Last week, President Joe Biden was pressed by White House reporters after announcing his decision to pull the last remaining US troops in Afghanistan by the end of August. Biden argued that US troops had already been allowed to remain in Afghanistan for far too long, and denied that the withdrawal would lead to the rapid collapse of the Afghan army in the face of Taliban gains on the battlefield. Biden also denied media reports of an assessment by the US intelligence community that the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani could fall to the Taliban within six to 12 months of the US military departure.
Within the last two months, Taliban forces have seized 204 of the country’s 407 districts, and are now in control of about 80% of Afghan territory. For the moment, all 34 Afghan provincial cities are still in government hands, but two of them are currently under siege. At the same time, large numbers of Afghan troops have been surrendering to the Taliban, giving up their US-supplied equipment and fleeing without putting up a fight.
Some 1,500 Afghan troops have fled into neighboring Tajikistan, prompting that country to mobilize an extra 20,000 soldiers to guard its frontier. Tajik authorities have reportedly left open the border crossings now held by the Taliban on the Afghan side, including the bridge over the Pyanj River which was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 2007. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Taliban is also collecting customs revenue at that crossing.
During a reporter questioning period following his announcement of the departure date for US troops in the White House East Room, Biden admitted that the Taliban “is at its strongest militarily since 2001.” Nevertheless, he insists that the Afghan National Security Forces and federal police are fully capable of maintaining control over the country.
“We have trained and equipped nearly 300,000 current serving members” of the Afghan military, Biden said, adding that the United States has “provided our Afghan partners with all the tools, training, and equipment of any modern military,” including “advanced weaponry.”
“I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, [which] is better trained, better equipped and more competent in terms of conducting war [than] something like 75,000 Taliban,” the president said, insisting that a takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban is not inevitable.
BIDEN INSISTS THAT IT IS TIME FOR THE US TO LEAVE
Biden declared that, “After 20 years — a trillion dollars spent training and equipping hundreds of thousands of Afghan National Security and Defense Forces, 2,448 Americans killed, 20,722 more wounded, and untold thousands coming home with unseen trauma to their mental health — I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”
He then added, “Let me ask those who want us to stay: How many more — how many thousands more Americans, daughters and sons — are you willing to risk?”
Biden claimed that fear that a complete American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would rapidly lead to a rapid Taliban takeover had been used for far too long to extend the American presence there indefinitely, resulting in the deaths of more US soldiers but very little progress in advancing US interests.
“In 2011, our NATO allies and partners agreed that we would end our combat mission in 2014. And in 2014, we signed on for one more year,” Biden said. “So we kept fighting, kept taking casualties. In 2015, the same, and on and on. Twenty years of experience has shown, and the current situation only confirms, that just one more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution.”
A RARE POINT OF AGREEMENT BETWEEN BIDEN AND TRUMP
Since taking over the White House, President Biden has been eager to repudiate the central elements of Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy approach, by rejoining the 2015 Paris Agreement on reducing carbon dioxide emissions to slow climate change, reaffirming US commitments to its NATO partners, elevating the principle of multilateralism in foreign affairs, and promising to place a higher priority on the protection of human rights than earning profits from global arms sales.
But in assessing the importance of retaining an American troop presence in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, Biden shares Trump’s impatience to end the deployment of US troops there.
Biden’s position on the issue has changed since al Qaeda launched its terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in 2001. At that time, Biden was serving as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and voted to support President George W. Bush’s decisions to attack al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and two years later to invade Iraq, based upon US intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction.
But when Biden was serving as vice president during the Obama administration, he argued against requests by Pentagon leaders for major troop increases in Afghanistan, and recommended that the US military pursue a much smaller counterterrorism mission in that country instead. President Obama rejected Biden’s advice, though, and ordered the Pentagon to mount a surge in the US troop level in Afghanistan to 100,000 to conduct a short-lived and ultimately failed attempt to crush the Taliban insurgency.
Once he became president, however, Biden was free to reverse Obama’s decision and in April announced his intention to pull out the last American troops from Afghanistan. Analysts and former Pentagon officials credited Biden for chairing an in-depth review of current US-Afghan policy before making that announcement, because it allowed opponents of a complete troop withdrawal, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley a chance to make their case for keeping the small 2,500 US troop force in Afghanistan both for symbolic and practical military reasons.
