Patrick Cockburn, The Independent
The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan is looking unstoppable as they capture the big provincial cities of Kandahar, Herat and Ghazni without meeting effective resistance from Afghan government forces. Afghan soldiers and security forces are fleeing, surrendering or changing sides as they see no point in dying for a lost cause.
The speed of the Taliban success has caught the world by surprise – as no doubt it was intended to do. There has been no “decent interval” between the US departure and the Taliban attack, as there was in South Vietnam between the final US withdrawal in 1972 and the defeat of the South Vietnamese government by the North Vietnamese army in 1975.
The fact that everything the US and Britain fought for in Afghanistan over two decades is collapsing at such a pace underlines the extent of the western defeat and will reinforce the belief that the era of the US as the sole super power is coming to an end. As with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, failure in Afghanistan has global implications far beyond the country where the war is being waged. In fact the defeat is more complete than that suffered by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but after Soviet withdrawal the Communist government in Kabul survived for several years, in sharp contrast to the present debacle.
President Joe Biden may have expected the Kabul government ultimately to lose the war against the Taliban, when he announced the full US pull-out on 14 April, but not so swiftly or decisively. It was President Donald Trump who put in motion the final stages of the US pull-out, but it will be Biden who will pay the political price for the American failure.
Western generals have the gall to say the US retreat was too precipitate and they needed more time to train and prepare the Afghan armed forces. But after 20 years and the $2.3 trillion spent on Afghanistan, the claim that the military lacked time or resources is an absurd evasion of responsibility.
Kabul, with a population of 4.5 million, has yet to fall but the lack of resistance elsewhere in the country suggests that it will not hold out for long. The overall failure of the western-supported regime in Kabul is not difficult to explain. The Taliban defeat back in 2001 was not as decisive as reported at the time because their forces simply went home to their villages or crossed the border into Pakistan where they and their leadership were safe.
The role of Pakistan is a key factor in the US and the Afghan government defeat and follows America’s failure over 20 years to confront the Pakistani authorities. This was understandable since Pakistan has a powerful army, a population of 216 million, and a common border with Afghanistan stretching for 1,616 miles. The Pakistani ISI intelligence service not only supported the insurgents, but directed them strategically and tactically. This was the case when the Taliban first captured Kabul in 1996 and it is likely to be still true as they prepare to take the capital again in the coming days. Yet there is far more to the Taliban victory than a strong foreign backer. Their commanders could recruit fighters willing to withstand devastating US air strikes in support of American ground forces which numbered 100,000 soldiers at their peak strength. The Afghan armed forces never had a similar core of fighters willing to die for a cause.
In visits to Afghanistan over the years, I have been impressed less by Taliban strength than by the government’s weakness and unpopularity. Friends and casual acquaintances would denounce it as no better than a gang of racketeers gorging themselves on US aid money or on juicy supply and construction contracts.
Western governments were in a state of denial over this. When Peter Galbraith, a senior UN official in Kabul, said that the US and its allies had no credible local partner – referring to the Afghan government of the day – he was promptly sacked. The blindness was wilful, with western diplomats visiting western and Afghan military strongpoints in rural areas politely averting their eyes from the Taliban flags flying from trees and poles in nearby villages.
At one time in Kabul, I spotted a notice board beside a police post in English capital letters saying “RING OF STEEL”, but the post was entirely empty. I wondered if the sign could be an Afghan joke, but decided that the slogan, and the absent security forces, told one a lot about the capabilities of the Afghan regime.
Trillions of dollars were spent by the US in Afghanistan, but Afghan soldiers were often short of food, ammunition, fuel and could not even get defective weapons replaced. These failings were blamed by westerners on the corruption of the Afghan state and society, but much of the American aid money never made it past the sticky fingers of US consultants and security companies. Wherever this largesse was going, it was not into the pockets of the 54 per cent of Afghans living below the poverty line of $1.90 a day.
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