For nearly 20 years the Bagram airfield in Afghanistan has been the epicentre of the American-led war against the Taliban. But on Friday 2 July, US troops shut off the electricity, plunging the base into darkness, and slipped away before dawn. It would be another two hours before the new Afghan commander, General Mir Asadullah Kohistani, discovered they had left. Even before the Afghan army could take control of the airfield, looters had raided the barracks and storage tents – a fitting symbol of the US’s inglorious exit.
Vacating Bagram, which is about an hour’s drive north from the capital Kabul, was a milestone in the wider US withdrawal from the embattled country. In April this year, as part of his efforts to end America’s “forever wars” and focus on domestic issues, the US president, Joe Biden, announced that the country’s 3,500 troops would leave by 11 September 2021, the 20th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result,” he said at the time.
With that promised departure now almost complete ahead of schedule, the Biden administration is focusing on reassuring Afghans of continued economic and humanitarian support. Speaking to Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, in the White House on 25 June, Biden promised, “We’re going to stick with you.” This, he pledged, would be a “new chapter” in the relationship between the two countries. Some 650 troops are expected to remain to protect the US embassy in Kabul, which reminded the world via Twitter that it will continue to have a diplomatic presence. But the task of fighting the Taliban – which was removed from power in 2001 but has remained a significant force – will now fall to Afghanistan’s military leadership.
Indeed, the swift withdrawal and ensuing Panglossian assurances barely conceal a darker outlook. When reporters recently asked Biden about the state of Afghanistan, he deflected the question, saying, “I want to talk about happy things.”
That is because if the US withdrawal is happening faster than expected, so, too, is the advance of Taliban forces throughout the country. The group holds nearly twice as much territory as it did two months ago, and according to US intelligence it could overpower Ghani’s government within six months of US forces departing. The United States went to Afghanistan in part to eradicate the Taliban. Twenty years later, the group is undefeated and is trying to dictate the terms of US withdrawal, warning that any foreign troops left after September will be considered occupiers and in violation of the peace agreement signed between the US and the Taliban in Doha last year.
There is also no realistic plan for the future of the US’s diplomatic mission in Afghanistan. In March, before Biden’s announcement, Ghani insisted elections be held before he steps aside, saying he wants to hand over power to a democratically elected successor. The Taliban, too, rejected the US proposal of participating in an interim government, albeit for different reasons: it has since said it wanted to install a “genuine Islamic system”.
The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, has reportedly taken several steps to slow the US military departure. He has ordered the leading US commander in the country, General Austin Miller, to stay there for a few more weeks (exactly how long has not been specified). It has been reported by the New York Times that Miller is then expected to turn over his command to General Kenneth McKenzie Jr, who will be authorised to deploy an extra 300 troops to Afghanistan until the end of the summer in case of an emergency.
The US cannot offer the same degree of protection and security as it was able to with thousands of troops in the country. Biden’s critics, including the Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and much of the Republican Party, have denounced the withdrawal. They will point to the imminent collapse of the Afghan government and military, and argue that Biden has abandoned Afghanistan. In this regard, they have a point.
The most humane thing that the US can now do is to avoid giving any impression that it is committed to large-scale military engagement in Afghanistan. Rather, it should admit that it has lost the war to occupy and rebuild the country, and that it is leaving a people to the alarming prospect of the Taliban returning to power.
Those Afghans who risked their lives helping the US military should be given a way out of the country as soon as possible. The House of Representatives was right to pass a bill on 29 June that will accelerate the visa application process for the 18,000 Afghans who worked for the US as interpreters, drivers, clerks and security guards.
There are thousands more who worked for human rights groups and democracy-building NGOs. They will also be at risk, despite Taliban assurances. The US should offer them a safe haven too.
After the failed US invasion of Cuba in 1961, President John F Kennedy said that victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan. This time, Biden can soften the blow to his country’s pride, and its military presence in central Asia, by owning up to a failure induced by American hubris. If the US believes, as it claimed when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001, in the importance of human rights, the rule of law and confronting terror, it should at least provide refuge to those who believe in those same ideals, those who seek to follow their US patrons out of the Graveyard of Empires.
This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust