Aug. 15, 2021 will be remembered as the date that the US/NATO project in Afghanistan suffered its final death blows. There already has been and will be much more commentary on why the collapse happened and who is responsible. Was it Biden’s decision to complete the withdrawal? Was it Trump’s decision to treat the Taliban as legitimate negotiating partners? Was it rampant corruption within the government ministries and the security forces? Very little of that commentary will take up the ethnic/tribal factors which must be legion but are likely poorly understood outside of the circles of regional experts. I will leave others to argue over the answers to those questions.
The comparisons to the fall of Saigon in May of 1975 will also continue to be made, especially now with embassy staffs being evacuated to the Kabul airport by helicopter. The problem with the historical parallels though is that Afghanistan in 2021 doesn’t at all resemble Vietnam in 1975. There’s one lesson that seems to me to be drawn from both, however: neither government–one backed up by the US and the other created by the US/NATO combine–could command the support of the population. Without such support, a government is destined to collapse no matter how much the population fears the enemy.
Taliban surrounds Kabul
By all accounts, Taliban forces are at the gates of Kabul and have a team at the presidential palace negotiating the transfer of power from the government to the Taliban. Head of High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah is said to be mediating the process, reported Khaama Press.
An interior ministry official told Reuters the Taliban were coming in “from all sides” but there were no reports of fighting. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that the group was in talks with the government for a peaceful surrender of Kabul. The Taliban leadership issued a statement saying that they have ordered their fighters to not enter the city by force. “Taliban fighters are to be on standby on all entrances of Kabul until a peaceful and satisfactory transfer of power is agreed,” the statement said.
“Negotiations are underway with the other side to ensure that the transition process is completed safely and securely,” a Taliban spokesperson told ABC News. “No one’s head, property or honor will be harmed and the lives of Kabulis will not be in danger. The Islamic Emirate instructs all its forces to stand at the gates of Kabul and not try to enter the city.”
All Western embassies are reported to be evacuating their staff, including in many cases Afghan nationals who were employees of the embassies, by helicopter to the airport. U.S. officials said diplomats were being ferried by helicopter to the airport from its embassy in the fortified Wazir Akbar Khan district. “Core” U.S. team members were working from the Kabul airport, a U.S. official said, while a NATO official said several EU staff had moved to a safer, undisclosed location in the capital. Among the other countries reported to be reported evacuating their embassies are Germany, Italy, the UK, and the Czech Republic.
Biden Sends More Troops
In a statement issued yesterday afternoon, following a White House meeting of national security officials, Biden announced that he had authorized up to 5,000 US troops to be deployed to the airport in Kabul “to make sure we can have an orderly and safe drawdown of US personnel and other allied personnel and an orderly and safe evacuation of Afghans who helped our troops during our mission and those at special risk from the Taliban advance.” Secondly, “I have ordered our armed forces and our intelligence community to ensure that we will maintain the capability and the vigilance to address future terrorist threats from Afghanistan.”
Thirdly, Biden said that he had ordered Blinken to support President Ashraf Ghani and other Afghan leaders “as they seek to prevent further bloodshed and pursue a political settlement.” Blinken, he said, will also engage with key regional stakeholders.
Fourth, Biden added, “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 US personnel or our mission at risk there, will be met with a swift and strong US military response.”
At the same time, Biden doubled down on his withdrawal decision. “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 US forces,” Biden concluded. “Shortly before he left office, he also drew US 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.”
Later, the Pentagon issued a statement, attributed to an unnamed defense official, clarifying that the additional troops going into Kabul will come from the brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division that was already being mobilized to go to Kuwait.
The Taliban Takes Over More Cities
The White House statement came as the next two cities, Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Jalabad in the east were falling to the Taliban. The Taliban also captured Logar province to the south of Kabul and Kunar province to the west.
Ghani issued a pre-recorded statement in Friday but apparently hasn’t been heard from since. He declared that remobilization of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) is his top priority and that required measures are underway to reach this end, but he vowed to prevent further bloodshed in the country. Ghani thanked the Afghan forces for their bravery in defending the country and said he will not allow the imposed war to bring more devastation and death to the people. “Under the current situation, remobilizing of the security and defense forces is our top priority and required measures are underway for this purpose,” Ghani said.
“I know that you are concerned about your present and future but I assure you as your president that my focus is to prevent further instability, violence and displacement of my people,” Ghani said. “To do this, I have started widespread consultations within and outside the government, with political leaders and international partners and I will soon share the results with the people.”
As for the Afghan security forces, it seems that they just gave up fighting. There are reports of Afghan troops in border areas fleeing into Uzkebistan, Iran and other countries, rather than fighting. “Everyone just surrendered their guns and ran away,” Rahimullah, a 25-year old soldier who joined the army a year ago and served in the Shahr-e-Bozorg district of northeastern Badakhshan province, told the Wall Street Journal. “We didn’t receive any help from the central government, and so the district fell without any fighting.”
The WSJ reports that the U.S.-sponsored peace talks in Doha allowed the Taliban to project themselves as a moderate, benevolent force just as Ghani’s political rivals in Kabul plotted to replace him with some sort of transitional administration that would facilitate a peace deal. Former President Hamid Karzai, in particular, tried to position himself as a neutral third force, frequently lashing out at Ghani and the U.S., according to the Journal’s account.
“The government ended up completely isolating many people,” said Hekmat Karzai, a former deputy foreign minister and a cousin of the former president. “It became a self-licking ice cream fantasy. It just talked to itself and had very senior positions led by very inexperienced people who hardly understood the reality,” he said. “Do the troops have a reason to fight?” he asked. “I feel that the Taliban isn’t enormously strong. It’s that the government is in disarray.”
In addition to the security forces, the warlords that once fought like tigers against the Taliban and who were supposed to save the country were apparently neutered by nearly 20 years of collaboration with the US and NATO. Both Ismail Khan in Herat and Rashid Dostum in Mazar-e-Sharif gave up without much of a fight. RT published videos of Taliban fighters enjoying themselves in Dostum’s mansion, helping themselves to rich foods and other luxuries. The videos represent a “searing propaganda victory” for the Taliban, one pundit argued, noting that Dostum was a “near-mythic” figure who had once controlled vast swathes of Afghanistan.