The Fall of Afghanistan: Can the US Be Trusted Any More?

19 August 2021 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme Download PDF

President Biden has blamed, in turn, the Afghan Government, its security forces, his predecessor, and the US intelligence community for the fall of Afghanistan, but closer examination of his accusations shows, however, that they are misplaced. Having dismissed all advice that the Afghan Government could fall, the country was then abandoned to the Taliban. As a geopolitical issue, the fall of Afghanistan has ramifications for the US, China, Pakistan and India.

Key Points

  • President Biden has blamed, in turn, the Afghan Government, its security forces, his predecessor Donald Trump and the US intelligence community for the fall of Afghanistan.
  • Closer examination of his accusations, however, show that they are misplaced.
  • He appears unwilling to blame himself for the chaotic situation in Afghanistan.
  • He dismissed all advice that the Afghan Government could fall but then abandoned the country to the Taliban.
  • That begs the question, can the US be trusted in difficult situations such as Taiwan?

 

Summary

In scenes reminiscent of the fall of Saigon in 1975 to North Vietnamese troops, helicopters hovered over the US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, and chaos took hold at Kabul’s international airport. So desperate were some Afghans to flee the country that they clung to the outside of departing aircraft; seven people are reported to have died. They were trying to flee the Taliban, the alleged religious students, and their leaders, who had overrun the country without any discernible resistance from the US-trained Afghan troops. It was the speed with which the Taliban took over the country that accounted, in large part, for much of the chaos. The US and its allies in Afghanistan were ill-prepared for the rapid fall of the country to the Taliban. As US President Joseph Biden remarked, he expected Afghan leaders to fight for their country.

That hope fell drastically short of his expectation. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, allegedly with bags of money, so many, in fact, that some of it had to be left behind on the tarmac because no more could be put into four cars and a helicopter. His whereabouts remain unknown for now, although earlier reports claimed that he had fled to Tajikistan.

Across Afghanistan, people who could not leave the country began to dress more conservatively, in keeping with the diktats of a fundamentalist movement that permits no alternative. Men have begun to grow their beards once again and women grieve their lost freedoms, such as they were while US forces were in Afghanistan. The Taliban themselves say that they have changed and will demonstrate a more moderate presence, that they are not the same as they were pre-2001, but the stories that are already beginning to trickle out of Afghanistan say differently.

The fall of Afghanistan is also a geopolitical issue, with ramifications for the US, China, Pakistan and India. This paper will attempt to examine some of those.

 

Analysis

Afghanistan’s army, the Afghan National Army (ANA), and its police force had been trained and equipped at considerable cost, some estimates suggesting over US$88 billion ($121 billion). The 350,000 personnel who comprised both those forces were assumed to be a powerful deterrent to the Taliban, who were mostly equipped with outdated weapons and transport. Just as Vietnam was lost due to a lack of political will in Washington, however, the Afghan personnel were abandoned, their training and equipment notwithstanding, by corruption in Kabul. For instance, despite being encircled by Taliban forces, the Afghan Government outpost in Imam Sahib, a district of northern Kunduz province, held out for two months. At first, the outpost would receive weekly supplies, brought in by élite commando forces, but those supply runs grew increasingly rare and, finally, ceased altogether. As one soldier who manned the outpost pointed out, ‘In the last days, there was no food, no water and no weapons.’ The soldiers had simply been abandoned.

That incident, and many others like it, does two things. First, it gives the lie to the accusation that the ANA refused to fight the Taliban. As President Ghani noted in 2019, in the five years since he had assumed office, more than 45,000 members of the Afghan security forces had been killed. He did not provide estimates of how many had been wounded and maimed. In a separate analysis, Brown University estimated that the Afghan security forces had lost over 64,000 personnel since October 2001, when the US’s war in Afghanistan began. Second, as another Afghan soldier, who served in north-eastern Badakhshan province narrated, ‘Everyone just surrendered their guns and ran away. We didn’t receive any help from the central government, and so the district fell without any fighting.’ Realising that they had been abandoned by Kabul, many other soldiers decided that it was not worth fighting, especially as the Taliban offered them safe passage home. Their situation closely echoed those of the US soldiers in Vietnam in 1975. While the US soldiers at that time were not completely abandoned, they were, nevertheless, demoralised by a spineless and insipid political class in Washington.

