The story of the Mary Celeste tells of the 282-ton brigantine being discovered adrift off the Azores will no crew on board and no evidence as to what happened and where they went. The first Afghan security forces who arrived at the sprawling Bagram Airbase compound, following hot on the heels of looters who got there first, may be forgiven for wondering what happened to the American force that were previously based there.
The Bagram facility is the size of a small city, with two runways and the ability to host 100 fighter jets. Items left behind include thousands of civilian vehicles, many of them without keys to start them. Yet such is the lack of trust between the US and the Afghan security forces that an organised handover and transition of control couldn’t be organised and instead the Americans simply left. The decision to up sticks in the dead of night is a reminder of the historical anguish felt by the US withdrawal from Vietnam encapsulated by the famous ‘helicopters from Saigon’ moment. Images of chaos at the US Embassy and helicopters being pushed into the sea to make room on the USS Midway has been burned into the psyche of the American military and political leadership and they weren’t going to risk a similar narrative emerging from Bagram.
Instead, there are no images of the US departing what was their most important military facility in the longest war the country has fought in its history. Looters found little of real value left, pop tarts and bits of equipment that soon found themselves for sale in local markets. The focus quickly shifted from Bagram to Biden and the President’s 30-minute speech and press conference where he tackled the subject head on.
The President was unequivocal in his narrative. “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build,” he argued. “And it’s the right and the responsibility of Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.” Put simply, after $1 trillion spent, 2,448 Americans killed and over 20,000 wounded, Biden was not going to be the President who sent another generation of Americans to Afghanistan. This decision has the support of the public with 77% of Americans polled by CBS saying they approved of the U.S. removing its troops from Afghanistan with majority approval across the political spectrum.
An Economist article in response to the Bagram proclaimed that “America leaves Afghanistan on the brink of collapse”. Biden took this challenge head on in his words claiming that it is “not inevitable” that Afghanistan will fall to the Taliban, citing the 300,000 trained members of the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces and their ability to defend against an estimated 75,000 Taliban fighters.
Whilst the Taliban have been resurgent and now claim to control some 85% of the country, with a focus on rural areas, the notion of things going back to the status quo pre-US invasion is somewhat spurious. The Taliban of today aren’t the Taliban of yesteryear. What’s more the country has undergone twenty years without them in charge. Of the 38 million population some 2/3rds are under the age of 25 and will not remember the previous Taliban rule. With the durability of Afghanistan’s security forces under scrutiny there are reports that more traditional armed groups, the infamous ‘Afghan warlords’ are mobilising to reassert their role post the US departure.
There is much truth to the crux of what Biden said last week, that “the fate of Afghanistan is up to the Afghan people”. Yet the fact that he also alluded to it being ‘highly unlikely’ that the country will have one unified government points to a fragmented and weak state that other powers will look to take advantage of. Indeed, – Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Russia have moved to fill the military and diplomatic vacuum opening up in Afghanistan as US forces pull out.
Afghanistan is at a crossroads of its history, yet again sparked by the withdrawal of a powerful foreign force. The physical vacuum typified by the Bagram departure is the most dramatic and immediate manifestation of the US departure – complete with the 3.5 million items that were abandoned along with it – meanwhile the diplomatic, strategic vacuum will take longer to show itself. levant
by: James Denselow levant