World Affairs

Afghanistan: An imperial disaster

Print edition : September 24, 2021

Soldiers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division prepare to board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the final non-combatant evacuation operation at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on August 30. Photo: U.S. Air Force via AP

Members of the Taliban Badri 313 military unit on the runway of the airport in Kabul on August 31, after the U.S. pulled out all its troops. Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid (centre), accompanied by officials, arrives to address a media conference at the airport in Kabul on August 31. Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP

President Joe Biden, during a state address in Washington, D.C., on August 31. Photo: REUTERS

Afghans queue up outside a bank in Kabul on August 31 to withdraw money. Photo: HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP

The U.S. demolishes its CIA base and war machines in Kabul as its last troops retreat from Afghanistan after an “extraordinary mission” that in reality proved to be a foreign policy fiasco.

THE chaotic exit of the United States military from Afghanistan, just before the August 31 deadline set by the Taliban, has ended the final chapter of the U.S.’ longest war. The last American military plane took off with the remaining soldiers one minute before midnight, leaving the airport fully in control of the victorious Taliban. Before leaving, the U.S. saw to it that the airport was left dysfunctional as everything inside, including conveyor belts, fuel trucks and walkways, were either destroyed or stolen. The communications equipment needed for air traffic control was also missing. The runway itself, according to Taliban officials, was littered with the debris of military vehicles, aircraft and helicopters, including Black Hawks and fighter planes. The departing forces either destroyed or disabled the fighter planes, helicopters and other equipment. They, however, left behind many of their trained army dogs, which were rescued and sent to a dog shelter.

The U.S. had gifted the weaponry to the Afghan armed forces, which it had trained and financed. It did not want the equipment to fall into the hands of the Taliban. The Taliban leaders were angry because they claimed that the military equipment left behind by the U.S. forces belonged to the Afghan state and that they were the legitimate successors of the defeated American-supported government in Kabul. But the Taliban need not have complained too loudly as its fighters have captured in mint condition the bulk of the equipment, much of it sophisticated, from the Afghan Army, which hardly put up a fight. In the 20 years since its occupation of Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S. spent $83 billion on training and equipping the Afghan Army.

Embassy abandoned

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, one of biggest embassies in the country built at a cost of $800 million, has been abandoned, at least for the time being. In the second week of August, just before Kabul fell, the Joe Biden administration announced plans to deploy an additional 3,000 troops to protect U.S. diplomats. The heavily fortified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) base in Kabul, which was used to train the previous government’s counterterrorism force, was totally demolished through a controlled explosion that lit up the Kabul sky; the sound of the explosion was heard all over the city. The U.S. obviously did not want any sensitive information or equipment in the CIA base to fall into the wrong hands.

Also read: Last U.S. troops leave Kabul after two decades of war in Afghanistan

The U.S. has said that it is relocating most of its Afghan embassy staff to Qatar, where it hopes to be in contact with the permanent Taliban mission in Doha. Many European countries are also preparing to move their embassies from Kabul to Doha. Germany has, however, indicated that it plans to send its diplomats back to Kabul at the earliest. The Taliban leadership has been urging countries such as India, which hastily withdrew its diplomats, to reopen their embassies.

A week before the August 31 deadline, President Biden dispatched the CIA chief Thomas Burns to Kabul to meet Mullah Ghani Baradar, the number two in the Taliban hierarchy. Baradar was released from a Pakistani prison in 2018 under U.S. pressure. It is believed that the authorities in Islamabad arrested Baradar after he agreed to negotiate directly with the government in Kabul in 2008. At that time, the Taliban was in a comparatively weaker military position. Pakistan wanted to be the major interlocutor in the talks, according to experts of the region.

According to some reports, during his visit to Kabul, Burns requested the Taliban to extend the deadline by 10 days. Biden had expressed such a desire earlier. The Taliban leadership, finding itself in a position of strength, refused to accommodate the requests of the U.S. and its European military allies. The U.S. officials told the media that the only issues that were discussed with the Taliban leader were the ones relating to the safe evacuation of people from the airport and the steps to be taken to thwart the looming terror threats against the evacuation process in the airport, where thousands of U.S. and foreign forces were present along with thousands of desperate Afghans wanting to leave, following the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government.

After the last U.S. plane left the Afghan soil, it was evident to most observers that the U.S. had suffered one of the most humiliating military defeats since the retreat from Vietnam and the fall of Saigon in 1975. This time the most powerful army in the world was defeated by a rag-tag irregular force comprising around 70,000 fighters. Many leaders and opinion-makers worldwide have expressed the hope that the U.S. military-industrial complex will think twice before embarking on an another “never-ending war” in a faraway country.

Also read: William Dalrymple: ‘Prestige of America heavily dented’

Biden had promised to evacuate all U.S. citizens from Afghanistan before the August 31 deadline. Although the two-week-long incident-filled evacuation process organised and supervised by the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies at the Kabul airport managed to fly out 122,000 people from the country, many Afghans having valid travel papers were left behind. Among them were more than 100,000 Afghans eligible for resettlement in the U.S. as a reward for their collaboration with the occupation forces. Hundreds of U.S. passport and green card holders were also left behind. Thousands of Afghans who had worked for the American and European military forces and non-governmental organisations functioning in Afghanistan were left stranded when the last military plane took off.

