By Tope Akinnola
Having listened to President Biden’s much touted speech, he was indeed unable to change my mind about the fact that his handling of America’s long-awaited final withdrawal from Afghanistan after two decades of war is a foreign policy disaster. The optics aren’t good. Perception is everything – somebody needs to drive that into Mr. Biden’s brain. The perception that the optics generated of the chaos at the American Embassy in Kabul and of the curious, anergic disorder at the airport is that of an American arrogance that has been deflated by the Taliban. Scenes of deadly chaos that emerged in embarrassing details in Kabul as thousands of people jostled to desperately flee the Afghan capital, if possible as a stowaway, was disheartening, evoking the recent disorder of January 6 at the Capitol on global TV.
Let’s be clear: the Biden administration committed a tactical failure; one of global reckoning. This shows that there are cracks in his intelligence briefings. He may need to recalibrate or reset his intelligence team. And trust me, several books will be written on this in the very near future. Not only that, this will be good movie stuff for Universal Studios, or Paramount Pictures, or Warner Bros. If consulted, I may suggest a title such as “Escape From Afghanistan,” or like say, “Kicked Out By The Taliban,” or something like, “Chaos At Kabul.” This is not funny; I’m just trying to be creative, making the best of a bad situation.
America likes to believe it’s a nation in control, a nation that can dictate the pace, that can remove the plug at will and still have its way. This thinking, this idea of American exceptionalism, is a form of arrogance, and has already been demystified. As Afghanistan slides back into the hands of Al-Qaeda-cuddling Taliban, who is to blame?
My candid opinion is this: American arrogance is to blame – America’s peculiar ”ethnos-ego,” as I like to call it. This arrogance has spanned over 20 years and four administrations – those of President George Bush, Jr., who started the war to smoke out Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist thugs after 9/11; President Barrack Obama, who began the withdrawal of thousands of American troops from Afghanistan till 2014; President Donald Trump who flaunted a final withdrawal plan of American troops from Afghanistan as a campaign promise to win a second term; and President Biden, who somehow overrated American capabilities, mismanaged the withdrawal protocols, and in the process, ended up doing great PR for the Taliban – as the American-installed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took to his heels, disappearing into thin air — resurfacing in the United Arab Emirate — under the guise of not wanting bloodshed — though he stashed his escape helicopter with $169 million in cash. That’s huge.
But let’s face the fact, the cooking of the stew of this foreign policy disaster began with Mr. Trump’s idea to negotiate with and have a deal with the Taliban in Doha in February 2020. There, the then Secretary of State, Mike Pompey embraced the Taliban and even had photos with them. The Trump administration made the right move to state clearly that there would be a termination of American troops’ presence in Afghanistan with a determinate date of May 1, 2021. I believe, indeed, that America stayed too long in the land locked country.
But the deal Trump had with the Taliban to release 5, 000 Taliban fighters from prison (so that they could be reintegrated back to mainstream society) was more than a thoughtless move, as the latent repercussions are right before us now – among which is the fact that thousands of the key fighters and commanders that captured cities and Kabul are drafted from those that Trump released last year.
The deal Trump had with the Taliban to make him look good, included total withdrawal of American troops in exchange for Taliban fighters not carrying out suicide bombings or attacks on American troops until the agreed date of complete withdrawal. The Taliban, since last year, saw the deal as a victory for them and just decided to wait the Americans out.
One critical problem with the deal however, was that it was rushed unilaterally, and not done in consultation with the Afghan government or in proper collaboration with international partners, that is, American allies such as the British, Germans, French, Australia, etc., which had contributed both troops and resources to fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Long ago, the perceptive UK conservative Defence Minister, Ben Wallace, called it a “rotten” deal and stated that the international community would likely “pay the consequences” for it. He foresaw a complete Taliban take-over. It has happened now.
Biden decided to tag along with Trump’s deal with the Taliban, so long as American boots would all be recalled back home, though he was aware too that thousands of captured Taliban insurgents were already released by the Trump administration. As far as Biden is concerned, American strategic interests in Afghanistan have been accomplished: Osama bin Laden has been found and neutralised; Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups within Afghanistan have been routed and their training camps decimated. What else again?
But Biden miscalculated. He also underestimated how highly motivated and organised the Taliban are while overrating the capabilities of the Afghan National Defence Forces and police force which America has pumped over eighty billion dollars into training, equipping and maintaining – and this is just a part of the over one trillion dollars already spent on the country itself.
There are three vital areas that America either ignored or underestimated and that led quickly to the fall of the Afghan government and security forces. These three key areas also serve as lessons for a Third World country such as Nigeria. Firstly, the Afghan military and police for years have been riddled with monstrous corruption from the highest to the lowest levels. The Taliban saw this and took advantage of it. A police officer in Kandahar recently told the New York Times, “We are drowning in corruption.” That corruption itself includes the over bloated figure of Afghan troop numbers. The number mentioned by President Biden in his speech within the last 48 hours is massively exaggerated. The Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers project discovered that of the 352,000 soldiers and police officers once considered and touted as members of Afghanistan’s security forces that the Americans have been paying their salaries over the years, only about 250,000 could be confirmed by the Afghan government in real terms.
Top Afghan military officers and commanders had created multitudes of thousands of “ghost soldiers” so as to pad their payrolls and divert huge ‘free’ dollars supplied from America into their private pockets. Not only that, they also cheated serving soldiers and police officers out of the money or salaries meant for them. That is aside the fact that these top military officers and commanders failed to deliver necessary supplies to the Afghan forces.
But one must concede to the clear fact that to a great extent, this ceaseless corruption was allowed by the over-pampering American free-spending mannerism. And attempts to fight the corruption of the top brass of the Afghan security forces were always lacking in resolve, producing no definite and demonstrable changes.
Many of the soldiers and police officers ended up being owed salaries and allowances. Several Afghan police and security officers on the front lines in Kandahar before the city fell to the Taliban for instance confessed that they hadn’t been paid in six to nine months. The story was not much different elsewhere.
Going without pay for that long made the Afghan forces feel desperate and contributed significantly to their lack of motivation to their job. The Taliban saw that and started to offer $150 to anyone working for the government to surrender and join them. From that amount, the Taliban increased the payment gradually – till Taliban payoffs became ever more enticing. Other illicit deals were brokered with some of the top hierarchy of the security forces and government officials as well as tribal/ethnic leaders in various regions. The stage was already set for mass desertions and surrender to the Taliban.
This was compounded by the fact that since the Trump Doha deal with the Taliban, majority of the vastly poorly educated members of the Afghan security apparatus felt that American troop withdrawal would signal “the end” for them, from which point everyone would more or less be looking out for themselves. That mentality reinforced their having to succumb to Taliban payoffs too. They had to be seen to take sides with the Taliban even before the Americans would desert them. They were not ready to risk their lives for nothing, as many of them said.
The Taliban had also managed to infiltrate the high command of the Afghan National Security Forces. One particular Afghan Special Forces officer stationed in Kandahar who was assigned to protect a critical border crossing discussed what he experienced several days ago when he and his unit were ordered by their own commander to surrender. He yelled back at the commander: “We want to fight! If we surrender, the Taliban will kill us.” But the commander retorted, raising his voice and telling the Special Forces officers, “Don’t fire a single shot.”
Not willing to surrender or get killed, he and his entire unit of Special Forces officers changed into civilian clothes, and fled their post, after laying down their weapons. He later said, “I feel ashamed of what I’ve done.” He also added that if he didn’t desert his post, “I would have been sold to the Taliban by my own government.”
Moreover, another pathetic example of surrender happened in the western province of Herat where Taliban negotiations with government officials resulted in the resignation of not only the governor of the province, but also top interior ministry and intelligence officials and hundreds of troops. Everything was shamefully brokered in just one night! Among the notable officials that surrendered willingly to the Taliban in the province was Abdul Rahman Rahman, a senior interior ministry official.
Furthermore, the way the southern province of Helmand witnessed its mass surrender also confirmed how much influence the Taliban has been wielding under America’s noses even before the final withdrawal. As Taliban fighters approached the southeastern province of Ghazni, its governor relinquished his office and escaped under Taliban provided protection, since he had already struck a deal with the insurgents.
The governor was only apprehended later by the Afghan government as he traveled to Kabul. If that’s not telling, I don’t know what is.
It is not a surprise then that the speed with which provincial capitals surrendered to the Taliban without confrontation and without the Afghan forces fighting back was astounding, despite the fact that the Taliban were vastly outnumbered.
Apart from the endemic, institutionalised corruption, lack of motivation of officers and infiltration of the security forces by the Taliban, another key area where America made a serious mistake and that led to the quick fall of the country is in establishing a highly centralised or unitary system of government in Afghanistan, with power too concentrated in Kabul. America was more concerned about its own image, ease of administration, and focused more on its own strategic interests than the aspirations and longings of the cross section of the deeply divided Afghan people who are vastly sectionalised into several tribal thresholds and varying ethnic boundaries. A genuine federal system would have worked better.
There was no national cohesion. There was never a sense of national patriotism for which the people, especially the Afghan forces, were ready to fight for or die for. When America pulled the plugs, having successfully achieved its own strategic interests, the fault lines of disunity, lack of corporate and national cohesion came to the fur, making it look like America wasted the hundreds of billions of tax payer dollars spent; and resulting in the tactical failure of withdrawal protocols and foreign policy disaster that has become disgusting to some, and endearing to others, in the Kabul American embassy and airport ominous scenarios.
Finally, the Taliban used fear as a weapon too. Through clever use of social media, they spread information about judgement by their swords and guns as well as revenge or retaliation against those who supported the Americans or who worked against them during the war. The Afghan government however, watched like a sitting duck, without providing a counter narrative. The Americans too ignored it as well, without embarking on a massive counter narrative to assure the Afghans that even though they were leaving, yet they won’t be far away. With fear of the Taliban already entrenched in the people’s minds, city after city, province after province fell like a pack of cards. But then, Biden is right on one crucial ground: if the Afghans refuse to fight for their country and sacrifice their lives for their own freedom, why should American lives be sacrificed?
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