InternationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 23

The US mess in Afghanistan

The US says it has achieved its original rationale for invading Afghanistan in 2001: to root out Al-Qaeda and prevent another attack on its soil like the one launched on September 11, 2001. It claims it had achieved the goal long ago. If that was the case, then what was the reason behind a heavy presence of its troops in the war-torn country for so long? Still it cannot be absolutely sure that its soil will not be attacked by militants in future. In fact, it has increased its chances by leaving Afghanistan in a huge mess.

It is a fact that the US had not done its homework when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. The same is the case when it is leaving the country. The new developments show militancy will not only destabilise Afghanistan but also the whole region and the US would feel the heat in the long run. It is clear that the war had to end, as US President Joe Biden said, “Just one more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution but a recipe for fighting there indefinitely.” However, intense fighting proves the US had no clear strategy to end the war, which it started itself.

The US is leaving Afghanistan on the false premise that the Afghan military will keep key areas of the country from falling to Taliban fighters, who have made major gains in recent weeks. It also hopes against hope that a Taliban takeover is impossible and the Taliban force of approximately 75,000 fighters is “no match for the 300,000 Afghan security forces.” At one point, there were 130,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan as part of the UN-authorised International Security Assistance Force. When a large number of foreign troops could not dent the power of the Taliban, it is foolish to hope that the Afghan forces would defeat them without their assistance. The Taliban have taken swaths of Afghanistan as the US has accelerated the departure of its forces. Even after the total pull out is complete, the US is expected to keep 650 to 1,000 troops in Afghanistan to guard the US embassy, Kabul airport, and other key government installations.

Recently, the US president also bristled at questions about who bears responsibility for civilian deaths and other carnage at the hands of the Taliban moving forward. He said the blame would not lie with the US. Incredible, indeed. The US is also not willing to accept the responsibility of the mess it has created for the war-torn country and its people. According to an editorial in the Washington Post, the president ought to be reconsidering the swift withdrawal he ordered in light of the incipient crumbling of an Afghan government and army that the United States spent two decades helping to build. “When President Biden chose in April to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan by September, we were among those who judged that the result would be a disaster for the country’s 38 million people — and in particular, its women. Now, that tragedy appears to be unfolding more quickly than even many of the pessimists imagined. In recent weeks, Taliban forces have captured dozens of districts in a nationwide offensive, surrounding several provincial capitals and blocking key roads into Kabul. The top US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, warned with remarkable bluntness that “civil war is certainly a path that can be visualised,” adding: “That should be a concern for the world.”

“It ought, at least, to be a concern for Mr. Biden, who inherited a difficult situation from President Donald Trump but chose to pull the plug on the US mission rather than fix it. As US advisers and air support melt away, Afghan army units are being wiped out by the Taliban, or are surrendering without a fight. In desperation, the government has invited ethnic militias to remobilise, risking a return to the anarchic conflict and banditry that plagued the country in the 1990s. Even with that support, the government may not be able to hold on; a US intelligence community assessment that surfaced said it could fall within six to 12 months of the US departure. If that happens, not only Afghans will be at risk. According to the intelligence community and a study commissioned by Congress, al-Qaeda could reestablish bases in the country. Waves of refugees are likely to pour out, destabilising neighbours such as Pakistan and massing at the borders of Europe. US rivals such as Iran, China and Russia could draw the conclusion that Mr. Biden lacks the stomach to stand up for embattled US allies such as Iraq, Taiwan and Ukraine,” the editorial noted.

According to the New York Times, the Pentagon is considering seeking authorisation to carry out airstrikes to support Afghan security forces if Kabul or another major city is in danger of falling to the Taliban, potentially introducing flexibility into President Biden’s plan to end the United States military presence in the conflict. Biden and his top national security aides had previously suggested that once US troops left Afghanistan, air support would end as well, with the exception of strikes aimed at terrorist groups that could harm American interests. But military officials are actively discussing how they might respond if the rapid withdrawal produces consequences with substantial national security implications. No decisions have been made yet, the newspaper said, quoting officials. They added that one option under consideration would be to recommend that US warplanes or armed drones intervene in an extraordinary crisis, such as the potential fall of Kabul, the Afghan capital, or a siege that puts American and allied embassies and citizens at risk. Any additional airstrikes would require the president’s approval. Even then, officials indicated that such air support would be hard to sustain over a lengthy period because of the enormous logistical effort that would be necessary given the American withdrawal. Any airstrikes would most likely have to be launched from bases in the Persian Gulf.

Against Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s boasts that the Taliban cannot make the Afghan government surrender even in the next one hundred years, the US fears Kabul can fall to the militants. The Post said a potential fall of Kabul is the crisis most likely to lead to military intervention after US troops leave. Intervening to protect Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, would be far less certain. The discussion suggests the degree of concern in Washington about the ability of Afghanistan’s military to hold off the Taliban and maintain control of Kabul and other population centers, it noted.

As the reports suggest, the US mess in Afghanistan will not only destabilise the war-ravaged country but also pose serious threats to its neighbours, like Pakistan. Al-Qaeda could reestablish bases in Afghanistan. Waves of refugees are likely to pour out. It is what the US has achieved after fighting the Afghan war for 20 years.