By Melanie Phillips, UK author and journalist
The US has catastrophically abandoned more than just the Afghan people
Success has many fathers, goes the saying, but failure is an orphan.
Well, the catastrophe in Afghanistan has many, many fathers — none of whom want to acknowledge the terrifying progeny they have spawned.
In immediate terms, the disaster must be laid firmly at the door of President Joe Biden. It was his decision to pull US troops out of Afghanistan by September 11 that has produced the shocking and tragic rout by the Taliban over the past few days.
Biden took that decision in the teeth of warnings from his senior military advisers. He insisted that the Afghan army would hold off the Taliban. Denying that these insurgents were the equivalent of the North Vietnamese at the fall of Saigon, he said:
They’re not — they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy…
Yesterday, the air over Kabul was reportedly thick with the noise of Chinook helicopters ferrying American personnel to the airport as the United States fled Afghanistan in panic, chaos and humiliation.
What’s also on shocking display is the ineptitude of US intelligence, who were reportedly shocked — shocked! — at the speed of the Taliban takeover. What is the point of having an intelligence service at all if they couldn’t even grasp what was all too plain to those who watched aghast the speed at which the Taliban were taking city after city over the past few weeks?
A Taliban takeover has indeed been on the cards ever since former President Donald Trump cut his ill-advised deal with them in February last year. The agreement was that the US would withdraw its troops on the understanding that the Taliban would cut its ties with al Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS), and formulate a lasting peace agreement with the Afghan government.
No-one with a functioning brain could have believed for an instant that this deal would be honoured, not least because there was no let-up in Taliban-inspired violence against other Afghans even when the talks were under way, and subsequently. The Afghan army certainly got the message that they were about to be abandoned to savage forces that would overwhelm them. Demoralised, they gave up, put down their arms and ran for their lives.
So the Taliban victory is a bipartisan American disaster. And the deeper reason is that the withdrawal of US troops is backed by some three-quarters of the American public. Indeed, Biden reportedly believes that, once the dust has settled, the Democrats will reap electoral rewards at the mid-term elections from a public grateful that its wish for disengagement has now been heeded.
But the American public also doesn’t like its country to be humiliated. So it’s possible that this amoral calculation will blow back in the Democrats’ faces. Even if that happens, though, whether the American public will fully grasp the implications of what it has now unwittingly willed into being remains a moot point.
In truth, America and the west gave up in Afghanistan years ago. Ignorant and arrogant analysis of what was required and doable there plus inept and half-hearted delivery, coupled with the debacle in Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein, resulted in a loss of support in America and the west for their troops being in those countries at all. With 2,400 American fatalities and 20,000 injured in Afghanistan, the engagement there was seen as expending precious blood and treasure to no avail, since the goal of of bringing order and stability to such failed states was perceived as a fool’s errand.
Defeatism, in the UK scarcely any less than in the US, became rampant.
But this was to ignore the reason America and its allies went into Afghanistan in the first place. It was not from any humanitarian impulse; it was not to liberate Afghan women from the unspeakable brutalities of Islamist rule, however desirable that was; it was not to bring democracy and human rights to a primitive society. It was instead to defend America and the west from the significant threat that Afghanistan still posed.
In other eras and in other theatres of war, the west understood what needed to be done to neutralise such an enduring threat to its security. That’s why the US and its allies remained in Germany for some 11 years after the Second World War, with eight NATO members including the US retaining a permanent military presence there; that’s why allied forces similarly occupied Japan from 1945-1952; that’s why some 28,000 US troops remain stationed in South Korea.
But today, if there’s a likelihood of casualties and in places furthermore that seem resistant to modernity, that western resolve has disintegrated.
In the unholy armoury of the enemies of the west, their single most important weapon is their understanding that the west is no longer willing to do what it needs to do to defend itself. It is no longer willing to be in it for the long haul.
It no longer has the stomach for a fight.
In baleful contrast, jihadis take the longest possible view. They have been waging holy war against the enemies of Islam — as they view them — since the seventh century; and for them this holy war won’t end until the whole world is under Islamic rule or the world itself ends, whichever comes first.
