The scenes coming out of Kabul last week after the Taliban reached the Afghan capital and the president of the country fled with dozens of senior officials have shaken world opinion.
In the meantime, the US and its NATO allies have begun evacuating their diplomats and nationals, along with those Afghans who worked with Western embassies and forces over the last two decades. At the time of writing, the US and its allies had successfully managed to evacuate 18,000 people from Kabul International Airport, named after former Afghan president Hamed Karzai.
The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has raised questions about the NATO alliance and whether its member countries should continue to rely on the US for their defence. The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan that US President Joe Biden announced last April was taken without close coordination with NATO.
The British wanted to keep a small NATO force in Afghanistan, of perhaps some 3,000 soldiers, in order to provide deterrence on the one hand against an all-out offensive by the Taliban and on the other hand to give support to the Afghan army in case it needed military assistance to repel Taliban attacks.
The US turned down the British proposal, and the Biden administration may regret having done so. In retrospect, it would have been a realistic decision on the part of NATO, and it would have prevented the Taliban from controlling 90 per cent of Afghanistan, as they do today.
What went wrong in Afghanistan over the last two decades that allowed the Taliban to come back with such force, taking not only the US administration but also the whole world by surprise? It is interesting to note that as recently as June US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives that he did not expect “an immediate deterioration in the situation as US forces began to draw down over the summer.”
Moreover, when Biden received Ashraf Ghani, the outgoing president of Afghanistan, last spring at the White House, he asked him to establish political unity among the various factions in his country including the Taliban and not to disperse his forces trying to defend the entirety of Afghan territory. Ghani turned a deaf ear to this advice.
On 16 August, Biden in a three-minute speech to his countrymen said that “Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled.” He added that the Afghan military “collapsed sometimes without trying to fight.”
We can pinpoint two main causes for the lightning collapse of the Afghan state in just a week: the fragility of political power and authority, let alone the pervasive corruption within the apparatus of this pseudo-state, and the lack of discipline and morale within the ranks of the Afghan military.
Of course, speaking of morale within the Afghan forces, we should also take into account the feeling of powerlessness that spread in the army once the US reduced dramatically the number of air sorties it was carrying out to assist Afghan military units in fighting advancing Taliban fighters.
I guess the turning point came when the Americans left the Bagram Air Base over night without alerting the Afghan military. The Afghan army realised then that without decisive air cover by the Americans, the fight against the Taliban would be almost useless. That was accompanied by secret communications between the Taliban and many Afghan commanders and officers to surrender without a fight. Furthermore, the Taliban gave money to unpaid Afghan soldiers, some of whom had not received their salary for the last six months. It is not unusual in this part of the world to get your way by doling out money.
US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, speaking last week before members of the US Congress to explain what could have gone wrong in carrying out the withdrawal from Afghanistan, said that “you can’t buy will and you can’t purchase leadership.” From his standpoint, “that’s what was missing in this situation.”
But to better understand the situation on the ground today, we have to go back to February 2020 when the administration of former US president Donald Trump signed a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, without the Afghan government being a party to the agreement, whereby US forces would withdraw from Afghanistan by May 2021 without conditions as to what the Taliban should do in return. From that day onwards, the Taliban began serious planning for their comeback, both militarily and politically.
Quoted in the UK Financial Times last weekend, Ahmed Rachid, a well-known expert on South and Central Asia and the author of a book entitled “Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia,” pointed out that without “the withdrawal deal, nothing would have happened. It changed the whole equation. The Afghan army was no longer a fighting force. It tipped the balance in favour of the Taliban.”
The big surprise, as well as the dismal failure, was that neither the Americans, nor the NATO allies, nor the Afghan government, anticipated or simulated an all-out Taliban offensive once the American forces began their withdrawal. Misreading the Taliban after all these years is inexcusable, to say the least.
General Douglas Lute, a three-star general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, said that “we were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we did not know what we were doing… We did not have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
Biden said that much as well, although implicitly, in his remarks defending his administration, when he made clear that US forces went into Afghanistan with one mission, which was to hunt down and defeat Al-Qaeda after the September 11 attacks on the US, and that this mission had been accomplished.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and its short and medium-term consequences means that the US for many years to come will not get involved in grand schemes of “nation-building.” The irony is that after two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are no traces whatsoever of “nation-building,” however. In fact, the opposite could be true.
But the return of the Taliban to power in Kabul does not only testify to shortcomings and failings in the US strategy, but also to a certain failure on the part of the Muslim world in dealing with Islamist fundamentalism and extremism.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly