Afghanistan is on the brink of catastrophe, and it is US President Joe Biden’s fault. By overruling the US’ top generals and ordering the hasty withdrawal of US troops, Biden opened the way for Taliban terrorists to capture more than one-quarter of Afghanistan’s districts. Now, the Taliban is pushing toward Kabul, and the US is looking weaker than ever.
The US effectively ended its military operations in Afghanistan on July 1, when it handed over to the Afghan government the sprawling Bagram Airfield, which long served as the staging ground for US operations in the country.
“Handover” is too generous a description. In a sign of what is to come, US forces quietly slipped out of the base overnight after shutting off the electricity. The resulting security lapse allowed looters to scavenge the facilities before Afghan troops arrived and gained control.
Biden has vehemently defended his decision to withdraw, saying that the US “did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build” and that “staying would have meant US troops taking casualties.”
He has also stood by his rushed approach, insisting that “speed is safety” in this context, asking: “How many thousands more of America’s daughters and sons are you willing to risk?”
The implication is clear: Questioning the wisdom of the US withdrawal is tantamount to supporting the endangerment of Americans, but it is Afghans who are really in jeopardy.
Recall the last time the US left a war unfinished: In 1973, it hastily abandoned its allies in South Vietnam. The next year, 80,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were reportedly killed as a result of the conflict, making it the deadliest year of the entire Vietnam War.
It is also worth noting that in 1975, the US effectively handed Cambodia to the China-backed ultra-communist Khmer Rouge, who went on to carry out unimaginable horrors.
Now, the US is leaving Afghans at the mercy of a marauding militant force — one with a long history of savage behavior. Already, the Taliban offensive has displaced tens of thousands of civilians, and while the Afghan government in Kabul teeters, the Taliban is seizing US weapons from the Afghan military and showing them off as they march across the country.
The US’ justification for rushing out of Afghanistan is much weaker than its reasoning for leaving Vietnam. Whereas 58,220 Americans (largely draftees) died in Vietnam, only 2,448 US soldiers (all volunteers) died over the course of 20 years in Afghanistan.
Moreover, since the US formally ended its combat mission on Jan. 1, 2015, it has recorded just 99 fatalities, including in non-hostile incidents. During the same period, more than 28,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have been killed.
None of this is to minimize the blood and treasure the US has sacrificed in Afghanistan, let alone suggest that US troops should stay indefinitely. On the contrary, ending the US’ longest war is a worthy goal, but Biden’s approach entails effectively admitting that a terrorist militia has defeated the world’s most powerful military, and then handing Afghanistan back to that militia.
This undercuts global trust in the US, jeopardizes Afghan and regional security, and threatens to trigger a resurgence of terror worldwide. The Taliban’s impending return to power would surely energize and embolden other terrorist groups in the larger global jihadist movement.
Furthermore, the Taliban, a creature of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency, still receives significant aid from Pakistan’s military.
So, while Biden says that Afghanistan’s future is now in its own hands, it is actually mostly in Pakistani hands, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently said.
Among those facing the most acute risks is India. When the Taliban was last in power, from 1996 to 2001, it allowed Pakistan to use Afghan territory to train terrorists for missions in India. Its return to power could thus open a new front for terrorism against India, which would then have to shift its focus from intensifying military standoffs with China in the Himalayas.
The Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan helps China in other ways, too. Given that Pakistan is a Chinese client, the US withdrawal paves the way for China to make strategic inroads into Afghanistan, with its substantial mineral wealth and strategic location between Pakistan and Iran.
China would achieve this by offering the Taliban the two things it desperately needs: international recognition and economic aid. With Russia also likely to recognize the Taliban’s leadership in Afghanistan, the group would have little incentive to moderate its violence, despite its attempts to polish its image.
Biden had a better option: The US could have maintained a small residual force in Afghanistan, to provide critical air support and reassurance to Afghan forces. Yes, this would have contravened the deal that then-US president Donald Trump struck with the Taliban in February last year, but the Taliban have already broken that Faustian bargain.
Biden was happy to overturn many of Trump’s other actions, making his insistence on upholding this deal difficult to understand.
Biden said the US is “developing a counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability” that does not require a physical presence in Afghanistan, but if Afghan security continues to unravel, “over-the-horizon” operations would make little difference.
The more likely scenario would be an emergency evacuation of US embassy personnel and other US citizens from Kabul, much like the evacuation from Saigon in 1975. India, for one, has already begun such an exodus, evacuating its consulate staff from Kandahar.
Robert Gates, who served as US secretary of defense under former US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wrote in 2014 that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign-policy and national-security issue over the past four decades.” The hurried US withdrawal from Afghanistan is set to extend that pattern.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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