Unconfirmed reports allege that the decision by Afghan security forces not to fight on this occasion was also brought about by bribery. It began in 2020, according to Afghan and US officials, with a series of meetings between Taliban members and low-ranking members of the Afghan Government in a few villages. The Taliban offered money for the Afghan forces to surrender their weapons and walk away. To provide a camouflage of respectability, those deals were described as negotiated ceasefires. The deals progressed from the village level to the district and provincial levels over the next eighteen months. Consequently, the Taliban faced no resistance when they overran many provinces at lightning speed. They capitalised on the uncertainty brought about by the negotiations between their officials and US representatives in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020. Some Afghans realised, after those meetings, that they would not be able to rely on US air and other military support and saw the Taliban’s offers of money as a way of escaping what was rapidly becoming an untenable situation. If they could not rely on US support, they reasoned, it made no sense to attempt to carry on a fight that they had no chance of winning. It was, yet again, the US’s lack of support that caused it to lose an ally and the war that it had initiated twenty years previously.

If those reports are true, however, they raise several issues, not least of which are, from where did the Taliban acquire the money with which to bribe Afghan officials and soldiers en masse? The Taliban could not have had much money of its own, as its fighters’ equipment demonstrates. Did the money come from external sources? If so, who were they? Did the fact that Doha offered them shelter have anything to do with it? Did Doha offer the Taliban more than just shelter? If the US knew of the ongoing bribery, furthermore, what, if anything, did it do about it?

There is one other factor that needs to be examined: the training imparted to the Afghan security forces, specifically the ANA. The US military trained the ANA in accordance with its (the US’s) own methods. That called for an integrated fighting system that included air cover and real-time intelligence support for the ANA. Yet, soon after Mr Biden announced that he would withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, both those inputs were scaled down so drastically as to be non-existent. Little wonder, then, that the Taliban were able to overrun the country as quickly as they did. To put it bluntly, the ANA bore the brunt of the fighting since June 2014, when then President Obama decided to scale down the US battlefield presence and focus on providing support, training and advice to the ANA. Mr Obama felt that that strategic shift was required because it did not help his domestic popularity to have photographs of rows upon rows of coffins draped in the US flag to be shown to the American public. Essentially, Mr Obama sacrificed an ally for political gain. While on the subject of Mr Obama, it is notable that Khairullah Khairkhwa, who previously served as the Taliban’s interior minister in Afghanistan and was arrested after the 9/11 attacks, was held at Guantanamo Bay from 2002 to 2014. He was released, along with other prisoners, by the Obama Administration in 2014 in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier who deserted his post in Afghanistan. Mr Khairkhwa reportedly orchestrated the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. It is unclear what role, if any, Mr Biden played in making the decision to free Mr Khairkhwa.

In recent times, many comparisons have been drawn between the fall of Saigon and the situation in Kabul. Indeed, so similar were the two situations that Mr Biden, in an attempt to discourage the comparison, said during a press conference on 8 July:

The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely. … The Taliban is not the south – the North Vietnamese army. They’re not – they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in the – of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.

As if to demonstrate that prophetic irony is not the sole domain of the President, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the previous day:

… The fact that our forces are withdrawing … We are not withdrawing, we are staying, the embassy is staying, our programs are staying … If there is a significant deterioration in security … I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday.

Yet that is precisely what happened on both counts.

