As August 31 dawned in Kabul, the United States as well as the international community completed evacuations of their citizens and Afghan partners from Afghanistan, bringing down the curtains on a very controversial and heavily criticized pullout.
All hell broke loose on August 15, when the Taliban rolled into Kabul, much earlier than estimated by most intelligence agencies. Afghan government figures, the media, and security experts – including those based in the U.S. – blamed the United States for running away from its responsibility and betraying the Afghan people, leaving them exposed to Taliban atrocities. The disturbing images of people desperate to escape Kabul running alongside a U.S. military plane on the runway, with two of them falling off the aircraft in mid-air to their deaths, compounded the criticism against the U.S. pullout. The attack at the Kabul airport on August 26, which killed more than 170 people, including 13 U.S. servicemembers, made it even more difficult for the United States to defend its decision to pullout from Afghanistan.
While the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is unfortunate and could have a devastating impact on the nation, it may be a good idea to take a step back and see how the situation has unfolded in the country over the past 25 years before apportioning the blame for the present chaos in Afghanistan.
The Taliban Saga: 1996 to 2021
The Taliban took over Kabul on September 27, 1996 and followed that up with the murder of former president Najibullah in a gruesome public hanging. From 1996 to September 2001, the Taliban ruled, largely isolated from the international community due to their brutal treatment of Afghans (especially women) and willingness to grant safe haven to al-Qaida. The 9/11 attacks brought the global war against terror right into the heart of Afghanistan and by December 2001, the Taliban were ousted from power, with its leader Mullah Omar escaping to Pakistan.
The Bonn Conference of December 2001 facilitated the setting up of an interim government under Hamid Karzai in Kabul which was later ratified by a Loya Jirga (a traditional assembly of Afghan leaders). The Bonn Conference also set up the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), mainly led by the U.S., to stabilize and secure Afghanistan. It also was the starting point of building the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), virtually from scratch.
In December 2009, then-U.S. President Barack Obama announced his Af-Pak strategy, which was built on a premise of “surge- stabilize-transfer-exit.” Accordingly, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan slowly rose to its peak levels of 100,000, with a total force of 145,000 (including allies) by the end of 2011. By September 2011, the ANSF too had been steadily built up and reached its sanctioned strength of 305,600. As a part of the next phase, in June 2013, the United States announced that the ISAF mission would transition from “combat leadership” to a “support and assist” role by the end of 2013.
The transition to the ANSF taking a lead role was accomplished over five tranches announced by President Karzai himself, from March 2011 to June 2013. By December 2014, when the U.S. combat mission ended, the ANSF was leading over 90 percent of ]operations. The United States was left with over 9,000 troops in a support and assist role after 2014, with an aim for a further reduction to 1,000 by 2016, required to train and equip ANSF and guard some vital installations. In the midst of all this, the Afghan and U.S. governments also signed a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) in September 2014, legitimizing their future security cooperation and the drawdown plans of foreign troops.
After taking over the presidency in 2017, Donald Trump pursued the same agenda. In a speech in August 2017, he referred to a revised strategy for Afghanistan indicating pursuit of a “political settlement as an outcome of effective military effort.” Frustrated with the weak Afghan central government, which had proved unable to initiate any worthwhile peace process, the United States entered into direct talks with the Taliban in July 2018 in Doha, Qatar. This effort culminated in the signing of the Doha deal between the two parties on February 29, 2020, committing to total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 2021. The Biden administration, which inherited the deal, announced on April 14, 2021, its decision to complete the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, but pushing it back by a few months to September 2021.
Two things thus clearly stand out from the above facts. First, the drawdown of U.S. troops did not come as an overnight shock and had been planned over at least seven years (since at least December 2014). Second, the ANSF, which had been steadily built up, equipped, and trained over the past 19 years, and were leading combat operations for last seven years, were expected to put up a fight against the Taliban surge.
