Having failed to convince the past two presidents to remain in Afghanistan for all eternity, the U.S. military is now withdrawing forces in time to meet the September 11 deadline. Clearly reluctant to end the forever war, senior commanders are now being forced to admit the reality of the security situation and what is likely to take place.
For some 20 years, the U.S. military leadership — as well as many political supporters — have been unable to deal with either the political or military reality of the situation built on two decades of failed policy, delusion, and a series of lies about what could be accomplished. The constant demand for more resources and training of the Afghan forces to meet the Taliban threat provided cover for the fact that the situation was largely hopeless and the Afghan government was doomed to ultimate failure from the start.
Most recently Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the top American military commander in Afghanistan, expressed his “deep concern” that the country could slide into a chaotic civil war and face “very hard times.” Gen. Miller finally admitted that unless Afghan’s fragmented civilian leadership united and began organizing the various armed groups joining the anti-Taliban, then the situation is basically hopeless.
Taliban forces continue their rapid advance across northern Afghan provinces. As long predicted, they have expanded into other rural regions and have begun drawing a closed circle around Kabul. Taliban fighters have now overrun parts of three provinces, all just short drives from Kabul on highways running north and south, attacking security posts in a third area that hugs Kabul’s western border.
Taliban forces now control more than 140 of the country’s 370 districts and are active or influential in 170 others. U.S. and Afghan military officials persist in a false narrative with much lower estimates, but as more districts continue to fall to the Taliban almost daily, either in violent clashes or by peaceful surrenders, the official reports and estimates can only be seen as laughable.
For years, a significant percentage of the Afghan security forces have defected, taking their weapons with them. Now a sizable number are leaving the country entirely, fleeing over the border to neighboring Tajikistan. The repeated myth put forth by the U.S. military that with more training and equipment these forces could somehow defeat the Taliban should finally be put to rest. It was a sad joke before and has now become an unavoidable reality.
Recently the Taliban seized two districts in Kapisa and Parwan provinces, both on the highway between Kabul and the north. In Wardak province, Taliban fighters took over a town that straddles the highway leading south to Kandahar city. Afterwards, they posted a video on social media showing their fighters in black turbans walking around the town and making celebratory shouts.
Taliban strategy is to surround a city as well as the provincial capitals, pushing closer and closer from all sides until they find a suitable stopping point — usually just short of entering Kabul. Then they claim that they are ready to talk about peace.
They are also targeting other strategic spots, including some on the largely porous border with Pakistan, some containing mineral mines or dams, and others on rural link roads.
Gen. Miller is overseeing the final drawdown of U.S. forces that once numbered more than 100,000 troops. He described the drawdown as going well “from a military standpoint,” although it is unclear what that really means. Presumably, he means that U.S. forces are boarding planes and departing, along with some of their equipment. Yet, somehow Gen. Miller and officers in his command forgot to coordinate with the Afghans when they were abandoning the major U.S. facility at Bagram airbase. It was left to looters. Hard to call that “going well” from “a military standpoint.”
In a small grasp of reality, Gen. Miller noted that the U.S. mission focused on training, motivating, and improving the performance of Afghan security forces was falling short of “going well” when he admitted that the looming U.S. departure had damaged their morale, which had already been demoralized after months of heavy fighting. He also cited the increased loss of territory and rising government troop casualties as the Taliban engaged in a “countrywide offensive” while peace talks were supposed to be taking place. This is almost the identical scenario that the U.S. faced in Vietnam in 1975, and that lesson needs to be taken to heart.
Despite his rosy overall characterization of the withdrawal, Gen. Miller’s assessment of the situation and future scenarios for Afghanistan was more bluntly pessimistic and closer to reality than what any have said before. One major concern was that Afghanistan could devolve into a state of violence, leading to a multi-factional civil war where local militia groups might join the anti-Taliban effort, reverting to old ethnic vendettas and abhorrent battlefield behavior. The possibility of another Afghan civil war is entirely possible as violence escalates and atrocities occur — similar to the chaos that the Afghans endured in the 1990s after Soviet forces left.
Recently, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met with President Biden in Washington amid the mounting Taliban violence and ongoing U.S. troop withdrawal. Mr. Ghani was told that the U.S. would continue providing financial aid to the Afghan government and support to the armed forces, but that Afghans would have to “decide their own future.” This was simply political theater. Mr. Ghani barely won reelection in 2019, with his popularity falling steadily as the peace talks with the Taliban he supported have virtually collapsed.
Mr. Biden did not indicate that the withdrawal period would be extended, while current U.S. intelligence estimates are that the Ghani government will likely fall within six to 12 months of a completed U.S. troop withdrawal. Many analysts believe that even these estimates are overly optimistic.
The current plan appears to be that some 600 – 650 American troops will remain in the country after the withdrawal, sufficient to provide security for U.S. diplomats and other officials. It is likely they will be needed as the Taliban finally take Kabul and an evacuation is required. At present, the Turks still control the Kabul airport and claim to have decent relations with the Taliban, although this is clearly subject to change. The final reality Gen. Miller and his forces face is that a time to leave may be at hand, and the U.S. needs to do so safely and not repeat the chaotic departure from Saigon as that city fell to the communist forces.
• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He is the author of the recent book Henry Kissinger: Pragmatic Statesman in Hostile Times.