After 20 years in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said the U.S. military completed its evacuation from Kabul by midnight local time, leaving behind a country under Taliban control.
“It’s a sad geopolitical irony that the Taliban will control more of Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2021, than it did on Sept. 11, 2001,” Luke Coffey, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Foreign Policy, says.
The Biden administration’s poor handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will cause adversaries to push “the envelope a little bit more,” Coffey says, adding that even “America’s friends are questioning U.S. resolve” on the international stage.
Panjshir is the only one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces under the control of a resistance movement led by Ahmad Shah Massoud Jr.
Coffey says Shah Massoud Jr. “is probably, right now, the best hope in terms of slowly turning the tide against the Taliban.”
Coffey joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to address concerns over Americans who remain trapped in Afghanistan after the Aug. 31 deadline and to explain the potential ramifications of the withdrawal.
Virginia Allen: Today is the deadline for all American troops to be out of Afghanistan. And here with us to break down the latest news and what we know about the progress of the pullout is The Heritage Foundation’s director of the Center for Foreign Policy, Luke Coffey. Luke, thank you so much for being here.
Luke Coffey: Thanks for having me on again.
Allen: Today is the pullout deadline. Are all Americans out of Afghanistan?
Coffey: Well, they’re not out right now, but they will be. We probably won’t know when exactly they will be, because that will be kept a secret, of course, for operational security reasons, by the Pentagon. But it’s a very precarious time right now for, not only the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, as we wind up this mission there, but … also [for] our allies and also for the Afghans who have been essentially left behind.
We know that there are probably a couple of hundred U.S. citizens that are left in Kabul, perhaps there are more, and other places around the country. And who knows how many Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants there are, these are the Afghans who helped us over the past two decades during our time in Afghanistan. Who knows how many are still remaining in the country. And for those Afghans who are left inside the airport, after that last U.S. C-17 leaves, it will be a very frightful time for them, I suspect.
Allen: In relation to the American citizens that are on the ground there, that we’re still working to get out, after the deadline, will those be covert operations trying to get them out? Do you think we’ll have some freedom to still send some planes in and pull them out relatively, obviously, to others or will those operations take place in secret?
Coffey: That remains to be seen. And it’s a very good question. There are some private initiatives taking place—the so-called Pineapple Express, which has been doing, by all accounts, a good job at getting U.S. citizens and Afghan interpreters out of the country. But they’re also doing this with the U.S. military presence there in the background.
The Taliban have said that foreigners will be able to leave freely, but they don’t want Afghans to leave, but there’s nothing in the past two decades that has shown us that we can trust the Taliban at their word. In terms of any effort to get U.S. citizens out, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, at least in the short term.
Allen: And what about our Afghan partners? Are there still going to be operations to get some of them out after this deadline? Or are we just kind of saying, “Good luck”?
Coffey: The Biden administration hasn’t been very clear on how they’re going to deal with this. They keep telling the public that the Taliban have told them that none of this will be a problem, but clearly it is going to be a problem. The Taliban will say one thing one day and they’ll say a completely different thing another. So I suspect, however unbelievable it might sound to the listener, after the deadline for American withdrawal, there will be American citizens stranded in Afghanistan, and there will be Afghan [Special Immigrant Visa] applicants who are also stranded.
Allen: Do we know how many of those applicants we successfully got out and how many are still in the country, as far as our Afghan partners?
Coffey: Again, the numbers coming out from the Pentagon are sort of all over the place. In addition to Afghan [Special Immigrant Visas], other Afghans have been taken out of the country. They’ve been brought to a third country—for example, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates—for further security screening before they will eventually move on to the United States or to other places. The exact numbers are unknown publicly, at least right now.
Allen: How are the Afghan people viewing America’s pullout? Is there a sense among them of, you know, “Good riddance. America’s been here for 20 years, it’s time for them to leave”? Is it mixed? Do we know how they view this?
Coffey: I think it depends on where you go and who you speak to in Afghanistan. I think, generally speaking, many are probably disappointed or saddened or shocked or feel betrayed by the U.S. withdrawal, and the way it has taken place.
