US soldiers Afghanistan
US soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: As the US rushed to complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan on Monday to end its longest war, there was fear and anticipation on the streets of Kabul.

When Operation Enduring Freedom began on Oct. 7, 2001, as part of President George W. Bush’s wider war against terrorism after the 9/11 attacks, little did the US anticipate that the last few days of its 20-year term in Afghanistan would be a mix of uncertainty, rocket attacks, drone strikes and suicide bombings.

US anti-missile defences intercepted as many as five rockets that were fired at Kabul’s airport early on Monday, a US official said.

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A baby is handed over to the American army over the perimeter wall of the airport for it to be evacuated, in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 19, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

Outside the airport in Kabul, people described themselves as foresaken by the departing foreign troops.

"We are in danger," said one woman. "They must show us a way to be saved. We must leave Afghanistan or they must provide a safe place for us."

Having evacuated about 114,400 people, including foreign nationals and Afghans deemed “at risk”, in an effort that began a day before Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, US and allied forces are set to complete their own withdrawal by a Tuesday deadline agreed with the militants.

Leaving Afghanistan: Faces of those who have fled

The number of US troops at the airport had fallen below 4,000 over the weekend, as departures became more urgent after a Daesh suicide bomb attack outside the gates on Thursday killed scores of Afghans and 13 US troops.

Afghan media said Monday’s rocket attack was launched from the back of a vehicle.

In a statement, the White House said President Joe Biden reconfirmed his order for commanders to do “whatever is necessary to protect our forces on the ground” after he was briefed on the attack. Biden was informed that airport operations continued uninterrupted, it added.

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Taliban forces block the roads around the airport, while a woman in burqa walks by, in Kabul, Afghanistan. August 27, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

On Sunday, a US drone strike killed a suicide car bomber who Pentagon officials said had been preparing to attack the airport on behalf of ISIS-K, a local affiliate of Daesh that is an enemy of both the West and the Taliban.

How did we get here and why did the US spend more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan. Here's a quick look at the events over the past two decades.

What is happening in Afghanistan?

The Taliban, a militant group that ran the country in the late 1990s, have again taken control. The US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 ousted the insurgents from power, but they never left. After they blitzed across the country in recent days, the Western-backed government that has run the country for 20 years collapsed. Over the past few days there has been a scramble for foreign troops and citizens to leave the country before the August 31 deadline.

Why did the Afghan security forces collapse?

The short answer? Corruption.

The US and its NATO allies spent billions of dollars over two decades to train and equip Afghan security forces. But the Western-backed government was rife with corruption. Commanders exaggerated the number of soldiers to siphon off resources, and troops in the field often lacked ammunition, supplies or even food.

Their morale further eroded when it became clear the US was on its way out. As the Taliban rapidly advanced in recent days entire units surrendered after brief battles, and Kabul and some nearby provinces fell without a fight.

Pictures: Daesh suicide bombers kill scores at Kabul airport

Copy of 2021-08-26T194455Z_273346241_RC27DP9OQG00_RTRMADP_3_AFGHANISTAN-CONFLICT-1630040348559
A screen grab shows people carrying an injured person to a hospital after an attack at Kabul airport, Afghanistan August 26, 2021.

While the future of Afghanistan seems uncertain, one thing is becoming exceedingly clear: the United States’ 20-year endeavour to rebuild Afghanistan’s military into a robust and independent fighting force has failed.

Potatoes as ration

It began with individual outposts in rural areas where starving and ammunition-depleted soldiers and police units were surrounded by Taliban fighters and promised safe passage if they surrendered and left behind their equipment, slowly giving the insurgents more and more control of roads, then entire districts. As positions collapsed, the complaint was almost always the same: There was no air support or they had run out of supplies and food.

On one front line in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the Afghan security forces’ seeming inability to fend off the Taliban’s devastating offensive came down to potatoes.

After weeks of fighting, one cardboard box full of slimy potatoes was supposed to pass as a police unit’s daily rations. They hadn’t received anything other than spuds in various forms in several days, and their hunger and fatigue were wearing them down.

