When US President Joseph Biden meets his Afghan counterpart, Ashraf Ghani, and the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, at the White House this Friday, it won’t just be about an agreement or a deadline. In many ways, it will be about the future of Afghanistan, as America gets ready to depart the country by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks.
Every now and then the Afghan government puts on a brave front, as if to mean that everything is just going according to plan and that the transition already under way is going to be just fine when the last of the American and NATO boots leave the country. Some senior administration officials in Washington believe that troops would have left by the middle of July and there is a lot of pressure on the United States not to hasten the handover of all bases and facilities until it is absolutely closer to the deadline.
In fact the Biden administration is under a lot of pressure not to give up its biggest asset a day too soon — the Bagram Air Base — for fear of it coming under pressure from anti-government forces.
As said in these columns before, the optimism of the government in Kabul is not shared by intelligence agencies as realities on the ground appear to be quite different. At the time of writing, it is said that close to 40 districts have been overrun by the Taliban, some of which have collapsed after heavy fighting. And this has been attributed to the usual lack of air cover and support of the United States. One of the top items on the agenda of Ghani is the extent to which the United States would be supporting the Afghan security forces, some of whom have already surrendered to the Taliban in the outlying areas.
To say most definitely that the Biden administration would not re-deploy its personnel or at least special forces is something that cannot be committed at this point of time. In the past, even after the formal end of the war in Iraq in 2011, the Barack Obama administration had to send back reinforcements in 2013; but Biden will have a tough time in the likely event the Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF) is taken out of the books for Iraq and eventually for Afghanistan. The 2002 and 2001 legislation have been freely used by successive presidents to deal with national security and terrorist threats literally anywhere in the world – real, imagined and flat out bogus ones. If the US is somehow forced into a difficult situation the Pentagon is under no illusions of the logistical difficulties as it will have near zero facilities to work out of Afghanistan.
In making his final determination on the September 11 deadline, Biden refused to buy the argument that it was a de facto admission of failure as it signalled a victory for the Taliban and other extremist forces in Afghanistan. “It was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking. We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives,” Biden said, reflecting on the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 and the degradation of Al Qaeda’s capabilities. “And it’s time to end the forever war.”
In being firm about the September deadline, Biden also rejected a thinking that the United States could somehow broker a lasting peace between the warring Afghan factions or somehow that American troops could be the needed leverage for that elusive peace. Biden argued that American troops should not be used as a “bargaining chip” among warring parties in third countries. “We gave that argument a decade. It has never proven effective,” he said. “I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.” Economically the estimates vary, but the United States is said to have spent some $2 trillion in direct and indirect costs over a 20-year period and about 2,450 service members have lost their lives.
The Taliban, for its part, has already come to the conclusion that the visit of Ghani and Abdullah would be “useless”. In their view the two “will talk with US officials for preservation of their power and personal interest. It won’t benefit Afghanistan”, according to a spokesman. But the fact remains that the Biden team and the visiting Afghan officials have much more to discuss than just securing strategic and military interests in the aftermath of the US/NATO withdrawal. In fact American intelligence has consistently warned that any comeback by the Taliban “would roll back much” of progress, especially in the area of women’s rights. Add to this the plight of young girls who had the good fortune of seeing the portals of education after the Taliban was shown the door in 2001.
But the Biden administration and Congress are seized of yet another urgent humanitarian issue: the future of those thousands of Afghans who worked with American forces over the years — translators, guides and others who fear being targeted in case of a Taliban return to the helm of affairs. The National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan calls getting people out at a “record” pace of “paramount” priority to the administration. “And we are doing the kind of extensive planning for potential evacuation should that become necessary. We will take all of these steps to ensure that we do right by the people who did right by us,” Sullivan said.
But the pace of relocation of Afghans who fear retribution continues to be slow as legal entry into the United States for special categories of people is a painfully slow process. Fortunately there are members of Congress who realise the seriousness of the matter. ”I want the White House’s hair on fire,” said Maine’s Independent Senator Angus King who caucuses with the Democrats. “What do I want them to do next? I want them to do everything within their power to solve this problem,” he added. And Senator Patrick Leahy saw an analogy to Vietnam in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon: “They’re going to have a target on their back.” Senator Leahy knows; he was a junior senator entering the chamber in 1975 when all hell broke loose at the American Embassy complexes when North Vietnamese troops came knocking on the doors of the city.
A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.