Despite severe criticism from his political opponents, US President Joe Biden in his meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Chair of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, on June 25, 2021, has reiterated his commitment to withdraw all US forces by September 11, 2021.
Though former President Donald Trump initially made the deal for troops withdrawal, the speed at which the Taliban is capturing the Ghani government-controlled territories has instigated the Republican lawmakers to be critical.
There are enough indications that the bulk of more than 4,000 American troops will depart for home in the coming weeks, much before the September deadline.
A few hundred soldiers will be guarding the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul till a Turkey-led security set-up takes up its position in September. After the deadline, only 650 US troops will be stationed in Afghanistan to protect American diplomats.
Economic and political support
Though Biden has promised Afghan leaders ‘sustained’ economic and political support, the possibility of the present US-backed Afghan government remaining in power for long looks doubtful after the US troop withdrawal. Out of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, the Taliban now controls more than 142 districts, and the fighting is ongoing in another 170 districts. In the last two months itself, the Taliban has captured 69 districts.
In many cases, though the Taliban has captured many rural areas, it is waiting to take over the urban centers like Mazar-e-Sharif till the US troops withdrawal. Taliban already controls the critical border crossing with Tajikistan and also crucial areas surrounding even Kabul. The Afghan military, which has been created, trained, and armed by the US with billions of dollars, is retreating in some cases.
The anti-Taliban militia can’t possibly protect the Afghan government from falling at the hands of the Taliban. It can only push the country to a violent civil war again.
After President Richard Nixon decided to withdraw troops in 1973, it took only 18 months for the South Vietnamese government to fall, and Saigon came under the control of the communists. As it looks now, after the US troops’ withdrawal, the Ghani government may not be able to hold on to power even for 18 weeks.
Biden’s remarks before meeting Ghani that the Afghans are going to decide Afghanistan’s future is a clear indication of the US realisation of the Taliban taking control of the country as a fait accompli. The US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to oust the Taliban. In the last 20 years, besides spending over $2.3 trillion, the war against the Taliban has killed 2,400 US troops, 3,800 US private security contractors, and 66,000 US-backed Afghan soldiers.
Human and economic costs
While everyone is calculating the human and economic costs for the US, it is also important to remember that more than 241,000 civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been killed in this two-decades-old war.
More than 2.5 million Afghans have been displaced. Biden is doing the right thing by withdrawing the US troops and not prolonging the misery of this unwinnable war.
It is not the time for the international community to analyse what has gone wrong, but to ensure that Afghanistan does not go back to what it used to be in the 1990s, becoming a ‘pariah’ state and a haven for religious fundamentalist forces.
It would be fruitless to expect the democratisation of institutions, respect for fundamental human rights, or gender equality under Taliban rule.
However, that should not stop the international community from engaging with the Taliban; as the past experiences suggest, it is the only path available to moderate the position of the archaic outfit.
It is doubtful that the Taliban will have complete control of Afghanistan if it captures Kabul after the departure of US troops. Despite using brutal military means, bribery, and politicking, the Taliban had not been able to suppress the resistance by other non-Pashtun ethnic groups before the American forces ousted it in 2001.
It is, however, essential in a post-troop withdrawal situation to enforce an arms embargo, and all countries should stop supplying arms to all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan.
The change of regime in Afghanistan, though, opens up possibilities for China in enlarging its areas of economic and security influences in the region; it is at the same time worried over possible spillover of religious fundamentalism. The same anxiety has even pushed India to start talking to the political leadership of the Taliban.
It is thus crucial for the countries of the region for their peace and security to ensure that Afghanistan does not revert to the 1990s. Even if the Taliban takes it over after the departure of the US troops, countries like China, India, Iran, and most importantly, Pakistan must prepare for the future while introspecting the past.
Not the time to gloat over the failure of the US mission, but all these countries, for their common security, must remember what Hillary Clinton had famously said: “snakes in your backyard won’t bite only neighbours” and to not to let Afghanistan become dangerous again.