Afghanistan graphic numbers
Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/ Gulf News

What happened to the anti-Taliban warlords and their militias?

With Afghan forces unable to hold off the Taliban advances, many of Afghanistan’s famed - and notorious - warlords rallied their militias and promised a black eye to the Taliban if they attacked their cities.

But with confidence plunging in the ability of Afghanistan’s government to survive, the writing was also on the wall for the warlords.

Their cities fell without a fight. Warlord Ismail Khan in the western city of Herat was captured by the Taliban as it fell.

Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor in the north fled to Uzbekistan, as their militia members abandoned humvees, weapons and even their uniforms on the road out of Mazar-i-Sharif.

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This file photo taken on November 12, 2001 shows a civilian running away from a BM21 Northern Alliance multiple rocket launching system, not far from the town of Bagram, some 25 kilometers north of Kabul, as they shell Taliban positions. Image Credit: AFP

How did the number of estimated Americans shrink in a week?

On Aug. 17, State Department officials told Congress it was as many as 15,000. Then, 8 days later, the number dwindled to 6,000, as of Aug. 14. The vast difference has led to questions and conspiracy theories. A senior State Department official said the first number - 15,000 - was a “very, very rough estimate” largely based on the number of people who had registered with the State Department as being in Afghanistan. There is no requirement for Americans to register overseas when they travel - few people do - but odds are higher in a war-torn country like Afghanistan. So that was the starting point for figuring out how many Americans were in the country.

Hundreds of State Department officials were then enlisted to track down people on the list. Many had left. Some, such as people associated with nongovernmental organizations, had never been in the country but had signed up to receive consular notices. Others were not actually US citizens. So those people were removed from the list.

What about the second number of 6,000?

That was the figure for Americans in Afghanistan who wished to leave on the urgent airlift out of Kabul’s airport. A number of Americans, principally dual citizens, decided to stay. Others could not make up their mind, first saying they would stay and then deciding to leave. Once a person signaled they wanted to leave, they were added to the list.

As of Sunday morning, the State Department said, about 5,500 US citizens had left the country since Aug. 14, including 50 on Saturday. About 250 Americans were known to still be seeking to leave the country. Meanwhile, there were also “280 individuals who have self-identified as Americans in Afghanistan but who remain undecided about whether to leave the country or who have told us they do not intend to depart.”

That adds up to about 6,000 total.

What lies ahead for Afghanistan?

As evacuations from Kabul wind down, “a larger crisis is just beginning” in Afghanistan for its 39 million people, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said on Monday, appealing for support.

Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, whose agency said last Friday that up to 500,000 Afghans could flee by year-end, reiterated a call for borders to remain open and for more countries to share “this humanitarian responsibility” with Iran and Pakistan which already host 2.2 million Afghans.

What happened to the refugees?

A sweeping international effort has been on to evacuate thousands of vulnerable Afghans and foreign nationals from Kabul’s airport. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans are still thought to be trying to flee the country. The US reported that it had evacuated 117,000 people since August 14.

Photos: Evacuees make desperate escape from Afghanistan

In total, the 29 countries taking part in the airlift rescued 189,479 by Sunday, August 29.

Graphic Afghanistan airlift refugees
Image Credit: Graphic News

What was the earlier Taliban rule like?

During its five years in power, from 1996-2001, the Taliban enforced strict laws. Women were predominantly barred from working or studying and were confined to their homes unless accompanied by a male guardian. Public executions and floggings were common, Western films and books were banned, and cultural artefacts seen as blasphemous were destroyed.

Opponents and Western countries accuse the Taliban of wanting to return to this style of governance in the areas it already controls — a claim the group denies.

This time the Taliban has said it will be accountable for its actions and will investigate reports of reprisals and atrocities carried out by members. An official said the group planned to ready a new model for governing Afghanistan.

Will the Taliban allow people to leave after August 31?