In justifying his decision, Biden argues that the United States should “be focused on the reason we went in the first place: to ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again. We did that. We accomplished that objective.”
But critics of Biden’s withdrawal order argue that his thinking on this point is obsolete. While it is true that there hasn’t been a terrorist attack launched against the US from Afghanistan since 9/11, and al Qaeda is no longer the threat it used to be, there are now other dangerous terrorist organizations active in that country, such as the Islamic State Khorasan, or IS-K, which has conducted several deadly suicide attacks in Afghanistan, including on maternity hospitals and schools in the capital city of Kabul.
FEWER US TROOPS HAVE KEPT AFGHANS IN THE FIGHT
Both the US and its NATO allies have been steadily reducing the number of troops they have been maintaining in Afghanistan while transferring their direct involvement in combat operations against the Taliban to Afghan government forces.
For the past six years, fewer than 10,000 American troops, plus a similar number from other NATO countries, had been stationed in Afghanistan. They were mostly confined to a few large bases, where they helped coordinate Afghan military operations, train Afghan troops, and keep the attack planes and helicopters of Afghan’s small air force flying to give those troops effective air cover. In those capacities, they were able to give the Afghan army enough support to maintain a rough military status quo with the Taliban and the situation on the ground in Afghanistan stable, even as US and allied force levels were gradually diminishing.
But now that the American military presence there is about to be eliminated completely, it is not clear that the Afghan military is ready to carry on with those tasks which have kept the Taliban at bay.
AFGHAN FORCES NOT YET READY TO STAND ALONE
An April 30 report by the US Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), warned that Afghan security forces “face critical capability gaps,” including for aircraft maintenance, that require long-term international support.
In a March 16 testimony before the House Oversight subcommittee on national security, Inspector General John Sopko emphasized the “Afghan government’s heavy reliance on foreign assistance” and the fact that “Afghan security forces are nowhere near self-sufficient.”
Despite some improvements, Sopko noted in his testimony “persistent weaknesses in mission-critical areas” and concluded that the force still faces “long-term capability and sustainability challenges that require various forms of continued US military support.”
In addition to US and NATO troops in uniform, at its peak, there were an additional 18,000 private contractors mostly hired by the Pentagon to perform various non-combat tasks for the Afghan military. Their services were critical in providing maintenance, crew training, and supervision for the pilots and mechanics of the Afghan Air Force, which operates about 75 propeller-driven aircraft and 200 helicopters, providing air support for Afghan troops fighting in the field. With the latest withdrawals, there are now only about 250 contractors still in the country, most of them assigned to help the Afghan Air Force maintain its operations. As those contractors continue to leave, the Afghan Air Force maintenance crews will become more heavily reliant on technical advice and training from contractors located outside the country, and communicating with them remotely through Zoom.
Around 650 soldiers now remain in Afghanistan to defend the American Embassy in Kabul, as well as at Kabul’s international airport, where they are being assisted by a small contingent of Turkish military forces representing NATO.
Biden plans to replace the American boots on the ground in Afghanistan with air power, aerial and electronic surveillance, missile launching drones, and raids by US special operations troops, all launched from bases outside Afghanistan. But many Pentagon professionals are quietly skeptical that they will be able to continue fighting Taliban troops on the ground effectively that way from a distance.
THE ABANDONMENT OF BAGRAM AIR BASE
Another serious problem is the fast fading morale of an Afghan army which has good reason to feel that it is being abandoned by its longtime American sponsor. A prime example of why Afghan soldiers feel that way was the sudden and unannounced evacuation of US troops on July 1 and July 2 from the Bagram air base, which had been the center and symbol of US military power in the country.
The sprawling facility, located 40 miles north of Kabul, was built in the 1950s by the Soviet Union and became the hub for the Soviets’ 10-year military occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the base became a military prize frequently fought over by the Taliban and the tribal militias run by the warlords of the Northern Alliance.
By the time of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Bagram site had been largely reduced to rubble. But the occupying US military quickly recognized the base’s potential and rebuilt and expanded its facilities. By 2011, when American troop strength in Afghanistan had peaked, Bagram had been at the height of the American war. It had been transformed into a small city, with two runways, tens of thousands of residents, commercial shops and a US military prison where the CIA interrogated and allegedly tortured captured al Qaeda terrorists. For almost 20 years, Bagram served as a gateway to and from the Afghan war for tens of thousands of American servicemembers.
The noise of military aircraft taking off and landing could be heard at all times of the day and night. Now that the Americans have abandoned Bagram, US combat air support missions for Afghan ground forces and overhead surveillance will have to be flown from distant bases in Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, or from an American aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea.
Bagram was also a frequent target for attacks over the years by Taliban rocket and mortar crews. The most damaging attack on Bagram took place in November 2016, when a suicide bomber was able to sneak through base security posing as a member of a group of civilian workers. The blast killed four Americans and wounded more than a dozen others.
US and Afghan officials disagree over whether the US had given the Afghan government adequate advance notice of the evacuation. But early the next morning, local looters were able to enter the base and grab souvenirs large and small, ranging from civilian and military vehicles to laptops and gas canisters left behind by the withdrawing Americans before Afghan police arrived to restore order.
BIDEN SAYS THE FUTURE IS NOW IN THE HANDS OF THE AFGHANS
Biden insists that the US role in Afghanistan will not be over when the last American troops leave by the end of August. “I intend to maintain our diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, and we’re coordinating closely with our international partners in order to continue to secure the international airport,” Biden said. “And we’re going to engage the determined diplomacy to pursue peace and a peace agreement that will end this senseless violence.”
“The Afghan government and leadership has to come together,” the president declared. “They clearly have the capacity to sustain the government in place. The question is: Will they generate the kind of cohesion to do it? It’s not a question of whether they have the capacity. They have the capacity. They have the forces. They have the equipment. The question is: Will they do it? . . . But, there’s not a conclusion that, in fact, they cannot defeat the Taliban,” the president insisted.
However, Biden did concede that “the only way there’s ultimately going to be peace and security in Afghanistan is that they work out a modus vivendi with the Taliban and they make a judgment as to how they can make peace, and the likelihood there’s going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely.”
That statement, delivered almost as an afterthought, was a telling admission that Biden is aware that the negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government have been stalled for months, and that his removal of the last US troops from the country deprives Afghan leaders of leverage they need to force the Taliban to start negotiating in good faith.
BIDEN CLAIMS THAT TRUMP’S PEACE DEAL TIED HIS HANDS
Biden and his aides have argued he had little choice but to pull out, in light of the fact that on February 20, 2020, the Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban in which the US agreed to withdraw its troops from the country by May 2021. In return, the Taliban agreed to cease all attacks on US troops, break its remaining ties with the al Qaeda leadership, and negotiate in good faith for a peace agreement with the government in Kabul.
Biden explained that he considered himself to still be bound by the Trump deal, and that he would be risking the lives of the few American soldiers still in the country if he did not announce a definite withdrawal date.
“Once that agreement with the Taliban had been made, staying with a bare-minimum force was no longer possible,” Biden insisted.
The Taliban did keep the part of the deal in which it agreed to stop attacking American troops. The last two American troops to die in combat in Afghanistan were shot and killed on February 8, 2020, during an attack on their Special Forces unit.
But other Afghanistan policy experts argue that Biden had an opportunity to negotiate a sufficient extension of Trump’s withdrawal deadline to give peace talks more time to advance. Alternatively, Biden could have claimed the right to keep all 2,500 US troops in place until the Taliban lived up to the other terms of the deal they struck with Trump, since according to a UN report released last month, the Taliban still retains its good relations with al Qaeda leadership, and still refuses to negotiate in good faith with the Kabul government.
Another basic problem with that deal is the fact that the Kabul government was never a party to the negotiations between the Trump administration and the Taliban, and therefore doesn’t consider itself to be bound by it.
The government in Kabul had hoped that once Biden took office, he would repudiate the deal by insisting on leaving a small American force permanently in place, or at least delay the withdrawal indefinitely pending full Taliban compliance. But instead, all Biden did was delay Trump’s original May full withdrawal date by four months.
WHY WAS BIDEN IN SUCH A HURRY TO LEAVE?
