What just happened in Afghanistan? And what comes next?

Afghan citizens gather near the airport in in Kabul as the Taliban close in
Afghanistan faces a grave humanitarian crisis and the likelihood of civil war, say Northeastern political science experts. Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Afghanistan now faces a grave humanitarian crisis and the likelihood of civil war, according to Julie Garey, an assistant teaching professor of political science who specializes in U.S. foreign policy. 

Widespread poverty, inadequate access to education and healthcare, and violence threaten the lives of nearly 40 million people, she adds. What’s happening now could force millions of people to flee, endangering themselves, the future of Afghanistan, and the region more broadly as neighboring countries seek to address and support refugees.

Max Abrahms, an associate professor of political science who focuses on international security, says that for Afghanistan’s future, there’s no expectation that the Taliban will chart a new course as it is called upon to govern. “I would suggest looking at Afghanistan in terms of more continuity than change,” says Abrahms, author of Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History.

News@Northeastern spoke to Garey and Abrahms for their take on the path ahead. Their comments have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.


It was only a matter of time before the Taliban captured Afghanistan, says political science professors Max Abrahms (l) and Julie Garey (r). Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken said that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan “happened more quickly than we anticipated.” Why did the swiftness take so many by surprise?

ABRAHMS: It is interesting how quickly Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban, but I actually think that there’s too much focus on the speed. Would it really have mattered, in terms of U.S. policy, had it taken a week longer or two weeks longer or three weeks longer? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I knew that the Taliban was much stronger than the Afghan military and that it was just a matter of time before taking Kabul. The Taliban hasn’t gotten its due in terms of its prowess over the years.

U.S. officials may or may not choose to engage with the Taliban-led government. What are the benefits and risks of engaging or not engaging?

GAREY: There’s no conceivable benefit to not engaging. Isolation will do nothing for the United States, Afghanistan, or any of their allies, and just entrenches, and runs the risk of deepening the longstanding animosity.

The risk of not engaging likely means full alienation of any potential working “relationship,” a complete dismantling of all U.S. and allied initiatives, not just political or military but also in the areas of education, health, infrastructure, and others). That said, I don’t know what the path to engagement will be or where it will ultimately end. Whether it looks more like U.S.-North Korea relations or U.S.-Pakistan relations or something else entirely is unclear.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is urging international diplomacy through the U.N. or NATO to prevent Afghanistan from becoming “a breeding ground” for terror and human rights violations. Given the mixed feelings about the U.S. decision to draw down, is it possible for the world to form a common view of Afghanistan?

GAREY: Johnson’s concerns regarding terrorism and gross human rights violations is completely valid. I’m not sure there’s a single country in the world right now that isn’t concerned, though how much of that concern turns to concrete action remains to be seen.

I don’t think there will ever be a common view of Afghanistan—right now there’s not even a “common view” from within. Of course, those states and leaders who are sympathetic to the Taliban will likely assign blame to the decades of foreign interference in Afghanistan (by the U.S. and its allies but also before that with the Soviet-Afghan war), but especially for geographically close states the threats are many—refugees and those fleeing persecution, civil war, and future foreign presences, to name a few.

I can’t imagine a world in which there is a wholly united view on Afghanistan and its future.

Which countries are most at risk from an ascendant Taliban?



ABRAHMS: Besides Afghanistan, it’s also India and Pakistan. The Taliban is not committing attacks in Belgium or in France or in Mozambique like ISIS. Many other countries will also be affected, but not in terms of being victimized by Taliban violence.

I see this as a civil war [in Afghanistan] and it’s going to create millions of displaced people and Afghan refugees. And so countries all over the world, especially the United States, are going to take in Afghan refugees and probably be criticized for not taking in enough.

The chaotic scene of Americans fleeing Kabul has been compared to the fall of Saigon. Are those comparisons fair?

GAREY: You could argue that the imagery and American perspective of both are the same. And that in both cases the United States committed significant miscalculations—any after-action report is going to chide policymakers for not “learning the lessons” of Vietnam.

But it’s not a particularly helpful comparison, and may at times be damaging if we’re to learn any lessons here. The cause for intervention, the means of intervention, and the failure of intervention differ significantly.

The United States essentially helped facilitate the rise of the Taliban when it supported the mujahideen [Islamic guerillas] in the Soviet-Afghan war. Afghanistan isn’t really a proxy war in the same manner as during the Cold War; the U.S. isn’t countering any other major power.

So far the United States has not handled this evacuation very well. There are significant concerns about safely extricating indispensable Afghan allies and their families fleeing persecution. 

Does the United States have a credibility problem?

GAREY: Unquestionably yes, and in many dimensions.

ABRAHMS: I’m going to say no. Hawks like to make this argument that if the United States doesn’t go to war over here, then America will lose its credibility. They say if the United States withdraws its troops from over there, it will no longer be seen as the leader of the world. But I think that what’s remarkable is not that Joe Biden decided to remove American troops from Afghanistan, but that it took so long to do so.

An entire generation has committed their life to building up Afghanistan. It cannot be said that the United States didn’t put in an effort to transform the country. The truth is that Afghanistan is not a truly vital U.S. interest in the way that, say, a nuclear war against Russia would be.

The United States cannot police the entire world. We need to set priorities, and I think that our adversaries around the world understand that.

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