At 3:00 AM local time on the 2nd of July 2021, the last US soldiers at Bagram air base turned out the lights, and left. The airfield, which once hosted 40,000 personnel, was left dark, desolate and empty.
The Afghans had been given no notice of their former ally’s departure. It was hours before General Kohistani – the new base commander – realised the Americans had gone. The effect of the unannounced exit on Kohistani’s troops was immediate. One National Army soldier told the Associated Press that “In one night, they lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers”.
To abandon one of the largest military facilities in the country without informing the Afghans is not the act of a conscientious ally. Nor is it the behaviour of a friendly superpower determined to support the government it helped to build.
It is further evidence that the Biden administration’s only priority in Afghanistan was to just leave. To get out, cut ties and run, whatever the consequences. Worst of all, Bagram was only the latest sorry episode in an American betrayal which had begun months before.
Far too little has been made of the appalling so-called ‘peace deal’ signed by the Taliban and the United States in February 2020. In it, the US committed to a complete withdrawal, and – astonishingly – the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners. In return, the Taliban were supposed to disentangle themselves from Al-Qaeda, and reduce their campaign of violence. They never intended to do either.
Most sickening of all, this deal – coordinated and promoted by the Trump administration – was negotiated without the elected Afghan government present. The very people the Americans had fought to put in power were not allowed to participate.
General H.R. McMaster, who served as Trump’s national security advisor before leaving over irreconcilable differences with the President, summarised the deal thus:
“We have sided with the Taliban against the Afghan government (…) we have put the Afghan government in an impossible situation (…) it’s disastrous.”
Once the deal was signed, the frequency and ferocity of Taliban violence rose to new heights. They knew that with the US committed to withdrawal, they could press home their offensive against the Afghan without fear of meaningful American retaliation.
But that didn’t mean Afghanistan’s fate was sealed. Biden could have ripped up the Trump surrender deal and reaffirmed his commitment to preventing a Taliban takeover. Instead, he chose to fecklessly trail in Donald’s wake, and honour the agreement’s only real purpose: to provide a pretext for withdrawal.
Given he won the 2020 election on a platform of ‘not being Trump’, any alignment with his predecessor is notable. The depressing truth is that abandoning Afghanistan is a rare area of bipartisan agreement. Isolationism now reigns supreme in American foreign policy thinking.
But merely abandoning the Afghans wasn’t a sufficient betrayal. In a craven attempt to deflect blame from themselves, Biden and his team have sought to insult them at the same time. On the 16th of August, Biden said the following:
“American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”
On the same day, Biden’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan echoed those comments:
“We could not give them the will, and they ultimately decided that they would not fight for Kabul and they would not fight for the country.”
In June 2021, 703 members of the Afghan security forces were killed in battle with the Taliban. An average of 23 fatalities a day; a casualty rate many factors larger than any experienced by the US during its intervention.
So many Afghans did fight. So many died. Almost 70,000 in all. For Biden and Sullivan to claim they lacked will is shameful. It’s disgusting. Especially given that Biden belongs to that minority of American presidents who have never served in uniform.
And to talk of will when it was the United States which fled. That is surely a new Everest of cynicism.
Thousands of Afghan soldiers were desperate to help fend off the Taliban. It was the American withdrawal which robbed them of the means and morale to continue. The testimony of General Sami Sadat – an Afghan commander who led his 15,000 men in unrelenting combat in the months leading up to August – helps to explain just how crippling the US departure was. The loss of 17,000 maintenance contractors inhibited the repair of helicopters essential for resupplying isolated outposts. Sadat tells of having US jets overflying enemy positions, whose pilots were powerless to attack because their new rules of engagement prohibited it. The effect on Afghan morale was catastrophic.
It is astonishing just how long and how ferociously many Afghans did fight. In full knowledge of the odds, and of the likelihood that their families could be punished by a vengeful Taliban, many gave all for the dream that their country would be free of extremism.
The US veteran and author Elliot Ackerman put it like this:
“To accuse our Afghan allies of not fighting hard enough, then to use their alleged incompetence as a smokescreen for our own, is the height of arrogance, and dishonour. To abandon an ally is bad enough. To insult an ally from the East Room of the White House as Biden did in his speech creates a lasting moral injury (…) We should not forget who was the first to leave the battlefield: It was us. Tell the Afghan soldiers who fought until they ran out of ammunition and were then slaughtered by the Taliban in Faryab province [grim footage available] that they didn’t fight hard enough, or perhaps tell the same to the Afghan commandos who fought all summer in desperate battles in Lashkar Gah.”
There is also an international dimension to this betrayal. Given that the coalition chose to stop supporting the Afghan government, how should other allies regard the resolve of the west? Countries like Estonia, Ukraine and Taiwan must exist alongside hostile neighbours every day. Their sovereignty is dependent on the guarantee of full throated support from their fellow democracies.
Just imagine the confidence China and Russia will draw from the resurgence of American isolationism. Ackerman has highlighted how ‘a nation exhausted by war has a difficult time presenting a credible deterrent threat to adversaries’. There is a genuine risk that the betrayal of Afghanistan heralds a whole new era of American withdrawal, in which the US cannot be relied upon to fulfil its protective obligations to vulnerable allies. This was how Rory Stewart summed things up:
“Everybody’s in trouble with the US right now. Biden has basically shown that he doesn’t really care about alliances and relationships. He is signalling an isolationist policy.”
What was most alarming about the US withdrawal was Trump and Biden’s insistence that ‘forever wars’ were not worth fighting. There is a terrible complacency in this approach. For as Charles Moore has eloquently written in The Spectator:
“The defence of American interests – and of western interests more generally – is a forever war”
The world’s pro-democratic forces are under their greatest pressure since the end of the cold war. So far this year, Myanmar and Afghanistan have fallen to dictatorships. One military, the other theocratic. In both cases, international coalitions and supranational bodies like the UN have proved utterly impotent; hamstrung by bureaucracy, apathy and malign Russo-Chinese influence.
There are echoes of the League of Nations here. Last Wednesday – the first of September – was the 82nd anniversary of the German invasion of Poland. It signalled the opening of the European theatre of World War Two, a conflict which would claim over 40 million lives. That war began after a long period of American isolationism, brought on by the US army’s harrowing experience at the tail end of the First World War. It took until December 1941 and Pearl Harbour – 27 months later – for the United States to declare war on the Axis.
The world does not become more stable when the US retreats. For all its faults, the founding code of the American Republic is the antithesis of tyranny. ‘Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’; these values are dictatorship’s kryptonite. A reduced, timid US means an emboldened global array of thugs, psychopaths and tyrants.
Afghanistan was an appalling betrayal in its own right. It was also a warning of the dangers of retreat.