Mr Biden’s dithering and contradictory statements did not help matters, either. When he announced a complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, there were 2,500 troops stationed in that country. Despite his claims of a “complete” withdrawal, he left behind around 650 troops to provide protection to the US diplomatic staff who remained in Kabul. His administration then announced that three thousand troops would be flown to Afghanistan to help with the evacuation of US citizens. In other words, he sent more troops into Afghanistan than he withdrew in the first place. Asked when those troops would be withdrawn, a Pentagon spokesman would not say if they would be flown out before Mr Biden’s 31 August deadline.

Apart from blaming President Ghani and the Afghan security forces, and after watching his domestic approval rating plummet, Mr Biden turned to a fail-safe tactic: blame his predecessor for the state of affairs in Afghanistan. His White House statement of 14 August says, in part:

When I came to office, I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor—which he invited the Taliban to discuss at Camp David on the eve of 9/11 of 2019—that left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001 and imposed a May 1, 2021 deadline on U.S. Forces. Shortly before he left office, he also drew U.S. Forces down to a bare minimum of 2,500. Therefore, when I became President, I faced a choice—follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our Forces and our allies’ Forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict. I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan—two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.

He claimed to have been blocked in his efforts by the agreement that President Trump signed with the Taliban to withdraw US forces by 1 May. While he pushed that date back to 11 September, he complained:

After May 1st, there was no status quo of stability without American casualties. After May 1st, there was only a core reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan.

Here, too, however, the paucity of his argument has been laid bare by his own actions. Almost immediately after taking office, President Biden overturned most of Mr Trump’s initiatives, including the holding of refugees at the southern border, returning the US to the Paris Accords on climate change and curbing domestic energy production. He could just as easily have overturned the agreement with the Taliban, except that he found it politically beneficial to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, just as Mr Trump did. Part of Mr Trump’s agreement with the Taliban, moreover, was predicated on that group’s actions and behaviour after they took control of the country. Specifically, they were warned by the Trump Administration that any abuse of human rights or international law would see the US return to Afghanistan and enact a punishment upon them. The Taliban knew that they could not afford to challenge President Trump. It was he, after all, who had defeated Islamic State, confronted China, eliminated Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force and brought about the Abraham Accords. In their opinion, Mr Biden was, on the other hand, more given to appeasing his supporter base of Left-leaning do-gooders. In their opinion, Mr Biden could be challenged.

President Biden could have reminded the Taliban of the terms of the Doha agreement. He alluded to that, in fact, in his statement:

Fourth, we have conveyed to the Taliban representatives in Doha, via our Combatant Commander, that any action on their part on the ground in Afghanistan, that puts U.S. personnel or our mission at risk there, will be met with a swift and strong U.S. military response.

If he is willing to act against the Taliban if they act against US forces or initiatives, why not also act against the Taliban if they commit human rights abuses, in accordance with President Trump’s agreement? There have already been human rights abuses by the Taliban, despite their protestations and efforts to present a moderate façade. Women are being forced from banking jobs and lists of single girls and women above the age of fifteen are being drawn up to provide as wives for Taliban fighters. For Mr Biden to complain that he has been hamstrung by his predecessor’s agreement with a non-governmental extremist organisation is hypocritical by any measure.

When Mr Biden found that his tactic of blaming Mr Trump for the fiasco in Afghanistan failed to get traction, he turned on the US intelligence community. He told reporters last month that the intelligence community did not predict the collapse of the Afghan Government. On 16 August, however, representatives of those agencies refuted that claim. An anonymous source in Congress told ABC News that the intelligence agencies had predicted “a swift and total victory” by the Taliban, and that the Biden Administration had “disregarded” that information. Former acting CIA director Michael Morell blamed the Executive Branch for the failure in Afghanistan, tweeting on 15 August that ‘of all the players over the years, the intelligence community by far has seen the situation in Afghanistan most accurately.’

As one observer also tweeted in regard to the entire situation, ‘This is so Washington DC…always trying to save face, never taking any responsibility.’

