Withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan was announced during Donald Trump's tenure, provided that Taliban fulfil conditions of the agreement reached with Washington, the most important of which are the cessation of cooperation with terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and participation in negotiations with former Afghan authorities.
Negotiations in Doha began several months before the US presidential election and can be seen, in a way, as part of Trump's election campaign. During 2016 presidential campaing, one of Donald Trump's promises referred to the withdrawal from foreign, futile wars and final return of American troops home. Afghanistan, as an integral part of the traumatic american experience related to September 11, 2001, imposed itself as a proving ground where Donald Trump would demonstrate to the American public seriousness of his intention to fulfill what he promised. Withdrawing troops from Afghanistan would also mean putting an end to the twenty years of "war on terror".
The average American would not miss the symbolism of such an act, which would certainly work in favor of Trump himself, a man who ended a senseless war and enabled the return of American soldiers to the security of their own country.
Of course, nothing similar happened. As we have had the opportunity to witness, the U.S. presidential election in 2020 ended in a fiasco and there is an extremely high degree of suspicion, in the United States and beyond, that the elections were stolen. The author wrote in more detail about these events in an earlier article. Donald Trump lost, in part, through his own fault. As in case of the great technological oligopoly, censorship of large social networks, the fight against LGBT and transgender ideology, Trump was late with the start of serious preparations necessary for organized and gradual withdrawal of military forces. According to available information, the statement of the previous American president about the withdrawal from Afghanistan found a significant part of the administration unprepared, and moreover, surprised. Under Trump's original plan, the last American troops were to return to the United States in just over two months, which was simply not feasible if the withdrawal was to be carried out in accordance with military skill and logistical requirements.
Of importance is the fact that even before the official announcement of the withdrawal, certain recompositions of forces took place, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq and Syria. The agreement reached between Washington and the Taliban focused on a period of 14 months and a gradual reduction in number of troops. Of the original 13,000 U.S. soldiers, just over 8,000 were to remain in the country after the first phase of the withdrawal, as a kind of guarantor that the Kabul government would not simply be overthrown by the Taliban when the Americans finally left the country. As we see now, it would seem US troops were a key component in survival of the previous Afghan administration.
Despite the slow progress of negotiations, United States reduced the number of troops to 2,500 by January 2021, although in same period the number of foreign workers on Afghan soil was more than 18,000, mostly civilians employed in auxiliary jobs, with just over 1,500 people concerned of security affairs.
One year after signing of the agreement between the United States and Taliban, situation on the ground indicated growing presence of Taliban units and their increased activity and cohesiveness. The slowness of talks in Doha between the representatives of the Afghan factions undoubtedly benefited the Taliban themselves given that the date of complete American withdrawal was getting closer, and with it the moment when the government in Kabul would be left to face its opponents alone.
As early as April 2021, the Taliban, according to available data, controlled almost 20% of Afghanistan. In the same period, half of the country represented a zone of active conflict while the authorities in Kabul ruled over the remaining 30% of the territory. The most significant change in terms of situation on the ground occurred during June and July, when a significant number of disputed areas fell into Taliban hands, who thus gained control over almost 250 districts, or, according to Taliban sources, nearly 85% of Afghanistan's territory. It is noticeable that Taliban domination on the ground come parallel with the withdrawal of foreign troops and inability of Afghan army units to independently resist enemy attacks.
Moreover, the events on the ground gave the impression that government troops were mostly undisciplined, demoralized, led by corrupt officer cadre and without real military knowledge and technical capabilities to impose themselves as a real threat to the advancing Taliban forces. The fact that more than a thousand Afghan soldiers were forced to flee to neighboring Tajikistan after clashes with Taliban is an illustrative example of combat readiness within government troops. At the same time, the Taliban occupied several border crossings, the most important of which were those on the border with Iran and Pakistan.
In its March report, the U.S. Congressional Research Service warned that by "many measures, the Taliban are in a stronger military position now than at any point since 2001, though many once-public metrics related to the conduct of the war have been classified or are no longer produced".
In general, war in Afghanistan, for one reason or another, was marked by significant difficulties in all its phases, and was seen much earlier by a number of senior US officials as basically unwinnable. Namely, during 2019, after a three-year legal battle with the American authorities, Washington Post managed to present to the public more than 2,000 pages of various reports, interviews and testimonies which undoubtedly indicate high US military officials lied to the American public for many years regarding the development of situation in Afghanistan, presenting information completely contrary to the real state of affairs. Moreover, senior military officers, and their civilian counterparts, were even then aware of the fact that conflict with Taliban was turning into a war that could not be won.
The documentation itself was created as a product of a federal project that aimed to identify the root causes for failure in the longest American war. Citing part of Craig Whitlock's article, Politico points out that Afghanistan Papers "a confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post, reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable".
Nearly a decade earlier, WikiLeaks had published more than 90,000 documents on its website, known as the Afghan War Diary which were in fact a collection of internal US military reports on the situation in Afghanistan. The documents, covering period from January 2004 to December 2009, contained detailed information on high-profile topics such as numerous unreported cases of civilian killings by coalition forces, numerous friendly fire incidents between Afghan army units, police, international units and United States troops, Iran's and Pakistan's cooperation with the Taliban and the delivery of equipment, ammunition and weapons by these countries to the movement, Taliban attacks on civilians, instances of child exploitation for sexual purposes by members of the US mission, and other topics otherwise inaccessible to the public.
Civilian casualties caused by coalition forces at one point reached such a point that even then-pro-Western Afghan President Hamid Karzai proclaimed "Afghan lives are cheap for the United States".
Considering everything pointed out in the previous few paragraphs, the Taliban’s rapid advance is not surprising, nor is it surprising that Taliban leadership and fighters see in the U.S. retreat their own victory and Washington’s defeat.
In one of his earlier articles, author paid more attention to all the American failures during the two decades of war in Afghanistan, which relate to key areas of the position and standards of civilian population, the number of civilian casualties, establishing a quality education system while strengthening economic and industrial base that would serve for further development of Afghan society and infrastructure.
An illustrative example of America’s attitude toward local government structures can be found in the way U.S. troops left the country’s largest military airport. Namely, at the beginning of July 2021, officers of the Afghan army in Kabul were confused by lack of activity in the Bagram military base, an installation that served as a hub for all operations of American and allied troops for two decades. Two hours after last U.S. soldier left the base, the Afghan military leadership finally received confirmation from U.S. counterparts who were already at Kabul airport at that time. The first Afghan soldiers to arrive at the base found "enterprising" robbers deeply preoccupied with stealing numerous goods and equipment left by the Americans.
This behavior from one of the largest global powers, which still sees itself as the most powerful country in the world, is shameful and incomprehensible to say the least. The media scandal that was created by this event was covered not only by Russian and Chinese media organizations, but also by a significant number of the most famous Western media houses.
More drastic cases have happened before, with that important difference that majority of them remained hidden from the American and world public. The aforementioned Afghan War Diary cites details of an event known as the Shinvar Massacre that occurred in 2007 when a convoy of several U.S. military vehicles was attacked. A suicide bomber, using a civilian car, managed to collide with one of the vehicles from the column, injuring one American Marine. Reacting under influence of panic, the remaining Marines quickly fled the scene of the attack, opening fire on everyone around them, shooting girls working in the fields, old men by the roadside, drivers on the road and other bystanders. The end result of the American panic was nineteen dead and more than fifty wounded Afghan civilians. None of the U.S. Marines were convicted or found guilty for what happened during this event.
These were not isolated cases and American war in Afghanistan, as early as its first decade, degenerated into an asymmetric warfare of the Taliban against technologically superior but otherwise limited Western troops.
Intensification of the American withdrawal, which should be completed by August 31, has led to several opinions on American motivation for such a sudden abandonment of conflict where multiple US administrations invested billions of dollars and two decades of combat operations. On one hand, there are those who see the departure of American troops as undoubted defeat of the United States and final triumph of the Taliban, and do not hesitate to compare current events in Afghanistan with the American departure from Vietnam in the 1970s. Events unfolding during previous two weeks, especially helicopter evacuation scene of the United States embassy in Kabul plays directly into this perspective and make it even easier to label it as Biden’s “Saigon moment”. On the other hand, there are those who argue current US withdrawal is only part of a broader Washington ploy aimed at deliberately destabilizing Afghanistan, which would fuel further destabilization of Central Asia and harm interests of both China and Russia, countries in the immediate vicinity of Afghanistan.
