Last Thursday, while driving in the English countryside, various authoritative voices on BBC Radio Four provided a counterpoint to the heavy traffic.
The topic was, of course, Afghanistan, and the experts speculated that the capital city, Kabul, was in danger of encirclement at some future point, “perhaps even on the anniversary of 9/11”, in view of the surging success of Taliban insurgents. That the heavily equipped and expensively trained Afghan army had folded without a fight across a belt of provincial cities suggested an endpoint would be reached in the next month or so. “But of course, Kabul is different from the rest of Afghanistan — it is hugely fortified, has limited access roads and the Taliban lacks any air power, which government forces have in spades,” offered an expert speaking from the capital city.
By Sunday morning, decamped in rural and peaceful Suffolk, the encirclement predicted for several weeks hence was now the reality on the ground in Kabul. But the experts, again, spoke of transitional arrangements, negotiated ceasefires and even a transitional government of national unity.
By the time we sat down to lunch, our host sombrely advised that Kabul had fallen, without a shot being fired, and that the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, was reportedly ready to flee his country, which he duly did hours later.
One of the lunch guests was a former minister of security in the British government and a staunch critic of the hasty withdrawal, announced by US President Joe Biden, of US and allied troops, which precipitated the collapse of Afghanistan. I shared his dismay, thinking of the horrors which awaited Afghan women and a civilian population in general with the medieval rule of fear likely to be reimposed by the Taliban.
But when I asked the guest about the alternatives, after 20 years of foreign military activity, beyond the “forever war” Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, had vowed to end, he said simply maintaining the current relatively low numbers of US and Nato troops there would likely have maintained the status quo and secured the freedoms now enjoyed by Afghans.
The very next day, newspapers published the metrics of lost blood and treasure in Afghanistan, again vindicating its 19th-century moniker as “the graveyard of empires”. The “butcher’s bill” has been immense for the West: 2,448 American servicepeople killed, 457 UK soldiers lost their lives and a whopping R1,2-trillion (about the GDP of SA) spent on building up Afghan security forces (army and police) since 2002. The lousy return on investment here approximates the wasted billions spent in SA on our own useless and corrupt intelligence services.
Of course, the losses suffered by the Afghans dwarf these dire metrics: according to statistics published this week in The Times. Since former US president George W Bush launched the ironically and grotesquely short-lived “Operation Enduring Freedom” in 2001 47,245 Afghan civilians have been killed and the fatalities for the Afghan military were even worse: 66,000 have perished in conflict over two decades, perhaps explaining their unwillingness last week to stand, fight and die any more.
Biden, who has come under a fusillade of criticism for his hasty and botched departure from the country — in truth a continuance of the withdrawal announced by Trump last year — has been further mocked by simply replaying the “assurances” he gave just weeks ago, on July 8.
Two of the most infamous quotes from that date are now being replayed endlessly here: “The Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped [personnel], as well equipped as any army in the world, and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. A Taliban takeover is not inevitable.” By Monday evening, Biden was blaming the same security forces and their hapless government for the debacle in Kabul.
Even worse for him, in terms of instant disproving through the graphic photographs of the chaotic scenes, replete with hovering helicopters over the US embassy in Kabul and Afghans dying when clinging to the undercarriage of a departing aircraft, was this Biden bon mot: “The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army. They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capacity. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”
Indeed, the instant experts by Wednesday this week were either comparing Biden to former US president Gerald Ford, who presided over the chaotic retreat from Saigon in 1975 (also authored by his predecessor), or to hapless former US president Jimmy Carter, who revealed the face of US impotence in 1979 when a very different group of Islamic militants seized the US embassy in Tehran. Soberingly, Ford and Carter served only one term each and both were held accountable by their voters for the eclipse of American prestige abroad.
Yet 2021 is hardly 1975 or 1979. The world has moved on in very profound ways. Perhaps Biden was more ruthless than weak in ordering the withdrawal when he did: now, three-quarters of American voters do not want further involvement in the “forever war”. And while earlier this year Biden announced at a Nato conference that “America is back”, in truth his first priority is back home in the swing states which determine US electoral outcomes.
But for the future of Afghanistan and the entire Asian region, it is far less clear cut. After 20 years of relative freedom, how will Afghans respond to the reimposition of Taliban rule? And will Taliban 2.0 be as murderous and incivil as its 1996 version? How will US allies, such as India, Japan and Taiwan, view their own future prospects in a tough neighbourhood now that US assurances and alignments have proved to be printed in essentially counterfeit currency?
Some foreign policy experts — if indeed expertise and intelligence gathering is worth much at all given the collapse in Kabul — suggest, à la President Cyril Ramaphosa, that Biden is playing the “long game”. The essential current and future adversary is China, not the mullahs of Kabul, they reason, and America needs to clear the decks and concentrate its resources on confronting the rising power of the Middle Kingdom (and to a far lesser extent, Russia).
But as Charles Moore noted in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, “China and Russia, so often enemies, are currently engaged in joint military exercises in remote regions of China, no doubt well pleased at a surrender they did not even need to demand”.
That’s a sobering thought as the next cold war hots up.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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