End of the longest-ever war
As America’s longest-ever war ends, the aims and objectives with which it first began lie in ruins. The Taliban who were at one point driven out of every major city and into the mountains have returned and retaken the country with remarkable and unexpected ease. Meanwhile, the Afghan army which was touted as more than a match for them have either fled the country or been ordered to stand down.
Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan came as a surprise considering how generals had been advising successive presidents that involvement was key to stabilising Afghanistan. Biden, however, overruled his generals believing that that aim was futile and further involvement would be counterproductive.
This was in stark contrast to successive US Presidents who had since the 2001 invasion been stating that the situation was improving. Bush, Obama, and Trump had all bought into the idea that if there was simply a greater troop presence, a little extra cash spent or a different approach to allying with Afghan elites then it would all simply come together.
The true cost of the war
The truth meanwhile was plain to see even by those making the decisions. Generals and advisors even going into the war did not know what success looked like. Was it just the defeat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, was it nation-building or perhaps a liberal democracy? The incompetence followed by the hubris of those in charge meant they never had to face the tough questions and when the time came for a new administration to take charge, they were happy to slink into the shadows to avoid accountability.
The cost of the war – at 2.1 trillion dollars – is a quantity so large it can’t even be comprehended. Casualties of the Afghan armed services and police number over 660,000. The cost in civilian lives has also been steep with 47,245 losing their lives. It’s hard to imagine the kind of impact this kind of mass slaughter has on a population and on their will to endure.
Now the withdrawal has turned into a fresh new horror. Civilians have broken into Kabul airport in their desperation to escape the Taliban. The harrowing scenes of Afghans running alongside planes on the runway and frantically trying to hold on to the outside have been broadcasted around the world. The UK, US and others have pledged to accept refugees but coordinating a response on the ground is next to impossible. This is all while the Taliban circle the airport as the only holdout left and bide their time.
Biden’s reaction has been that it was impossible to see how quickly the Afghan army would fall. Analysts pegged the number of Afghan forces to number close to 350.000 which would be more than a match for the 75,000 or so the Taliban totalled. However, the army the US had been funding had been critically dependent on air-support that US planes and drones provided. They were also dependent on the logistics and intelligence gathering abilities of coalition forces that informed their tactics and decision making.
Once those advantages disappeared and the fighting started senior officers and commanders fled the country laden with all the loot they could carry. The President himself left with millions of dollars loaded in duffel bags. Junior officers seeing the little support the country was going to give them made the calculation that it wasn’t worth fighting anymore. City after city fell and the Taliban offered amnesty to all those who laid down their arms. All the equipment, weapons and vehicles left behind were then just picked up by the Taliban.
What will the future hold?
Many Afghans who had known some slight peace from open warfare during the occupation now wonder what the future holds. The Taliban are religious fundamentalists who view women’s rights as meaningless and observe an incredibly strict and extremist understanding of Islam. The Taliban have given some statements to foreign press that they would allow women to work in some roles, but the truth will have to be seen when the world’s spotlight inevitably shifts away.
Interpreters and other individuals who assisted coalition forces fear they will be targeted in reprisal attacks. The US is providing visas for some of these individuals who assisted but they are limited in number. It also risks exporting Afghanistan’s best and brightest while leaving the country rudderless.
What needs to happen now?
Afghanistan is a rural and decentralised country. Power is usually held by local tribal leaders. The choice by the US therefore to create and empower a centralised federal state was counterintuitive. The fact that that government was also wholly corrupt only helped to further fuel the desires of Afghans to snub any authority it may have held over them and push them over to the Taliban.
What needs to happen in Afghanistan is a coordinated and international coalition of nations who will help to build the nation from the ground up. Bordering countries such as Pakistan and Iran need to get more involved where they once took a backseat to watch the US get bogged down.
The widespread and endemic culture of corruption in the country also needs to be stamped out. The prior system of simply paying off whatever warlord whose help you needed caused tribes to simply focus on their own and vie against each other for power and further payments. Independent institutions free from clan politics such as a judicial system, a competent police force and news industry are needed. All of this requires funding and an acknowledgment by the US and other coalition force that the current situation is ineffective. Only then can some hope be held that things can change.