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President Joe Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan, against the advice of the military establishment and contrary to the actions of three previous presidents, has had the unintended consequence of surrendering the future of his presidency to others. For most Americans, the memories of the tragedy of these recent weeks will soon evaporate, the long-term consequences of these decisions are in the hands of three groups of bad actors.

The first group to hold the fate of the Biden administration in their hands are the Taliban. They hold the strategic initiative, and the Taliban have proven in the past to be fanatics and genocidal maniacs. Minority groups such as the Hazaras — a Persian-speaking ethnic community — women, and those with sexual preferences that do not conform to the norms of the Taliban have much to fear should the Taliban revert to their historic norms of behavior. 

If the Taliban’s recent statements are any indications (that women should stay home because Taliban fighters do not know how to behave around them, for example), the decision to withdraw, notwithstanding the execution of the withdrawal, will be a historical stain on this administration, much like the Iranian hostage crisis was at the time it occurred. Biden made a big bet on the Taliban.

The second group to hold the fate of the Biden administration in their hands is terrorist groups such as ISIS. These dangerous terrorists are in Afghanistan today, despite earlier insistence that they no longer posed a threat. It is likely that the Taliban has again cut a deal with ISIS and similar groups: You leave us alone and we leave you alone. These terrorists have the strategic initiative once again, and the decision of whether to export terror to Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas rests solely in their hands. A terror attack emanating from Afghanistan and reaching American soil would turn withdrawal critics into loud administration detractors overnight.

The final group, and perhaps the most dangerous set of ruthless actors, includes the Russians, Iranians, Chinese, and North Koreans. America’s withdrawal creates a window of strategic opportunity, and they will use this chance to test the Biden team. The next several years of the Biden administration will see that window open from the Balkans to Taiwan. From drone strikes on Saudi Arabia and Israel, to nuclear saber-rattling, opportunities abound. We can be sure that Putin is gaming this out right now, even as the Biden team has not yet realized that it needs to convene war games at the highest levels.

While history may not repeat itself, some say it does rhyme. If so, are we back in the late 1970s, repeating the Carter administration’s actions? Or, are we back in the mid-1980s recreating the Reagan administration’s policies? What should the Biden team do to regain the initiative it has surrendered?

Item number one is to signal to the world that we are not sacrificing near-term military readiness to chase an elusive 2030 magical military. Instead, the administration needs to commit to readiness today and in the future. Supporting congressional efforts to add $25 billion to the defense budget in 2022, and increasing the 2023 budget by $50 billion, would be a good first step.

Item number two is to reassure allies and deter potential aggressors. To do this, the current force is going to need to deploy around the globe. Congress is already trying to divvy up the $6 billion in funding allocated to the Afghan Security Forces in the 2022 budget. Instead, the administration needs to move those funds into the operating accounts of each service branch, and send U.S. forces to the four corners of the earth. This is the only chance we may have to deter strategic opportunism.

The third and final action the administration needs to take is to reinforce Africa and the Middle East with counterterrorism forces. It is highly likely that ISIS will repeat its 1990s playbook and hit targets in their neighborhood first. Boxing ISIS into Afghanistan is going to be key to keeping them from reaching Europe and the Americas. Simultaneously, we will need to launch a significant information operations and cyber campaign, as the Taliban and ISIS now control the internet in Afghanistan. They will use this surely to gain more support and to foment terror around the world.

While we have surrendered our strategic initiative with our decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, and failed the execution of that withdrawal, the Biden administration can try, if it acts fast, to regain the initiative before the Taliban, ISIS, and others move to attack the United States and its allies, and to destroy the remaining years of the Biden administration.


Maj. Gen. John Ferrari, US Army (ret.), is a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a former director of program analysis and evaluation for the US Army. The views expressed are the author’s own.