Retired US Army General David Petraeus, who served as the commander of all US forces in Afghanistan under President Obama from 2010–2011, noted that even though the Biden administration did not meet the original May deadline set in the Trump deal, the Taliban continued to hold their fire on American troops, giving Biden more time to figure out how he was going to disentangle the United States from the war. Petraeus argues that Biden should not have had such a great sense of urgency to announce a withdrawal date without first demanding that the Taliban live up to the other terms of the agreement, too.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham compared Biden’s early deadline for the last US troops to leave Afghanistan to the “Iraq withdrawal debacle” in 2011, when President Obama ordered a rushed US military pullout which led to a resurgence of violence, and made possible the ISIS takeovers in Iraq and Syria. Graham added that like Obama, President Biden decide to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan against “sound military advice.”
Politico reported similar concerns among “several people close to the [Biden] administration.” One former Biden aide claimed that many of the president’s supporters are baffled as to why he didn’t leave a small contingent of troops in the country. “They think it could turn into a disaster,” the former aide said. “There is this major belief that the Taliban is going to make the lives of the Afghan people [intolerable] and it could come back to bite him because he made this decision.”
James Dobbins, who served as a senior official for Afghanistan under Presidents Bush and Obama, observes that Afghanistan “is unraveling more quickly” than the Biden administration apparently expected. They were hoping for what Henry Kissinger called a ‘decent interval,” referencing the Nixon-era hope for something like the two-year period between the US military’s exit from South Vietnam and the surrender of South Vietnam to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975. “They may not get it,” Dobbins warned.
In a long series of tweets, Senator Graham suggested that, “President Biden does not understand [that] conditions are developing in Afghanistan for a re-emergence of al-Qaeda and ISIS which will directly threaten the American homeland and our allies. Get ready for major upheaval as this decision by President Biden is a disaster in the making.”
Graham added, “When it comes to understanding the war on terror and the dynamics we face as a nation, President Biden has consistently been wrong. I fear that his Afghanistan decision will prove to be his biggest mistake yet.”
HOLES IN BIDEN’S ARGUMENTS
In an op-ed essay, CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen also argued that the Trump deal should not have been binding on the Biden administration because the Taliban failed to fully live up to its side of the bargain.
Biden claimed that the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, would “work vigorously” for a negotiated solution between the Taliban and the Afghan government. But according to Bergen, “the Khalilzad-led peace process hasn’t worked for the past three years. Why would it suddenly work now?”
Biden also argued that it was impractical for the US to keep its troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, ignoring the fact that the US still keeps 28,000 of its troops as a “tripwire” in South Korea to deter a North Korean attack, almost 70 years after the 1953 ceasefire which halted the Korean War.
Bergen noted that continuing to maintain the 2,500-troop force in Afghanistan would not have been much of a burden for the Pentagon. In fact, it would be a relatively small price to pay to avoid the damage to America’s reputation as a reliable military ally from the likely collapse of the Kabul government soon after the last American troops leave the country.
A Washington Post editorial gave Biden credit for the consistency of his opposition to the continued presence of US troops in Afghanistan, but still expressed concern over the likely outcome of the withdrawal he has now ordered. “Biden has long been a skeptic of the US mission in Afghanistan, and he has stuck to that position even as the number of troops and expenditure dedicated to it have drastically shrunk. His view has been that the war against the Taliban is unnecessary and unwinnable. But the descent from stalemate to defeat could be steep and grim,” the editorial said.
BIDEN DISTURBED BY THE VIETNAM PARALLEL
Biden also seemed to be upset by a reporter who noted the obvious similarities between his withdrawal order from Afghanistan and America’s humiliating exit from South Vietnam.
“There’s going to be no circumstance for you to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan,” Biden said, referring to the desperate evacuations by helicopter of thousands of Americans and South Vietnamese from Saigon in 1975. “It is not at all comparable.”
Biden also pledged to relocate thousands of Afghan interpreters who had served alongside US troops for the past 20 years, and now fear for their lives and the safety of their families when the Taliban takes over.
John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department is now looking at US military installations overseas that it can use to temporarily house the Afghan interpreters and their families until the Pentagon can arrange for special entry visas to be issued allowing them to legally enter the United States.
Biden also rejected the comparison of his claim that the US has now achieved its main goals in Afghanistan to the infamous “Mission Accomplished” moment which prematurely celebrated the success of President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. That slogan, which appeared as a banner on a US aircraft carrier during a Bush visit shortly after the invasion, became a major embarrassment that haunted Bush when US casualties in Iraq later began to mount due to a stubborn insurrection.