For example, if you’re an Afghan soldier, you must have been shocked to discover that your No. 1 partner for several years has just left, in some cases, in the middle of the night. President [Joe] Biden had been criticizing the Afghan military for not fighting, but this is false. Since the Afghans have taken over security and combat operations in 2015, they’ve suffered more than 70,000 killed, tens of thousands, or more, wounded.
We built this Afghan military around a system that relies on civilian contractors providing maintenance and support to helicopters and planes and logistics and our close air support that we would provide the Afghans.
This wasn’t 2009, 2010, 2011, where we had 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan conducting combat operations every single day, taking casualties every day. When President Biden entered office, there were about 2,500 U.S. troops on the ground. And we were also providing our close air support. If the Afghans were getting in trouble, we would provide airstrikes or whatever to help them. And in some cases, all of this was withdrawn without the Afghans knowing and overnight.
It doesn’t surprise me that the Afghan soldier was demoralized by this. I think your average Afghan would not necessarily welcome the Taliban into their village, but what are their choices? The central government has all but dissolved, the U.S. is now gone, and you have an Afghan schoolteacher teaching children and all of a sudden, a couple of pickup trucks filled with fighters with machine gun shows up to your village. What are you supposed to do?
And when President Biden says, “Well, they didn’t fight,” well, how is this person supposed to fight back? I think in the end, this will be a terrible stain on U.S. prestige and honor in history. And it’s probably going to come back to bite us.
Allen: Thinking into the coming days, weeks, months, do you think that there’s hope that we’ll see any resistance from the Afghan people? That some of those soldiers that were trained by the American military will reform and decide to fight against the Taliban?
Coffey: Yes. Well, this is happening, actually, as we speak. There’s one province in Afghanistan called Panjshir that is under the control of the resistance. Panjshir is probably about 60 or 70 miles as the crow flies northeast of Kabul, the capital.
This resistance movement is being led by a young man called Ahmad Shah Massoud Jr. Now, Ahmad Shah Massoud Sr., his father, led the resistance against the Soviets and also against the Taliban in the 1990s. He was assassinated on Sept. 9, 2001, two days before 9/11, by al-Qaeda.
His 32-year-old son fled Kabul in some helicopters, went to his homeland in Panjshir Valley, and has set up resistance. He claims that forces are pouring into this region every single day. I suspect they’re trying to hold out until winter. If they can hold out until winter, then we might see some movement on their behalf, taking back some of the provinces in the north of Afghanistan, where the Taliban are going to have a difficult time controlling and managing.
This is very early days, but there is a resistance. There are Afghan commando soldiers that are pouring into this region. … They’re called the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, the NRF. I’m not sure if the NRF thinks, knows if they can trust the United States right now. Can they trust the Biden administration after what the Biden administration had done?
But this young man, Ahmad Shah Massoud Jr., he’s acutely aware of his father’s role and his father’s history. He will act accordingly because of this legacy. He is probably, right now, the best hope in terms of slowly turning the tide against the Taliban. But this takes us back full circle to where we were in the 1990s and regrettably, all of this could have been avoided had President Biden kept the 2,500 troops in the country and the close air support.
Allen: And that really brings us to ask the question of, how has President Biden’s actions affected America’s position on the world stage and other international leaders’ views of America? What are your thoughts on that?
Coffey: Yeah. Well, it’s been horrible, to be honest. America’s adversaries will now be pushing the envelope a little bit more, every single time, to see just what they can get away with with the Biden administration. America’s friends are questioning U.S. resolve and commitment. President Biden was all but censured in the House of Commons last week, this is from America’s No. 1 ally.
Many people are scratching their heads wondering, “Well, what does this mean for our relations with the U.S., for American commitment to security alliances and security agreements?” And our adversaries in Beijing and Moscow and Tehran, they’re all looking at this as an opportunity and they will take advantage of this. How they will take advantage of it remains to be seen, but they will. I can guarantee it.
Allen: Luke, let’s chat a little bit more about the day that’s ahead of us, this pullout deadline. We are having this conversation on Monday. It’s impossible to know what’s going to happen in the next 24 hours, but how likely do you think it is that we’re going to continue to see attack attempts like we saw over the weekend and on Monday on the airport as Americans complete this pullout on Tuesday?
