The Impending Fall of Afghanistan
For years, American troops fought a 'forever war' to delay the inevitable. It's now coming.
United States military forces are all but out of Afghanistan, weeks shy of the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that precipitated our invasion. For more than a decade, critics warned that we must continue a futile mission because otherwise the Taliban would retake control. They were half right.
NYT (“As Afghan Forces Crumble, an Air of Unreality Grips the Capital“):
With his military crumbling, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan fired a crucial part of his command structure and brought in a new one. He created a nebulous “supreme state council,” announced months ago, that has hardly met. And as districts fall to the Taliban across the country, he has installed a giant picture of himself outside the airport’s domestic terminal.
On Friday, U.S. officials announced the definitive closure of Bagram Air Base, the nerve center of 20 years of American military operations in Afghanistan, in the functional end of the American war here. As the last troops and equipment trickle out of Afghanistan, an atmosphere of unreality has settled over the government and Kabul, the capital.
The government passport office has been jam-packed in recent days, filled with a jostling mob, even though visa options for Afghans are severely limited. Some of the humanitarian organizations on which the beleaguered citizenry depend said they would begin limiting the number of expatriate employees kept in the country, anticipating a worsening of the security climate.
The security blanket that the United States provided for two decades haunts the Afghan government’s actions, inactions and policies, fostering an atrophying of any proactive planning, in the view of some analysts. If there is a plan to counter the Taliban advance, it is not evident as the government’s hold on the countryside shrinks.
Some intelligence assessments have said that the Afghan government could fall under pressure from the Taliban in from six months to two years. If that happens, the outlook is likely to be grim for Mr. Ghani and his circle, as recent Afghan history demonstrates. Several of his predecessors in the country’s top job have met violent ends.
The roots of the current breakdown within Mr. Ghani’s administration are threefold, officials and security experts say: the delusion of security provided by the Americans, whose determination to leave was never fully believed by civilian or military leadership; the tactical disconnect between conventional Afghan forces and the more nimble guerrilla Taliban; and the reduction of the government to the person of Mr. Ghani himself and a handful of aides, foreign-educated, some with families safely abroad.
The WaPo editorial board, which has alternately warned of the consequences of withdrawal and complained of “forever wars,” is stark (“Opinion: Biden’s cold response to Afghanistan’s collapse will have far-reaching consequences“):
When President Biden chose in April to withdraw all U.S. 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. On Tuesday, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, met with reporters and warned with remarkable bluntness that “civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized,” 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 U.S. mission rather than fix it. 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. Instead, he has been cold to the country’s plight. Last month, according to the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Biden decided against slowing the withdrawal from the main U.S. air base in the country, Bagram, which some U.S. officials favored; the pullout was completed this week. Last Friday he met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House in what was cast as a show of support, only to declare that Afghans would have to “decide their future.”
That future is likely to be bleak, if current trends continue. As U.S. 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 remobilize, 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 U.S. intelligence community assessment that surfaced last week said it could fall within six to 12 months of the U.S. departure.
They are absolutely right about what is to come. But it does not follow that Biden should reverse course.
The United States rightly toppled the Taliban regime, which sheltered Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network and then refused to turn them over after their attacks on our nation. While the notion of turning a tribal society rooted in the 7th century into a modern, democratic nation-state with Western ideals was always folly, it was at least an understandable goal, arguably demanded by international laws and norms. But, twenty years in, we are no closer to achieving that unachievable goal than when we started.
We made some major missteps along the way. We almost surely under-resourced the mission in the early days, prioritizing the ill-fated war in Iraq. But we ultimately put enormous time, money, and effort into the rebuilding effort. We threw some of our brightest military, diplomatic, and academic minds at the project.
Despite our best efforts, the Afghan military remains a sick joke. American officers who commissioned as second lieutenants the summer of 2001 are now lieutenant colonels—in rare cases, full colonels—eligible for retirement. Some privates who participated in the initial invasion are now sergeants major, some of whose own sons and daughters have served tours in Afghanistan.
And, alas, the Afghan government is worse, still. Ghani is a brilliant man who loves his country. But he’s no more than what Hamid Karzai was before him: the mayor of Kabul.
We could stay there another twenty years or another two hundred. The outcome will be the same. At this point, the best we can do is help those who want to leave—and especially those whose lives are now in danger because they put their trust in us—to do so before it’s too late.