The sudden end to America’s longest war came Sunday as the Taliban rolled into the capital of Afghanistan and the national government collapsed. Thousands of U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked for Americans are waiting to be evacuated and U.S. troops are at the Kabul Airport to keep flights going. Even as the situation remains in flux, RAND experts have shared some of their initial thoughts on topics such as the issues fleeing Afghans may face, how the United States can protect refugees, and the implications of Afghanistan’s collapse on terrorism and geopolitics.
To protect Afghan refugees, Shelly Culbertson explains that the United States could speed up processes that are causing delays in the processing of Special Immigrant Visas, raise the cap on refugee admissions to the United States, and also encourage other allies and partners to accept more refugees. But regardless of what the United States does at this point, it may be that hundreds of thousands of people will flee and then live in squalid camps for decades, while options for resettlement to another country, return to Afghanistan, or securing citizenship in Pakistan or Iran remain low. This will only add to the world’s 82 million refugees and internally displaced people who live in similar conditions and have dim prospects for durable solutions.
On the implications of Afghanistan’s collapse on terrorism, Linda Robinson notes that the Biden administration has pledged to maintain an “over the horizon” counterterrorism capability to disrupt any threats that arise from Afghanistan. But without an intelligence presence on the ground, the ability to detect emerging threats will be limited. Russia and China have some incentive to deter and disrupt terrorist activity that could spill over into Central Asian states and China’s Xinjiang province. Similarly, neighboring Iran has some incentive to deflect a spillover of radical Sunni elements into its Shia-majority country—although Iran has acted as a safe haven for al Qaeda elements at times, for tactical reasons.
Jason Campbell suggests that the geopolitical implications of the rapid collapse in Afghanistan could be profound, as China, Russia, and even Iran could benefit from the new political order in Kabul. Depending on what transpires, this may prove to be a huge loss for the United States. There are credible reports that, following senior-level meetings with the Taliban a couple of weeks ago, the Chinese have voiced a willingness to accept a new Taliban government in Afghanistan. Additionally, despite being historical adversaries of the Taliban, Russia and Iran have in recent years provided support to the group and built closer ties with its leadership. Moscow and Tehran will likely want to maintain a productive relationship with the new regime.
Overall, while many who track and analyze great power competition have viewed Afghanistan as a distraction, what is occurring there now may be viewed as a significant U.S. loss, as China, Russia, and Iran stand to make gains, while the United States has lost its presence, visibility, and even some of its credibility.