World

THE NEW ‘GREAT GAME’

Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is an unmitigated disaster for Biden and his administration

People climb atop an aircraft as they wait at the airport in Kabul on August 16 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war. Thousands of people mobbed the city’s airport, trying to flee the Taliban’s feared hardline brand of Islamist rule. (Photo: Wakil Kohsar / AFP)

It’s a new ball game in Kabul, except that it may look rather too much like one that took place twenty-some years before. The US, make no mistake, has taken a big hit.

It was supposed to be a fairly tidy, quiet end to the shambles that has been the US’s intervention in Afghanistan that began two decades ago. It was also originally supposed to be a sideshow to the centre court event that was Iraq and its massive threats to the Middle East and beyond. In fact, the US intervention in Afghanistan, at least as it was originally conceived, was really meant to be a good, swift, really hard-charging, fatal smack down of al-Qaeda, in the aftermath of the horrors of the multi-plane hijacking and use of the planes as the massive bombs of 9/11. 

By contrast, Iraq under the basilisk eye of Saddam Hussein and his sons was the core evil. It was the furnace where terrorism, regional unrest, global instability and so much else was manufactured, along with those putative weapons of mass destruction that were being readied to destroy Iraq’s neighbouring regimes.

Remove the dictator, replace his government and his more odious generals, and allow forces such as those under the leadership of (that dubious) Ahmed Chalabi to step forward, and then things would begin to resolve themselves. Mission accomplished. But throughout all this, Afghanistan was supposed to be the sideshow in the Bush administration.

And so, even before the massive attack on Iraq was ready, specially trained forces were in the mountains of Afghanistan’s Tora Bora to deliver a fatal blow to al-Qaeda’s dangerous irregulars. Then the assault of Iraq began in 2003, but by then, mission creep as regards Afghanistan was metamorphosing into something much grander, much more impressive, more fundamental, and more difficult to accomplish.

Instead of smashing al-Qaeda and moving on to other more pressing business, the mission magically evolved — just grew — into one of ridding the entirety of Afghanistan of that odious force of medieval-style, religious zealots who had a doctrine and governing style to match, but who were now controlling Afghanistan. The campaign gradually (almost absentmindedly) was becoming one of the “nation building” of a new Afghanistan, this time built to modern specifications. For some observers, there was already an uncomfortable echo of the heyday of Vietnam.

Hamid Karzai International Airport
People struggle to cross the boundary wall of Hamid Karzai International Airport on 16 August 2021, to flee Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of Kabul, and rumours that foreign countries are evacuating people without visas. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Stringer)

In retrospect, this mission metamorphosis was an act of astonishing hubris on the part of the Bush administration, carried out with little or no appreciation for the historical circumstances of previous military efforts in Afghanistan over two millennia, let alone the complexity of rebuilding a shattered nation. (In a way, it was also almost an effort to return to the trajectory of change that had been ongoing before the Russian intervention, but for the fact that by now the country had been through years of foreign intervention, guerrilla fighting, impositions of sharia law, and yet other societal violence.) 

The Taliban had replaced a feckless but semi-modernist government that had initially taken charge of their country after the defeat of Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan and the collapse of the communist-styled regime in that nation. The Russians had been vanquished after suffering some 15,000 military fatalities, in a campaign that ultimately featured the US-supplied Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that proved lethal against the Soviet Hind attack helicopters that had previously been the force multiplier against insurgents. Their defeat is often figured as a key trigger for the collapse of the Soviet Union just a couple of years later.

The increasing military commitment by the US, along with smaller contingents from Britain, other Nato allies and several other nations eventually more or less stabilised the military balance. The effort to build up a new national Afghan army, supplied, trained and fed intelligence, communication assistance and coalition air support, began to have some modest successes as well.

But the Afghan national force never really controlled much of the rural countryside and there were continuing criticisms about its incompetence without coalition backstopping, as well as the government’s deeply embedded, widespread corruption. Nevertheless, along with that coalition support, the Afghan military did hold the main population centres and border points, and, for a while, that seemed enough.

This forever war continued to rumble on through the Bush, Obama, and Trump presidencies, and then, finally, into the Biden administration. Moreover, the Biden team was left with this original commitment, even if the size of the forces had eventually been drawn down to only a few thousand people, no longer engaged in actual combat, but still essential for training and other support.