Coffey: Well, we’ll for sure be under threat. The withdrawal of this nature creates a very vulnerable environment for the military. They have to gradually hand over chunks of the airport to Taliban control while they continue to secure a smaller and smaller bit until the last airplane takes off with the last soldiers and the last equipment.
What will they do with the remaining equipment? Will they destroy it? Will they just leave it behind? Or will they find a way to take it out? Who knows. Obviously, the priority will be taking out the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines that are there. When that last C-17 takes off, will you have a situation where desperate Afghans flood the runway again, trying to stop it? How will the Taliban react?
And of course, you have the so-called Islamic State of Khorasan, or ISIS-K, as it’s known—the ISIS branch in Afghanistan, that’s probably the easiest way to describe them. They were responsible for the terrible bombing that killed 13 U.S. service personnel and more than 170 Afghans last week.
They will be trying to take advantage of the situation, … where the Biden administration is now reliant on the Taliban and specifically this terrorist organization called the Haqqani Network to provide security for Kabul and security for the U.S. forces that are leaving. The leader of the Haqqani Network has a $5 million bounty on his head from the FBI. And this is a guy whose terror group is now responsible for the security in Kabul.
You couldn’t make it up if you tried. The situation is so absurd. It is a very dangerous time. Right now we should be praying for our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines that are trained to wrap up this very dangerous mission in Kabul. And we should also have in our minds those Americans who will be left behind, and also the Afghans who deserve to get out, but can’t.
Allen: What is the Taliban doing right now? Have they been cooperating with America? And do we know if they have any responsibility for the attacks that we have seen?
Coffey: Well, for the most part, the Taliban has allowed the bare minimum to occur. So, it looks like the U.S. is withdrawing people from Kabul international airport. But they’ve been doing so while not allowing full and free access for Afghans and American citizens to get to the airport.
Basically, they want the Americans out. They don’t want to do anything too provocative that would somehow change President Biden’s mind. At this point, I have no idea what that might be. But they still don’t want to tempt their fate in this.
And they want to let the world see how incompetent and weak America looks while it does the withdrawal process. That’s why they’re letting it happen. They’re just not letting it happen very smoothly. And so there is some cooperation and coordination between the U.S. military and the Taliban.
Now, ISIS-K and the Taliban are actually adversaries and enemies. Which just shows how complicated Afghanistan is. In the past, the Taliban have fought ISIS in Afghanistan. In fact, there’ve been reports of the U.S. providing airstrikes in support of Taliban offensives against ISIS-K in eastern Afghanistan.
This will likely become a major headache for the Taliban as ISIS in Afghanistan tries to exert more control and take advantage of what is a very chaotic security situation. It will probably mean that the Taliban will not be able to control and secure and govern much of the land that it currently has in Afghanistan. It took a lot of land and territory over the past two weeks, but can it govern and control? And that’s the big question for the Taliban now.
Allen: We’re really looking at a situation that’s obviously deteriorating quickly. What do you think as far as strength and numbers? Does ISIS-K pose an immediate threat to, let’s say, overtaking the Taliban in Afghanistan? And then what threat do they pose immediately to America?
Coffey: Well, one of good news stories about America’s presence in Afghanistan for two decades was that during the course of 20 years, there wasn’t once a terrorist attack that was planned, coordinated, and launched from Afghanistan that was successful against the United States.
Now, it’s likely that Afghanistan will revert to the chaos we saw in the 1990s, where you have four or five different warlords or power brokers that control certain parts of the country. In this chaos it’s likely that non-state actors and terrorist groups will be able to set up shop, if they wanted to. Already, we have signs of senior al-Qaeda members coming back from Pakistan into rural places of Afghanistan. This is documented on social media for anyone to see.
And ISIS will continue to pose a threat to the U.S., but they will pose a threat to the Taliban’s legitimacy and the Taliban’s ability to control and govern certain areas. They’re not a major power right now in Afghanistan. They were recruiting a lot from disenchanted Taliban fighters who felt like the movement wasn’t going in the direction it should be going.
