The conflict in Afghanistan – America’s longest war – is at an end, or so President Joe Biden is expected to declare this week. At an end, too, is Britain and Nato’s military involvement, dating back to the invasion that followed the 2001 al-Qaida attacks on the US. Except the conflict is not over. In truth, it is intensifying. What’s changed is that the western allies are, in effect, washing their hands of it.
By setting an unconditional US withdrawal date of 11 September shortly after taking office, Biden triggered an unseemly military scramble for the exit that has been joined by all residual Nato forces, including most UK troops. It now appears the vast majority will have left by today, without ceremony or fanfare, almost by the back door. The fourth of July is American independence day. It may also come to be remembered as deserting Afghanistan day.
The official silence in Britain surrounding this shabby, half-hidden retreat is deafening – partly for justifiable security reasons, but also out of sheer political embarrassment. Boris Johnson’s government, so painfully dependent on Washington’s favour, dare not openly criticise Biden. But ministers and army chiefs surely know his unilateral decision to quit, despite the absence of a peace deal or even a general ceasefire, is dangerously irresponsible.
The withdrawal has set Afghanistan back on the path to terror, mayhem and disintegration. A catastrophe is in the making. These are not the predictions of mere armchair critics. Gen Austin Miller, commander of US forces, warned last week that chaos beckoned. “Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualised if it continues on the trajectory it’s on. That should concern the world,” he said.
The former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is similarly pessimistic. “Look at the scene. We are in shambles. The country is in conflict. There is immense suffering... Those who came here 20 years ago in the name of fighting extremism and terrorism not only failed to end it but, under their watch, extremism has flourished. That is what I call failure,” Karzai said.
Facts on the ground, as the Observer’s Emma Graham-Harrison reports, support these grim analyses. While cannily eschewing clashes with departing Nato troops, the Taliban has mounted multiple territorial offensives, overrunning district after district in recent weeks. At least half of rural Afghanistan is controlled or contested by insurgents. Regional capitals, even Kabul, may be next.
President Ashraf Ghani’s government looks on helplessly as its Nato-trained and equipped soldiers are repeatedly forced into flight or surrender. Faced with such incapacity, local armed militias are reforming. Majority non-Pashtun groups in the north are also threatening to revive their 1990s anti-Taliban struggle.
Biden assured Ghani last month that the US would continue to provide financial assistance and support. Yet lacking bases in neighbouring countries, US aircraft and drones will be hard put to provide meaningful, timely back-up.
The Pentagon says in any case that its priority is containing Islamic State and al-Qaida, whose jihadists may soon freely roam ungoverned Afghan spaces.
The American decision to throw in the towel privately horrified Britain’s past and present military leadership, properly mindful of two decades of often thankless, bloody striving. Gen Sir Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff, tactfully said it was “not a decision we hoped for”. Having rallied to America’s side in 2001, Biden’s failure to fully consult the UK and Nato was especially galling.
After the failure of US peace talks in Doha, Carter and UK diplomats in Kabul are quietly encouraging increased security and political cooperation between the Afghan government and Pakistan, a key Taliban supporter and influencer. How ironic that after all the Biden ballyhoo about America being “back”, they leave – and the British are left to manage the mess.
For the Afghan people, the prospect of renewed anarchy is plainly terrifying. Limited recent gains – democratic governance, free expression and improved healthcare, education and civil and women’s rights – are all imperilled. So, too, are the sacrifices of the tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers, Afghan and foreign, who died or saw their lives permanently scarred. Blighted is the hope of justice for those unlawfully killed or, for example, illegally tortured at the CIA’s black site at Bagram airfield.
For western countries that imposed forcible regime change in Kabul, then promised to build a new nation of laws forged in their own image, this weekend marks a chastening moment. Who knows what historians will make of George W Bush’s ill-conceived, too-costly Afghan adventurism? Yet as matters stand now, it’s unlikely, thankfully, that any western leader will again risk a similar gamble.
The death last week of Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary who oversaw the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, is a reminder of just how immeasurable, lethal and lasting are the terrible harms done by him and other neoconservatives and reckless ideologues in the Bush-Cheney administration, none of whom has ever been satisfactorily called to account. Like Iraq, coldly abandoned to its fate 10 years ago, Afghanistan’s post-American future is deeply daunting.