A US Chinook helicopter flies near the US Embassy
A US Chinook helicopter flies near the US Embassy in Kabul on Sunday Image Credit: AP

It was a Sunday to be remembered, a day when our jaws dropped and our minds went numb. It was the day when Afghanistan unravelled. The long-dominant American presence there came to an abrupt and chaotic conclusion. The country’s military, which the US had trained, equipped, built and funded (to the tune of $82 billion dollars over a twenty-year period), collapsed.

The central government vanished from sight, along with the elite who had led it. The Taliban triumphantly entered Kabul, effectively taking authority over the entire country. And the nation found itself returning, in a scenario evocative of an M.C. Escher drawing, to square one, where it had left off two decades earlier, when the militant group had been ascendant.

How could it end like this? But, yes, every end has a beginning.

In 2006, a mere five years into the war, Ronald Neuman, US Ambassador to Afghanistan, sent an intriguing diplomatic cable to the State Department addressed to “Madame Secretary”, then Condoleezza Rice, the 66th United States Secretary of State.

The cable was among several documents that celebrated reporter Craig Whitlock obtained from the government under the Freedom of information Act and now contained in his soon to be published book, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, excerpts from which were serialised in the Washington Post last week.

'You have all the clocks but we have all the time'

In his cable, the ambassador thought it noteworthy to quote a Taliban commander who, in a speech at the time, invoked an old proverb that spoke of how Afghans had been able throughout their history to challenge and finally defeat the prowess of one nation after another, one empire after another that sought to pacify them.

The strategy war namely attritional war, aimed at wearing down the enemy by inflicting sustained losses on him in personnel and morale to a point where his will to fight collapses — death, as it were, by a thousand cuts.

The Taliban commander, addressing US troops and their allies in his speech, had bragged: “You have all the clocks but we have all the time”. It’s doubtful Secretary Rice, along with President George W. Bush and his advisers in the White House, gave it much thought.

So the US soldiered on — in both senses of the word — imbued as it was with big power hubris, convinced that most assuredly it would prevail at the end of the day.

The subsequent administration, that of Barack H. Obama, not only embraced the same cocky posture but, as The Afghanistan Papers reveals — much as the Pentagon Papers revealed about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration during the Vietnam War — showered the American public with a snowdrift of lies (that’s the right word here) about how all was moving right along on all fronts, with Afghan government forces making “great progress”, while “the rebels achieved none of their objective” and. were “quickly running out of time”, dismissing the increase in suicide attacks as a sign of their “desperation”.

President Obama himself told the same public on Dec. 28, 2014: “Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion”.

End of American combat mission in Afghanistan

The American combat mission in Afghanistan was ending, not in the winter of 2014 but seven years later, in the summer of 2021, and concluding not responsibly but ignobly.

Last Wednesday, the administration ordered the dispatch of several thousand troops to the Afghan capital to help airlift American personnel safely, and above all decorously, out of the city.

Clearly no one one wanted a repeat performance — and perish the thought — of the scene captured in an iconic photo by UPI photographer Herbert Von Es, on April 29, 1975, the last day of the Vietnam War, of a line of people, on the roof of the US Embassy, desperately climbing the ladder of the last helicopter out of Saigon.

Surely, no US president in our time can live down the depiction of a similar image, showing the world the humiliating end of the longest war in the history of the United States of America.

But — the horror, the horror! — one such image, equally evocative in its stark symbolism, did surface, after all, showing several stern, self-assured Taliban fighters, on that fateful Sunday, in the presidential palace in Kabul, the equivalent of the White House in Washington, standing in what was the equivalent of the Oval Office, with their commander sitting behind the equivalent of the Resolute Desk, virtually all turbaned, except for one, who wore what appeared to be a scarf-like hoodie. The image acted as a sombre reminder of past miscalculations for Americans.

And that is the end of the beginning.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile