America's precipitous retreat from Afghanistan

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury from Falls Church, Virginia, USA | Friday, 30 July 2021

The American troops in Afghanistan are now being withdrawn. The process has begun in May and it is expected that the withdrawal would be completed much earlier than September 11, 2021 the deadline set by President Biden. The Bagram air base, located some 11 miles away from Kabul airport, has been deserted in the darkness of night a few weeks ago without informing the Afghan counterpart and leaving behind some equipment. As the withdrawal process gained momentum it sent shock waves to the Afghan security forces but generated a sense of excitement in the Taliban fighters. They are encircling the major towns, taking control over the highways leading to the capital Kabul and issuing ultimatums to the Afghan soldiers to surrender. The ultimatums are not without affects - a few thousand Afghan soldiers have reportedly either surrendered or fled to neighbouring countries.

While the American troops are busy packing up, rockets are dropping near the President's official residence in Kabul. The Taliban denied involvement, but the Islamic State claimed responsibility. Whoever had done it, the target was the Kabul government. Credible media reports showed graphic images of a group of 22 Afghan soldiers being summarily executed by the Taliban last week. A 34 year old Afghan decorated military commander was gunned down in Kabul about three weeks ago. In short, the violence has been on the rise, panic is widespread and the families whose members had worked with the American soldiers are frightened. They never expected that they would be abandoned by the United States all on a sudden.

General Petraeus who had served in Afghanistan during the Obama administration told CNN on July 18 that the decision of troops withdrawal is unwarranted and catastrophic. He claimed that as a military person he, more than any civilian, would love the termination of war in Afghanistan and the troops return home. But a sudden withdrawal without a contingency plan would spell disaster. He said the withdrawal of 3,500 American troops is being followed by evacuation of some 8,000 NATO troops leaving the entire burden of security to the Afghan security forces. Petraeus recalled that the United States had invested billions in training and equipping the Afghan army which over the years grew and gained strength. Though in recent years the Afghan military capaciously confronted the Taliban fighters in the remote areas and in difficult terrains, in the absence of back-up support and intelligence provided by the US and NATO forces, they would be vulnerable. Petraeus believes maintaining the present level of troops in Afghanistan warrants modest budget but profoundly beneficial to America's long term interest.

According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an independent oversight entity, about $19 billion out of $134 billion spent on security, development and humanitarian assistance since 2002 was lost due to waste, fraud and abuse. Nonetheless, the assistance contributed to remarkable improvement in Afghanistan including substantial reduction in infant and maternal mortality, and an increase in female life expectancy from 47 to over 60 years. Human rights observers are concerned that Afghan women are in danger of losing the advances in freedom, education and employment achieved since 2002. "If things return to an all-out war among militias and Taliban fighters, they fear a repetition of the atrocities of the early 90s," said an observer.

European partners have withdrawn their military, and expressed concerns whether they can operate their diplomatic missions. Many have downsised their presence, closed consulates outside Kabul and reduced embassy staff. Other embassies will reduce or fully withdraw in coming weeks. The United States have been negotiating with Turkey about the security of Kabul airport. President Erdogan wants Hungary and Poland to contribute troops for the airport security. In a statement Taliban warned, "If Turkish officials fail to reconsider their decision, the responsibility for all consequences shall fall on the shoulders of those who interfere in the affairs of others."

Since Biden's decision in April to withdraw troops, the Taliban in fact launched a war against the Kabul government. It regrouped its fighters and went on brining outlying districts under its control. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Wednesday that militants had seized half of country's 419 districts. He also said that no provincial capitals have yet fallen but Taliban's strategy has forced Afghan security forces to abandon some districts and reconsolidated to defend populated cities. Taliban has made rapid territorial gains including border crossings vital for trade as US drawdown nears completion.

Perturbed by Taliban's rapid advancement, the United States army launched several airstrikes on Taliban positions on last Wednesday and Thursday. The airstrikes were apparently conducted at the request of the beleaguered Afghan army. But an US army spokesman said that the US will not carry out airstrikes at the request of the Afghan army after the pull-out is complete - a blanket assurance that Taliban could march ahead without fear of US airstrikes. What a surreal military strategy!

As the US and NATO troops diminish, the Afghan military stand to lose US intelligence and air strike capabilities just as the Taliban continues to gain more territories. General Kenneth Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, is confident the Afghan Air Force which has launched numerous airstrikes can reverse the tide. But in the absence of the logistical support, the Afghan Air Force will have a daunting challenge to provide air coverage to the ground troops. An Afghan official said, "We can defend many places which we cannot sustain."

Biden administration should seriously consider making some adjustments in its disengagement policy in the next few weeks. It is unlikely that Biden would reverse pull out decision, but he could take steps to forestall immediate Taliban take over. The Secretary of State should convene a meeting of the neighbouring countries who in the past had hosted millions of Afghan refugees and would again be affected should the Taliban overthrow the Kabul government. A common agenda should be agreed upon to support the Kabul government and the United States should commit the same.

A senior military official in the Pentagon should lead a team of defence experts to the neighbouring countries, meet the military leaderships in these countries and persuade them on common agenda to deny arms and ammunitions to the Taliban. The neighbouring countries have a pivotal role in stabilising the situation in Afghanistan. They will have genuine concerns on the strategy to deal with the Taliban and the US military officials should take these into account.

The Biden administration should urge President Ashraf Ghani to form a government of national unity having representation from all ethnic groups and tribes. A broad-based government opposed to radicalism, respectful to human rights and national integration would inspire the people to reject extremism in the society.

Given the current dicey relationship between the United States and Russia and between the United States and China, it is hard to imagine formation of a broad based coalition of superpowers against the Taliban. Russia and China appear to be gloating over America's debacle in Afghanistan but cannot remain impervious at the resurgence of a radical force in the region. The persecution of the Muslims in Chechenia and incarceration of millions of Uighurs in China will not be ignored by the Taliban. 

Political observers and defence analysts do not rule out large-scale violence in the country after the troops pull out has been completed. Should that happen, people in the bordering provinces would move to the neighbouring countries in large numbers precipitating a humanitarian crisis as happened in the past. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said last week that the civilian casualties have hit record high as US forces are withdrawing. The mission warned that the conflict is likely to turn deadlier as fighting draws closer to urban areas. The United States and its European allies should alert the World Food Programme, UN High Commissioner of Refugees and UNICEF about the crisis likely to unfold in coming months and earmark required funding for humanitarian response.

In 2002, when the United States invaded Afghanistan the Taliban was reigning supreme. Except the Northern Alliance there was no credible anti -Taliban force in the country. Now two decades later when the US forces are leaving, Taliban emerged from hideouts as a formidable armed force in Afghanistan.

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.

[email protected]