Afghanistan - even Kabul can fall

Even Kabul can fall

Mourning the death of a bomb attack on May 20, 2021 near Kabul

Photo: Andrew Quilty / VU / laif

A military withdrawal from the Hindu Kush is a delicate matter. A British army found out about this as early as 1842, the Red Army at the beginning of 1989 (see below). At the Khyber Pass, the most important mountain road between Afghanistan and Pakistan, there are monuments and memorial plaques dedicated to withdrawing or defeated foreign troops. The exit of the USA and its allies this year is less dangerous, after all, these associations can withdraw without being shot at. The Taliban are careful to avoid any confrontation.

Most Americans welcome the accelerated end of an unpopular war, but for many people in Afghanistan, whose hope for the future depends on Western support in the fight against the Taliban, a catastrophe is on the horizon. It turns out to be a grave mistake to have believed in the nation-building promise of former US President George W. Bush and others. The Taliban are currently advancing from province to province without encountering any significant resistance. There is no peace agreement, no power-sharing, no inner-Afghan ceasefire - there is smoldering fear that a civil war could be inevitable if the national army does not surrender and disintegrate. Nevertheless, the Americans are leaving the country.

Provinces overrun

Two questions are inevitable: What lasting result has the overseas presence produced after so much blood and money has been spent? And what - please - happens next? When President Joe Biden set the deadline for the withdrawal on September 11th, exactly 20 years after the Al Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, with which Bush had justified his intervention in Afghanistan, the motto of the Pentagon was: Withdraw as soon as possible. It can be assumed that almost all foreign troops, together with around 17.000 mostly American private forces, will have left the country by mid-July.

The prospects for the vast majority of Afghans who are not prone to extreme religious beliefs are simply terrifying. Compared to the previous year, the number of civilian casualties rose by almost 30 percent from January to March. There were 4.375 "terrorism-related deaths" in May, according to government figures, compared with 1.645 in April. Among the civilian victims were 50 schoolgirls from the Shiite Hazara district in Kabul who were targeted by Sunni fighters.

Meanwhile, the Afghan army trained by the west is fighting with their backs to the wall. Due to a lack of ammunition and supplies, 26 bases had to surrender to the insurgents in June alone. An elite commando in Faryab Province was recently destroyed. The national army still holds air sovereignty. But how much of it will be left over when the logistical help from the Americans ceases? Provinces like Urusgan and provincial capitals like Kandahar are in danger of being overrun. Even Kabul is no longer safe for long after gloomy assessments by the US secret services. Notions according to which the USA will send fighter jets and armed drones from neighboring countries to assist Afghan ground troops have meanwhile been rejected. Even if Kabul threatens to fall, so recently General Frank McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command, after the US withdrawal, air strikes would be limited to fighting terrorist plots that "threaten US territory". The ostentatious reluctance to move reflects the Pentagon's inability to find alternative military bases. Pakistan, which has always supported the Taliban and has been at odds with the US since 2011, does not want the Americans back. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which used to offer US troops locations, will hardly do that again. Why should they, of all people, expose themselves? And Iran is out of the question.

As there is no credible military agenda for the period after the withdrawal, there is no resilient political consensus in the country itself. The talks in Doha between the Taliban and the government of President Ashraf Ghani have achieved little. There was no consensus on civil rights and education for girls. The USA's demand that the Taliban al-Qaeda and the Afghanistan offshoot of the Islamic State (IS) always stand up was rejected. What do the Taliban want? Victory all along the line?

The CIA's fear that Afghanistan could soon become a regional terrorist center again is shared by China and India. Which is also related to the threat of greater fragmentation. Ethnic groups that formed the Northern Alliance in the civil war of the 1990s are opposed to a renewed takeover of power by the Taliban. According to Ahmad Massoud, son of the Panjshir Lion, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was killed in an attack by the Taliban two days before the 11/2001 attacks, his mujahideen are ready to fight. Should this come to that, the region could be destabilized beyond Afghanistan - in addition to Corona and a drought, hunger and displacement would also be expected. This would increase the number of refugees and undermine any hope of recovery, a very real prospect.

Western politicians do not want to see, let alone discuss, what can happen in the near future. Last week, NATO announced that it would continue to train and finance Afghan security forces. A “new chapter” has now begun (whatever that means) and promises are made to “continue to stand by the side of this country”. Keeping a distance from Afghanistan in the future - that would be better.

Disasters persecute the Afghan people. The US and its partners have barely made any resilient progress, and even that meager legacy is now under threat. Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defense under Presidents Bush and Obama, put it ruthlessly: “The situation will undoubtedly get worse once the US troops are gone. We can't just turn away. ”But he's pretty much alone in Washington with this appeal.

I have now been writing about Afghanistan for more than 30 years. I have reported from the country and personally seen the poverty and suffering there. I don't have an answer on how to counter this. Is there even anyone who has it? To rush home at this moment, regardless of the consequences, it most certainly isn't.

Simon Tisdall is a columnist for Guardian