When the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, and senior members of the Grand Council of National Reconciliation travelled to Washington for a White House meeting with President Joseph Biden, the question of asking Americans to stay on past the September 11 timeline was not on the agenda. At best, the hope was that the Biden administration could be persuaded to stretch the troop pullout so as to give the Afghan security forces some more breathing time. President Biden sort of agreed to that by leaving some 650-odd troops to take care of diplomatic security and the like; but whether these forces are a permanent entity in that country remains to be seen.
That would very much depend on the ground situation which is now clearly not in favour of President Ghani, however much he may wish to say that American intelligence on the Taliban success is not correct. In fact, the United States and European nations have told the United Nations recently that a grim scenario is unfolding in Afghanistan with the Taliban on a capturing spree of some 40 districts. The government in Kabul has come back with the claim that security forces have re-taken eight. In the midst of all this, Human Rights Watch has released a report focused on the gross abuse of children by all warring factions, including the powers be in Kabul.
The fate of women and girl children is being loudly debated not just by human rights activists but by all well-meaning individuals if only the Taliban should roll back to power in any violent military power struggle. The track record of the Taliban between 1996 and 2001 is for all to see, especially in the name of Islamisation. On the terror front, there has been the real worry and anxiety that Afghanistan could once again become a haven for all sorts of terror outfits including the al Qaeda with forces inimical to India even seeing the new-found opportunity to smuggle some terrorists across the Line of Control.
In that meeting “between good old friends” at the White House, President Biden made it quite clear that the United States will continue to sustain the government in Kabul but the fate of that country now rested in the hands of its people. “Our troops may be leaving but our support for Afghanistan is not ending in terms of support and maintenance of helping maintain their military as well as economic and political support,” Biden said. In the past 20 years, the United States is estimated to have spent some US$ 2 trillion in direct and indirect costs in Afghanistan and the President is said to have sent Congress an outlay of US$ 3.3 billion for this year.
But there is nothing to indicate the Pentagon wanting to retain key assets like the Bagram Air Base, the thinking being that Washington will be leaning on “allies” in the area for logistical support in case the United States is drawn into a firefight. It is a well-known fact that in the past the Afghan security forces have relied on massive American firepower including debilitating airstrikes to restrain the Taliban and other extremist groups. Military strategists are of the view that if the Taliban is holding back attacking provincial capitals and Kabul, it is not because of any want of resources; rather, it is a deliberate strategy as they do not wish to see American and NATO forces stay longer on any pretext.
President Biden is no stranger to Afghanistan—for years he has been on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee including being its Chairman; as Vice-President under Barack Obama and now as the occupant in the Oval Office. He is quite aware that there have been varying degrees of pressure from lawmakers since 2011—the killing of Osama bin Laden—between those clamouring to bring home the boys and the conservative Republicans wanting to stay put.
As the current Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement after meeting President Ghani, “President Biden’s decision to withdraw US forces leaves our Afghan partners alone to confront threats that his own top advisors acknowledge are grave and growing worse. The Taliban, emboldened by our retreat, is rolling back years of progress, especially for the rights of Afghan women, on its way to taking Kabul,” adding that “increasing indications that this collapse could come soon after US withdrawal is complete are as tragic as they are avoidable.”
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who had been critical of President Donald Trump’s “very bad and ill conceived policy” is also on record sharply rebuking the pullout. “It is insane to withdraw at this time given the conditions that exist on the ground in Afghanistan. A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous… President Biden will have, in essence, canceled an insurance policy against another 9/11,” Senator Graham has said. But in more than one, President Biden was stuck with a deadline with the Taliban and other anti-Kabul elements already screaming that Washington stretched the timeline from May to September of 2021.
One of the disturbing aspects of the pullout has to do with the fate of thousands of Afghans and their families who had worked with American and NATO forces and who are bound to be targeted. The Biden administration has maintained that it is working full steam to ensure that these Afghans find a secure place in the United States, if need be in a third country prior to the full processing of their special visas. If the international community is full of apprehension on the fate of women and girl children at the hands of the Taliban, Human Rights Watch has called upon the government in Kabul to release children detained for alleged links with insurgent groups and who are subject to alleged torture by government security forces.
The real question for the Biden administration is whether there will be real peace in Afghanistan for the United States to be continuing its economic, political, and military support; and that too in a context where many lawmakers are not keen on money going down the drain. The optimism of peace and stability is not shared by many key members within the administration. In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken categorically said the Taliban’s actions are not conducive to establishing peace and that the taking the country by force were “inconsistent” with the goals of establishing peace. “We`re looking very carefully at the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and also looking very hard whether the Taliban is at all serious about peaceful resolution of the conflict,” Blinken said.
- 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.