President Biden’s ineptitude will have several consequences. First, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan will be portrayed as a defeat of the US by a patient force that is willing to play the long game. The various Islamist groups will undoubtedly see this as the first of many victories. The Taliban have already released an estimated five thousand inmates, some of whom have fought for al Qaeda and Islamic State, from the Pul-e-Charki prison, which is part of the Bagram air base in Kabul. It is now almost inevitable that many more potential fighters will be attracted to the Taliban, which will offer a safe haven for other Islamist groups. As former US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta stated bluntly:

The Taliban are terrorists, and they’re going to support terrorists. If they take control of Afghanistan, there is no question in my mind that they will provide a safe haven for al-Qaida, for ISIS and for terrorism in general. And that constitutes, frankly, a national security threat to the United States.

That assessment was echoed by Ghulam Isaczai, Afghanistan’s representative to the United Nations, who warned that in ‘deliberate acts of barbarism, the Taliban are assisted by transnational terrorist networks.’

Second, China could gain a strong foothold in Central Asia. The Taliban, recognising their mistakes from when they last controlled Afghanistan, have sought to establish ties to countries such as China, which they see as being opposed to the US. That would be a godsend to Beijing, which needs to establish a strategic and economic foothold in Afghanistan in order to avail itself of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, especially its rare earths, lithium and copper deposits, to establish an alternative route to the CPEC through Pakistan to access Iranian oil and gas, and to establish an alternative route to its overland Belt Road Initiative that runs through Kazakhstan and Russia to Europe.

China has promised, in return, to invest in energy and infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, including a road network. If its plans come to fruition, it would be logical for China to extend its rail network into Afghanistan, thereby further strengthening its ties to that landlocked country. The Taliban would view China, in turn, as their means to international acceptance and legitimacy. As one report put it, ‘the Taliban see China as a source of international legitimacy, a potential economic supporter and a means of influence over Pakistan, a Chinese ally that has aided the group.’

The only perceivable challenge to those plans would be China’s treatment of its Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province. That will be especially so if Afghanistan does indeed become a haven for militant Islamist groups, including the East Turkestan Independence Movement, which seeks an independent Xinjiang. It is likely with that possibility in mind that China conducted joint military exercises, the Zapad/Interaction 2021 drills, with Russia less than a fortnight ago in its Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The two sides fielded a total of around 10,000 troops, field artillery and aircraft. Although the exercise was conducted far from Afghanistan, it ‘demonstrated the determination and ability of Russia and China to fight terrorism, and jointly protect peace and stability in the region’, according to a statement [Russian] released by Russia’s Ministry of Defence.

India would be an obvious loser because its plans to access the energy resources of Central Asia would be brought down, as would its plans to increase its influence in that region.

Third, Pakistan’s security would grow even more precarious than it currently is. The Taliban is not a monolithic organisation or group. There are two Taliban groups, in general: the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban. The Afghan Taliban are broadly divided into the Kandahari and Paktia factions. The Pakistani Taliban is formally known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The Kandahari and Paktia groups seek to control Afghanistan, while the TTP, which is based just across the border in Afghanistan, would similarly like to take over Pakistan. The three groups are believed to have skirmished with each other on occasion.

While the Government of Pakistan does not control the Taliban in Afghanistan, it is generally accepted that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the premier security agency, has strong ties to them. They have trained and provided the Taliban sanctuary for years. The ISI is widely believed to have helped foster the group prior to its 1996 takeover in Afghanistan.

The Taliban in Afghanistan helped inspire the TTP, which is more commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban. Although the leaders of the two groups are reportedly at odds, a Taliban government in Afghanistan will almost certainly embolden the TTP. As Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador, wrote:

Islamist extremism has already divided Pakistani society along sectarian lines, and the ascendance of Afghan Islamists next door will only embolden radicals at home.

He believes that Pakistan’s ‘risky game’ of supporting the Taliban while trying to maintain good relations with Washington ‘was never going to prove sustainable in the long term. Pakistan has managed to kick the can down the road for a long time. Soon, however, it will reach the end of the road.’ That prophetic view appeared to be confirmed by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who now finds his country even further tied and subservient to China.

