Military retreats from Afghanistan are problematic, as the British (1842) and the Red Army (1989) discovered to their cost. The cliffs of the Khyber Pass feature many memorials and plaques to departing or defeated foreign forces. The 2021 Afghan withdrawal is less fraught – the US is not yet retreating under fire. But the march to the exit has nonetheless turned into an undignified sprint.
Most Americans will welcome this accelerated end to an unpopular war. Yet it spells catastrophe for Afghans who pinned their hopes and their country’s future on western support in fighting Taliban and Islamist terrorism and who believed the nation-building promises made by George W Bush and others.
Fighting is currently spreading like a bushfire from district to district. There is no peace deal in place, no power-sharing, no intra-Afghan ceasefire, and growing fear of nationwide conflagration – and yet still the Americans are leaving.
Two questions are unavoidable: after expending so much blood and treasure, what of lasting import was achieved? And what on earth will happen next?
When US president Joe Biden set a withdrawal deadline of 11 September, exactly 20 years after the al-Qaida attacks that triggered America’s intervention, the Pentagon decided to get out as soon as possible. UK and other Nato allies are following suit. It’s now expected all foreign forces, plus 17,000 mostly American contractors, will be gone by mid-July.
The outlook for the vast majority of Afghans who do not espouse extreme religious views and misogynistic feudal dogmas is simply terrifying. Civilian casualties rose 29% in January to March, compared with 2020. Government figures recorded 4,375 terrorism-related deaths in May, up from 1,645 in
April. Among last month’s civilian victims were 50 schoolgirls from a Shia Hazara neighbourhood in Kabul, deliberately targeted by Sunni militants. Aid workers, polio vaccinators, and journalists, especially women, are also singled out. The terrorists’ agenda of hate is only too clear.
The western-trained Afghan national army is struggling. Short of ammunition and supplies, 26 bases reportedly surrendered to the Taliban last month. An elite special forces commando was wiped out last week in Faryab province. The ANA’s one big advantage – air power – is evaporating as foreign technical and logistical back-up melts away.
Entire provinces, such as Uruzgan, and provincial capitals such as Kandahar and Helmand’s Lashkar Gah, for which British troops fought, risk being overrun. Even Kabul itself may not be safe for long, according to gloomy CIA and military intelligence assessments.
Suggestions that the US will in future send combat aircraft and armed drones from neighbouring countries to support Afghan ground forces were dismissed last week. Gen Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, warned that even if Kabul were on the brink of falling, any post-withdrawal air strikes would be limited to countering terror plots that threatened the US “homeland”.
Such unusual restraint reflects the Pentagon’s inability to find alternative bases within reasonable striking distance. Pakistan, which covertly backs the Taliban and fell out with the US in 2011, does not want the Americans back.
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which previously hosted US troops and spies, are unlikely to do so again – for fear of offending Russia. Iran is out of the question.
Lack of a credible post-withdrawal security plan is matched by the absence of an agreed political path ahead. Talks in Doha between the Taliban and the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani have achieved little. Demands that Taliban leaders guarantee civil rights and girls’ education have not been met.
US insistence that the Taliban refuse safe haven to al-Qaida and the Afghan iteration of Islamic State has also been ignored. On the contrary, senior Afghan officials say, these Sunni groups are working together. The Taliban’s aim? Total victory.
The CIA’s fear that Afghanistan could again become a regional terror hub is shared by China and India. Beijing has offered investment and vaccines, seeking another link in its belt and road imperial masterplan. China’s nightmare is that Afghan-based jihadists will join forces with persecuted Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Ever greater fragmentation looms. Ethnic groups that comprised the Northern Alliance in the 1990s civil war oppose a fresh Taliban takeover. Ahmad Massoud, son of the Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by the Taliban two days before the 9/11 attacks, says the mujahideen are ready to fight.
Escalating violence in Afghanistan could destabilise the region, add hunger and displacement to existing problems of Covid, drought and climate change, create new refugee surges, destroy the quest for equal rights and justice for war crimes, and betray the sacrifices of western and Afghan soldiers. Yet it is now a very real prospect.
Western politicians, including in the UK (which is withdrawing aid as well as troops), shield their eyes. They don’t want to see, let alone discuss, what’s about to happen. Nato last week pledged future security force training and funding and said it would “continue to stand” with Afghanistan. Stand back, more like.
Catastrophe stalks the Afghan people. Nato claims a “new chapter” is beginning. That’s true, but it’s a cause for fear, not pride. The US and partners achieved little in terms of permanent progress, and even that meagre legacy is now threatened. Robert Gates, defence secretary under Bush and Barack Obama, pleads: “The situation will doubtless worsen when US troops are gone … We cannot turn our backs.” But his is a lonely voice.
What to do? I’ve been writing about Afghanistan for more than 30 years. I’ve reported from the country and personally witnessed its poverty and pain. I don’t know the answer. Who does? But scurrying off home, regardless of consequences, is certainly not it.