US president Joe Biden has set the iconic date of 9/11 – September 11, 2021, exactly twenty years since the attack by al-Qaeda on the USA that triggered the American invasion – as the absolute deadline for the total withdrawal of US armed forces from Afghanistan, although they may all have gone by the end of July.
However neither Biden, nor NATO, nor any of the coalition nations, has put in place an effective military presence or a strong administration to follow their withdrawal. Meanwhile the Taliban are seizing the initiative by launching intensive attacks on government forces, and are said to be threatening the capital, Kabul.
The Taliban emerged following a 10-year occupation of the country by the Soviet Union. The USSR had invaded in 1979 in an attempt to keep Afghanistan within its sphere of influence, but a decade of guerilla warfare conducted by Sunni extremists eventually led to Soviet troops withdrawing in February 1989.
A year or so later this new hardline Sunni Islamist group began to emerge. It swiftly became a formidable military machine, and toward the end of 1996 it captured the Afghan capital, Kabul. By 1998, the Taliban were in control of almost 90 percent of Afghanistan.
Initial support from some of the population quickly faded as the fundamentalist group imposed hardline Islamist practices, such as amputations for those found guilty of theft, and public executions of adulterers. Television, music and cinema were banned, and girls aged 10 and over were forbidden to attend school. Meanwhile, they continued to wage their two-handed war against the US presence in the country on the one hand, and the Afghan government on the other. That conflict continues.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has twice served as Afghanistan’s prime minister, is reported as warning that what he terms the “irresponsible” American withdrawal is leaving behind a government unable to avoid a certain war, as the Taliban attempts to take back control of the country. “It seems very improbable for the Afghan government and its military to be able to sustain this fighting.” he said.
There is just a chance that Hekmatyar’s fears may prove premature. Despite Biden’s announcement about the US military withdrawal, reports have appeared in the media suggesting that an internal debate in the Pentagon is under way over what level of Taliban resurgence would amount to a national security threat to the US, and therefore justify military action. For example, if the Taliban tries to retake Kabul or another key capital in the wake of US forces withdrawing, airstrikes in support of the Afghan government, involving US aircraft or armed drones, may be justified. Since there would be no US aircraft remaining in Afghanistan, any future attacks would have to be launched from bases elsewhere. Biden, who would himself have to approve any such action, is likely to require a good deal of convincing.
Meanwhile the UK has decided to allow over 4000 Afghans who worked for the British military, mostly as interpreters, to settle in Britain together with their families. Defense minister Ben Wallace explained that those being relocated were people who might otherwise “be at risk of reprisals” from the Taliban. He said those who worked for the British had “sacrificed a lot to look after us, and now is the time to do the same”.
Secretary of State Priti Patel said: “It’s our moral obligation to recognize the risks they faced in the fight against terrorism and reward their efforts.”
The US, who employed many more local Afghans, is working on a similar scheme to protect those who worked as translators for US forces and now fear for their lives once foreign troops leave Afghanistan. On June 10 General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “The United States government will do what is necessary in order to ensure the safety and protection of those that have been working with us for two decades.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin gave the same message to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In disengaging from Afghanistan, the Western alliance is tacitly acknowledging that its involvement and its effort has failed. It has tried for twenty years to ensure that a democratically elected Afghan government was backed by a well- trained professional military capable of maintaining the peace. Yet the extreme Islamist Taliban are currently occupying a large area of the country and, heavily armed, seem poised to defeat the government and take control of the nation. The 3,500 American lives and the $2.26 trillion expenditure seem an inordinately heavy price to have paid for so little gain