Prime Minister Khan denies that his country has ties to the Taliban, stating categorically, ‘What [the] Taliban are doing or not doing, has nothing to do with Pakistan. We are not responsible, neither we are a spokesperson for Taliban.’ The term “spokesperson” would appear to be an attempt to play down a gaffe that he made recently, which was widely interpreted as his government being in close touch with the Taliban. He said that there are around three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, some of whom move across the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border, 90 per cent of which has now been fenced, daily. Monitoring their movements was a huge challenge, he claimed. He also termed “unfortunate” the complaints of Afghan officials that Pakistan supported the Taliban, saying:

No country has ever tried harder than Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the dialogue table – first with the Americans and then with the Afghan government. Hold us responsible only when the Afghan refugees return back to their homeland.

Despite his protestations, however, many others believe that Pakistan is behind the Taliban’s take-over of Afghanistan. As a former Canadian diplomat tweeted:

It is cruel, immoral & destructive to keep up the fiction of a Doha “peace process” or the pretence of normal relations with Pakistan, while Afghans suffer in hell. Pakistan is invading — imposing by brutal force the “military solution” it said was unavailable.

There is some justification for that anger. While some analysts suggest that Pakistan’s influence over the group is often overstated, it does permit the Taliban leadership on its territory and its wounded warriors to receive treatment in Pakistani hospitals. Their children attend school in Pakistan and some own property there. Some among Pakistan’s politicians have rebranded the insurgents as “the new, civilised Taliban”. That situation led Ismail Khan, a powerful US-allied warlord, who defended his territory of Herat in western Afghanistan from a Taliban onslaught, to call the war the fault of Pakistan. ‘I can say openly to Afghans that this war, it isn’t between Taliban and the Afghan Government. It is Pakistan’s war against the Afghan nation. The Taliban are their resource and are working as a servant.’

Prime Minister Khan makes it a point to state at all meetings that he attends that Pakistan wants peace in Afghanistan, has no favourites there and no longer seeks the “strategic depth” it once did against its arch-enemy, India. On at least two previous occasions, furthermore, the Pakistani Army chief walked out of meetings with the Taliban, frustrated by their intransigence and determination to acquire total control of Afghanistan once again. If that is correct, it would appear that the Pakistani Army and its ISI has lost control of the Taliban. That could prove dangerous for Islamabad.

Despite Mr Khan’s protestations, in a speech to Parliament last year, he referred to Osama bin Laden as a martyr, which was seen as a nod to Islamist militants. Images of slain Taliban fighters being buried in Pakistan at funerals attended by hundreds waving Taliban flags and wounded Taliban fighters being treated in Pakistani hospitals tend, however, to diminish his claims. One Pakistani doctor claimed to have treated dozens of wounded Taliban fighters. Several were transferred to hospitals in the Pakistani city of Quetta, where many Taliban leaders live, and to Karachi. In madrassas (religious schools) across Pakistan, young scholars are inspired to take up arms and conduct their jihad.

Given those conditions and the ISI’s loss of control over the Taliban, Pakistan’s insecurity and exposure to insurgency can be safely said to have been heightened.

While Pakistan is now at an elevated risk of insurgency, the US, specifically the Biden Administration and President Biden himself, are at risk of losing their credibility. His administration’s and his own gaffes are dangerous, but worse are his actions, apparent lack of forethought, unwillingness to accept advice and feigned morality. Those are factors that can and will be exploited by competitors such as China, Russia and Iran. China has already blamed the US for the chaos in Afghanistan but says it remains willing to work with Washington in an effort to salvage the situation. If the US were to accept, it would enhance China’s credentials and moral standing and diminish those of the US.

Given President Biden’s apparent determination to sacrifice Afghanistan at the altar of moral platitudes, the question now needs to be asked, can he be trusted to stay the course on protecting Taiwan? Or, for that matter, Japan, South Korea or Australia? Can the Quad countries take Mr Biden at his word? The answers to those questions are, sadly, not as clear as they might have been.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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