Despite seeming less likely, second view must not be dismissed as unfounded, on the contrary, there is no doubt that United States would be willing to leave geopolitical chaos to Moscow and Beijing thus weakening both of its great rivals, especially now that the empire is far from what it used to be. However, if Washington had decided to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan twenty years ago, at the height of American ideological, economic and military power, when Afghan desert had not yet swallowed thousands of American lives and billions of dollars, then there we be more firmer ground to discuss possibility of deliberate creation of chaos as the primary reason for American withdrawal. Moreover, at the beginning of this century, both Russian Federation and China were in a weaker position and chaos-stricken Afghanistan could have had far more serious consequences for both countries back then in contrast to now.
However, balance of power has changed significantly from what it was. There is no doubt that Washington will try to preserve its network of agents on the ground, but we already saw activities of American administration related to the evacuation of Afghans who worked as translators for American and NATO troops. These Afghans fear Taliban precisely because of their connection to the occupation forces. According to some sources, total number of people who should be granted asylum in the United States is higher than 100.000.
Judging by this development, the United States will not be able to count on open action of American interest advocates, which are usually obfuscated under the umbrella term civil society, but will be probably limited to classic intelligence operations. Important fact that the situation within America itself has changed drastically, with a special emphasis on the last four years, should not be forgotten. In that short period of time, we had the opportunity to observe violence on the streets of American cities similar to that which can be seen in countries on the brink of civil war. American society itself is far more divided today, and one gets the impression that this rift is fatal, given the fact that values guiding two halves have almost no contact points.
Censorship from large technology companies is ubiquitous and reaches such drastic levels that private corporations do not hesitate to censor the elected president of the United States as well as all those who support him. Racism against the white population is hidden under the slogans of affirmative action and the fight for equality, while LGBT and transgender ideology are forcibly served in primary schools, libraries and kindergartens. Toxic ideological mix of feminism, minority rights, political correctness and totalitarianism has, over time, spread throughout the U.S. administration, both civilian and military, undermining its proper functioning for the sake of ideological suitability.
An illustrative example of a setback within U.S. military can be found in a report on the situation in the U.S. Navy, produced at the request of four Republican representatives in Congress, published in July 2021. Creation of this document was prompted by a series of incidents which included loss of equipment and human lives in a relatively short time. Loss of USS Bonhomme Richard due to fire, collision of the American destroyer, USS John McCain, with oil tanker when ten sailors were killed, collision of USS Fitzgerald with Philippine merchant ship Crystal when 7 American sailors died, surrender of two smaller US vessels to the Iranian Navy are just the most prominent incidents catalyzing the emergence of the new report.
Twenty-five pages of a document entitled "A Report on the Fighting Cultire of the United States Navy Surface Fleet" clearly show the reasons for the declining level of combat readiness within the US Navy. Most critical problems are the declining focus of senior naval personnel on naval combat, the dominant and paralyzing “no mistakes” career mentality, insufficient investment in training of naval officers for surface warfare, poorly organized and implemented maintenance and repair programs for surface ships, ever growing culture of micromanagement which hinders the ability of captains to act independently at key moments and negative hypersensitivity to media culture.
This problem is not limited to U.S. Navy and signs of ideological transformation can be observed within Army and Air Force officer cadre. These indicators have become so noticeable that one of the most prominent contemporary U.S. journalists, Tucker Carlson, has openly criticized and ridiculed U.S. military leaders after the Pentagon decided to change the standards on which the U.S. military has operated so far, replacing them with a set of policies recommended by the Board on Diversity and Inclusion.
Carlson did not stop at criticizing Pentagon, but in one of his earlier programs, mockingly referred to the fact that Biden publicly promoted introduction of new pilot uniforms intended for pregnant women. The fact that one journalist mocked a politician is a negligible phenomenon, something that happens on a daily basis, the production of pilot flight suits for pregnant women is something completely different and can serve as an indicator of direction in which the United States military forces are heading.
