US ends Afghan War in confused retreat

31-08-2021 Tue 12:28 IST | IANS | Opinion

New York, Aug 31 : The US has ended its longest war in a confused retreat amid a swirl of recriminations and a subdued reflection of its international role as Tuesday dawned in Afghanistan and the last US Air Force C-17 Globemaster took off from Kabul airport.

The Taliban was back in power in Afghanistan and the US that invaded the country to fight the insurgents, had spent the last days cooperating with the group and even bombing its enemies now considered common adversaries.

The final pullout came 11 days before the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks carried out by the Afghanistan-based Al Qaeda in the US in 2001.

As it had from Alexander the Great to the British and the Soviets, history seemed to have rendered its verdict on the US.

"I want to thank our commanders and the men and women serving under them for their execution of the dangerous retrograde from Afghanistan as scheduled in the early morning hours of August 31st, Kabul time, with no further loss of American lives," President Joe Biden announced the end of the 20-year war in a statement that was a far cry from the declarations of US leaders when they invaded Afghanistan.

The military commander who saw the end of the war that began in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the US, General Kenneth McKenzie, said: "It's a mission that brought Osama bin Laden to a just end, along with many of his Al Qaeda co-conspirators. And it was not a cheap mission. The cost was 2,461 U.S. service members and civilians killed and more than 20,000 who were injured."

And an estimated $2.3 trillion, nearly five times the size of India's budget, was spent by the US on the war.

In addition, over 1,000 NATO troops, 66,000 Afghan security personnel, about 50,000 civilians and 50,000 Taliban and other terrorists perished in the war.

The war's final moments were marked by a US aerial attack on a vehicle suspected of carrying suicide bombers that reportedly also killed seven children as collateral damage.

The big gain for the US was the killing of bin Laden and clearing of the Al Qaeda, but it did not mean the end of international terrorism as the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) showed up in defiance of both the US and the Taliban.

An IS-K suicide bomber killed 13 US troops and scores of Afghans in the August 27 attack at the Kabul airport in the waning days of the American presence.

The end of the war was sealed last year for a war-weary nation by former President Donald Trump when made a deal with the Taliban to withdraw from Afghanistan by May this year.

In July Biden had said: "So let me ask those who wanted us to stay: How many more. how many thousands more of America's daughters and sons are you willing to risk? How long would you have them stay?"

Biden extended the deadline to September to buy time to smoothen the end, but it went badly.

While the Democrats tried to shift the blame to Trump for the deal with the Taliban, the former President declared: "It's not that we left Afghanistan. It's the grossly incompetent way we left."

And its denouement of the withdrawal that now haunts Biden.

He ordered troop withdrawal to begin in May, but the turning point was the abandonment of the US military base in July without a proper transfer to the Afghanistan government headed by President Ashraf Ghani.

As the US military presence dwindled, the Taliban took province after province from the demoralised 300,000-strong US-trained Afghan defence forces and Ghani having left for the United Arab Emirates they marched into a leader-less Kabul on August 15.

Several thousand US citizens and Green Card-holders had to be evacuated, along with several hundred thousand Afghans who had worked or collaborated with the US and now faced Taliban retributions.

Biden sent about 5,000 troops to secure the airport for flights to bring them to safety.

In the end, the airbridge out of Kabul managed to evacuate more than 123,000 civilians.

But when the evacuation began there were horrific images of desperate people clinging to aircraft taking off but falling to their deaths.

But thousands, probably tens of thousands, are left behind, including up to 200 US citizens.

Facing criticism, Biden shifted the responsibility to the Pentagon.

He said on Monday: "For now, I will report that it was the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs and of all of our commanders on the ground to end our airlift mission as planned. Their view was that ending our military mission was the best way to protect the lives of our troops."

And now the prospects of those let behind to escape rests on the Taliban assurances to allow travel.

A UN Security Council resolution passed under India's presidency on Monday demanded that the Taliban keep the promise.

Biden said that it "sent the clear message of what the international community expects the Taliban to deliver on moving forward, notably freedom of travel. The Taliban has made commitments on safe passage and the world will hold them to their commitments".

Domestically, Biden's image of quiet competence built up by his party during last year's election has been dented.

The RealClear Politics aggregation of polls on Biden's job approval shows that it is down to 47.6 per cent and 60 per cent of those polled feel the country is headed on wrong track.

Biden has faced attacks from both Republicans, who delight from the debacle, and his own party members.

"This is one of the worst foreign policy decisions in American history, much worse than Saigon," said Mitch McConnell, Republican Party leader in the Senate

"This national disgrace is the direct result of President Biden's cowardice and incompetence," added Ben Sasse, a Republican senator.

Seth Moulton, a Democrat member of the House of Representatives who secretly visited Afghanistan last week, said: "In my mind this was not just a national security mistake, but a political mistake, too."

Even US allies were alarmed by the chaotic pullout and debris of shredded and global security left behind.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the US withdrawal leaves a "very big problem".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the scenario "bitter, dramatic and appalling, especially for the people in Afghanistan".

The ignominious retreat by the Biden administration raises questions about Washington's credibility as an ally around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific where it is seeking mutual cooperation in confronting Beijing, amid introspection by the pundit class and politicians.

It also questions Biden's trumpeted commitments to bringing democracy around the world and to nation-building.

"We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build," he had said.

Biden has tried to douse these doubts by repeatedly saying that backing out of Afghanistan would help the US focus its attention in the areas where "we need to meet the threats where they are today".

He added in a July speech: "We also need to focus on shoring up America's core strengths to meet the strategic competition with China and other nations that is really going to determine... determine our future."

Addressing the UN Security Council on Monday, China's Deputy Permanent Representative Geng Shuang said of the US and its allies: "It is hoped that relevant countries will effectively change the wrong practice of imposing their own models on others."

He also took a dig at the West for its mission of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan.

The airport "terrorist attack in Kabul once again proved that the war in Afghanistan did not achieve the goal of eliminating terrorist groups in Afghanistan", he said.

If there are flashbacks to the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, there may yet be slivers of hope for the future.

There the communists have gradually loosened their grip and grew ties with the US, mainly because of economic pragmatism.

Just last week, they hosted Vice President Kamala Harris.

A Taliban-run Afghanistan that eschews support for international terrorism and global Islam and follows a Sharia regime like that of US ally Riyadh, in effect an oil-less Saudi Arabia, and as it happened this week both cooperating to fight common enemies maybe Biden's dream scenario.

By Arul Louis

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