U.S.’ future road map

In his August 31 address to the nation after the evacuations ended, Biden claimed that the mission was “an extraordinary success”. He also said in his televised speech that the end of the war in Afghanistan signified closure to an era in which American “military power” was used to “remake other countries”. Addressing the growing number of domestic critics, many of them within his own Democratic party, on the way he handled the military exit from Afghanistan, Biden said the only other alternative was a further “escalation of the war”.

Also read: Explained: Why is the U.S. parking local Afghan staff abroad?

Biden laid the blame for the chaos that characterised the U.S. withdrawal and the anarchy that was witnessed at the airport on the decisions made by the previous Donald Trump administration and the failed policies of the U.S.-supported Afghan government. He said the U.S. had no “vital interests” in Afghanistan and should have left the country 10 years ago. There was no way he was ever “going to extend the forever war”.

Biden laid out the future road map his administration intended to follow in foreign affairs, signalling that Washington’s strategic and military focus has now shifted from Afghanistan to China. The President said that henceforth America would rely more on a strategy guided by “economic and cybersecurity competition”. American forces will no longer be deployed in large numbers to counter terrorism in specific countries. Instead, military technology will be deployed to launch “over the horizon” attacks on terrorist outfits in countries such as Afghanistan.

One such recent attack on an alleged terror target near the Kabul airport, a day before the occupation forces exited, resulted in the deaths of nine members of a family, including three children. The U.S. military had claimed that it had thwarted another terror attack by successfully targeting a bomb-laden car and its occupants heading towards the airport. The Taliban, which is also involved in fighting the local affiliate of the Islamic State, has objected to the targeting of alleged terrorist targets.

Biden assured Americans that he would ensure the return of all the fellow citizens who had been left behind. After the completion of the evacuations and the withdrawal of the last American soldier from Afghan soil, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said: “We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think that if we wanted to stay another ten days, we would not get everybody out that we wanted to get out.”

The U.S.’ European allies, especially the United Kingdom and France, had requested that the deadline be extended by a week, but with the Taliban insisting that all foreign forces leave the country by the end of August, Washington had very little option left. The U.S. military was worried about the credible threats posed by the Islamic State-Khorasan group. When the oft-predicted terror attack finally happened on August 28, the U.S. special forces guarding the airport along with the mass of Afghan civilians milling around an entry point took the brunt of it.

Also read: Afghanistan: Troop pullout chills relations between U.S. and Germany

Thirteen U.S. soldiers and more than 200 Afghan civilians, who were desperate to hitch a ride on any plane leaving the country, were killed in the horrific attack carried out by a lone suicide bomber. The Taliban fighters deployed at the airport were from rural areas and unfamiliar with the city. They had no experience in crowd control tactics or in identifying potential suicide bombers. After the attack, the Taliban fighters prevented Afghans without proper documents from accessing the road to the airport. The crowds milling the airport perimeter had noticeably thinned in the last couple of days before the U.S. forces vacated.

Celebration in Kandahar and Kabul

Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, witnessed a full-scale military parade to celebrate the U.S. troops withdrawal. Tanks, Humvees and a Black Hawk helicopter, all captured from the U.S., featured in the parade that was witnessed by an enthusiastic crowd. The Taliban forces at the Kabul airport and in the capital fired into the air to celebrate the final departure of the occupation forces. The Kabul sky was lit up with fireworks. The next day, Taliban leaders, flanked by guards wearing U.S. military uniforms and carrying U.S. weaponry, were seen inspecting the military section of the airport.

The Taliban has announced its intention to open the Kabul airport for commercial flights soon and has sought technical help from Turkey and Qatar to repair and get the airport running again. Turkey has been requested to handle airport logistics. After the U.S. left, there is no technical staff to control the airport’s air traffic systems. Many Afghans trained by the U.S. have left the country. The Taliban has, however, rejected calls for deployment of special forces from Turkey and other countries at the airport.

Also read: Afghanistan’s chequered history

Sher Mohammed Stanekzai, the Taliban’s deputy chief negotiator in Doha, who is also the head of the political office of the Taliban, said Afghans with passports and valid visas could “peacefully” leave the country if they so wished once commercial flights resumed.

U.N. Resolution

The United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution on August 30 urging the new government in Afghanistan to honour its commitment to let people leave Afghanistan without any hindrance and allow the disbursal of humanitarian aid through the auspices of the U.N. and other aid agencies.

The Security Council resolution for the first time did not mention the word “Taliban” when it called for Afghan territory “not be used to threaten or attack any country or to shelter or to train terrorists, or to plan or to finance terrorist acts”. The U.N. continues to list the Taliban as “a terror organisation”. Ever since it took control of Kabul, the Taliban has been reiterating that the Afghan territory will not be allowed to be used to destabilise foreign governments.

Russia and China abstained when the resolution, drafted under the chairmanship of India, came up for a vote. Both countries stated that the resolution had ignored serious concerns raised by them. Russia had urged that the Security Council resolution include a provision on the negative impact that the call for mass evacuations of skilled Afghans and the freezing of Afghanistan’s financial assets by the U.S. and some of its allies was having on the country.

Also read: Afghanistan’s long struggle with reforms and conservativism

Russia and China wanted the resolution to include language condemning the Uighur separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which is active in Afghanistan, along with Islamic State-Khorasan. “On its part, Russia wants to see a peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan, with no terrorist or drug threats coming from its territory,” Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian permanent representative to the U.N., told the media. Geng Shuang, the Chinese Deputy Ambassador to the U.N., said that the U.S. and its allies had left behind “a huge catastrophe they have created while shifting the blame and responsibility to Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries and the Security Council”.

The Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on August 31 that “America was defeated” and Afghanistan had once again regained “its sovereignty and independence”. He, however, said that his country wanted good relations with the international community, including the U.S.

Indicating that Washington was in no mood to extend diplomatic legitimacy to the Taliban-led government, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Taliban had to “earn” the goodwill of the international community through its actions. “The Taliban seeks international legitimacy and support. Our position is that any legitimacy and support will have to be earned,” Blinken asserted. It took more than a decade for diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam to stabilise after the U.S. lost the war in Indo-China. It will take a long time for the U.S. political establishment to digest the epic scale of defeat suffered in Afghanistan.

Pakistan cautious

Pakistan, which is happy with the outcome in Afghanistan, is keeping a wary eye on the fast-changing developments in the region. In late August, less than two weeks after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, three Pakistani soldiers were killed in cross-border firing. The Pakistan Taliban, known as the TTP, is active in the area where the firing took place. After the fall of the Kabul government, the TTP has increased its attacks on the Pakistan Army in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Pakistan had accused the TTP of using Afghan territory to launch the terror attack that killed nine Chinese nationals in Balochistan province.

Also read: Afghanistan’s neighbours react cautiously to Taliban takeover

The government in Islamabad continues to formally insist that it has no favourites in Afghanistan and supports the formation of an “inclusive government” there, but the international community is well aware of the deep links between influential sections of the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani military establishment, which has a stranglehold over the politics of the country.

Reflecting the happiness of the Pakistani establishment in regaining its “strategic depth”, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, in a statement issued after a Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan, said that India would not be able to use Afghan territory against his country any longer. Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid went a step further and said that the Indian government was “in a state of mourning” after the return of the Taliban to Kabul.

The Taliban would not have been able to defeat the world’s sole superpower in such a decisive manner without the support of Pakistan’s “deep state”. But sections of the Taliban will also remember that the Pakistani military establishment actively supported the U.S. war on terror in the first decade of the war in Afghanistan. Hundreds of Taliban fighters and civilians were killed by U.S. drone strikes emanating from Pakistan. Many middle-level Taliban leaders were arrested and handed over to the U.S.

The Taliban leadership will not be happy with the fact that Pakistan is allowing many of the U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan to land on its territory. Fawad Chaudhry said the troops were merely transiting through Pakistan. However, they have been issued three-month visas. A large majority of the U.S. troops had exited through its military base in Qatar. The previous Pervez Musharraf government in Pakistan had allowed the U.S. troops to operate from Pakistani military bases.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Quereshi has appealed to the international community against abandoning the Taliban government in Afghanistan. “Such a move would have dangerous consequences and no one would be spared,” he warned. He said the world should be conscious of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. The Afghan economy, which for the last 20 years had been largely dependent on international aid, was in dire straits.

Also read: Afghanistan: How the Taliban's takeover could hurt U.S.-Pakistan ties

Many institutions, including banks, are bereft of qualified staff. Some of the employees have left the country or are not coming to work. Salaries of government staff have not been paid. The value of the Afghan currency is plummeting every day. There are long queues outside banks, with people waiting for days to withdraw small amounts of money. One in three Afghans are on the verge of starvation. The refugee flow to Pakistan and Iran has increased dramatically. Already millions of Afghans are living in squalid refugee camps in both countries.

‘No’ to Muslim refugees

The Narendra Modi government in India has made it clear that it is loath to accept Muslim Afghan refugees. An Afghan female Member of Parliament, who had come for urgent medical treatment, was sent back from Delhi airport although she had valid travel documents. The Indian government prioritised the evacuation of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs, but most of them apparently prefer to emigrate to either the U.S. or Canada. India is their last preference.

However, there has been a sudden change in India’s Afghan policy since the U.S. exit from Kabul. For the first time, a formal meeting took place between the Indian Ambassador in Qatar, Deepak Mittal, and Stanekzai, the head of the Taliban’s political office, in Doha on August 31. The main topic of discussions concerned the safety of Indians stranded in the country and India’s concerns about Afghan soil once again being used by militants to mount attacks on Indian targets. The meeting came a day after Stanekzai was quoted as saying that the new government in Kabul wanted the continuation of political and economic ties with India. The Taliban leadership has assured the Indian side that its concerns will be addressed positively. Stanekzai, who had undergone military training in India in the 1980s, had urged the Modi government not to evacuate its embassy in Kabul after the fall of the Ashraf Ghani government. New Delhi chose not to heed the advice.

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