The Taliban has assured 100 countries that it will continue to allow foreigners and Afghans with foreign travel papers to leave the country “in a safe and orderly manner,” even after the US troop withdrawal ends Tuesday, the countries said in a statement Sunday.

The 100-nation group includes the United States, Britain, France and Germany.

“We have received assurances from the Taliban that all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorisation from our countries will be allowed to proceed in a safe and orderly manner to points of departure and travel outside the country,” the statement said.

“We are all committed to ensuring that our citizens, nationals and residents, employees, Afghans who have worked with us and those who are at risk can continue to travel freely to destinations outside Afghanistan,” added the statement, which was also signed by the European Union and NATO.

How much money did the US spend in Afghanistan?

The rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s has raised questions about what happened to more than $2 trillion the US spent trying to bring peace and stability to a country wracked by decades of war.

While most of that money went to the US military, billions of dollars got wasted along the way, in some cases aggravating efforts to build ties with the Afghan people Americans meant to be helping.

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Image Credit: Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News | Graphic News

A special watchdog set up by Congress spent the past 13 years documenting the successes and failures of America’s efforts in Afghanistan. While wars are always wasteful, the misspent American funds stand out because the U.S. had 20 years to shift course.

The US watchdog - the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or Sigar - identified 10 projects as wasted effort:

$549 million planes sold as scrap: An effort to build up an Afghan air force included spending at least $549 million for 20 refurbished Italian-made G222 twin-turboprop aircraft. But 16 of the planes were left languishing in the weeds of Kabul’s international airport after persistent maintenance issues made them unflyable.

They were eventually sold as scrap for 6 cents a pound, or $32,000.

Road to nowhere: The US Agency for International Development spent $176 million to build a 101-kilometre road between Gardez city and Khost Province. Less than a month after it was finished, Sigar inspectors found that five segments were destroyed and portions of two other segments had washed away, according to an October 2016 audit.

Woodland camouflage: The US spent as much as $28 million buying uniforms for the Afghan military with camouflage patterns that didn’t match the environment. But Pentagon officials said the design was chosen because Afghanistan’s minister of defence at the time thought it looked good.

“He liked the woodland, urban, and temperate patterns,” according to a June 2017 assessment.

US aircraft carrier Afghanistan
This file photo taken on October 7, 2001 shows two US F-18 fighters preparing to take off from the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier at an undisclosed location in the Indian Ocean as retaliatory strikes against Afghanistan began with US and British forces bombing terrorist camps, air bases and air defence installations in the first stage of its campaign against the Taliban. Image Credit: AFP

“Melting buildings”: The US spent $500,000 with an Afghan contractor in May 2012 to construct a training range for the Afghan Special Police Training Center in Logar Province. It was designed to replicate a typical Afghan village and be used for conducting simulated search and clearance exercises.

But inspectors found that water had begun penetrating the walls within four months of the US taking control of the training range. Bricks used in the construction had too much sand, and too little clay, and began to erode. A January 2015 audit referred to the structures as “melting buildings.”

War on drugs: Afghanistan has long been the world’s top producer of opium poppies. Besides its human toll, the Afghan drug trade was seen as undermining reconstruction and security goals by financing insurgent groups, fueling government corruption and eroding state legitimacy.

Over a 15-year period, the US spent about $8.6 billion on Afghan counternarcotics efforts. Still, by 2017, poppy cultivation and opium production reached record highs and “drug production and trafficking remain entrenched,” Sigar wrote.

Power transmission failure: Inspectors found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mismanaged a $116 million contract with an Afghan company to build a power station to provide electricity to more than one million Afghans.

In Pictures: The women and girls of Afghanistan

Empty headquarters: The U.S. military spent $36 million on a 5,950 square metre command-and-control facility at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province that had a war room, a briefing theater and enough office space for 1,500 people.

“It appears to be the best constructed building I have seen in my travels in Afghanistan,” a Sigar inspector wrote in July 2013. “Unfortunately, it is unused, unoccupied, and presumably will never be used for its intended purpose.”

