The scene of thousands of people running alongside a US military jumbo jet as it taxied toward takeoff is one for the ages. In desperation, apparently unaware of the dangers, some climbed onto the jet’s fuselage and others crawled into compartments for landing gears. Even though the takeoff was aborted and flights suspended, someone still remained in the gear compartment. For when the jet eventually landed in Qatar, human remains were found there.
It all happened, of course, at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, as the US military evacuated Americans following the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, the capital city. Afghans were fleeing in droves for fear of living again under the Taliban’s draconian and brutal rule, or worse still being executed.
Some say that the unsettling scene at the air base was 20 years in the making. Others blame President Joseph Biden for precipitously withdrawing US troops and enabling the Taliban’s whirlwind advance.
What is hardly in dispute is that the US had every right to invade Afghanistan in 2001 and oust the Taliban government. It was under their watch that Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda trained for the attack that came to be known as “September 11.” That was the day in 2001 that they hijacked at least four passenger jets in Boston on a mission of horrific bloodshed. They flew two of the jets respectively into then Twin Towers in New York, incinerating them with tanks full of jet fuel.
A third jet flew into the Pentagon, the US military headquarters in Washington, DC, causing significant damage, but nothing of the magnitude of the Twin Towers. A fourth jet was headed either to the White House or the Congress before some alerted brave souls tried to fight off the hijackers, and the plane crashed in the process.
It was a horrific day for Americans and, for that matter, much of the world. It wasn’t long before the mystery of the attack began to unfold. And all evidence pointed to al Qaeda in Afghanistan. So, when then President George W. Bush swore to bring them to justice, the world stood in solidarity. And when the US military, with minimum effort, ousted the Taliban regime, there was relief, though no surprises.
As is often the case, what came next was the greater challenge. On the military front, the US had to fend off a Taliban insurgency and terrorism. In the political realm, they tried to install democratic governance and related institutions and civic values. In diplomatic parlance, that is nation-building, and it has historically proven tougher than military containment. It was doubly tough in Afghanistan, a country steeped in traditional and theocratic governance.
And there was the additional challenge of building a modern military that can hold its own against the Taliban. After all, the US didn’t go into Afghanistan to stay. The idea was to leave as soon as the political structures became reasonably stable and the military capable enough.
But despite an estimated $2.3 trillion in US expenditure, neither happened. The government remained largely dysfunctional and corrupt and the military incapable. With every indication of insufficiency, the US added more capability and intensified training.
Alas, that was scratching the surface. The real problem was in the will to fight to preserve the newly instituted democratic order. The nation-building just never reached a critical mass, and that reflected in the military. There was distrust, treachery, betrayal and abandonment. Officers decamped at critical moments or made unauthorised “peace” deals. So, militarily inferior Taliban soldiers readily overran territories that were supposedly guarded by better trained and armed national army.
The choice before Biden then was to continue to inject more money and personnel into this unending quest or to bring US involvement to an end. He chose the latter.
“I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” Biden has said. “We provided our Afghan partners with all the tools— let me emphasise: all the tools.”
Of course, the horrifying scene of Afghans desperately chasing down a departing plane makes Biden seem cruel. But the alternative is not palatable, either. And that parallels the dilemma that people often face in their personal lives.
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Not surprisingly, Biden has been lambasted by political foes and allies alike. Even former President Donald Trump, who initiated the withdrawal and set a deadline, blasted Biden for mishandling it. Ironically, there are critics who blame Trump for the outcome. They argue that when he sidelined the Afghan government and negotiated a withdrawal plan with the Taliban, he undercut and demoralised the government and the national army.
In any case, the problem wasn’t so much a matter of mishandling as it was a case of events unfolding faster than anticipated. The Afghan army’s record has long led to the conjecture that it would lose to the Taliban — eventually. What hardly anyone foresaw was the immediate and whole scale capitulation. Even the Taliban didn’t anticipate such an easy road to Kabul. “We were mentally not prepared for capturing such a big city of over six million people as it has a lot of issues to deal with,” a Taliban commander told America’s NBC News.
Taliban’s source of strength
There are quite a few reasons the Taliban remained so resilient after 20 years of warring with the US. To begin with, they are mostly ethnic Pashtuns, the majority of Afghan people, and they draw wide support from that group. Their ideology doesn’t veer too far from the values of rural communities, which constitute the bulk of the population.
In political gamesmanship, the Taliban benefitted from Afghans’ age-old reputation for resisting foreign occupation. They exploited this to destabilise the government and to recruit. It didn’t help that the US military’s counter-terrorism operations often caused collateral casualties that fueled community resentment. With every such incident, the Taliban grew stronger.
And then there was the perception that the nation-building effort was America’s attempt to remake Afghanistan in its own image? Islamists even say that it was an attempt to destroy Islam.
With the return of the Taliban to power and the unsettling scene at Bagram Air Base, the widely held view is that the US mission was a failure. However, it was anything but. To begin with, the primary mission was to decimate al Qaeda and that mission was accomplished. And though the nation-building effort did not keep the Taliban from returning, it has transformed Afghanistan far beyond what it was in 2001. It is improbable, for instance, that the Taliban will again seclude women in homes and keep girls from schools.
Today’s Taliban seem to be acknowledging that reality when they promise not to return to their old ways. “The Islamic Emirate doesn’t want women to be victims,” Enamullah Samangani, a Taliban official, told the press. “They should be in the government structure according to Shariah law.” Rather than seek retribution, the Taliban will form an inclusive government, they also say.
It would be sheer delusion to believe the promises without reserve. But it is also erroneous to believe that today’s Taliban will be as theocratic, draconian and brutal as before. It is certainly improbable that they would host the likes of al Qaeda again.
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