At the same time, with all the social problems we listed earlier, the United States are facing economic difficulties, byproduct of extreme quarantine measures and the fact that 40% of total amount of dollars in existence has been printed in the previous twelve months. This was one of reasons behind inflation rate which has not been seen since the great economic crisis of 2008. In May, inflation was 5% while in June it rose to 5.40%. Rising prices for basic necessities such as fuel and food can only put additional pressure on American society as it currently stands.
Meanwhile, situation in Afghanistan is clearly in Taliban favor, especially given that combat operations against government units are mostly done, that Taliban control almost entire territory of the country and that the previous regime has fled, taking with itself millions of dollars meant for the people of Afghanistan. Back when Taliban where only starting their offensive, month or so ago, the only response by Washington, European Union and their satellites was a futile call to Taliban leadership to stop the offensive and lay down its arms, which can be interpreted as a case of complete separation from unfolding reality or a comical attempt to preserve some degree of influence over events rapidly moving out of control.
Although appeals from the West did not have the desired effect and dialogue in Doha was at a standstill, diplomatic activities centered in Moscow indicated that Russian Federation had become something of a mediator between the warring parties in Afghanistan. Moreover, the Taliban delegation that arrived in the Russian capital at beginning of July made it clear to its Russian interlocutors that Taliban would not allow anyone to use territory of Afghanistan for the purpose of attack on Russia or neighboring countries.
During talks between the two sides, most important issues for Moscow were prevention of narcotics production within Afghanistan itself, fight against Islamic terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda or the Islamic State and to avert spillover of combat operations to neighboring countries, in particular Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with which Taliban delegation fully agreed, reiterating that Taliban leadership has no intention of cooperating with terrorists or becoming a possible source of threat to its neighbors.
At a conference held on July 9, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed that Russia would not take any measures unless events in Afghanistan called into question security of the Russian Federation or its Central Asian allies. This position, repeated several times, is only part of Moscow's strategy towards Afghanistan. The other part is reflected in military exercises of Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, completed at the beginning of August. At the same time, Russia is strengthening its military presence in two former Soviet republics by deploying additional forces for its base in Tajikistan and sending armored units near the Afghan border where the August military maneuvers were held.
The largest military exercise in history of Tajikistan, in which more than 100,000 regular soldiers and 130,000 activated reservists took part, was organized in response to increase in combat operations across the border. In parallel with the escalation of conflict in Afghanistan, diplomatic contacts between Russia and Uzbekistan have multiplied, while presidents of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have stressed in public that their military forces will not be used to act on the current situation in neighboring Afghanistan but exclusively for their countries defense needs.
All these activities and diplomatic moves can be translated into a simple message that should be quite clear to the Taliban leadership. From the perspective of Moscow, its Central Asian allies, and Beijing, events within Afghanistan are an internal matter of the country in question. None of these states intended to act militarily against the Taliban unless Taliban themselves launch military operations targeting neighboring countries, openly or through terrorist attacks. Although calls for a political solution to the crisis come from both East and the West, attitude of neighboring countries gave clear indication former Kabul government could count on direct military aid only from its Western allies, who even then appeared to have ever shrinking appetite for the Afghan adventure.
Taliban's diplomatic activities were not limited to negotiations in Moscow, but also included Iran, where Taliban representatives emphasized the same commitment to preserving a stable border and preventing spread of the conflict from Afghanistan to territory of Tehran. On the other hand, Taliban leadership had clearly warned Turkey against prolonging presence of its troops in the country after the Americans withdraw. At the same time, relations between Afghanistan and China are entering a new phase, both because of the changing circumstances on the ground and because of the importance that Afghanistan has for the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative mega-project. Taliban themselves recently stated at one of their press conferences that they see China as a friend of Afghanistan and called on Beijing to invest in projects within the country, while pledging not to provide refuge to people seen by Chinese authorities as Uighur extremists and to ensure safety of Chinese workers and investment.