Hotel shell: Sigar found “serious deficiencies in the management and oversight” of $85 million in loans made by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation for the construction of a 209-room hotel and adjacent 150-room Kabul Grand Residences apartment building, directly across from the US Embassy in Kabul.

A November 2016 review found both the hotel and the apartment building were incomplete, abandoned empty shells, and both loans were in default.

Unused military camp: The Pentagon spent $3.7 million to construct a camp near the Turkmenistan border for the Afghan National Army. Despite being partially ready for use at the time of the Sigar assessment in 2013, it remained unused with “all essential areas - such as the administration building, latrines, and firing ranges - empty.”

A Pentagon official told investigators the camp was not used because it lacked a dining facility.

Afghanistan’s military? The US spent about $83 billion over nearly 20 years trying to stand up a force that could fight the Taliban and guarantee Afghanistan’s stability. But the Taliban rebuilt strength and the Afghan military collapsed in weeks as the U.S. pulled out. Even U.S. military leaders seemed stunned by the militants’ advance.

The US shipped out hundreds of tons of equipment, but as they closed in on Kabul, Taliban fighters seized American-provided planes, helicopters, weapons and ammunition meant for the Afghan military.

Who's who in the Taliban leadership

In the days since taking power in Afghanistan, a wide range of Taliban figures have entered Kabul - hardened commandos, armed madrassa students and greying leaders back from years of exile.

There has been one major exception - the group's supreme leader.

But Hibatullah Akhundzada may finally make a public appearance - and soon - the Taliban said Sunday.

"He is present in Kandahar," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.

Akhundzada - the so-called commander of the faithful - has shepherded the Taliban as its chief since 2016 when snatched from relative obscurity to oversee a movement in crisis.

Taliban Leadership
Image Credit: Gulf News / Seyyed dela Llata / Reuters

After taking the insurgency's reins, the cleric was tasked with the mammoth challenge of unifying a jihadist movement that briefly fractured during a bitter power struggle.

The infighting came as the group was hit with successive blows - the assassination of Akhundzada's predecessor and the revelation that its leaders had hidden the death of Taliban founder Mullah Omar.

Little is still known about Akhundzada's day-to-day role, with his public profile largely limited to the release of annual messages during Islamic holidays.

The Taliban have released just one photograph of the leader.

What are the Afghans saying?

Wazhma left everything behind to escape Taliban rule after the extremist group took control of Afghanistan, aspiring for a life “free of threats” in the United States.

“My husband worked for the US embassy. They (Taliban) would have killed us if we stayed,” brown-haired Wazhma said in English, just hours before she was due to board a US-bound flight.

“I only took the clothes on me. Nothing more.”

I’m happy I left. The only thing I am worried about now is my mother, father, sister and brother

- Wazhma, a young Afghan, who left everything behind to escape Taliban rule.

The young Afghan was among tens of thousands of evacuees who fled the capital Kabul after the Taliban swept in and deployed on the streets in mid-August.

Wazhma, her husband, brother-in-law and baby nephew spent “the longest three days” of their lives on the road, moving in secret until they reached the gates of Kabul airport where US personnel were waiting for them.

“The situation was very bad. Thank God, we are safe,” she said, holding her baby nephew tightly in her arms.

When asked whether she will ever go back, she laughingly said: “Never, only if the Taliban go away.”

“I’m happy I left. The only thing I am worried about now is my mother, father, sister and brother,” Wazhma said.

In hiding

Afghan evacuee Naim, a father of five who worked as a translator for the US army, immediately went into hiding when the Taliban seized the capital on August 15.

He and his family managed to escape to the airport, where they spent three nights until a US aircraft flew them out.

“We were afraid that they would kill us,” the 34-year-old said as he sat next to his wife, three daughters and two sons.

“I took my kids’ clothes only and our IDs. We lost everything, the carpets, the couches, the baby clothes. All gone,” he said.

“I just want my kids to have a good life.”

- with inputs from AP, AFP, Reuters and NYT