What Went Wrong
For a situation to unfold so catastrophically, many things have to go wrong, and simultaneously. Let us look at some of them one by one.
First, the collapse of the ANSF. Afghanistan’s security forces were comprised of troops from various ethnic groups, including Tajiks, Uzbeks and Pashtuns (more from the east than the south). With very skewed loyalties, integration within a combat unit was always an issue. There was also a high rate of attrition, with trained servicemembers going home on leave with their weapons and not returning to their units. In addition, the logistics of the ANSF was managed mostly through U.S. contractors. Once they left, vital logistics, including serviceability of equipment, was a concern. The ANSF was also grossly deficient in two vital aspects: military intelligence and air combat capabilities, both of which were managed largely through U.S. forces. Last but not least, once the United States left, there was the perceived threat of cuts in funding and support for the ANSF, despite clear assurances from Washington to the contrary.
Second, the Afghan government could never get its house in order. The result of each presidential election was contested, giving confused signals to the population and an obvious advantage to the Taliban. The presidential election results of 2019 were so contested that President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, held separate swearing-in ceremonies on March 9, 2020. It was only after U.S. intervention that a compromise was worked out between the two and the crisis was managed. Also, even before the Taliban surge in August, many reports indicated that the writ of Ghani government was restricted to a few hundred kilometers around Kabul and some provincial capitals, with the Taliban controlling most of the hinterland. High levels of corruption also plagued various levels of the government.
The United States bears its share of the responsibility as well. The Doha deal with the Taliban, which excluded the Afghan government, was seen as a threat by Ghani to the Afghan government’s legitimacy. The release of almost 5,000 terrorists and prisoners from Afghan jails, the drawdown of U.S. forces from 13,000 to 8,600 by July 2020, and the U.S. promise to remove Taliban leaders from sanction lists as a part of the Doha deal between the U.S. and Taliban could be termed as important triggers to the present crisis. Intra-Afghan talks, which were promised as a part of the deal, never took off, leaving the Afghan government high and dry with a fait accompli situation presented to it in the year 2021. The fear that the U.S. withdrawal could end funding for the ANSF, possibly triggered by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that the U.S. was suspending $1 billion aid to Afghanistan in March 2020 could also be a contributing factor. The fact that the Taliban stayed entrenched in its strongholds in the south marked a long-standing failure in the U.S. effort to “degrade and reverse Taliban momentum.”
So, Who Is Responsible?
An attempt has been made here to put forth facts in the context of prevailing and unfolding situation in Afghanistan. There are key differences from the U.S. war in Iraq: The country had a strong and effective government under Saddam Hussein before it was attacked in 2003 on the yet-unproven justification of possessing weapons of mass destruction. Iraq has never recovered. By contrast, Afghanistan had already been under the Taliban’s rule of terror for five years, with fierce opposition from within the country itself, when the U.S.-led international forces intervened after the 9/11 attacks. Throughout the following 20 years, a number of collective global efforts were made to build up Afghanistan’s political leadership, security forces, economy, human rights, education, and so on. Most indicators in these fields show huge positives from the levels of 2001.
Even the drawdown and pullout, which have attracted so much criticism, were planned and executed over a sufficiently long period of time. Somehow, it seems, the Afghan government and its people were lulled into a sense of false security that U.S. troops would always be there, while the Taliban, on the other hand were playing the long game, waiting to pounce on the first opportunity.
That is why when President Joe Biden said on August 17, two days after the Taliban took over Kabul, “after 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces,” somehow it seems believable. The United States could not be at war in Afghanistan forever. Its decision to drawdown therefore may have been correct, but some would argue the execution and coordination went awry. The tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan is gut-wrenching.
It is time now for the Afghan people to come together, determine their next government, and commence yet another struggle for peace and security for their embattled nation. Only this time, it is unlikely that the United States or Russia, both bitten once, will be ready to commit to a full-scale mission to help Afghanistan any time soon.