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President Joe Biden’s decision to plow ahead with an incredibly precipitous withdrawal of all US forces from Afghanistan has precipitated the collapse of the American-allied government there. He ignored warnings from the US defence and intelligence officials, former military chiefs, diplomats, and independent observers, about plunging Afghanistan into an imminent catastrophe.
The last US troops leaving the Bagram base, in the darkness of the night at his orders, had set in motion a Taliban surge that went through Afghanistan like wildfire. The barbarians who were always at the gates pummelled through town after town, including the former bastions of resistance like Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat. Other provincial capitals fell like dominos. The Taliban then captured its former stronghold and de facto capital of its brutal emirate, Kandahar. The jihadist terror group subsequently encircled and ensnared the federal capital Kabul, which is home to over 10% of the country’s population and host to tens of thousands of Afghans internally displaced from the areas coming under the Taliban’s sway. And within days the triumphant Taliban walked into Kabul, forced the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to flee, occupied the presidential palace and unfurled its banner there.
Biden had rubbished concerns about the echoes of Saigon but his decision ensured that they crystalised as images reminiscent of the 1975 humiliation. The Biden administration scrambled to send back 6,000 back troops into Kabul to help evacuate the US embassy staff and citizens.
While there is enough blame for the debacle to go around the globe and back, the US president wants to leave it all at the doorsteps of Afghans, saying: not my problem. In a barely-concealed taunt to its beleaguered Afghan allies, he proclaimed that the US is paying for the food and salaries of their soldiers as well as providing air support and enabling the Afghan Air Force (AAF), and now they must show leadership and fight for their nation.
The US concerns about corruption in the Afghan government and its mismanagement of war are neither new nor unfounded. But it was the same allegedly corrupt Afghan government and Afghan National Security and Defence Forces (ANDSF) whom Biden had declared capable of repulsing the Taliban, to justify his withdrawal decision just a month ago. And the fact is that since the US signed an ostensible peace deal with the Taliban a year-and-a-half ago, the ANDSF had done all the direct combat and sustained all casualties. The coalition forces had not had a combat death since February 2020. The same ANDSF that had held the insurgents at bay since the Taliban’s spring offensive started this year but simply melted away, ceding city after city and then Kabul, merely days after the US withdrawal was complete. What happened?
The ANDSF had neither been as competent and well-equipped as the several US assessments had exaggeratedly shown, nor as incompetent to simply evaporate into thin air as the Taliban marched in. What changed was that in one fell swoop they were robbed of legitimacy, logistics, momentum, and morale by the reckless US withdrawal. The Afghan army, which was never equipped with armoured divisions and had skimpy artillery, relied heavily on the US air support and the AAF for movement, firepower, and tactical and medical evacuations.
President Biden’s decision to withdraw all US personnel entailed the extraction of all allied troops as well as over 16,000 military contractors responsible for maintenance and smooth of not just the air force assets but the ground facilities, vehicles, radars and even the Afghan Personnel and Pay System (APPS). With the contractors gone, the AAF was forced to troubleshoot and repair its already measly squadrons remotely, via Zoom and FaceTime. With the Taliban assassinating Afghan pilots on the ground and foreign technician exodus from the country, the AAF was hamstrung at the most critical juncture in the conflict.
The bulk of the fighting subsequently fell upon the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command (ANASOC) troops, trained for tactical assault or defence, not prolonged clear-and-hold of large territorial swathes. The so-called over-the-horizon bombing raids by the US B-52s did little to stem the Taliban tide and more to frighten the civilians who have previously been at the receiving end. With the additional loss of planning and intel support from the coalition forces and airborne assets, the whole conceptualisation of war for the ANDSF and the Afghan government started coming apart at the seams.
To add insult to the injury, the 5,000 Taliban cadres and commanders, whom the US got released by twisting the Afghan government’s arm, had not only returned to the battlefield but are leading the charge against the key cities. Watching the Taliban’s military leadership safe inside Pakistan and its so-called political leadership lounging in Doha, added a sense of uselessness to it all. And the leadership in Kabul did not exactly inspire confidence either.
Ghani, a technocrat more akin to the standoffish and aloof communist president Babrak Karmal, relied on an inner coterie of advisors in Kabul and failed to grasp the gravity of shifting political and ethnonational sands in the provinces. Despite being a voracious reader and expert on why states fail, Ghani failed to put his own policy prescriptions into practice. Many of us had warned years ago that Ghani’s political capital was evaporating fast and public’s patience running thin with both his governance and war policies. He was simply unable to transform the skeleton state that he presided over, into a functionally cohesive entity. The last continuous Afghan state had ended in April 1992 with the fall of Dr. Najibullah’s communist regime, to the Mujahideen insurgents backed by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
For almost two decades after that, the country only saw civil war and a subsequent Taliban emirate. Afghan government’s failures notwithstanding, what Biden did was to declare in not so many words that the current Afghan state, which had risen from the ashes of that brutal emirate, will not have the US and western backing that had brought it into existence in the first place. He essentially smashed the edifice of what looked like a state, no matter how dysfunctional or hollow it might have been. Disarray among the Kabul government with the rapid reshuffling of the national security leadership ensued.
A pall of gloomy demoralisation engulfed the ANDSF. By pulling the rug from under the Afghan state and armed forces’ feet, the Biden administration ensured that perception of a futile war set in among the ANDSF in particular and Afghans at large. What followed was the disillusioned and disheartened troops standing down or switching sides, and Taliban juggernaut completing the rout with its conquest of Kabul.
President Biden’s rush for the exit ramp was ill-advised, ill-planned, and ill-timed. Most importantly, it was completely avoidable at a low cost, low-intensity engagement maintaining a tiny US and western footprint in one of the most important regions of the world. Biden is trying to deflect at least some of the responsibility to his predecessor. But he had the option of reviewing the shabby deal with the Taliban. Still, he not only retained the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had inked on behalf of the Trump administration and rubber-stamped the deal, but also fast-tracked it.
In his long career as a senator and then as the US vice president, Biden has had first-hand knowledge of Pakistan army’s double-dealing with the US and the world, including the unwavering support and sanctuary it provides to this day, to the Taliban and its most lethal affiliate, the Haqqani Network. But the man who has been wrong on just about every foreign policy issue opted to overlook not just that but also the fact that the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and al-Qaeda remain joined at the hip. Biden consciously chose to ignore a dire warning from the Congress-commissioned Afghan Study Group that a “precipitous [US] withdrawal could lead to a reconstitution of the terrorist threat to the US homeland within eighteen months to three years”. On the contrary, the president, who had notoriously opposed even the special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden, proclaimed a victory against al-Qaeda.
By dealing directly with the Taliban, the Trump administration had sidelined the Kabul government, but the Biden team with its snarky and cavalier remarks and public humiliation through a nasty letter leaked to the media, undermined and delegitimised it irreparably. Ghani’s insistence on getting the Taliban to commit to a reduction in violence before releasing its prisoners was dubbed as intransigence while the Taliban flouted the agreement before even the ink had dried. The terrorist group did not make any measurable commitments to the US or Afghans, showed no tangible decrease in violence, and never did sever its ties with al-Qaeda. Flying in the face of dire warnings that the agreement “will not only not be honoured by the Taliban, it will also not bring peace”. An instrument of American surrender was packaged as a withdrawal agreement. But even more ominously, it had bound the Afghan government to terms and timeframe of a shoddy deal that it had had no say in.
The Taliban, on its part, had no reason to conclude the peace negotiations with the Afghan government, and predictably pressed ahead with its charge to seize it all by force. While the Taliban’s stealth and speed were surprising, its strategy was not unexpected. Instead of going for Kabul’s jugular, it went for its rump and flanks first. Fighting, terrorising, buying off, and coopting its opponents, the Taliban ensured that it first contains the country’s north and west, which had denied its 1990s emirate a sway over all of Afghanistan. This also served to stricture Kabul’s potential supply lines from the country’s north and potentially from Central Asian Republics.
But the US embrace of the Taliban had also signalled to the erstwhile anti-Taliban Northern Alliance’s regional backers that the US is about to leave its Kabul allies in a lurch. Weary of the Taliban but keen to see the US leave Afghanistan completely humiliated, powers like Russia and Iran cozied up to the Taliban and became indifferent to the Kabul government, and the anti-Taliban warlords whom they had previously backed.
President Biden has no regrets over his withdrawal decision, just as Afghanistan unraveled. But there sure will be costs in terms of America’s prestige as a superpower to deliver on both its promises and warnings as well as its reliability as an ally. Biden’s abandonment of Afghanistan would be taken as a betrayal by the allies but also seen as the lack of America’s capacity and will to stay as a superpower in prolonged conflicts, especially with the transnational jihadism and its patrons.
The Pakistan army, which had essentially sired the Taliban and helped it regroup after the latter’s 2001 defeat, had, for example, bet on the American fickleness. The jihadists invoke the US exit from Lebanon after the Beirut barracks attack to claim that “the Americans will not stay the course”. Along with that heinous bombing, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the dastardly 9/11 terror attack, the fall of Kabul will certainly become another red-letter day on the world jihadist calendar. The Taliban’s relative restraint in Kabul notwithstanding, the return of the Taliban’s brutal medieval emirate would inevitably turn Afghanistan into an ungoverned wasteland ready to receive more transnational jihadists and also embolden their cohorts elsewhere. The Taliban has already freed tens of thousands of prisoners, including al-Qaeda, Daesh, and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan operatives, from the government prisons. What their return to the terror world could entail, is anybody’s guess.
Afghanistan has descended into abject chaos, which could have been averted. The ousted Kabul government was responsible and accountable for its dysfunction, corruption and micromanagement, the Afghan political leadership for its paralysing ethnolinguistic bickering, and the ANDSF for its failures. But as the sole superpower directly involved in the Afghan conflict and as the senior partner in the alliance with the Afghan government over which it exercised a near-colonial control, the Biden administration is answerable to the American people whom it represents, the Afghans whose fate it is has sealed, and the democratic world it seeks to lead.
Whatever else might be the consequences of the US debacle, Biden has virtually thrown Afghans to the wolves. The mass internal displacement of Afghans, mostly women and children from the provincial regions captured by the Taliban, and run on the banks and Kabul airport speaks volumes about what they fear lies in store for them. A humanitarian catastrophe of the Hindukush proportions looms in the land that has gone from disaster to disaster, generation after generation. In Biden’s mind, he may have ended America’s endless war, but for Afghans, the mayhem, misery, and migrations have just started. The buck for the blood-soaked blunder and betrayal in Afghanistan and its inevitably disastrous fallout stops at President Biden’s desk.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.