Although the pseudo-analysts of the Afghan scene, top Bush officials, neocons and their beltway backers, tried all tricks in their toolkit to stop, delay and/or confuse the withdrawal of the remnants of US troops and their NATO allies from Afghanistan; President Joe Biden relented as far as September 2021… when all foreign troops leave.
The array of rationale for staying put included losing the gains for Afghan women… to the country again falling to the Al Qaeda… to betraying all the military/civilian sacrifices… to victory going to the ragtag Taliban, untrustworthy folks with a medieval ideology, who will usurp rather than share power… to the vulnerability of the Afghan state and the society, etc.
It is a shame how a superpower like the US walked into a country ostensibly with unclear political aims, military goals and objectives that kept changing. And the most powerful military on planet Earth had no “war-termination strategy”. Today the western narrative stands utterly defeated under the weight of Western/US compulsions to leave Afghanistan.
Mr Biden through his experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice-president was convinced that the US’ Afghanistan undertaking was doomed to fail “of its own weight”. He frequently and unsuccessfully argued for keeping a light military footprint, i.e., “a minimal counterterrorism force.” He struggled with the dilemma, faced by his three predecessors who wanted to end the war but insisted now [then] was not the right moment to leave.
Withdrawal signifies Biden’s version of “America First” policy that ends “forever wars”, throwing out the most touted “conditions on ground” linkage, so vociferously advocated by the war lobby. In the end, he just cut it loose.
Biden considers a rising China and even Pakistan much larger American interests, rather than Afghanistan, where leaving a smaller residual force would be unable to achieve, what over 150,000 troops from almost 50 countries, spending a whooping over $2 trillion in over 20 years, could not achieve.
The Chinese specifically marvel at the wasteful US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. When America was busy fighting these ‘forever wars’, China was building its global economic colossus… the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Now the US finds it hard to catch up. As predicted in this space, Biden finds vastly altered ground realities, after his vice-presidency under Obama (2009-2017). That truism, he realises, “requires us [America] to close the book on a 20-year conflict in Afghanistan.”
By pulling out, a pragmatic President Biden tacitly concedes Afghanistan falling back to the Taliban, which it eventually will as a predetermined outcome. White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan when confronted with such a scenario on Fox News (April 18) replied; “I can’t make any guarantees about what will happen inside the country [Afghanistan]. No one can.” He clarified President Biden has no intention of re-deploying US forces there. Sullivan, however, alluded to “keeping an eye” and responding to any emerging threat from Afghanistan through US assets in the region. It is some consolation to the dual-nationals of Kabul. Islamabad hopes the drawdown will be synchronised with progress in the peace talks.
Militarily also, the situation had turned irredeemable. After persistent operations by US/NATO forces, the Taliban resolutely control the countryside; they dominate the night; their influence and military footprint is pervasive and expanding; and their shadow government has more credibility than the Afghan government. To cite Simon Jenkins of The Guardian (16 April 16), the British contingent in Helmand “had to be salvaged by 10,000 American marines”. The British lost 442 dead. Even the Russians were astonished at the incompetence of Western operations.
Jenkins laments that the Taliban would have dealt with Bin Laden in 2011, when the US — awash in grief and anger — decided to smoke him out. The situation would have been stabilised by local Taliban leaders and the Pakistan Army. It didn’t warrant such an expensive and expansive deployment that battered Afghan demography and sociology, fostered a drug culture and caused “the decimation of its [Afghan] senior figures by US drones, to absolutely no effect”. Theorists of modern warfare like Gen Sir Rupert Smith, in his book, The Utility of Force (2005), point to the futility of modern armies in counter-insurgency wars. Uncalled for wars by the US-UK combine, “creating one ruined nation after another”, is cited as crass neo-colonialism.
President Obama in his memoir, A Promised Land (2020), recalls vice-president Biden warning him about the “unrestrained” US military, dragging “the country deeper into a futile, wildly expensive nation-building exercise.” Now to President Biden, the “future of Kenosha is more important than defending Kabul” … reported as the winning argument during debates about the pull out. Domestic politics drives the agenda when it comes to the US foreign policy, and domestically the Afghanistan war is unpopular, politically unsustainable and wasteful… period.
Moreover, America of 2021 is not, the US of 2011. A lot has changed. The international landscape has newer elements like an emboldened Sino-Russia combine; a Europe losing its luster; and Asia/Indo-Pacific becoming the new pivot. The coronavirus has battered economies and human life. President Biden and the Democratic Party rightly chose fighting the pandemic, handling racial inequities, poverty and income disparities; and rusticating a decaying healthcare and education system, as campaign pledges during the 2020 elections. The investment needed in Biden’s trillion dollar “infrastructure package” and other areas like broadband, semiconductors, artificial intelligence and 5G communications, are far more important priorities for Biden, than propping up the government of President Ashraf Ghani in distant and insignificant Afghanistan.
And America finally seems to have come to grips with her revenge after dropping daisy cutters and bombing wedding parties in errant airstrikes, consequently creating more hatred for a once benign superpower. The projects to turn Afghanistan (and Iraq) into a model democracy and “partnering” with and “mentoring” Afghan forces, lie tattered in the dustbin of history. Hopefully, American propensity to do anything with its military, stands humbled.
And in all this, Ghani and his cabal of American passport holders, stand isolated, abandoned, without dignity and respect and despised by their own countrymen for being “his master’s voice”, as sketched by Adam Nossitor of The New York Times (April 10). History is unkind in revenge for such leaders.
Ironically, the Time magazine cover in December 2001 blared… “The Last Days of the Taliban”. Little did it know… Afghan Baqi, Kuhsar Baqi, Alhamdo-Lillah, Alhamdo-Lillah.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd, 2021.