The United States has once again plunged forcefully into the Afghan struggle. While the withdrawal of US troops is in full swing, and should be completed in more than a month, bombers have bombed positions of the Taliban at least ten times in recent days. The Afghan rebels are making a steady advance through the country, of which they are now said to have controlled about half.
Since the deal signed by the United States with the Taliban in February 2020, the insurgents have only strengthened their positions. They are now advancing from three sides to Kandahar, the country’s second largest city. According to The New York Times was certainly one of the bombings intended to stop that advance. The Taliban called the US attacks a violation of the peace agreement and warned of “consequences” without giving details.
US commander in chief in Afghanistan, General Kenneth McKenzie, said at a news conference on Sunday that the US is “ready to provide firmer support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks.” McKenzie refused to ask whether the Americans would continue to fight the Taliban from the air after August 30. The mantra in the US government is that Afghans are responsible for ending the violence in their country. But Washington, meanwhile, is saddened to see how the Taliban, despite their promise to the Americans, are in no hurry to negotiate peace with the Afghan government.
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said last week that he was “very concerned about the activities of the Taliban, which seem to want to take the country by force”. According to him, a government that came to power in this way would relegate Afghanistan to an international ‘pariah’.
Also read: UN: considerably more civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the departure of foreign soldiers
‘Nothing at all, zero’
President Biden is quite embarrassed about the situation. His announcement in April that the Americans will withdraw by September 1 – a precision of his predecessor Donald Trump’s promise – seems to have given the Taliban wings. Questions from journalists led to sharp answers in recent weeks. When asked about it on July 2, Biden declined to say anything about it. “I want to talk about happy things, man.” The journalist who later compared him to the humiliating end of the Vietnam War was cut off by Biden. “Nothing at all, zero,” the situation in Afghanistan resembles the fall of Saigon in 1975, he said.
But the discomfort about what the Americans are leaving behind cannot be ignored in press conferences. The Vietnam comparison keeps popping up in newspapers and magazines. While the differences are obvious (nearly 60,000 dead Americans in Vietnam versus 2,216 in Afghanistan, to name a few), there are also similarities. On Monday, a United Nations commission released a report on the heavy burden the war is taking on Afghan civilians. Until June 30 this year 1,659 civilians have been killed by the violence of war, bringing violence against civilians back to the highest level since 2009 after years of decline. The number of killed or injured girls and women has doubled compared to 2020. Of all victims is about a third minor. Roadside bombs from the Taliban in particular caused many victims. A branch of IS in Afghanistan is also responsible for about 10 percent of the victims.
Taliban in strongest position since 2001
William Burns CIA boss
It seems that the Taliban are systematically killing ‘collaborators’. Not for nothing, the government has announced a new objective of the withdrawal: to bring to safety Afghans who have assisted US troops for the past 20 years, such as interpreters. They are being transferred via airlifts (a total of nearly a thousand in recent months) to American allies in the region, such as Kuwait and Qatar. But also to the US itself. Biden said the US has issued about 2,500 special visas for these Afghans.
On July 2, American soldiers turned off the lights at Bagram Air Base, which had been the mission’s departure point until then. The commander of the Afghan army that commissioned the base a few days later, General Mir Asadullah Kohistani, claimed that the Americans had quietly squeezed out and that he only found out after half a day.
Biden insists that the Afghan military, trained for years by the Americans and their allies, is well equipped and trained and should be able to withstand the estimated 75,000 Taliban with 300,000 troops. But for the time being, the regular army is unable to stop the advance of the rebels. In recent weeks, they have come within a few miles of Kandahar, once home to the late Taliban leader Mullah Omar. On the west side they are in front of a former CIA base, where according to The Wall Street Journal today Afghan commandos are stationed.
CIA Director William Burns spoke of “worrying trends” in an interview with US news channel NPR last week. He said the Taliban are “probably in their strongest military position since 2001” when US forces attacked Afghanistan and ousted the strict Islamic regime.
“A military takeover by the Taliban is not a foregone conclusion,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said last week. But he also admitted: “There is a range of possible outcomes.” The bombings of the past week underline that the Americans are not at all reassured about the outcome.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 27, 2021