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The US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan should not be sold as ‘job done’

Only the leaders of the region’s extremist movements have cause for optimism about the future

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
17 July 2021, 12.00am
After 20 years, in which more than 2,400 troops lost their lives, the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan
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Nelvin C. Cepeda/U-T San Diego/ZUMA Wire/Alamy

On Monday 12 July, the head of US military operations in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, completed his deployment and handed over to Marine General Frank McKenzie. In a telling change of command, McKenzie will be based thousands of miles away from Afghanistan in Tampa, Florida, where he heads US Central Command.

During the 20-year campaign, the Americans lost more than 2,400 troops, with more than 20,000 wounded, many of whom have suffered life-changing physical and mental illnesses. The losses to the Afghans were massively higher. As Associated Press journalist Kathy Gannon wrote in the Military Times, “71,344 civilians; 78,314 Afghan military and police; and 84,191 opposition fighters died during the conflict”. The figures, which were calculated by Brown University’s Costs of War Project, “do not include deaths caused by disease, loss of access to food, water, infrastructure, and/or other indirect consequences of the war”.

Neither do they include the impact of mass displacement of people, and refugee flows, especially to neighbouring countries such as Iran and Pakistan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that 2.7 million Afghans have already been displaced this year because of the violence, and warns of “a looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as the escalating conflict brings increased human suffering and civilian displacement”.

Taliban gains

Meanwhile, the Taliban movement is making gains that are worse than the fears of many analysts. Earlier this month, it took over a key border crossing with Iran in the west of Afghanistan, where it is now collecting bountiful revenues. Even more recently, on 15 July, it was reported to have taken another lucrative border crossing, this time with Pakistan at Spin Boldak in Kandahar Province in the south-east.

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Across Afghanistan as a whole, the Taliban now controls most rural districts and is contesting almost all the rest. It is even encroaching into some provincial capitals, not least the key centre of Lashkar Gar in Helmand Province, Afghanistan’s main opium poppy region and an even greater source of Taliban finances.

As the Taliban campaign accelerates, its activities go well beyond the rural areas and include sophisticated targeting of government facilities and people. One of the ‘assets’ that the US has left behind is a cadre of fully trained Air Force pilots who are key to the government’s attempts to maintain control from the skies, and who are now prey to assassination when they are off duty. One senior officer, Major Dastagir Zamaray, was so concerned for his family’s well-being that he planned to move them to a safer part of Kabul. He was killed by a gunman as he visited an estate agent to discuss the move.

One country-wide Taliban tactic is to target IT and energy infrastructure. Nearly 70% of Afghanistan’s electricity supply comes from neighbouring countries and 39 pylons have been damaged in the past six months. Afghanistan has a small but rapidly developing IT infrastructure so the Taliban targets telecommunications antennas, with 28 destroyed in the past three months. When it took over the border town of Islam Qala in west Afghanistan, it destroyed fibre optics and system equipment. This is all part of a policy of damaging power and communications across the country, making life more difficult for the government and depriving people of news from outside their immediate communities.

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Although Taliban gains have been both considerable and rapid, it does not mean that a complete takeover of power is imminent. Warlords are now preparing to fight their corner and minorities such as the Hazara Shi-a communities, which are much at risk from Taliban rule, are forming their own self-defence militias.

In the face of this steep descent into insecurity, Western militaries have walked away in defeat, led by the Americans, and there is little prospect of any future intervention. The US concern with Afghanistan is now just centred on preventing ISIS, al-Qaida and other extreme paramilitaries from being able to expand their operations there, especially if they threaten US interests. That would be met by armed drone and strike aircraft operations combined with occasional use of special forces and, quite possibly, support for selected warlords, just like in the days immediately post 9/11.

France's withdrawal

Elsewhere, the focus is on the likes of ISIS, not least in Iraq where the group remains active. There, combatting ISIS is requiring a combination of Iraqi special forces and attacks with air strikes, the latter by both the Iraqi Air Force and the US and UK. The US also has eastern Syria in its sights, with American units protecting oilfields in the region from ISIS. There is also a more general concern that children and young people of ISIS descent who remain detained in camps are prey to indoctrination.

Even more significant is that al-Qaida and ISIS-linked groups are active in a broad swathe of Africa, stretching from the Atlantic and the Saharan Sahel region through to eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean. This has been developing for many years, certainly at least a decade, but has come to the fore primarily in the past five years.

Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad form a continuum, with Boko Haram and other groups in Nigeria linking up as well. The key zones are two tri-state border areas: Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in the west and, 2,000km to the east, Niger again, together with Chad and Nigeria. Western states have been involved with much of the conflict, especially France, which has been keeping around 5,000 troops in the region for the best part of a decade, as part of Operation Barkhane.

In the face of this steep descent into insecurity, Western militaries have walked away in defeat

Given the need to rotate deployments, this has become a major cost for the French Army – particularly since any gains made during the early fighting back in 2013 have been reversed over the past couple of years. Although US forces are involved, the numbers are much smaller and largely limited to special forces, intelligence and reconnaissance collection and drone operations, and President Biden is in no hurry to expand the commitment.

Now, the French have accepted that they are fighting an unwinnable war, a position not a million miles away from the Americans in Afghanistan. With this acceptance came the decision on 9 July to withdraw up to half of their forces.

France’s withdrawal may take several months, in which time more emphasis will go on armed drones and strike aircraft, while the country plans to increase and coordinate the use of special forces with the US. It is, in effect, a scaled-down version of the US-led pull-out from Afghanistan, allowing al-Qaida and ISIS-linked groups plenty of opportunity to expand.

Both retreats, the Americans in Afghanistan and the French in the Sahel, may be sold as a ‘job done’, but few will buy that. Instead, those who really are optimistic about the future are the leaders of the extreme movements, whether in Iraq, Syria, across much of Africa, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. Moreover, as COVID makes life even more difficult and the impact of climate breakdown has an even greater effect, recruiting followers from marginalised, bitter and angry young people will become progressively easier.

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