The fall of Kabul and the US failure in Afghanistan
When superpowers exit via helicopter, their embarrassed tails between their legs, the world watches aghast. It happened in April 1975, as US helicopters rescued the last of their embassy staff in Saigon as part of Operation Frequent Wind. US Marines even used their rifle butts to stop desperate Vietnamese trying to climb over the walls to safety. It became the enduring image of the Vietnam war, a symbol of loss and humiliation.
More than 46 years later, US Chinook helicopters again landed on an embassy rooftop, this time in Kabul, as Taliban forces seized the Afghan capital. The Americans and their allies thought they had until September to complete their evacuation, but the Taliban advance has been too rapid. The end of 20 years of US military presence saw the Afghan army collapse in days, with American taxpayers wondering about the value of their $88 billion training program. How did 300,000 well-equipped and trained Afghan troops fall so easily to a Taliban force of around 75,000?
So what does this mean? What will happen next, and should the outside world be alarmed?
First, whatever President Joe Biden says, this is a serious humiliation for the US. Only in July the US leader claimed that “there is going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”
Having spent over $2.2 trillion to shore up the Afghan political system and train its armed forces to thwart any Taliban revival, it took days for this claim to be upended. As one former British soldier lamented: “It just seems like now after 20 years we were the bodyguards (for the Afghan army and police).” This, too, has echoes of the way in which the Iraqi armed forces trained by the US melted away in Mosul against far fewer numbers of Daesh fighters.
Biden bears responsibility for a cack-handed, hasty withdrawal process more akin to a scuttle than the responsible exit. A US withdrawal did not need to be executed in such a fashion. It reeked of domestic calculations about winning the 2022 midterm elections.
However, none of Biden’s three predecessors can escape blame either. The Afghan failure did not begin in 2021. In fact, it did not even start in 2001. Was this a war that was lost before it even started? George W. Bush failed on many counts, not least getting sidetracked by Iraq when the Afghan situation was far from settled. Many argue that instead of a full-scale invasion, he should have ordered a host of targeted assassinations and small-scale military operations. Barack Obama failed to stabilize Afghanistan as he promised. Donald Trump kicked off a disastrous peace process with the Taliban in 2020 while repeatedly threatening a sudden and dangerous withdrawal of US troops. Of course, the Afghan policy failures kicked off well before 9/11 and, in the case of Britain, go back 200 years.
How does the US recover? Washing its hands of Afghanistan entirely may be tempting, especially given the current domestic US opinion polls, but this would be unwise. As the Taliban take power, the US could adopt a carrot-and-stick approach. Isolation of the Taliban will not be an issue for the group because whatever the US and its allies do, the militants will never be totally isolated. They have allies.
The US can try to seek certain guarantees, including not allowing Afghanistan to return to being a massive training ground for terrorists, in return for assistance. Yet let us be clear — the Taliban feel like victors and are not going to cave in to high-handed Western demands. Why would they? Daesh and Al-Qaeda will be eyeing setting up bases there to embarrass the US even further. The Taliban may deny them this option but know that this is a card to use in future talks.
Second, US allies may also reappraise their relationship with Washington. Standing shoulder to shoulder may not sound so appealing. Will they trust the US to come to defend their countries in the future, or be comforted by Washington’s guarantees and reassurances? The US has consistently shown an inability this century to enact successful overseas interventions. Iraq and Afghanistan were colossal failures where the US were fully engaged but still lost at huge expense in blood and treasure.
The US showed itself incapable of nation-building despite its colossal assets. Libya was a half-hearted effort to which Obama was never truly committed. In Syria, aside from the operations against Daesh, the US resorted to covert arming of the Syrian opposition forces, again with disastrous consequences.
The lack of proper human intelligence meant a feeble lack of understanding of the situation on the ground with little appreciation of the backgrounds of some of those they were arming. Sophisticated weapons ended up being captured by extremists, including Daesh and Al-Qaeda. The Syrian regime has survived largely due to Russian backing. All this makes future interventions less likely. It will be a boon for any regime, including extremist Islamist ones, with expansive ambitions since they will bank on Western inertia.
Of course, it is Afghans who will bear the greatest consequences of US failure. They have already borne the brunt of not 20 but 40 years of war and displacement. More than 3.5 million Afghans have been displaced. Over 13,000 have fled to Kabul for what they hoped was safety since the beginning of July. The Taliban have already meted out retribution to those who worked with the Americans. Afghan women know all too well what is in store for them from their previous experience of Taliban rule in the 1990s.
None of Joe Biden’s three predecessors can escape blame. The Afghan failure did not begin in 2021.
The helicopters may be taking off, but it is not the end of the international community’s responsibilities. Rather than leaving the fires to ravage the country, we must endeavor to retrieve what we can from the ashes. This means providing decent and proper refuge for those fleeing persecution and for those who helped the NATO operations. It means continuing as best as possible the vital humanitarian operations in the country. Politically, the US and its allies have to own up to their failure and engage in honest comprehensive inquiries as to how this calamity unfolded.
Perhaps most importantly, they will have to examine all options to work constructively with the incoming Taliban leadership and other Afghan groups, with eyes wide open about its gruesome record. This time they should do so with a touch more humility than 20 years ago.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech