Afghanistan

As the Taliban gains ground, the U.S. makes a hasty exit from Afghanistan ahead of the September 11 deadline

Print edition : August 13, 2021

The Bagram air base after the departure of all U.S. and NATO troops, on July 5. Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP

Ashraf Ghani, Afghan President, on his way to visit Bagram airbase near Kabul after the U.S. troops’ departure, on July 9. Photo: REUTERS

The Taliban delegation arrives for the peace talks with the Afghan government, in Doha, Qatar, on July 18. Photo: KARIM JAAFAR/AFP

An Islamic Emirate flag in front of the friendship gate of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Wesh-Chaman border crossing, Spin Boldak, on July 14. Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan have deteriorated after the capture of Spin Boldak. Photo: REUTERS

The last batch of the U.S. troops makes a quick exit from the Bagram base near Kabul much ahead of the September 11 deadline, marking the end of a 20-year occupation amid the advance of the Taliban across the country.

The withdrawal of United States troops from the Bagram military base, its biggest military base in Afghanistan, by stealth at night in early July without keeping the Afghan authorities in the loop marked the formal ending of the 20-year-old military occupation of Afghanistan. The hasty exit from Bagram demonstrated the lack of coordination between the Joe Biden administration and the government in Kabul, even as the resurgent Taliban forces gained ground across the country. The Biden administration decided to beat a retreat from Afghanistan much before the September 11 deadline that was originally announced.

In comparison to the chaos that characterised the withdrawal of U.S. forces after their defeat in the Vietnam war, the U.S. retreat from its last operating military base in Afghanistan was an orderly one. Gangs of looters did ransack a part of the air base before Afghan security forces arrived and took control. During the course of the two-decade-long U.S. occupation, the Bagram military base, built in the 1950s by the Soviet Union, had burgeoned into a mini city. It was the staging post for the 100,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan a decade ago.

There are reports that Washington decided to pull its troops out of Bagram in a hurry, fearing that the Taliban would capture Kabul. The capital’s airport is just an hour’s drive from the military base. The Taliban described the departure of U.S. troops from the Bagram base as “a positive step”. Military allies of the U.S., such as Britain, Germany and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), complained that the hurried departure of U.S. troops left them exposed and the allied Afghan forces were without effective air cover.

According to U.S. media reports, U.S. intelligence agencies have told the Biden administration that the Taliban could take over Kabul within six months. At the most, the U.S. intelligence agencies estimate, the government of President Ashraf Ghani could hold on for two years. The Taliban has already made rapid advances towards the capital in the last month and a half. The Taliban claims that it controls two-thirds of the country.

Also read: Taliban attacks pose 'existential crisis' to Afghanistan: U.S. watchdog

By mid-July, it had seized control of key border posts used for most of the trade with Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. Spin Boldak, on the border with Pakistan, was one of the important border posts to fall. Danish Siddiqui, the Indian photo journalist who was covering the fighting, was killed in a Taliban attack. Many Afghan army units are either surrendering without a fight or running away, leaving behind expensive U.S.-supplied equipment such as Humvees.

Biden’s reassurance

Speaking after the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Bagram, Biden tried to reassure the government in Kabul that Washington was not abandoning the country. Top U.S. officials have openly stated that Washington retains the option of bombing Afghanistan even after the military occupation ends. Biden said that the U.S. forces still retained the capacity to launch air strikes to help its Afghan allies. But for the time being, the Afghan security forces that were trained by the Americans at great cost are on their own. Biden said that though the U.S. retained the “over the horizon” capacity of launching air strikes, “the Afghans have to do it themselves with the air force they have”.

However, Pentagon officials are pressuring Biden to authorise air strikes in the event of the Taliban trying to take over Kabul and other cities by force. Critics of the Afghan war point out that a Taliban takeover of most of Afghanistan is inevitable. If the U.S. decides to start bombing the Taliban again, there will be no end to the war in the country. Biden recently admitted that the “likelihood that there will be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely”.

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The ceasefire between the Taliban and the U.S.-led occupation forces is still in force. Any U.S. targeting of the Taliban at this juncture would jeopardise the safe withdrawal of the few remaining troops from the country. A contingent of 600 U.S. troops will remain in Kabul to guard the U.S. embassy there.

The Taliban, on its part, has scrupulously avoided targeting U.S. and NATO troops. Only the Turkish contingent of NATO support forces remain in Afghanistan. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had told the U.S. that Turkish troops would help secure the Kabul airport from the Taliban after U.S. troops left the country. The Taliban described the Turkish move “as ill advised, a violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity and against our national interests”.

Searching military bases elsewhere

The U.S. has been desperately looking for military bases in neighbouring countries from which to conduct future operations in Afghanistan. This time Pakistan has refused U.S. requests for access to its military bases. The Afghan Taliban had threatened Islamabad with repercussions if the Americans were allowed to use Pakistani bases to stage attacks inside Afghanistan. The U.S. has asked for access to military bases in Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. So far, these countries have been reluctant to oblige.

The U.S. had military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in the early days of the occupation. These bases were closed following public opinion in these countries and Moscow’s suspicions about Washington’s long-term strategy in the region. For the time being, the U.S. will have to depend on its military bases in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to help its Afghan allies with surveillance. U.S. aircraft carriers are stationed in the Arabian Sea on a permanent basis. Russia has warned the U.S. against deploying troops in the Central Asian region after the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

General Austin Miller, the U.S.’ top commander in Afghanistan, who announced his retirement after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Bagram, told reporters that he envisioned the return to a civil war-like situation in the country. With the Afghan army and special forces unable to halt the Taliban advance, both the Afghan government and the U.S. are encouraging the formation of militias. The Hazara minority, which suffered greatly under Taliban rule, has formed its own militias. Many notorious warlords such as Abdul Rashid Dostum are once again gearing up for action against the Taliban. A few minor warlords, on the other hand, have switched sides and pledged their allegiance to the Taliban.