“There’s no ‘Mission Accomplished,’” Biden said at first, and then immediately contradicted himself by declaring, “The mission was accomplished in that we got Osama bin Laden [ten years after the 2001 invasion, during which time the al Qaeda leader was hiding in plain sight in Pakistan], and terrorism is not emanating from that part of the world.”
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
The main question now is what is likely to happen next in Afghanistan, and what the new American role there will be.
At a muted ceremony at US and NATO military headquarters in Kabul last week, General Austin Miller ended his nearly three-year term as commander of US forces in Afghanistan, and turned over his military duties to Rear Admiral Peter G. Vasely, who is taking charge of the security forces guarding the US Embassy in Kabul. He will report to General Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the head of the US military’s Central Command, who is in charge of the broader US military mission for the Middle East and Central Asia, including Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government is seeking to fill the gap left by the departing US troops by asking local Afghan warlords and militia leaders to help the army hold off the rapidly advancing Taliban forces. A similar scenario took place after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, touching off a brutal civil war during the 1990s which ended when the Taliban conquered Kabul in 1996. For the next five years, the religiously intolerant Taliban imposed a reign of terror on any Afghans in the 90% of the country they controlled who did not obey their strict Sunni interpretation of Islamic Sharia rules.
General Miller warned reporters last month that the same thing could easily happen again if the warlords were to rise up once more against the Taliban. “Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if it continues on the trajectory it’s on,” he said.
One could argue that the new civil war has already started. Since the peace deal between the Trump administration and the Taliban was signed last year, there have been dozens of assassinations of judges, journalists, and human rights activists, as well as bombings of innocent civilians, including children.
WHY DID THE US LOSE THE AFGHAN WAR?
In his new book, The American War in Afghanistan, Carter Malkasian, who served as a civilian advisor to US military forces in Afghanistan, considers how the situation got to this point, and why the United States and its NATO allies were unable to win the war against the Taliban in 2011 after deploying a total of 140,000 soldiers and some of the world’s most sophisticated military equipment,
Initially, the US intervention in Afghanistan seemed to be a great success. The United States entered Afghanistan in October 2001 with the backing of the United Nations and worldwide outrage over the 9/11 attacks. Worked with local militias and a minimum number of US troops, they defeated the Taliban within 60 days, and lost only five American lives. The total cost of the operation was $3.8 billion, which President George W. Bush described as one of the biggest “bargains” of all time.
The problem, according to Malkasian, started after the Taliban fell and Osama bin Laden fled to Pakistan. The Bush administration no longer seemed to know what it was trying to achieve in Afghanistan.
It had no appetite for the hard work of nation rebuilding and made the critical mistake of allowing the Afghan warlords, who were largely responsible for the country’s descent into chaos and violence after the Soviets left, to take control of the country, and even gave them the respectability of becoming ministers and members of the new parliament. At the same time, the United States and its allies shut the Taliban out of talks on a political settlement, ignoring the fact that they represented the point of view of the country’s dominant Pashtun tribes. The United States thereby missed a crucial opportunity to get the country off on the right foot at a time when the new Afghan government still had popular support and the Taliban were in disarray.
Instead, US military and government actions alienated many ordinary Afghans and sowed the seeds for the Taliban’s eventual return from exile in Pakistan, where they regrouped, raised funds, recruited in the Islamic schools, and accepted the generous assistance and protection of Pakistan’s security service, the Inter-Services Intelligence.
The ISI saw the Taliban as a bulwark in Afghanistan against the possible influence of its arch-enemy India, which Pakistan’s leaders saw as a more important national security priority than the support of the United States. Meanwhile, the Bush administration not only turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s duplicity, but it provided its government with $12 billion in military aid for what it saw as the more important fight against al Qaeda.
Pakistan played a cynical dual role in the war in Afghanistan, pretending to be a US ally while giving sanctuary and support to the Taliban, which was one of the main reasons why the US found the war to be unwinnable.
Former Central Intelligence Agency officer Bruce Riedel described the problem bluntly in a piece he wrote for the Brookings Institution earlier this year: “The war against the Taliban is impossible to win as long as Pakistan provides sanctuary and safety, training, equipment, and funds for the Taliban. We cannot defeat Pakistan, which is a nuclear-armed state and has the fifth largest population in the world.”
