A Reality Check As the U.S. Prepares to Exit Afghanistan

ISIS bombing an Afghani wedding is a reminder that terrorists will fill the vacuum we leave behind.

Weddings on a summer eve remind us of the excitement of young romantic love. The bride’s smile, the groom’s unbounded enthusiasm. It’s all so lovely. Unless, of course, a wedding turns into a bloodbath, murdering nearly everyone in the party and reminding the world that ISIS kills not only people, but beauty and hope, too.

The ISIS bombing of an Afghan wedding in August destroyed the dreams of not only two people. It took the lives of 80, altogether. Wedding party attendants were the latest victims in America’s Afghanistan end-game. Kissing the bride turned into the kiss of death.

In geopolitical terms, ISIS’s cynical attack was the most recent action to spoil the already tense American-led negotiations with the Taliban and to remind the world that once the United States has gone home, Kabul and the rest of the country will become its terrorist playground.

America needs to come home after the country’s longest military adventure overseas. It has to reckon with the failed policies of the past and regroup for future challenges. As it prepares to leave and negotiate its terms of abandonment, the United States also needs to make sure that other Western nations are willing to pick up the slack and work to lock-in the real gains made during the past 18 years. That means assuring girls are schooled and women are protected. It means that American-financed infrastructure and material do not fall into the hands of an ISIS that is looking for new soil to plant deep, poisonous roots. It means that wedding parties are no longer death traps.

All in all, as American troops plan to ship out, they are going to leave behind a fragmented country of simmering Afghan political factions with too many guns all too ready to create social and political chaos and impose stricter Islamist code. The Taliban has come to the negotiating table—without the legitimately elected Afghan government present—to promise America plenty. However, a rising and unconstrained ISIS can make those promises hollow. ISIS in Afghanistan is showing that it seeks power, territory, and subservience and will wantonly use vile and bloody means to achieve them.

I’ve seen this movie before. Long after U.S. forces left Vietnam and long before Americans arrived in post-9/11 Afghanistan, I watched the final Soviet withdrawal and the negotiated takeover by the mujahedeen in the early 1990s.

As the USSR began crumbling, a group of mujahedeen leaders came to Moscow to discuss the final terms of the Soviets’ total departure from Afghanistan. Factional militants ran the country on a rotating basis, but that arrangement didn’t last. An outside group, the brutal and backward-looking Taliban, arose to take down the nascent Afghan government, the social system and any hope of a modern, democratic future.

From the moment I landed in Kabul, the underlying tensions were palpable. All sides were just waiting for an opportune moment to act and to attack. The nation, though war-weary, was preparing for a new set of battles.

Kabul’s commercial Chicken Street sold prayer rugs and loomed carpets with AK-47 motifs and Soviet attack helicopters woven tightly into their piles. Street barbers and corner surgeons clipped and cut, keeping one eye on their clients and another on the lookout for potentially dangerous traffic and gun-bearing capital infiltrators. The daily weather was tense with a chance of catastrophe.

In this vibrant and potentially violent streetscape, I slipped into the downtown Kabul Serena Hotel, seeking answers to the long-ago, and still unresolved, 1979 mystery murder of U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubs. Whether a Soviet-condoned hit job or a rescue operation gone awry, Dubs died by a bullet to the brain.

Room 117 is where the kidnapped American diplomat was killed. A wary hotel clerk needed cajoling—and a little baksheesh—to show me the way to the room so I could discover nothing other than the street view. Back in the lobby, however, a group of men and women were heading toward the more bland than grand ballroom to attend a wedding celebration.

Men took turns dancing before a radiant bride as a loudly amplified band’s music kept cutting in and out, thanks to Kabul’s staccatoed power blackouts. A videographer taped the celebration and testimonials. Notably, one critical member of the wedding party was missing: the groom. Months earlier, he had escaped Afghanistan’s daily drudgery and violence to live and work in Germany. The wedding took place without him present. His bride and the wedding video would be sent to him in short order.

I don’t know if those newlyweds lived happily ever after. I do know they survived the wedding.

As U.S. troops prepare their Afghan withdrawal, there will be more marriages. The remaining question: will Afghanistan survive its impending American separation and eventual divorce?

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a foreign affairs columnist for McClatchy News, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and President and Publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.