Also read: Is Afghanistan heading toward a civil war?

After ensuring the exit of the U.S. forces, the Taliban is trying to cultivate a more moderate image in the international community. While making military gains, the organisation is also publicly offering an olive branch to its adversaries. Afghanistan’s warring sides have resumed peace talks in Doha, Qatar’s capital.

The Taliban was initially reluctant to resume the talks with the government for various reasons. One reason was the U.S.’ refusal to withdraw its troops by May this year as agreed in the peace deal the two sides signed in Doha last February. Another sticking point was the Kabul government’s reluctance to release the remaining Taliban prisoners.

The prisoners’ release has been held up because of the Taliban’s refusal to form a unity government in Kabul until elections are held. The Taliban has also been reiterating that it does not believe in elections and Western-style democracy. Despite international opposition, the Taliban has said that it is determined to re-establish an “Islamic Emirate” to rule the country.

In the third week of July, during the ongoing talks in Doha, the Taliban offered a three-month ceasefire in exchange for the release of more than 7,000 of its fighters and activists imprisoned by the government. Many of the Taliban fighters are incarcerated in the Bagram base. On July 18, even as the Taliban was busy capturing more territory, Haibatullah Hakimzada, its supreme leader, said that he “strenuously favours” a political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan.

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In a statement he said: “In spite of the military gains and advances, the Islamic Emirate strenuously favours a political settlement in the country. Every opportunity for the establishment of an Islamic system, peace and security that presents itself will be made use of by the Islamic Emirate.” The Taliban leader blamed the opposition for “wasting time” and relying on foreigners to resolve the Afghan conflict.

Pressure from neighbours

All of Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Pakistan, have urged the Taliban to desist from attacking cities. Russia and China are particularly concerned about what the future holds for Afghanistan as their national security could be severely impinged if the country once again spirals into all-out civil war. Moscow has been active on the diplomatic front to get the warring sides in Afghanistan to agree to a peaceful power sharing. The Russian government hosted talks four months ago, which was attended by the “extended Troika” consisting of Russia, China, the U.S. and Pakistan.

A senior Taliban delegation visited Moscow again in early July. It assured the Russian government that it had no intention of spreading its ideology beyond its country’s borders. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, has acknowledged that the Taliban’s influence has spread throughout Afghanistan, including the northern part of the country that borders the former Soviet Central Asian countries.

According to ground reports, the Taliban is no longer a purely Pashtun-dominated grouping. Its growth in the last decade has apparently been broad-based, with Tajiks, Uzbeks and even Hazaras joining its ranks. That is one reason why the Taliban has been able to make rapid advances in the north in the last two months in areas once dominated by the Northern Alliance led by the Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Masood and supported by the West, Russia, Iran and India.

Also read: Can Turkey tame the Taliban?

Mohammed Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman, reiterated in Moscow that the Taliban had no intention of forcibly capturing cities and shedding more blood. He said that the Taliban’s policy “is to find a political solution to the Afghan issue, which is continuing in Doha”.

Shaheen claimed that the Taliban had gained territory in recent months through peaceful handovers. He said in most areas, the Afghan security forces surrendered voluntarily without a fight. Afghan security forces manning a key border crossing on the border with Tajikistan chose to flee across the border without a fight. However, recent reports suggest that Afghan security forces are putting up a brave fight in areas such as Kandahar, Kunduz and Spin Boldak.

Russia reportedly is planning to remove the Taliban from its “terror” list. The Taliban seems to have assured China that it will join the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and ban the Uyghur terrorists currently fighting in Idlib from returning to Afghanistan. Both Russia and China want to ensure that Afghanistan will not be a haven for terrorists once again.

Afghanistan was on top of the agenda at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Foreign Ministers meeting held in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, in the third week of July. The SCO, of which India is a member, wants the peace process to be “Afghan owned and Afghan led”.

India has also established channels of communications with the Taliban. An Indian delegation recently met with Taliban representatives in Doha. Moscow and Beijing have told both the Afghan government and the Taliban that they prefer the formation of a provisional coalition government for the next two to three years.

Also read: Diplomats urge Taliban to halt Afghan offensive

Meanwhile, the Afghan government’s relations with Pakistan have deteriorated once again following the Taliban’s capture of Spin Boldak. President Ghani has accused the Pakistan government of allowing 10,000 fighters to sneak into Afghanistan to create unrest there. Kabul has blamed the Pakistan Air Force for helping the Taliban in its takeover of the important trading post.

Pakistan announced in the second week of July that it was planning to host an Afghan peace conference in Islamabad, which would be attended by the Afghan government, the Taliban and members of the extended Troika. In the third week of July, Afghanistan withdrew its ambassador from Islamabad following an unsavoury incident in which a diplomat’s daughter was abducted and assaulted by unknown kidnappers. Pakistan has since announced the postponement of the Afghan peace conference.

Pakistan has strongly denied the Afghan President’s allegations of its alleged “negative role” in the Afghan conflict. Speaking at a conference in Tashkent, Prime Minister Imran Khan said that it was “extremely unfair” on the part of the Afghan President to make such allegations.

It is, however, no secret that many Taliban fighters are still lying low in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The Taliban was a creation of the Pakistani intelligence services but a lot has changed in the last 20 years. The Taliban, more broad-based now, recognises the importance of paying attention to other powerful neighbours such as Iran, besides China and Russia, for the return of lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan. Given the ethnic make-up of the country and its history, the Taliban leadership knows that no party can rule on its own in Afghanistan.

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