No diplomats are crowding the rooftop of the US Embassy in Kabul to evacuate the city by helicopter, as was the case during the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The total withdrawal of US troops, expected to end by the 20th anniversary of the 11 September, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, has been handy and orderly, accompanied by vague, rather meaningless pledges by US President Joe Biden that the United States “will not abandon Afghanistan.”
The reality on the ground is that in just four days since the beginning of this week, Taliban fighters have seized five provincial capitals across the north and one in the southwest, and continue to press on in their brutal offensive. Such sweeping victories have further stoked fears that the insurgents could envelop Kabul, and restore the Islamic Emirate they once lost after US forces easily advanced to occupy Afghanistan in late 2001.
On Monday, the Taliban seized another northern city, Aybak, the capital of Samangan Province, after brief clashes with government troops. In the neighboring province, despite pledges to begin operations to retake Kunduz, Afghan troops still reeling from the weekend’s assault had not carried out any form of a counterattack on the city by nightfall. And security forces evacuated from another northern province, Sar-i-Pul, had effectively ceded it to the Taliban who had seized its capital on Sunday.
For his part Afghan President Ashraf Ghani refused to acknowledge these defeats, and instead blamed Biden’s administration for abandoning his country and refusing to provide air cover to deter Taliban troops advancing on Kunduz.
Meanwhile, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has left for Qatari capital Doha to urge the Taliban leaders to stop the offensive. Ambassador Khalilzad “will be in Doha to help formulate a joint international response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan,” the US State Department said in a statement. The US diplomat will “press the Taliban to stop their military offensive” and negotiate a political settlement, which is the only path to stability and development in Afghanistan, it added.
The Taliban attacks on provincial capitals violate the 2020 peace deal between the Taliban and the United States, which Khalilzad had negotiated and signed in Doha. Under that deal, which precipitated the American withdrawal from the country, the Taliban committed to not attacking provincial centers like Kunduz.
Experts on Afghanistan noted that over the past decade, the Taliban have courted fighters from Afghanistan’s northern neighbours, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to lay the groundwork for their current military campaign. They found scores of eager recruits among people who were unhappy with the presence of foreign forces and who despised Afghan leaders, especially those of the Northern Alliance, for corruption and cooperation with the American “occupation”.
With the capture of five northern cities in just four days, and more than half of Afghanistan’s 400-odd districts since May, that recruitment strategy appears to have paid off. Now experts warn that if the insurgents are able to conquer the north, squashing the country’s best hope for a grass- completely roots resistance strong enough to take on the Taliban, the country could fall to them hands.
As the insurgents captured those cities, releasing hundreds of inmates from prisons, hoisting their flag over town squares and sending victorious fighters surging through their streets, they have set off mass panic. Thousands of northern residents have fled their homes, fearing life under Taliban rule or a return of brutal urban combat if government security forces try to retake the cities.
The lack of a counteroffensive underscores the highly tenuous position of the Afghan government in the face of the insurgent group’s rapid advance into urban centers. Resupply lines to government forces are severed, and the cities and districts still under government control, long considered islands under threat, are even more cut off and isolated.
US airstrikes in support of the Afghan forces have been muted and prominently concentrated away from the north. On Sunday, as Afghan troops reeled from their defeats, it was clear that the United States was not coming to their rescue.
The Taliban’s military victories have also not moved Biden to reassess his decision to end the US combat mission by the end of the month, senior administration officials told The New York Times on Sunday. But the violence shows just how difficult it will be for Biden to end 20 years of war while insisting that the US has not lost the war in Afghanistan.
In a speech defending the US withdrawal last month, Biden said the United States had done more than enough to empower the Afghan police and military to secure the future of their people.
Declaring that the United States had accomplished its mission of denying terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan long ago, he said in April that all American troops will leave the country by 11 September. That aAugust, by which time the White House has said all military operations against the Taliban will have ceased. Troops from NATO countries too have now withdrawn.
Biden conceded that after nearly 20 years of war, America’s longest on foreign soil, it was clear the US military could not transform Afghanistan into a modern, stable democracy. As in Somalia before, decision makers in Washington have obviously concluded that Afghanistan will always remain a “failed state” where nothing could be done to save the country or keep it united.
The extreme poverty in many of Afghanistan’s regions, the dominance of tribal and ethnic allegiances over any sense of Afghan nationalism and the widespread influence of extremist Islamist ideology are all factors that are likely to keep the country divided for many years to come.
Women, secular Afghan artists, professors and Western-tied non-governmental organisations working on development projects in different parts of the country are also expected to face a dire future as Taliban fighters advance to take over more cities. Other regional powers, such as Iran, Turkey and Russia are also expected to play an influential part in Afghanistan’s future and benefit from its resources or trade routes.
Leon E Panetta, who served as defense secretary under former US President Barack Obama, said he was surprised not to see more air support from the US military for the Afghan troops they trained for years, but he did not hold out hope that the situation would improve much even with the help of American forces. “Let’s face it. The most you can hope for now is some kind of stalemate” between Afghan forces and Taliban fighters, he said in an interview.
For nearly two decades, the United States and NATO have engaged in the nation-building pursuit of training, expanding and equipping Afghanistan’s police, army and air forces, spending tens of billions of dollars in an attempt to build government forces that can safeguard their own country.
However, US officials are describing a bleak result: Despite this enormous effort, the undertaking has produced only a troubled set of forces that are woefully unprepared for facing the Taliban, or any other threat, on their own. In the months that followed, it became apparent that the Afghan forces deployed across the country could not stop the Taliban offensive.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly