On 1 July, the United States troops in Afghanistan handed over Bagram, the largest US and NATO airbase in Afghanistan, to Afghan troops. The US withdrawal from the country is expected to be over by the end of next month, 11 days before the date announced by US President Joe Biden when he said it would coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 11 September attacks.
With the complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, one of the longest US wars will come to end. This is a war that has lasted 20 years and in which more than 2,500 US troops have lost their lives.
During the presidential elections campaign last year, the then Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden promised to end America’s “forever wars”. He has kept his promise, but questions remain as to the future stability of Afghanistan and how the US and NATO countries will deal with Taliban military operations across the country. The Taliban now controls 80 districts out of a total of 419, and the group is moving to control the country’s provincial capitals, according to assessments by US intelligence sources.
Press Spokesman of the US Defence Department John Kirby announced last Friday that as part of the drawdown of forces US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin had approved to transfer command authority in Afghanistan from General Scott Miller to General Frank McKenzie, the commanding officer of US Central Command. The transfer is expected to take place at the end of this month.
Kirby described the decision as a “milestone in [the US] drawdown, reflecting a smaller US force presence” in Afghanistan. He said that McKenzie would exercise “authority over” the conduct of any and all “counterterrorism operations” that may prove necessary to protect the continental United States from threats emanating from Afghanistan. He will also lead US efforts in terms of logistical, financial and technical support to Afghan forces once the withdrawal of the US troops is complete.
He added that as part of new arrangements of a military nature Austin had approved the establishment of United States Afghanistan Forward Forces to be led by Navy rear-admiral Peter Vasely, a one-star Navy SEAL officer. He will be supported by Brigadier-General Curtis Buzzard who will lead the Defense Security Cooperation Management Office for Afghanistan that will be based in Qatar.
On 21 March, the US defence secretary visited Afghanistan and talked of “bringing about a responsible end and a negotiated settlement to the war” in the country. No one is sure that the future will sustain such hopes. Trusting the Taliban has never proved to be a good bet. Last year, the former US Trump administration reached an agreement with the Taliban that stipulated the complete removal of US forces by the spring of 2021. However, the agreement did not, surprisingly enough, require the Taliban to reach a “peace accord” with the Afghan government as a condition for the withdrawal.
To make matters more worrisome, the Taliban have not cut their links with Al-Qaeda. To expect them to do so, whether today or in the future, borders on political naivete. It would have been wiser and more far-sighted for the Trump administration to link the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan to a binding peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban movement guaranteed by Qatar.
It would not be a surprise if the Taliban continue attacking in the provinces in Afghanistan and eventually encircle the capital Kabul either to claim a bigger share in government, or in the worst case, repeat their onslaught on the Afghan capital of back in 1996 when they seized power and the country descended into the Dark Ages. I doubt if they have reconsidered their core belief system since, meaning their narrow interpretation of Islamic Sharia Law.
Appearing on ABC’ s “ This Week” on Sunday, General Miller, the top American military commander in Afghanistan said, “I would like us not to just turn our backs on this.” In June, he referred to the conditions that the Taliban are creating on the ground which “won’t look good for Afghanistan in the future if there is a push for a military takeover.” This is precisely what the United States should have warned against, namely, a military push by the Taliban to oust the Afghan elected government.
On 25 June, Biden received Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House accompanied by Abdullah Abdullah, chair of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation. According to the White House readout of the meeting, the three concurred on the need for unity among Afghan leaders in support of peace and stability. They agreed that the “strong partnership” between the US and Afghanistan would continue. The US president reaffirmed the US commitment to fully supporting intra-Afghan negotiations.
In remarks to reporters before the meeting, Biden stressed that the US-Afghan partnership would be sustained, whereas the Afghan president called the decision to withdraw the US forces from Afghanistan “historic” and added that it pushed “everybody to recalculate and reconsider.” This is a formulation that has left many questioning the reality on the ground arising out of this development, at least on the side of the Taliban. Ghani expressed his belief that future relations with the US would see a “comprehensive partnership” instead of the purely military one over the last two decades. This will be something to watch.
Any discussion of the future of Afghanistan after 11 September would not be complete without taking into account US relations with both Russia and China, both powers that could help in stabilising Afghanistan if their overall relations with the US warranted it. Similarly, the triangle of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan could have a significant impact on how the internal security situation within Afghanistan will develop in the medium and long term.
Be that as it may, the US Pentagon spokesperson was right last week when he said that the handing over of the Bagram Airbase to Afghan forces was a “milestone.” One chapter, however long, is drawing to a close, and a new one is about to begin in the heartland of the “great game” among the great powers of the day.
One final remark: the US went to war in Afghanistan to defeat Al-Qaeda and “punish” the Taliban for their perceived role in the 11 September attacks. The irony is that after 20 years of the US presence in Afghanistan, the fight against Al-Qaeda is not over and new terrorist organisations have been terrorising vast territories across the Arab world, the Muslim countries, the Horn of Africa, Mozambique and the African Sahel
America’s “forever wars” may be coming to an end, but the war against terror is still raging.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly