By Saaransh Mishra
Most American combat troops have now left Afghanistan, with the remaining scheduled to depart by the end of August. Amongst a plethora of other concerns, withdrawal has caused serious apprehensions about the security of the diplomats that will stay back in Afghanistan post the withdrawal.
Considering the lack of a foolproof strategy to protect these diplomats, combined with the necessity of their presence in the country — given that America wants to continue its engagements with Afghanistan — the United States (US) faces multiple conundrums with regards to their safety that do not have any uncomplicated solutions. The US has to devise a way to balance the security of its own diplomats along with the overall well-being of a future Afghanistan, which seems herculean and almost impossible at this point.
Securing embassy officials and future engagements with Kabul
The US embassy in Kabul is one of the largest embassies in the world and is primarily responsible for maintaining contacts with the Afghan government and other allies, along with reporting on political and security developments and, most importantly, overseeing billions of dollars of aid budgets. Since 2002, the US has provided nearly US $88 billion dollars to Afghanistan in security assistance; US $36 billion in civilian assistance, including US $787 million specifically devoted towards supporting Afghan women and girls; and nearly US $3.9 billion in humanitarian assistance. Moreover, to ensure a peaceful and stable future Afghanistan, the US has said that it will continue to provide COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX, critical emergency medical assistance to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, assistance through aid to help mitigate the pandemic’s impact, life-saving humanitarian assistance to Afghans in need, and also security assistance (Congress appropriated US $3 billion to the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund in 2021) to combat all kinds of violence within the country.
Even though the US embassy officials are making plans to majorly downsize the number of contractors and other personnel amidst worsening security concerns, since all assistance is going to be routed through the embassy, the US must maintain an on-ground diplomatic presence in the country. The failure to maintain an American diplomatic presence would only lead to a deterioration in the lives of Afghan civilians and also decimate the economy further, which is heavily aid-dependent. This would intensify the scrutiny that the US has faced since 2001, being considered responsible for the predicament that Afghanistan finds itself in today, which would be highly detrimental to their national interests.
Recognising the importance of continually supporting Afghanistan to secure its national interests while also safeguarding the security of its diplomats, the US has decided to keep about 650 troops in Afghanistan post-withdrawal. But, the Taliban Spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, has warned that America leaving any forces behind at all would be in contravention to the Doha Agreement of 2020, and would give the Taliban an excuse to act in whatever way considered appropriate by its leadership. While Shaheen said that the diplomats, NGOs, and other civilians would never be attacked by the Taliban, they have done very little since the Peace Deal of 2020 to demonstrate their commitment to it.
The Taliban have continued to keep ties with terrorist outfits such as the Al-Qaeda, boycotted the crucial peace talks, ramped up violence across the country and recently also started capturing different districts of Afghanistan and now reportedly control approximately 85 percent of the country. Therefore, irrespective of how much reassurance the Taliban provides to the US, it would be unfathomably risky to leave these diplomats behind, without a military complement. But the Taliban’s explicit threat against any military forces whatsoever would only mean that they would continue flouting the commitments made under the Peace Deal and increase violence, which would lead to Afghanistan descending into more chaos. Besides, the death of former US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens in 2012, along with three other American diplomats, when an unidentified mob attacked the unguarded US embassy in Benghazi should definitely serve as a deterrent to the current administration from leaving an unprotected or feebly protected diplomatic mission behind.
Securing Kabul airport
Yet another issue that America is currently tackling with respect to a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan is the security of the Hamid Karzai International Airport. A possible Taliban takeover of the airport could make it impossible for the American and allied personnel to safely evacuate the country, in case of any contingencies. US military officials have also said that without a secure airport, the US embassy complex in Kabul would have to shut down and all personnel would have to leave the country. The US is currently in talks with Turkey, a country that has long provided airport security as a part of its contribution to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Turkey has also said that it is prepared to keep its forces in Kabul to protect the airport, but the Taliban has warned Turkey of severe consequences should they do so, claiming that this would be construed as a violation of their sovereignty and would be considered as a continuation of Afghanistan’s occupation. So far, the Taliban has seized a lot of territory that includes important provincial capitals, but have clearly stated their absence of intentions to seize Kabul militarily. However, the continued presence of foreign troops in the capital will give rise to the potent threat of the Taliban trying to move close to Kabul and control it. The US will be majorly concerned about this because it would severely jeopardise the security of the Americans on-ground whose lives it will be responsible for.
Reliance on the ineffective Afghan Defence Forces
The Taliban has said that instead of foreign troops, the security of airports and embassies should be an “Afghan Responsibility.” This underlines the role that the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces must play in ensuring peace in the country while also perpetuating American security interests. Nevertheless, despite almost two decades of extensive training and investment by the US and NATO, the Afghan Defence Forces remain highly incompetent, unmotivated, poorly trained, corrupt and riddled with deserters, according to various US, NATO and Afghan Officials that have worked with them in the past.
The recent weeks’ setbacks, where the Taliban could easily overcome the defence forces to overtake multiple districts across the country while approximately 1,000 Afghan soldiers fled to Tajikistan has also rung alarm bells regarding the future with these forces acting as the sole bulwark against an increasingly violent Taliban. Essentially, the US cannot rely on these domestic defence forces for the protection of its diplomats, leaving it with no plausible options.
Preference for an ‘over the horizon’ strategy
Initially as a part of the 2020 Deal, the US had committed to withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan by the end of May 2021. This could not happen because of the various roadblocks that were encountered during the negotiations such as differences between the involved parties and stalled talks due to boycotts from the Taliban. The Taliban assessed the extension of the May deadline a serious breach of the agreement and resorted to heightened violence in retaliation. Furthermore, the US has now conducted a number of airstrikes this week on Taliban targets, in support of the faltering government forces and to slow down the Taliban’s blistering advances across Afghanistan. Head of the US Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie has also said that the US will heighten level of support for the defence forces through air strikes in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue to remain violent. This has highly antagonised the Taliban, which has called the airstrikes “disobedience” to last year’s agreement and have forewarned unspecified “consequences.” This warning would definitely cast more doubts about the extent to which the Taliban could go in order to strike back, which puts the capital in danger, as well as the US embassy and the diplomats who the Taliban had promised not to harm earlier.
To be sure, America cannot abruptly sever all diplomatic and humanitarian engagement, owing to the grave socio-economic and security consequences it would entail for Afghanistan. At the same time, this mandates the presence of personnel on the ground who would act as the instruments to further these engagements. Yet, America also cannot ignore the dire security threat that a severely violent and antagonised Taliban could pose to these personnel and to the embassy. It basically has two options: Either to negotiate with the Taliban to retain some NATO and Turkish troops in the country or completely depend on the Afghan Defence Forces for their security. The first option would appear to be impossible, while the second seems to be dreadfully inadequate based on historical and contemporary precedents. Essentially, this conundrum means that the future of Afghanistan hangs by a thread, without a cogent alternative to evoke any optimism whatsoever.
The author is a research intern at ORF.