Before Afghanistan, the US air force had no armed drones in its arsenal. Since 2001, ever increasing numbers of ever more sophisticated devices have been used to map enemy positions and conduct strikes – against al-Qaida and IS militants, against Taliban fighters and, inadvertently or not, against Afghan and Pakistani civilians. Two decades of war have left around a quarter of a million people dead and the country largely returned to Taliban rule. In parts of the Western media that have barely bothered with Afghanistan for years there are calls to enter the fray once more, to re-eliminate IS and fight the Taliban (an enemy of IS) back to at least a draw, since, after all, the status quo was ‘sustainable’ and coalition forces hadn’t lost a soldier in more than a year, until August, when they tried to exit. (The casualties had been low because the Taliban agreed last year not to kill US forces in return for Trump’s promise of withdrawal; Afghan military casualties, by contrast, remained steady.) Westerners who now wish to distance themselves from the attacks and desperate scenes at Kabul airport have mentally displaced the two decades of mayhem that led up to this.
Unlike the Soviet departure from Afghanistan in 1988-89, no major power is elated by the American departure. In China, Schadenfreude on Weibo has given way to regret that the US will soon no longer be mired in a hopeless conflict. Fashionable commentary about possible links between the Taliban and the Uighur Muslims appears to be baseless: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the new leader of the Taliban, has all but offered to send the heads of China’s enemies to Beijing in a box, and dangled the prospect of copper mining and mineral extraction before its patron-in-waiting. In Tehran, Moscow, New Delhi and even Islamabad, governments are more worried about the further implosion of Afghanistan: as far as they’re concerned, it’s 1996 all over again. For Pakistan, the Taliban have long been an asset, promising ‘strategic depth’ against India, but they have also been a risk, as the violence of their homegrown offshoot threatens enrichment schemes dear to Pakistani elites, such as China’s Belt and Road project to connect Xinjiang province to Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea. Only Erdoğan’s Turkey, which can now amply grant at least one wish of its electorate – that Afghans be kept out – and which can increase its fee for keeping Europe Afghan-free, has more to gain than to lose.
American occupation has made the Taliban more disciplined fighters – with new elite battalions such as the Red Unit – and above all a more media-savvy organisation. Video footage from Kabul airport may dominate online, but a different set of images moved events. These were small videos, captured on phones earlier this summer in borderland provinces, showing Taliban forces taking over Afghan border posts, the soldiers calmly handing over their weapons without a fight. In the larger towns and provincial capitals where the Afghan army did not simply abandon its posts, the resistance evaporated after initial skirmishes and crossfire. The Sher Khan Bandar crossing fell on 22 June; Taloqan and Kunduz (for the second time) fell on 6 August; Puli Khumri fell on 10 August; Ghazni and Herat fell on 11 August; Kandahar on 12 August; Lashkargah on 13 August; Mazar-i-Sharif on 14 August and Jalalabad on 15 August. As the Afghanistan analyst Adam Weinstein put it, the Taliban effectively ‘weaponised the prisoner’s dilemma’. Few regular army units wanted to be singled out for vengeance as lone resisters. The notion that Afghan troops, completely reliant on US air support, could forestall the Taliban was the cover the Biden administration hid behind to manage the exit. (After all, how could the generals object? Hadn’t they praised the capabilities of the Afghan army for years?) The real war in Afghanistan was waged far above ground. In the early days of the conflict, an Allied patrol would need to draw fire before calling in air support, but by the end, as the rules of engagement relaxed, it was only necessary to have a sense of where a Taliban position was to radio in a drone or a fighter jet. ‘It got pretty ritualistic,’ a former US Marine pilot told me last week, ‘like ordering pizza.’
Read the full article in the London Review of Books.