Twenty years and more than $2 trillion later, the United States of America has finally ended its military occupation of Afghanistan. The manner of withdrawal – some would say hasty and messy – of American troops from the country that gave safe haven to Osama Bin Laden after he attacked the United States in 2001 leaves much to be desired. in many quarters. The current furore over this issue is exacerbated politically because it has united members on both sides of the American political divide.
It is a consensus among America’s politicians that the seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan had to end. Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election on the promise of bringing American troops back home. His then opponent, John McCain opposed it. In 2012, Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, agreed on the necessity of ending that war. Obama succeeded in removing American troops from Iraq before he left office but couldn’t get them out of Afghanistan. Donald Trump campaigned on the same promise in 2016, got elected and started negotiating American withdrawal with the Taliban in Qatar, even going as far as pressing Pakistan to release Mullah Baradar (who is now head of the Taliban government) from prison. Trump’s timeline was to get US troops out of Afghanistan by May 1st, 2021, on the tenth anniversary of the death of Osama Bin Laden.
America’s allies, especially Germany and the UK – who all have significant number of active troops under NATO – were left out of such decisions and could only watch in despair as Turkey opted to fill the security void at Kabul’s airport – which had been left open by American withdrawal. Biden decided to do the right thing by postponing the date to September 11, four or five months for any preparation for evacuation. The important question is: considering President Biden’s several statements that America will not fight for Afghanistan if the Afghan military is not willing to fight for Afghanistan, why did the Afghan military crumble as the Taliban took over the country in just two weeks without firing a shot in 80% of the provinces now under its control?
Since 2001, Afghan soldiers have been fighting the Taliban and other insurgency groups daily, with the U.S. military providing mostly aerial support and training. And they have been killed and injured in large numbers. Unlike the thinking in some places that the U.S. military has been training one soldier for a decade, some of them have had only several months of training, before they were killed or injured, and another recruit would take their place.
A second reason for the inability of the Afghanistan military to repel Taliban advance is because of the entry level skills requirement: when one joins the military in several parts of the world, there are basic skills that have been pre-acquired, especially secondary school level literacy among others. Afghanistan’s case is quite different. Before any training could even begin, some soldiers in the Afghan military needed to be taught how to read, write, drive a car or a truck, how to read instructions or follow a manual. Therefore, the time it took to properly train would be much longer than expected.
The third and very equally important reason is endemic corruption. In several conversations with Afghan soldiers, researchers recounted woeful stories of neglect and malfeasance within the military institution. Commanders were said to be engaged in acts such as the stealing the food to sell it on the market for profit, thus leaving soldiers with inadequate food supplies, as well as depriving them of SIM cards – a decision that translates into deliberately cutting them off from their families; lack of enough vacation to rest or recover, and of course no mental health counselling of any kind, even after a prolonged exposure to war. It is not that hard to understand why a 20-something young man might not want to sacrifice his life for leaders he does not respect, for a government he does not trust, and without any U.S. support to help.
It must also be stated that Afghanistan does have its own brand of Special Forces soldiers referred to as Commandoes. These soldiers are highly trained, brave, and dedicated men who fight with zeal, but what they lost with the U.S. withdrawal is the American Special Forces in their ear on many of the missions, watching them over drones, alerting them to danger and helping them out. So, even for them, fighting has become hard without help. Moreover, there was not enough willpower to fight. The Taliban is made up of less than 70000 fighters, in stark comparison to the Afghan military that has over 300000 men.
Many have criticised President Biden in harsh terms. But there are questions for his critics. Some of these questions have been asked by American geopolitical strategist, Peter Zeihan, and they are worth repeating here: First, if after twenty years of effort and trillions of dollars of assistance, the Afghan military cannot hold its country together for two weeks, what would another year, another decade, another 10,000 American combat deaths achieve, if not absolutely nothing?
Secondly, the goal of the American presence was to prevent the return of hostile militant groups like al-Qaeda, the radical Sunni terror group that carried out the September 11, 2001, attacks. Good. Fine. But al-Qaeda has inspired more capable copy-cats in Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Mauritania, Mali, Somalia, the Philippines, Indonesia, France, Belgium, Russia, and several others in the Sahel. Should America occupy all these countries too?
Third, America’s greatest allies in the Afghan operations fell into two camps. The first are the Hazaras, an Afghan tribe in the central highlands who stayed in their central highlands and only fought the Taliban defensively. The other camp – the Northern Alliance, the ones willing to take the fight to the Taliban in the lowlands which wrap around Hazara territory like a giant U – is comprised of shady opium smugglers and serial child abusers. Really, are these the best allies that America and NATO can find? Is it all worth it?
Lastly, Afghanistan is a land-locked country with no oil reserves, but with natural resources that would more than a decade to develop the infrastructure to harness, the country is among the poorest countries in the world, as it has been for a larger part of recorded history. It is on a path to nowhere. Getting in and out requires deals with either a wildly untrustworthy Pakistan who have provided safe havens for the Taliban and Bin Laden, a problematic Iran, strategic rival China who had already recognised Taliban leadership as a means of (ironically) preventing the Uighurs from having other ideas, or Russia.
In conclusion, it is also important to state that there is no good time to leave Afghanistan. Americans will not continue to fight never-ending wars. This strategic retreat has been pilloried by analysts who compare the Afghan situation with Taiwan, especially in the wake of the Global Times’ – a Chinese government-owned media outlet – encouragement of Taiwan to seek reintegration with China because the US will abandon them the way Afghanistan was abandoned. This line of thinking does not consider the fact that Afghanistan is not a US ally. Its presence in that country was an occupation with the exact goal of making sure al-Qaeda could no longer hurt the US. Clearly, this goal was achieved.
The United States is out of Afghanistan. There’s no easy way out, but the Biden administration must be commended for doing so, albeit with the level of chaos no one saw coming – a mistake that may or may not haunt the US in future. For now, though, all members of the international community must step up to hold the Taliban responsible and accountable for their promises and make sure Afghanistan does not spiral into another civil war if the Taliban is challenged for control, because India, China, and Pakistan cannot be trusted to do that.