Afghan National Army soldiers walk through farmlands outside Sangin, Afghanistan, on a joint patrol June 6, 2012. According to US Central Command, over 90% of the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been completed, meaning Afghans are now almost completely on their own. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Mark Garcia, courtesy of DVIDS.
During televised remarks on Afghanistan from the White House on Thursday, President Joe Biden said the US would be “out” of Afghanistan by the close of August. The speech followed reports of Bagram Airfield being hastily vacated under cover of darkness last week. Perhaps more pressing are the mounting questions about the viability of Afghan security forces who continue to cede ground to the Taliban.
“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan,” Biden said Thursday.
The situation on the ground in Afghanistan is rapidly deteriorating. Taliban forces are advancing nationwide, and Kabul’s armed forces have begun to buckle under the pressure. This week some 1,000 Afghan soldiers fled across the border into neighboring Tajikistan — a move that spurred Russia to offer assistance to its former Soviet ally.
“We saw 1,000 Afghan National Army troops run across the border into Tajikistan a couple of days ago. Watch for complete units deserting,” Milton Bearden, former CIA chief of station in Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan War, told Coffee or Die Magazine.
While the desertion of Afghan troops into Tajikistan is a singular incident, a Monday update from the Long War Journal paints a stark picture for the Afghan government. According to the nonprofit journal, the Taliban now control 204 of Afghanistan’s districts, while the Afghan government controls 74. Comparatively, on May 1, the Taliban controlled 73 districts and the Afghan government 115, out of 407 districts. These developments place Afghanistan at risk of “complete collapse.”
“I suspect the US will need to return with air support in the coming months. The excuse will be the Taliban isn’t living up to their side of the bargain,” Luke Coffey, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation, told Coffee or Die.
Despite recent reports to the contrary, Biden appeared optimistic that the Afghan government can weather the Taliban’s offensive. On Thursday, the president said the Afghan National Army was better equipped and armed than the Taliban.
“The Afghan government and leadership has to come together. They clearly have the capacity to sustain the government in place. The question is: Will they generate the kind of cohesion to do it?” Biden said.
Biden said the US has given the Afghan government everything it needs to defeat the Taliban, including training, equipment, and trillions in funding. He added that more than 2,000 Americans have died in Afghanistan.
“It is a generally capable force that suffers from desertion and corruption. However, when it needs to or wants to fight, it is a capable force,” Coffey said, regarding Afghanistan’s armed forces.
Bearden, the former CIA station chief, agreed that Kabul possesses the capability to hold off the Taliban — at least for a while. Bearden witnessed a similar scenario in the late 1980s when the Soviet-backed Afghan government fell to the Taliban.
“Najib’s guys held on much longer than we all thought,” Bearden said, referencing Mohammad Najibullah, who led Afghanistan from the Soviet era in 1986 until the Taliban took power in 1992. “So I would probably agree with Biden that there won’t be an immediate collapse. There will probably be a ‘decent interval.’”
Chris Preble, co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said America’s departure from Afghanistan was the correct way forward, despite the Taliban’s recent gains. However, he sounded a less optimistic note about Kabul’s prospects for survival under Taliban pressure.
“The military mission in Afghanistan stopped serving core US interests many years ago. Therefore, Biden was correct to terminate it,” Preble told Coffee or Die. “He should be careful about making assertions about the ability of the Afghan government in Kabul, and formal state institutions like the [Afghan National Army], to prevail over the Taliban.”
With a US Central Command report that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was “more than 90%” completed as of Monday, there is little question that the Afghan security forces are on their own. Many experts say the best-case scenario is a return to Taliban rule during the 1990s, when the US-friendly Northern Alliance controlled north of Kabul.
“As the dust settles, we will see an Afghanistan that is de facto partitioned,” Coffey said.
However, Bearden drew pessimistic parallels to the Soviet departure from Afghanistan in 1989.
“The Soviets stuck to their nine-month withdrawal timetable down to the last day. Then things started slowly deteriorating,” Bearden said. “We’re going to enter the spooky stage when the last aircraft full of our troops takes off. Then watch.”
James Webb served as a US Marine infantryman from 2005 to 2010, completing a combat tour in Iraq. He’s worked as a freelance writer and photojournalist covering US troops in Afghanistan, and Webb spent more than two years in the US Senate as a military legislative assistant and as the personal representative of a member on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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