TALIBAN’S STRONG APPEAL TO THE AFGHAN HERITAGE
Malkasian believes that the Taliban had something even more important to its survival and success than protection for Pakistan. That is a keen understanding of “what it meant to be Afghan.”
The Taliban knew how to appeal to the historic pride of Islamic Afghan peasants in their long history of independence, which Afghans believed empowered them to outlast and ultimately defeat the world’s most powerful and technologically advanced military empires, starting with the British Empire in the 19th century, the Soviets who occupied their country in the 1980s, and since 2001, the might of the American military.
Malkasian says, “The Taliban exemplified something that inspired, something that made them powerful in battle. . . They cast themselves as representatives of Islam and called for resistance to foreign occupation.”
As native Afghans, the Taliban were also able to exploit the ancient local tribal rivalries that the invaders never understood. The religious Pashtun Sunni tribes resented the foreign troops for disrespecting their Islamic culture and attempting to eradicate their profitable poppy crops, which made Afghanistan a major source of supply for the international illegal drug trade.
By contrast, Malkasian writes, because the Kabul government had allied itself with the foreign occupiers, “it could not get its supporters, even if they outnumbered the Taliban, to go to the same lengths. . . [While] more Afghans were willing to serve on behalf of the government than the Taliban. But more Afghans were willing to kill and be killed for the Taliban. That edge made a difference on the battlefield. . .
“Even after the Afghan security forces were ramped up and gained numerical superiority over the Taliban and at least equivalent ammunition and supplies, they threw in the towel at decisive moments. . .
“Some were reluctant to fight for a government whose insatiable demand for bribes they felt was the bane of their lives. Others were well aware that. . . [their] corrupt commanders were siphoning off their fuel and supplies, as well as pocketing the pay for ‘ghost fighters,’ who existed only on the books.”
After the initial American military success in Afghanistan in 2001, Malkasian believes that what they should have done next posed a real dilemma for American presidents. “America could not easily win and America could not easily get out. The fact we stayed so long may be tragic, but it is hardly surprising,” he wrote.
“Will the situation change with US departure? I am skeptical,” Malkasian writes. “Twenty years of foreign support has tarred the government in Kabul. It is all too easy for the Taliban to paint it as a puppet. . . Any Afghan government, however good and however democratic, could be imperiled as long as it was aligned with the United States. . .”
WHY THE US TENDS TO LOSE ITS LIMITED FOREIGN WARS
From a historical perspective, the US has always been at a disadvantage whenever it got involved in a limited foreign military conflict against a much weaker indigenous force, in which US national security was not seen to be immediately or directly at stake.
For example, the Korean War became a military stalemate after President Harry Truman refused requests by General Douglas MacArthur in response to troops from Communist China supporting the North Korean army in 1950. MacArthur was warned not to invade Chinese territory and forbidden to use nuclear weapons, for fear of the possibility such actions might start a wider war with the Soviet Union.
The US inherited the conflict in South Vietnam from the French Army after it was defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The US felt obligated to keep Vietnam out of communist hands, but was ultimately defeated by the communist-led, popular revolution against the corrupt, colonial-style government that the French had left behind.
In both cases, the indigenous forces were highly motivated and US political leaders at the time were unwilling to undertake the level of strategic and political risks that would have been involved had they ordered the US military to use the level of force necessary to assure victory.
The same dynamic applied to the US military intervention in Afghanistan. By late 2001, when the Taliban had been removed from power and al Qaeda had been driven into hiding, the immediate threats to US national security had been removed. There was no longer sufficient political will by US leaders to apply and maintain the level of military force needed to permanently eliminate them.
TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS WASTED
Since 2001, the American government has spent $2.26 trillion on the war in Afghanistan. At this point, the question must be asked — what good, if any, will survive from that massive American-Afghan experiment, when another bloody civil war breaks out and the Taliban most likely takes over the country once again?
In 2001, many Afghans hoped that America might end their 20-year-old civil war and free them from the Taliban theocracy. Initially, it looked as though that might happen. But today, the lives of ordinary Afghans are more insecure than ever: civilian casualties are almost 30% higher than in they were in 2001. In cities across the country, Taliban assassins are targeting Shias, secularists, and women with important jobs. Despite the enormous American investment, Afghanistan’s economy is no bigger than it was a decade ago. Nobody seriously thought 20 years ago that America would be able to solve Afghanistan’s many problems and bring it into the 21st century. But for the US to leave that country today back at square one is a policy failure of gargantuan proportions by four successive American presidents.
BIDEN STEEPED IN DENIAL
According to Biden’s narrative, the Taliban and the US-backed government in Kabul will soon be negotiating a peace accord in which the Taliban will agree to lay down their arms in return for a greater say in the country’s redesigned political system.
But most rational observers don’t believe that. They are convinced that the Taliban will insist on reimposing the brutal theocracy they had before the Americans drove them out of Kabul 20 years ago in revenge for the 9/11 attack. Rather than trying to cut a political deal, the Taliban will first try to use their superior position in the countryside to topple the current government in Kabul, whose demoralized military forces are already mostly restricted to the cities and towns.
As the Taliban continues to make gains in the countryside, many Afghans are fleeing villages for the relative safety of the bigger cities. Some 200,000 Afghans have fled their homes so far this year.
Pakistani officials say they are expecting another 500,000 refugees from Afghanistan to storm their border, in addition to the more than 1.4 million registered refugees are already in that country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
WHY AFGHANISTAN’S NEIGHBORS ARE WORRIED
As the Taliban press its advantage and the Kabul government fights for its life, the neighboring countries of China, India, Iran, Russia, and Pakistan will seek to fill the power vacuum that the US military left behind in an effort to keep the violence from spilling over their own borders. Some will funnel money and weapons to friendly warlords, and the result will be even more bloodshed and destruction
Russian President Vladimir Putin has already sought out assurances from the Taliban that it will respect the borders of Central Asian states that were once part of the Soviet Union. And Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov expressed concern that factions linked to the ISIS are now operating in northern Afghanistan, posing a threat to the former Soviet states along Russia’s southern border. He blamed the problem in part on “the irresponsible behavior of some officials in Kabul” and “the hasty withdrawal of NATO.”
Iran is watching the situation in Afghanistan with growing alarm. The Afghan government said Friday that the Taliban had captured a key border crossing between Iran and Afghanistan.
Even though Iran’s ruling Shiite clerics and the Sunni leaders of the Taliban seem to have a developed a working arrangement, the two radical Islamic sects remain theologically at odds with one another. Iran’s leaders are well aware of the Taliban’s history of extremely hostile treatment of non-Sunni minorities under its control. They worry that the ethnic Persian and Shiite communities in Afghanistan could become a new wave of religious refugees seeking sanctuary at Iran’s border.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry called the US withdrawal “hasty” and said Washington must honor its commitments to “prevent Afghanistan becoming once again a haven for terrorism.”
“The US has rushed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and left the Afghan people in a mess, which further exposes the hypocrisy behind the pretext of defending democracy and human rights,” he said at a briefing in Beijing on Friday.
China worries that another civil war in Afghanistan would threaten the $60 billion in infrastructure projects it is building in the adjacent China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
In addition, it is already waging an undeclared genocidal war in its western provinces against a million Uyghur Muslims being “reeducated” in Chinese concentration camps, and the rise of a militant Islamic Taliban state near China’s western border is another problem the Beijing government would prefer to avoid.
The risk of Islamic violence spreading across the region became clear in April when a car bomb exploded at a luxury hotel hosting the Chinese ambassador in the Pakistani city of Quetta, near Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan. Credit for the attack was claimed by a Taliban affiliated Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The group was recently targeted by a combination of Pakistan military operations and US drone strikes, and it may now see an opportunity to attack Chinese projects in Pakistan as a way to take its revenge on the government in Islamabad.
“The Taliban has close links with as many as 20 terror groups who operate across the region from Russia to India,” said Farid Mamundzay, Afghanistan’s ambassador to India. “Their activities are already visible on the ground and they pose a significant threat to the region.”
ANOTHER CONQUEROR DEPARTS IN DEFEAT
As the US military wraps up its 20-year-long involvement and prepares to leave, many Afghans insist that they are not surprised. They have seen other foreign conquerors, including the British and the Soviets, arrive in Afghanistan full of hubris and pride only eventually to depart in exhaustion and despair.
The Taliban also never believed that the Americans would stay. They cited an oft-quoted Taliban adage that goes, “You have all the clocks, but we have all the time.”