Taliban special forces stand guard at Kabul airport after the departure of US troops. Image Credit: AFP file

Manik Mehta, Special to Gulf News

Some American critics have been firing verbal missiles at President Joe Biden’s administration for its messy troop withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 31. The withdrawal caused far-reaching disruptions among the Afghan people; it also raised doubts among US allies and friends who wonder if American leadership can be relied upon in times of crisis.

The US entered Afghanistan in October 2001, under President George W. Bush, to hunt down the Al Qaida hiding in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC.

But even after eliminating Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sep. 11 attacks, in 2011 at his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the US remained in Afghanistan for 10 more years.

Over the 20 years, 2,443 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Afghans died in Afghanistan, epitomised as the “graveyard of empires”; some $2 trillion had been spent on the war on terror.

Experts such as General Stanley McChrystal, a commander of US troops in Afghanistan, maintained that no amount of US military power could stabilise Afghanistan “as long as pervasive corruption and preying upon the people continue to characterise governance”. Afghanistan’s economy today, so soon after the US and Western troop withdrawal, is already battered, facing acute shortages of food, medicine and basic necessities. This contrasts sharply with the strengthening economy which had gained steam after the US troops arrived in the country and a civilian government was installed. By 2005, the Afghan economy was almost twice as big as it had been in 2001 before the US troops arrived. The population of Kabul had quadrupled in size, and new buildings and infrastructure were being constructed. Young female and male television presenters satirised their rulers, while 1.5 million girls attended school for the first time.

But the Afghan economy also faced chronic corruption in the civilian government; large sections of the civil service and the military were not paid in time or not at all, causing resentment and demoralisation.

Critics say that US politicians did not properly “package and sell” the US involvement in Afghanistan to the American public clamouring for ending the war in Afghanistan. Instead of properly explaining to the public that the US presence had been steadily reduced or what it was protecting, politicians harped that failure in Afghanistan was not an option. Former US President Donald Trump, for example, did not explain that a hasty withdrawal would affect the US reputation and alliances, regional stability, terrorism, or the lives of ordinary Afghans.

That the Afghan forces failed to defend Kabul and other strategic places was not surprising for many American strategists, though they were surprised to see the Taliban take control of important strategic points, including Kabul, in a matter of just few days contrary to the expectation that the Ashraf Ghani government would be able to withstand the Taliban onslaught for, at least six months. After the Taliban seized complete power with minimal bloodshed. Biden said that the Afghan army “had the resources to mount a defence but lacked the will”. “We delivered justice to Bin Laden a decade ago, and we’ve stayed in Afghanistan a decade since then.”

But how could the Taliban so quickly take over Afghanistan?

Experts cite a myriad of reasons, chief of them being intelligence failures, a more powerful Taliban, corruption, money, poor knowledge of Afghan tribal culture, and lack of willpower.

The announcement by the Biden administration of full US withdrawal on Aug. 31, only accelerated the surrender process, Stephen Biddle, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, has been saying.

The withdrawal fiasco also turned attention to the US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad for peace talks with the Taliban in Doha. He was criticised by some American strategists who felt that he had negotiated a “surrender agreement” instead of a peace agreement.

Khalilzad, an Afghan American, was appointed by President Donald Trump in September 2018 to negotiate with the Taliban. Khalilzad continued under the Biden administration to hold negotiations with the Taliban. He had been part of a team that helped former President George W. Bush plan the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002 following the Sep. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Khalilzad’s critics say that the peace process was little more than a fig leaf for Trump to exit Afghanistan swiftly. However, in recent interviews, Khalilzad said that he had been asked to join the Trump administration “after the decision had been made to substantially reduce or end the military and economic burden of the Afghan engagement on the US and to free those resources for vital priorities, including domestic needs and the challenge of dealing with issues related to China”.

He criticised the Afghan government of making the “grand miscalculation” that “we were not going to leave”, and blamed the then-Afghan president Ashraf Ghani for the decline of Afghanistan’s security, saying his sudden escape sparked violence in the Afghan capital.

Though Biden’s election has reinvigorated Atlanticism — Trump’s tantrums and criticism of European leaders was alienating him from them — some voices within Nato raise doubts about future US leadership role, following the messy Afghanistan withdrawal. America’s strategic preoccupation with China could mean less US attention and resources for Europe, and an expectation that Europeans will have to increase their share of the defence burden and do more to provide for their own security.

The fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal could tarnish America’s credibility as a leader of the free world. Washington will have to recoup the confidence and respect of its allies in Europe and Asia. And it can do so by working in concert with its partners, friends and, to use a familiar-sounding term, like-minded governments.

Manik Mehta is a New York based journalist who writes extensively on foreign affairs/diplomacy, UN, US bilateral relations, global economics

Manik Mehta, Special to Gulf News