Stable Afghanistan that can be over time integrated into various Eurasian structures and which is interested in economic projects and cooperation is in the interest of China itself. During the June meeting of trilateral dialogue of Chinese, Afghan and Pakistani foreign ministers, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed out five points whose implementation will have a positive impact on stabilization and reconciliation in Afghanistan.
Among Yi's five points are those insisting on Taliban's involvement in primary political structures, full support for Afghanistan by the international community, with special emphasis on neighboring countries, and strengthening sincere cooperation between China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. For their part, Taliban spokesmen, referring to events in Xinjiang, emphasized they are always disturbed by oppression of Muslims, but that they would not interfere in China's internal affairs.
For the time being, current developments in Afghanistan favor those states interested in stabilizing the situation and preventing the spread of conflict and extremist groups, especially now that the ISIS-K has become more active. The Taliban, who hold most of the country's territory in their hands, do not need a repetition of the past forty years. On the contrary, successful cooperation with Russia and China would only cement their authority among the local population and present them as reliable political actors to Moscow and Beijing, as well as to other Central Asian countries.
Like Serbia in the Balkans, Afghanistan has a position of a geopolitical crossroads located in the center of the Asian continent, which is at the same time, source of both benefits and problems. The very fact that Taliban leadership has decided to take significant diplomatic steps to convince surrounding countries of its good-neighborly intentions already speaks in favor of the thesis that the current Taliban movement is not identical in all respects to its predecessor of twenty years ago.
While it should not be forgotten that Moscow and Beijing have their interests in Central Asia, activities of Russia and China are far removed from those of the United States, whose only real success in Afghanistan seems to be increased production and export of narcotics, which have a known negative impact on societies across Asia, Europe and North America.
Regardless of the reasons for the American withdrawal, it is clear that Afghanistan, just like Bosnia and Herzegovina, can be presented as an example of a successful American foreign policy only in the circles of the American elite. That might have been the point after all. Given the amount of US weapons captured by the Taliban, there is no doubt that largest benefactors of US aid to Afghanistan were actually American military companies. One might even observe this as a rather simple transfer of wealth from the US taxpayers to US military-industrial complex, where Afghanistan was used as a means to achieve the transfer without drawing too much of attention. Some experts believe that only 2% of financial aid which was meant for Afghanistan actually made its way to the Afghan people, the rest being divided by the corrupt local warlords, governors, higher political officials and their western partners, both private and otherwise.
Presence of American troops and the accompanying infrastructure, both military and intelligence, presented a problem for both Moscow and Beijing for decades, especially when the deteriorating relations between these two powers and the collective West are taken into account. Departure of the Americans and their allies provides an excellent opportunity to integrate Kabul into Eurasian projects, thereby reducing the threat to the Russian Federation and China from terrorist organizations, preventing the degree of US interference and influence in Central Asia achieved by the physical presence of US troops while providing space for stabilization and infrastructural development of Afghanistan in accordance with the Eurasian interest, not the Atlantic one. The unnatural situation of the last two decades, embodied in the fact that a non-Eurasian power had partial control over Afghanistan, is coming to an end.
Although we should wait for the final departure of American troops so that the situation on the ground can be fully understood, the impression is that current situation in Afghanistan is only a reflection of the wider process of declining Western power and dominant position in the world. According to Western sources, by the end of this year, the nature of the American mission in Iraq should change, and be limited to the training of Iraqi forces and fight against the remnants of ISIL. Some analysts already see in this a first steps towards the final withdrawal of American troops from this Middle Eastern country, especially in light of the frequent calls by Shiite leaders, from Iraq itself, for such an action.
Regardless of Washington's future moves, the moment, the background and the way in which withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is taking place do not indicate victory or the behavior of a great country and premier military power. The resulting vacuum will certainly be filled by Russia and China, whose behavior has so far indicated a willingness to cooperate and take into account interests of Afghan political actors as long as those same actors have an understanding for the red lines of Moscow and Beijing. Undoubtedly, these two Eurasian powers are, at this moment, a factor of stability in Central Asia. The ultimate irony of the whole American withdrawal saga is that even previous authorities in Kabul, if they survived American departure, would owe their security more to the diplomatic efforts of China and Russia than to actions of their patrons from the West.