In response to that popular dissatisfaction with this perpetual campaign, and in sync with Donald Trump’s own antagonism to extended foreign military operations, that administration carried out a negotiation with representatives of the Taliban in Doha in the Persian Gulf to conclude the US’s presence in Afghanistan in exchange for promises by the Taliban that they would not interfere in this withdrawal and that they would support negotiations and a peaceful transition of power to a broader government.

Given the then president’s public endorsement of the deal, the new president, Joe Biden, believed his administration was bound by the agreement and, in fact, he hoped to make the total departure come no later than the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. 

Ultimately, in a shock move that tipped the balance for the Taliban’s ongoing drive to take over all the population centres of the country and surround and then capture the capital as well, the Biden administration began its final personnel withdrawal virtually in secret, in advance of the announced schedule, and without notification to the Afghan government. That government was already facing growing pressure from the Taliban and there was a lengthening roster of provincial capitals and other cities the government had lost control over.

By Sunday, 15 August, Taliban forces were entering the capital, Kabul, in growing numbers. It had happened largely without a shot being fired. The sitting government effectively evaporated, the army, police and government officialdom largely melted into the surrounding population, and President Ashraf Ghani simply personally upped stakes and fled elsewhere. Meanwhile, the US embassy personnel were being ferried to Kabul’s international airport in scenes increasingly redolent of the final departure from Saigon back in 1975, providing a comparable photograph to the infamous one of the helicopter on the roof of the embassy in Southeast Asia.

Running crossgrain to the drawdown plans, the president had authorised up to 5,000 military personnel to secure the airport for the departure of the diplomats and other Americans. Meanwhile, growing crowds of Afghans, many of whom had served the US military as aides and interpreters for years, had laid siege to the airport in an effort to find a way out of what they plainly expect to be harsh retribution against them. (The US is now attempting to process a wide swathe of “special immigrant visas” for such people, but the bureaucratic machinery is inevitably sluggish, and those applications may or may not cover the families of such people, even if the individuals in question gain a visa.)  

By Sunday, 15 August, Taliban forces were entering the capital, Kabul, in growing numbers. It had happened largely without a shot being fired. The sitting government effectively evaporated.

For US officials, meanwhile, this is the moment of supreme agony. Virtually nothing has gone according to plan. Not the pace and schedule of the drawdown and not the willingness of the prior government to fight off the Taliban. The presumed understanding between the US and the Taliban initialled in Doha has had little impact on the evacuation of US diplomats and others, let alone any orderly processing of Afghans who had worked with the coalition forces. And most importantly, it had virtually no impact on the putative process of finding any kind of peaceful transfer of power to some kind of government of national unity.

In various parts of the country, although not yet in Kabul, local Taliban forces have already started to inflict the old Taliban style of harsh restrictions on women in the workplace and girls in educational institutions. There is no real clarity yet as to the actual shape of governance in Afghanistan, even if various figures from Afghanistan’s past regimes angle for some kind of role in any new government. Further, there is little or no clarity about the extent to which those old-style extremist religious restrictions will or will not be imposed on the country, whether there will eventually be violent retribution for those who worked in the government or assisted coalition forces, and any sense of humanitarian and refugee crises emerging from the chaos of this transition and who will deal with such things.

For US politics, this sudden collapse in Kabul is becoming an unmitigated disaster for the president and his administration. While there are now very few if any defenders of a full-throated military engagement in a “forever war” there by Americans, some commentators, such as the former Republican (and anti-Trump) Max Boot, have argued the ongoing commitment of a few thousand soldiers in other than direct combat roles would certainly have been a small price to pay for keeping Afghanistan largely out of the hands of the Taliban, let alone a safe sanctuary for a reconstituted al-Qaeda, or something similar.

After all, such commentators argue, the US military commitments in Germany, Japan and South Korea have run for more than seven decades, and few, save pure isolationists, really argue for the withdrawal of US forces from those positions. What has got Joe Biden and his administration into deep waters, however, has been the sudden and precipitate withdrawal of virtually all US forces, followed by the swift collapse of any resistance from the Afghan government. In addition, there is the visible fact the administration had little idea such a thing could happen in the way it did — and that once it began, they seemed to have no Plan B.

Throughout Sunday, as things went from bad to worse, administration spokespersons were pummelled by moderators on Sunday news talk shows about these events being a new Saigon moment. That and the inevitable questions of whether, after two decades, was the cost, the death, the waste of this engagement in Afghanistan ever worth the trouble in the first place. It may not be fair that the Biden administration has to carry the can for three administrations before his, but he is now the one who sits at the “Resolute Desk” in the White House, and as Harry Truman once said, the buck truly does stop there.

Still, as Professor Heather Cox Richardson wrote overnight, “Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who served in Afghanistan and who opposed Biden’s plan for withdrawal, has been highlighting the past statements of pro-exit Republicans who are now attacking the president. ‘Do not let my party preten[d] to be outraged by this,’ he tweeted. ‘Both the [Republicans] and [Democrats] failed here. Time for Americans to put their country over their party.’ ” 

But Kinzinger’s injunction is unlikely to be heeded as everyone is already squaring up in a giant game of who is the most to blame for the disaster that has quite evidently occurred.

In the larger international context, the successful effort by the Taliban to gain control of the entire nation is going to provoke some serious thinking in a number of places in that region — and well beyond it. It is unlikely that other Western allied nations will inevitably draw the lesson that the US is unreliable as an ally, since Afghanistan was never a core zone for US interests. What they may well infer, however, is a strategic incoherence in the US about what it expects to happen in places like Afghanistan, and whether that incoherence will affect nations in, say, the Middle East, whose leaders may well begin to wonder if they, too, might come to be seen as marginal in importance for the US in the future. 

Afghan citizens
Afghan citizens wait to leave the Kabul airport on 16 August 2021. (Photo: Wakil Kohsar / AFP)

More importantly and much more present in the immediate region, India, Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran all will now need to begin some serious conversations in their respective governments about how to react to this new situation. China and Russia are both thoroughly concerned about the possibilities of Islamic extremism, and they may well see the new Afghanistan as a potential haven for extremist groups interested in activities in their nations, especially in a place like Xinjiang where the Chinese are running hard to limit such possibilities among the Uyghurs.

Meanwhile, various parts of the Pakistani government have long had complex relationships with dissident Afghan groups, and now they will need to determine how best to avoid any ripples and impacts on their own border regions. (That is where Osama bin Laden was hiding when he was finally killed, after all.) For Iran, they too may begin to be concerned about the possible impact among some ethnic groups in eastern Iran along the border who are related to those in Afghanistan — and who have historic grievances of their own with the Iranian government. 

Finally, India has long sought to find in Afghanistan a kind of counterweight to Pakistan. Now they may begin to wonder about the possible formation of a larger partnership comprising Pakistan and Afghanistan that could generate difficulties for the Indian central government among India’s dissident groups and restive Islamic minorities.   

All of these possibilities are filled with unknowns — known or otherwise — and each of these nations will undoubtedly begin to parse out how they can find ways to assert more influence on the final disposition of governance in Afghanistan. One thing is increasingly certain, at least as of now: the US and its partners are increasingly out of the picture of this newest iteration of the “Great Game” in Afghanistan. DM

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All Comments 5

  • It’s what it is.
    I’m shaken what this means for Afghani girls and women.

    The sad thing is that the Afghan citizens never supported the government’s attempt to modernise the country’s institutions and laws. As for the corruption…

    As so often, and a stark reminder for us too, is that a country gets the type of government that it tolerates, even deserves.
    America was never going to make an iota of a difference, cost them over 2,000 lives and apparently a cool trillion dollars.

    I think they should rather focus on where that sort of commitment actually improves people’s lives. And let the central Asian countries that are actually impacted on by an implosion of Afghanistan sort out an arrangement with this New Stone Age government.
    It’s their backyard, not America’s.

    • Citizens of every country have to sort out their leadership / government / dictatorship, be that Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Zambia, DRC, Venezuela……no point of any foreign country interfering as this interference will in any event only be in the interest of the interfering country. Any claim by such interfering country that the interference is ‘in the interest of the people of the country’ being interfered into is utter BS!

  • On the contrary. Recent events prove the decision was correct. The Afghan army was going to collapse anyway as soon as the US left, so if not now,when?

  • The US insists on building these house of cards thinking that they’re giving people democracy. Unfortunately democracy is not what they understand or want and when things fall apart they abandon them.