The Two Blows America Is Dealing to the Taliban

The exit from Afghanistan may seem like a failure. But it can also be seen as a display of power.

An illustration of a helicopter lifting a brain
Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

Imagine how the scene at the Kabul airport looked to the suicide bomber in the last seconds before he committed his act of murder yesterday: thousands of men, women, and children queuing and jostling in desperate escape from the coming Taliban regime. These were not randomly selected men, women, and children either. These were people with technical skills: medicine, computers, electrical engineering. These were people who spoke foreign languages. These were people who could navigate the modern world and its complex demands. These were people who could do work that could fetch dollars and euros and yen and rupees from the world outside Afghanistan.

The people at the Kabul airport wanted no part of the Taliban’s future. They were risking their lives to flee that future. In the end, that flight cost them their lives, as well as those of U.S. Marines guarding and guiding them on their way out to new and freer lives.

This latest terrorist atrocity casts further gloom upon America’s already grim exit from its longest war. It will further embitter the already polarized American recriminations over that war’s end. It may also portend the next phase of violence inside Afghanistan, as different factions of Islamic militancy turn against one another.

But it also illuminates some other truths less likely to get American attention: The airlift out of Kabul feels humiliating to Americans. Yet at the same time, the airlift is dealing two powerful parting blows against the seemingly victorious Taliban.

Offering refuge in the West to tens of thousands of Afghan allies is a dramatic humanitarian act. It’s a display of power, too—not only the organizational and economic power involved in moving so many people so fast and so far, but also the cultural and social power of the superior attractiveness of the modern world that so appalls the Taliban. Afghanistan needed the people now leaving. The systems that the Western alliance left behind in Afghanistan—computer networks, roads and railways, even the helicopters and munitions the Taliban has inherited from the Afghan armed forces—will rapidly break down without the people whom the Western alliance is removing.

The second blow may hurt the Taliban even more: the propaganda blow. When the Taliban first took power in Afghanistan, in the 1990s, Islamic militancy looked like a wave of the future. Islamic militants could reasonably believe that their war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan had wrecked one of the world’s two superpowers. Hezbollah terrorism had driven the United States out of Lebanon in 1983. New communication technologies were carrying radical preachings to Muslims all around the world, and many seemed to be absorbing and adopting those preachings. Al-Qaeda already existed, and would soon launch an even bloodier jihad against the United States.

Thirty years later, things look rather different. Perhaps in repulsion from the atrocities of ISIS, perhaps in reaction against local Islamists, people in the Arab world are becoming measurably less religious. The concept that Islamic peoples could form some kind of unified global political community looks ever more hollow as China represses its Muslim minority with the acquiescence of the leaders of Pakistan, Turkey, and even the ISIS terror group. The global center of Islamic militancy has shifted from the Middle East to West Africa—powered in great part by the lengthening gaps of African Muslims behind their Christian neighbors in education and wealth—just as the Taliban’s sponsors in Pakistan fall progressively further behind the Indian state they regard as a civilizational enemy. Millions of young Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa and beyond yearn to emigrate to Europe or North America or other liberal democracies.

Almost two decades ago, President George W. Bush prophesied that someday the ideologies of Islamic terror would join Nazism and communism in “the unmarked grave of discarded lies.” That prophecy has not yet fully come to pass. But the people trying to board the planes in Kabul have rejected the lie, and the urgency in their faces tells their story. That was the story a suicide bomber tried to silence. The story reverberates more powerfully than ever in the bloody aftermath of this latest crime committed in the name of faith.