The west just doesn’t understand that mindset. It doesn’t understand cultures so very different from itself, and tries fatuously to fit them into a western template. It doesn’t understand that in Islamic societies negotiation is regarded as a sign of incipient surrender and therefore incites further aggression to achieve final victory. It doesn’t understand that Islamic religious fanaticism is fuelled not by helplessness or despair but by exultation.
When in the 1980s America and Britain rejoiced in the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the war fronted by the Afghan mujahideen, they ignored the warnings from a prescient few that the people who had been energised and incentivised were Islamists who viewed their victory over the Soviet empire as a precursor to and augury of their forthcoming victory over the American empire.
Those warnings were borne out. Afghanistan became the crucible of al Qaeda, providing a base for Osama bin Laden and resulting in the 9/11 attacks. Now Afghanistan is poised to become jihad-central with rocket-boosters. The Taliban have already released thousands of terrorists from Afghan prisons. Afghanistan will become a magnet and an inspiration for jihadis from all over the world.
For the abandoned Afghan people, the consequences are likely to be hideous. But the malignant effects of this disaster are already rippling way beyond this epicentre of terror.
America’s allies can now see that the US is a faithless friend, the weak link in the chain of western defences and with untold consequences for their own security.
With America on its knees, other enemies of the west — Iran, China Russia — must be rubbing their hands in glee over the opportunities for evil now opening up for them as a result.
Indeed, Shia Iran has reportedly already ramped up its tactical alliance with the Sunni Taliban — in other circumstances its mortal theological foe — to such an extent that in some quarters the Taliban’s military strength is being ascribed to Iranian influence. As Farhad Rezaei writes for the BESA Centre here:
‘Afghan military officials have accused the Revolutionary Guards of providing military, financial, and logistical support to the terror group, to the extent that Tehran’s support enabled the Taliban to capture districts in western Afghanistan, including the provinces of Farah and Ghor, and the Taywara district. There are also reports indicating that Quds Force operatives had a “physical presence” in Ghor assisting Taliban fighters in their offensive against the central government.
Fighting ISAF was only one of the goals of the Quds Force in Afghanistan. Drug smuggling from Afghanistan to Iran has been a profitable business for the Quds Force, which is known for its extensive ties to drug cartels in South America. In 2012, the US Department of the Treasury (DOT) designated Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Baghbani, the chief of the Quds Force in the Zahedan office, a narcotics trafficker. The DOT document noted that in return for Iranian business, Afghan traffickers moved weapons to the Taliban.’
Financial incentives aside, the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan – especially in provinces that border Iran, such as Herat, Farah, and Nimruz – rattled the Iranian regime, prompting the leadership to ramp up its engagement with the Taliban.
Unlike al Qaeda and the more malleable Taliban, the radical anti-Shiite ISIS poses a real threat to Iran’s interests in Afghanistan. Providing better training for the Taliban was thus not only a way to undermine the American-led ISAF, but a barrier to a new ISIS caliphate across the Afghan border.
Various reports indicate that the IRGC created a training camp in South Khorasan province (Khorasan Jonobi) to train Taliban fighters, providing them with weapons and explosives. The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation (Komite Emdad Imam Khomeini) in the same province is said to be donating untold amounts of capital to the terror group in addition to calling for volunteers to fight alongside Taliban forces.
Some observers have directly linked improvements in the Taliban’s performance, and ISIS’s consequent inability to establish a strong foothold in Afghanistan, to Iranian support. Since mid-2017, Taliban and ISIS forces have regularly clashed in eastern Nangarhar province, with the Taliban easily defeating ISIS thanks to the military support it has received from the Quds Force. As one commentator put it, the “scale, quality, and length of training is unprecedented and marks not only a shift in the proxy war between the United States and Iran in Afghanistan but also a potential change in Iran’s ability and will to affect the outcome of the Afghan war.”
We are today not just staring at the abandonment of Afghanistan. We are staring at America’s abandonment of itself.