ISIS-K is very extreme in its views and how it practices Islam, in a way that even the Taliban find abhorrent in many ways. I mean, the Taliban would release statements criticizing ISIS when they did things in Syria. So these two powers will be fighting against each other. This will make the Taliban focus a lot on trying to defeat and counter ISIS.
One thing the Taliban would have going for it is recruitment is improved when you’re successful, and the Taliban has been successful. So a lot of recruits that might’ve gone to ISIS are likely to go to the Taliban. But the Taliban is going to have a problem governing and controlling the whole country, because most of the country, most of the big cities and provinces switched sides to the Taliban without a shot being fired.
Incidentally, and coincidentally, I should say, this is how the Taliban gained most of its power in the 1990s, was through local deals, bribery, convincing people to switch sides. And this happened again. How the Taliban manages this new complex set of relations that it now has with different power brokers across the country will determine how securely and how well they’ll be able to govern and control the country. And this will not be easy for the Taliban.
Allen: Of course, we can’t change the past, we can’t change what’s already happened in Afghanistan, but how does America go about mitigating the damage and trying to prevent any further loss of life moving forward? What does our foreign policy toward Afghanistan need to look like right now in the immediate future?
Coffey: Well, the Biden administration hasn’t left much room for a maneuver here. I suspect this administration will try to pursue a pragmatic relationship with the Taliban, which, ultimately, will let America down.
In terms of America’s options, I think, in the short term, we need to find ways to get the remaining Afghan [Special Immigrant Visa] applicants and U.S. citizens out of that country. I’m not sure how that might take place, but that should be a top priority.
And then we need to double down on our relationship with key partners in the region, such as India, for example, or some of the Central Asian republics, the so-called Stans: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan. These are countries that are right on the front lines, not in a military sense, but in the literal sense. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan border Afghanistan, they have a lot at stake with how Afghanistan goes. There are huge ethnic minority groups in Afghanistan that [are] ethnic Uzbeks, ethnic Tajiks. So these countries will play a role in the future of Afghanistan one way or the other. So the U.S. needs good relations with these countries.
And then finally, I think, we need to have an honest discussion about how we engage with, or maybe even support, the NRF, the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan. Right now they need bandwidth and connectivity. The Taliban are trying to cut off their internet access. Right now, from my contacts that are involved with the NRF, they tell me that they can’t stream anything. They can barely use Twitter and barely send text messages.
And we need to provide them cold weather gear. The winter’s coming in Afghanistan. If they can survive the winter, it gives them more options in the spring time—they can consolidate more, get more supporters into the secure region.
And also, you never know, … if they can expand this region, the National Resistance Front, then maybe that becomes a safe area where those who are stranded in Afghanistan can somehow make their way to.
We need to figure out how we support this new group. I’m not sure if they even need weapons right now—I mean, there’s so many weapons floating around Afghanistan—but they do need secure communications, they do need bandwidth, and they do need winter weather equipment for this coming winter.
Allen: That’s a practical need, certainly is.
Coffey: That’s very achievable.
Allen: Yeah. Well, the anniversary of 9/11, it’s less than two weeks away. Do you think that America is at legitimate risk of facing another terrorist attack, whether it be from the Taliban, ISIS-K, al-Qaeda?
Coffey: Of course. I always start at the assumption that we are at risk and that we have to take steps to mitigate that risk. But certainly the way the Taliban has been able to sweep across Afghanistan, it will embolden Islamist fundamentalists around the world to be even more daring or to be more aggressive toward the United States.
It’s a sad geopolitical irony that the Taliban will control more of Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2021, than it did on Sept. 11, 2001. And all of this was avoidable had the Biden administration pursued a different policy, but this is where we are.
Hopefully, the U.S., I’m sure the professionals in the Department of Homeland Security and our law enforcement professionals and our military professionals and those in the intelligence community are working tirelessly with our allies and partners to ensure that we remain safe here in the homeland.
Allen: Luke Coffey, Heritage Foundation’s director for the Center for Foreign Policy. Luke, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate you coming on.
Coffey: My pleasure. Thank you.
Reproduced with permission. Original here.