventions abroad have a clear responsibility to help those who helped them—and that responsibility should not be drowned in bureaucracy.
Third, don’t spurn the sacrifices of your troops. Many veterans of the Afghan war and their families are asking whether their efforts were in vain. Going back to 2001, the fundamental priority of the United States and its partners was uprooting al Qaeda and international terrorism from Afghanistan. Our troops completed that mission valiantly, including when the United States eliminated Osama bin Laden. And during the last 20 years, not a single terrorist attack in North America or Europe has been launched from Afghanistan. Washington and its partners shouldn’t have left in a way that raises doubt about the value of their two decades of effort.
At the height of the intervention, there were more than 130,000 troops from 51 NATO and partner countries in Afghanistan. Those numbers then declined precipitously: only 2,500 American soldiers, part of a 9,600-strong international support mission, remained in the country at the end of the mission. That minimum footprint was sufficient to stabilize the situation with limited casualties and costs.
We could have stayed and told the Taliban that we would leave on the condition that they stopped attacking the Afghan government and agreed on a political solution that would ensure a peaceful future for Afghanistan. This would have prevented the disastrous exit, which has now left the country in a far worse state and enabled the deadliest single day for American troops in Afghanistan in a decade.
These mistakes led to the disordered withdrawal from Afghanistan, but they cannot be the end of the story. The United States and its partners may have ended their direct military involvement in the war, but they must still take immediate steps to rescue vulnerable Afghans and prevent the Taliban from reestablishing their brutal theocracy.
First, the United States and its allies must complete the evacuation of Afghans who worked for the international coalition and with international organizations—the United Nations, the European Union, and NATO—even after the August 31 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Kabul airport. These international institutions do not issue visas. European countries, including my own country of Denmark, should demonstrate generosity to make sure each and every Afghan who needs to leave is taken care of. The same goes for human rights defenders. We must hold the Taliban to their commitment to continue letting people leave the country, even after the withdrawal is complete. Some citizens in receiving countries might worry about mass migration—but in this case moral obligations trump other concerns.
Second, Washington and its partners should isolate the Taliban politically. The world’s democracies should not recognize a Taliban government. Currently, we see the Taliban sending conciliatory messages to the outside world, promising to be responsible stewards and to protect basic rights. However, it is impossible to trust them. Disturbing reports of brutality against women, execution of soldiers, and restrictions on journalists show the return of the same fundamentalist authoritarian Islamist regime. Similarly, we should make it very clear that there will be no international aid to Afghanistan without the Taliban meeting clear conditions on human rights, as there is no way to guarantee that continued aid flows to vulnerable segments of society will not enrich the group.
Third, we should help Afghans help themselves to get rid of the Taliban. At least one armed resistance has already sprung up in the country’s north. It is led by former Vice President Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud, the son of a slain anti-Taliban fighter. Members of the Afghan security forces who want to continue the fight are heading to the region, including members of the British-trained Afghan special forces. Although the situation is volatile and the resistance is in its early stages, the Taliban do not yet control all of Afghanistan. After the disastrous withdrawal from the country, the United States and its allies have a moral obligation to provide anti-Taliban forces with military equipment and economic assistance.
Washington must still work to rescue vulnerable Afghans and prevent the Taliban from reestablishing their brutal theocracy.
The world’s democracies must not abandon the fight for freedom and democracy across the globe. Some voices in the United States have argued that the outcome in Afghanistan demonstrates the futility of that agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. Freedom and democracy remain fundamental human values and are alien to no cultures. They resonate globally—including with many Afghans, who benefited from such values over the last 20 years. During our presence, an entire generation has experienced an Afghanistan where girls were able to go to school and civil society flourished. Afghans voted, started businesses, and benefited from international contacts. By virtually every metric of human development—such as life expectancy, literacy, child mortality, and women’s rights—Afghans are better off today than they were 20 years ago. And because 65 percent of the country’s population is under the age of 25, the majority of Afghans did not grow up under the horrors of the Taliban regime. Some of these brave Afghan men and women have openly protested against the Taliban, while some have withdrawn to the remote valleys and mountains north of Kabul to launch an armed resistance.
The world needs strong American leadership on the promotion of freedom. At a time when autocratic powers are on the rise, it would be disastrous if the United States and like-minded countries became disillusioned with our values. At the same time, their experience in Afghanistan should teach them how to strengthen democratic values most effectively across the globe.
For one thing, they must show more patience in assisting emerging democracies. It took generations to develop sustainable democratic governments in Europe and North America. But officials and publics in those countries too often expect fragile postconflict societies to construct well-functioning democracies overnight. Historically, the United States and its allies have demonstrated that a long-term military presence ensures the necessary stability to pave the way for peace, freedom, and democracy. After World War II, U.S. troops were deployed in Japan and Germany—today two of the world’s most well-functioning democracies. The U.S. presence in postconflict South Korea, Cyprus, Bosnia, and Kosovo has also preceded the development of democratic societies.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made clear that powerful democracies cannot build democracy elsewhere through military force. Domestic populations eventually tire of long wars. The influx of aid and resources from international forces also creates dependency among the government and citizens in postconflict areas, which nurtures centralized planning and bureaucracy. The lack of a strong civil society makes it very easy for government officials to engage in corruption and clientelist behavior instead of supporting civil liberties and entrepreneurship.
The failures in Afghanistan were primarily matters of execution; they do not invalidate the basic model of military intervention that begins with the application of massive force to eliminate terrorists and other hostile elements before drastically reducing the footprint in order to help local authorities build a free and more stable society. But one clear lesson from Afghanistan is that the shift from invasion to stabilization and reconstruction must take place very early and must be well planned and resourced.
In postconflict areas, businesses pop up almost immediately after conditions allow it. Instead of planning large aid campaigns administered by centralized bureaucracies, we should ensure the conditions for economic growth and encourage the natural process of business activity. By empowering communities to prosper, we can build local resilience to abusive government action and enable citizens in postconflict areas to take responsibility for their own economic futures.
This model would allow local entrepreneurship and civil society to flourish and provide better opportunities for local communities to develop a well-functioning economy. Occupying forces should reduce bureaucracy and red tape, supporting leaner public administration and better opportunities for entrepreneurship, de-emphasizing government support schemes, and creating more opportunities for personal economic initiative. Such an approach would be less vulnerable to corruption and create many more jobs in local communities than the current bureaucratic, military-heavy system.
Building free societies will make the world a safer place. These societies are more peaceful and stable than their autocratic counterparts, which time and again emerge as enemies of the world’s democracies and breeding grounds for terrorist networks. That’s why the world’s democracies must work together to counter resurgent authoritarian regimes and to assist fragile and emerging democracies.
Washington and its allies made the right decision in 2001 to drive the Taliban from power. They did the right thing by staying in Afghanistan to help build a more stable and free society. And they were right to leave the country: Afghans must decide their own future.
But the timing, method, and manner of the departure were all wrong. As a result, Afghanistan has been thrown into crisis and Western democracies’ global credibility has been gravely damaged—failures that must now be reversed. The world’s advanced democracies should learn from these mistakes and must not lose heart when it comes to promoting their values and fighting for freedom.