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Wednesday, 22 May 2024
America’s Afghan graveyard
Ian Black
Ending what he called America’s “forever wars” was a key pledge in Joe Biden’s election campaign. In less than three weeks, US and NATO forces will have left Afghanistan. “I will not send another generation to war,” the president declared last month. The Democrat in the Oval Office is clearly not happy discussing this painful topic  - and for good reason. Afghan 

It is hard to be anything but pessimistic about the country’s future two bloody decades since US and Allied forces overthrew the Taliban because of their harbouring al-Qaida in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Hundreds of American and British troops have died, as have 250,000 Afghan militiamen and civilians. Three million have been displaced internally and 2.1 million left the country, mainly for Pakistan and Iran.

But there is now a greater threat to Afghanistan’s stability since shortly after the 2001 invasion. In the last few weeks, the Taliban emerged from its southern strongholds to wrest half the country from government forces and threatened major cities from Lashkar Gah to Herat and Kunduz. Stark warnings been issued about a grim outcome. The other day a car bomb targeted the Kabul home of the Afghan minister of defence.

Biden is now the fourth president to have been commander-in-chief of US troops in Afghanistan. “We’re not going to have a ‘mission accomplished’ moment in this regard,” said the White House recently. “It’s a 20-year war that has not been won militarily.” That formulation was widely seen as a critical reference to George W Bush’s notorious “Mission Accomplished” speech in 2003 from the deck of a US aircraft carrier, in which he announced “major combat operations in Iraq have ended”. That false pronouncement has been widely ridiculed in the 18 years since it was delivered.

Biden has said he will end air support to Afghan forces and target terrorist groups from regional bases. But there are still many unanswered questions about the extent of future US involvement. What level of al-Qaida or Isis presence would trigger American retaliation? Would the Taliban be targeted on suspicion of cooperating with terrorist groups? And which bases would the US be able to use?

All these challenging issues were on the agenda over a decade ago when Barack Obama first considered withdrawing from Afghanistan, as was advocated by then Vice-President Biden. But Obama was ultimately persuaded in 2009 to conduct a troop “surge” instead – raising the level of US forces to 100,000 - and so no conclusions were reached. The president’s hope had been that by agreeing to a significant increase in troop numbers, he would be able more quickly to order their withdrawal.

By February 2020, months before Biden’s election victory over Donald Trump, the US and the Taliban had brokered a deal during talks in Qatar to end the conflict and for America to withdraw. Pointedly, that agreement did not include representatives of the US-backed Afghan government.

“Americans are rightly weary of our longest war; I am, too. But we must end the war responsibly, in a manner that ensures we both guard against threats to our homeland and never have to go back,” Biden said last September.

Defending the decision to withdraw US troops, he said this summer: “Let me ask those who wanted us to stay: how many thousands more of America’s daughters and sons are you willing to risk? How long would you have them stay?”

President George W Bush, who pushed for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and who now works to help injured military veterans, claimed Afghan women and girls will “suffer unspeakable harm”. In an interview he was asked if Biden’s move was a mistake. “You know, I think it is, yeah, because I think the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad,” he answered.

Bush may well be right. The risk is not confined to domestic issues of gender equality but a regional and perhaps a global one of the country becoming a centre for Islamist extremism and terrorism. India and China share western anxiety.

The US withdrawal has attracted growing attention as the Taliban have seized the opportunity to extend their hold. That has reinforced Afghanistan’s reputation as the “graveyard of empires” – first for the British whose troops tried and failed in the first half of the 19th century to seize it; and then for the Soviet Union, which invaded in 1979, triggering an insurgency led by mujahideen fighters and backed by the CIA. Soviet forces left a decade later, having lost at least 15,000 men and 50,000 injured. And now the Americans are facing a parallel humiliation.

It is not only politicians. Highly experienced soldiers have taken to warning of the potentially catastrophic consequences of Biden’s decision. Major-General Nick Carter, the commander-in-chief of the UK armed forces, cautioned that the Afghan situation risked again becoming a global challenge. And David Petraeus, the former US commander in Afghanistan and director of the CIA, talked of the risk of the US withdrawal leaving this benighted and beautiful country to grapple with a “bloody, brutal civil war.” The world must be hoping that these views are needlessly bleak.

by: IAN BLACK  The_Levant_News

The Levant News