When an aging U.S. president, refusing to consider the conditions on the ground, overrules his military generals and intelligence agencies and orders a precipitous and ill-planned action, it is a sure recipe for a foreign policy disaster.
The blame for the international humiliation wrought on the United States by the terrorist capture of Afghanistan must be laid squarely at the door of President Joe Biden.
There was no strategic or domestic imperative for Biden to order a hasty, total pullout of the U.S. force in Afghanistan that had been drastically cut to just 2,500 soldiers by the time his predecessor, Donald Trump, left office. Yet Biden, the oldest American to assume the presidency, rebuffed his top military commanders’ advice in April and ordered all American troops to return home.
One myth is that the U.S. was tired of the Afghanistan War. In truth, Gallup polling over the past 20 years repeatedly found Americans to be more supportive than opposed to that military entanglement.
The sustained support to the longest war in American history was in stark contrast to previous U.S. wars, including in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, during which the majority public opinion at some point turned unfavorable.
It was only after Biden effectively ended the Afghanistan War on July 1 (when the U.S. military secretly pulled out at night from the sprawling Bagram Airbase, which had long served as the staging ground for operations in the country) that an American partisan divide over the war became distinct. In a July 6-21 Gallup poll, 47% Americans (the vast majority of them Democrats) said the war was a mistake, while 46% said it wasn’t.
If there was any imperative for a rushed withdrawal, it was Biden’s woolly-headedness to honor a one-sided U.S. deal with the Taliban that Trump had bequeathed. The Taliban, Pakistan’s long-standing proxies whose brutal attacks over the years made them the world’s deadliest terrorists, had been openly violating the deal, so Biden’s sticking to it made little sense.
The small U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan that Biden inherited could have been easily sustained with relatively modest cost and little risk to American lives. After the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan ended at the end of 2014, American financial costs and casualties dramatically dropped. Since then, Afghan security forces, not American or NATO troops, were on the front lines. Over the past more than seven and a half years, Afghan security forces lost tens of thousands of men while the Americans suffered just 99 fatalities, many in nonhostile incidents.
If Biden did not want to retain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, he could have left a smaller residual force to provide critical air support and reassurance to Afghan forces. That would have averted the disaster that has now unfolded. But Biden, seeking to imprudently safeguard a blighted deal, ruled that option out.
Make no mistake, the Taliban’s rapid sweep of Afghanistan would not have been possible without unwitting help from the U.S., which lent respectability and legitimacy to that terrorist militia by striking a Faustian bargain while systematically undermining the elected Afghan government. The U.S. forced Afghan authorities to release more than 5,000 jailed Taliban fighters (a number equivalent to the size of two U.S. Army brigades or regiments). The freed terrorists helped spearhead the latest onslaughts.
In effect, the U.S. threw its ally — the Afghan government — under the bus and got into bed with the Taliban. It was similar to the way the U.S. earlier abandoned its Kurdish allies in Syria.
The collapse of the Afghan defenses was directly linked to the U.S. betrayal, with Biden’s action tantamount to pulling the rug from under the Afghan military’s feet.
Biden’s troop withdrawal had a cascading effect: It triggered the pullout of 8,500 NATO coalition troops and some 18,000 U.S. military contractors. The contractors were playing an indispensable role in keeping the Afghan Air Force and U.S.-supplied weapon systems operational.
The U.S. trained and equipped the Afghan forces not to play an independent role but to remain dependent on American and NATO support for combat operations. The Afghan military relied on the U.S. and coalition capabilities to bring in quick reaction forces, deliver emergency logistics such as air medevac and provide intelligence and close air support, including flying drones over active battlefields to provide situational awareness.
The rapid withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces, including of liaison teams that worked with the Afghans to provide such combat support, left the Afghan military high and dry. And the exit of all contractors mortally degraded the operational readiness of the Afghan Air Force, which was highly reliant on them for day-to-day maintenance, spare parts and logistics.
The Afghan soldiers, as former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus said, had been bravely “fighting and dying for their country” until the U.S. suddenly ditched them, delivering a heavy psychological blow that ruinously weighed down Afghan defenses. The U.S. must “acknowledge that we withdrew overly hastily and essentially set up the Afghans for failure, recognizing that … if we no longer enabled them with combat controllers, close air support, emergency resupply, they weren’t going to be able to hold off a simultaneous offensive by the Taliban in all the different locations they’ve attacked,” according to Petraeus, who led U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan a decade ago.
Let us be clear, the biggest loser from the Taliban’s recapture of power is America in terms of international credibility and standing. The recapture vividly affirms the defeat of the world’s most powerful military at the hands of a terrorist militia. Two decades of American war in Afghanistan have culminated with the enemy riding triumphantly back to power.
The geopolitical implications of the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan, in fact, are much more significant globally than the American defeat in Vietnam.
The Taliban’s success will energize and embolden other terrorist groups in the global jihadist movement. The reconstituted extremist emirate in Afghanistan, while providing sanctuary to al-Qaida, the Islamic State and Pakistan-reared terrorist groups, will deliver the rebirth of global terror.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
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