July 13, 2021
On July 8, 2021, President Biden delivered remarks on the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan and took some questions. With the words “Afghanistan” and “failure” now glued to one another, and reports from Kabul reflecting nothing but doom and gloom, his was a tough task. Contradictions were unavoidable.
This is how the President responded to the question, “Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?” and a few other follow-up questions:
“No, it is not… Because you — the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable… Do I trust the Taliban? No. But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war.
“The Taliban is not the south — the North Vietnamese army. They’re not — they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”
But he also said:
“The status quo was not an option. Staying would have meant U.S. troops taking casualties; American men and women back in the middle of a civil war. And we would have run the risk of having to send more troops back into Afghanistan to defend our remaining troops.”
On Afghanistan’s future, Mr. Biden said:
“It’s up to the people of Afghanistan to decide on what government they want, not us to impose the government on them. No country has ever been able to do that.
“Keep in mind, as a student of history, as I’m sure you are, never has Afghanistan been a united country, not in all of its history. Not in all of its history.”
“It’s up to Afghans to make the decision about the future of their country.”
On international cooperation in Afghanistan, he said:
“To be clear: Countries in the region have an essential role to play in supporting a peaceful settlement. We’ll work with them, and they should help step up their efforts as well.”
One cannot but agree that it is once again up Afghans to determine their country’s future. Unfortunately, the past four decades of war does not inspire optimism. The principal challenge, as before, remains Afghans forging a united front to fight tribalism, warlordism and corruption and to achieve better governance. So, regional, and international support would remain essential. But if such support were to be conditioned on the narrow interests of external powers, Afghanistan’s turmoil will continue.
In the short-term, international attention will focus on whether the Taliban would appear likely to spread its ideology beyond its borders and whether the presence of al-Qaeda and its likes on Afghan soil would pose a clear and present danger threat to the world. If it does, the punishment would be more than harsh. Such challenges would require common understanding and more than “transactional cooperation” between regional and major powers. Would the current state of relations between the US, Russia and China allow that is another question. There is no doubt that Moscow and Peking regret US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On Kabul’s “Hamid Karzai International Airport” Mr. Biden said:
“I intend to maintain our diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, and we are coordinating closely with our international partners in order to continue to secure the international airport.”
But if there is going to be no circumstance where one would see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy like in Saigon on April 30, 1975, and if Afghanistan has a well-trained and well-equipped army, why then insist on a special defensive arrangement for the Kabul airport?
Obviously, the Turkish government has volunteered to maintain troops in Kabul to provide for the security of the airport in exchange for greater American understanding on the long list of Turkish-American differences. The government must also be trying, through back channels, to get the Taliban’s agreement to such an arrangement. Putting Turkish troops in harm’s way beyond the “withdrawal” is wrong and would yield no fringe benefits.
As to the future of Afghans, like interpreters, who had worked for the US forces, President Biden said:
“We’ve already dramatically accelerated the procedure time for Special Immigrant Visas to bring them to the United States.
“The operation has identified U.S. facilities outside of the continental United States, as well as in third countries, to host our Afghan allies, if they so choose…”
According to international news reports, thousands are already fleeing the Taliban onslaught to neighboring countries.For now, their priority is to save their lives, but soon they will find ways to emigrate to destinations with a promise of better life. And the favorite route will once again go through Iran and Turkey. The prospect of new waves of migrants is worrying European governments. With millions of Syrian refugees already in the country, does the Turkish government worry about another million coming over from Afghanistan? No one knows.
During his remarks last week, President Biden said that after 20 years —a trillion dollars spent training and equipping hundreds of thousands of Afghanistan’s National Security and Defense Forces, 2,448 Americans killed, 20,722 more wounded, and untold thousands coming home with unseen trauma to their mental health — he will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome. He did not mention Afghans’ loss of lives.
But it is the Afghans themselves who have borne the brunt of the casualties, with over 60,000 members of the security forces killed and nearly twice that many civilians, as Frank Gardner of the BBC reported last April.[i]
Allies are leaving Afghanistan, but whether Afghanistan has a way out remains the big question.