The Fall of Kabul
A bad week for everyone.
The smoke rising from the US embassy in Kabul last weekend wasn’t the result of jihadist firepower, but diplomats and staff frantically burning sensitive paperwork while desperately awaiting a 5,000 gun military escort to get them out of the country. Five years after an $88 billion refit the fortified concrete citadel, which now sleeps 800, it was being evacuated as the 350,000 man Afghan army – trained and equipped for roughly another $80 billion over the years – simply evaporated before ragtag force of pre-modern Islamists who likely don’t number north of 200,00.
Back in July, President Biden dismissed visions of Saigon 1975 by saying, “There’s going to be no circumstance where you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy.” We did. Along with the desperate were clinging to the wheels of departing aircraft and falling to their deaths.
A contemporary US Intelligence assessment predicted the Afghan central government could last six-months. On 10 August, this was revised to 90 days. Five days later it was all over. The Afghan army, unpaid by their own government for months, seemed to disappeared into thin air in the face of the Taliban’s re-conquest of Afghanistan and Kabul had become a vast refugee camp. On Sunday, 15 August, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani resigned, having fled the country (according to the Russians, with $169 million in cash).
That same day, dirty Taliban fighters strolled into the abandoned presidential palace, called the Arg (which one assume sounds more charming in Pashtun) and posed for pictures behind the president’s desk as the Taliban flag was hoisted from the roof above. At the airport, American marines held the parameter, while inside the scene descended into chaos as Afghans scrambled to get on planes to get out of the country.
I’ve written before, and I’m not the only one, that this was always going to happen, whether we’d pulled out 10 or 15 years ago, or stayed for another 20. Biden was right in saying that we simply cannot fight another country’s civil war, certainly not when its own army refuses to fight. Yet that ignores the fact that some 70,000 Afghan troops and police have died fighting the Taliban. It seems that the army folded when Trump cut a deal with the Taliban, and Biden underscored it by dropping US logistical and air support. Knowing all of this, however, we could have taken some sensible precautions.
The most glaringly obvious would have been simply not to withdraw US troops first. Why abandon our military base in the dark of night before we’d removed the diplomatic mission and our Afghan allies? For all their duplicity, the Taliban had proven itself patient enough to wait out our withdrawal. To attack US forces would only draw us back in. This maneuver was always going to be a diplomatic failure, but it didn’t have to be a chaotic humiliation.
A post-mortem is useful, but what has happened can’t be undone. On Wednesday, former president Ghani announced from the UAE that he wouldn’t remain in exile and would return to Afghanistan in a leadership role. Well, good luck with that, but you’ve already fled. And so have we. The US can’t really re-invade a country to ensure an orderly retreat.
What Rudyard Kipling called “the Great Game” was the great power competition between the Russian and the British empires for dominance in Central Asia – and now, it seems, that Afghanistan is once again in play. Pakistan has long dedicated itself to political dominion in Afghanistan, accepting payment from the US for access to the country, and then funneling that money to the Taliban to fight the US. Neighboring India, fearful that Pakistan will use political dominance in the region to stage proxy attacks, wants to head this off. Russia also shares a border, so the price of heroin in Moscow is likely to drop.
The 800 lbs. gorilla in the room, though, is China. They need a stable Afghanistan to exploit its mineral wealth. In the 18th century, Afghanistan once declared jihad on China, and the People’s Republic’s treatment of Muslim Uyghurs seems to make the two governments ideologically incompatible – but the Chinese want to go full Africa in the region, and the Taliban are in reality more a feudal criminal organization passing itself off as a religion than anything devout Muslims would call, well, a devout Muslims. It’s a partnership that may work frightfully well.
A quick trip through your Machiavelli will tell you that you that nations simply cannot be built. And the post-World War II efforts at nation building have only proved the old bastard’s point ad nauseum. They have to grow on their own. You can tend the soil, plant stakes and do some selective pruning but, to extend the metaphor too far, you can’t build a tomato.
For the Afghans left behind, many want some semblance of stability, and after 20 years, they want it and any price. Afghanistan, however, is some rocky soil. They don’t have much to work with. Some 75% of the government income came from foreign aid, which is going to dry up. China could be a patron, but they are getting out of the foreign aid business to the spend money on military build-up. When they do invest, they do it on their terms.
Most likely then, Afghanistan will become a narco state with its main export heroin… and refugees.