Afghanistan collapsed quicker than the Wallabies’ scrum and President Joe Biden now looks set to pay the price politically.
Kabul surrendered without a shot while the US departure from the benighted country’s capital was described by the Wall Street Journal as “Saigon on steroids.”
The New Zealand Defence Force has had to scramble to secure an RNZAF Hercules which will head to the United Arab Emirates tomorrow to help the allied evacuation.
There are as many as 40 New Zealanders in Afghanistan, all believed to be working as contractors, including security.
The last NZDF forces departed in April.
Biden defends the withdrawal of US forces as a policy set in train by former president Donald Trump. After 20 years, he says, this was enough.
But the US military has been forced to send in 6000 soldiers and marines to protect departing US nationals.
Last year the Trump administration agreed to an initial reduction from 13,000 to 8,600 troops by July 2020, followed by a full withdrawal by 1 May 2021 if the Taliban kept its commitments.
The Biden administration extended this: the US would not begin withdrawing until 1 May and would complete the withdrawal before 11 September.
In itself this, was a tragic decision because 11 September coincided with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack which prompted President George W Bush to launch the initial attack on Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda and Islamist militants.
Much against the advice of his military, Biden wanted to bring forces home quickly after the loss of some 3500 personnel and a cost of around $US2.2 trillion in terms of military support, training, arms and military aircraft. Around 2500 were left to guard the US embassy and help maintain order in the capital.
What staggered Washington DC – and the West – has been the rapid, unchecked advance of the Taliban and the inability of most Afghani forces to confront the guerillas who – according to the Pentagon – waged a classic campaign.
Was this a fault of US intelligence?
“No” is the firm answer from most Washington analysts, because the Taliban has had more than a year’s warning of the US withdrawal – and while the Afghan army was well-equipped and well trained (including by NZ soldiers), it had insufficient time to build an esprit de corps.
Vietnam and Afghanistan have another unpleasant coincidence. Both countries were led by inept, corrupt governments which plundered the US support but failed to create stable domestic environments.
Now Biden must defend the indefensible. Only last week he reckoned Kabul would not fall for weeks, maybe months.
Over the weekend the administration reportedly reached an agreement with the Taliban to not interfere with US evacuation efforts at the airport as they work to restart flights. At home, advocates are angry and frustrated over the Biden team’s failure to anticipate the evacuation crisis.
“Obviously we’re extremely alarmed and concerned with the situation and how quickly the security situation deteriorated,” says Adam Bates, policy counsel with the International Refugee Assistance Project.
“This is why we have been arguing for months in favor of evacuating of (special visa) applicants and other US affiliated and at-risk Afghans to U.S. soil to avoid specifically this situation.”
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser John Bolton (who did the same job for Donald Trump) said the most fundamental mistake, which Biden reiterated on Saturday, was the notion the US had been fighting in an Afghan civil war. To the contrary, it had been fighting a Western war against terrorists who happened to be in Afghanistan.
“Did Biden really believe we could leave it to Afghan surrogates to defend our vital interests? If our surrogates fail, as they have done, do we simply suffer the consequences of al Qaeda, Isil, and others conducting renewed attacks against us? We should certainly have others, like the Afghans, fight with us against the terrorists, and we did. But their inadequacy does not mean we throw up our hands and depart, giving the terrorists free rein.
“Finally, we hear constantly that we have ‘been there for 20 years, it is America’s ‘longest war,’ and ‘the endless wars must end’. This is simple-minded, albeit politically appealing. We have correctly believed that ‘forward defence’ against the Taliban in Afghanistan is better than waiting to defend against terrorists in our own streets and skies.
“Constantly predicting it will be over in a year or two has been counter-productive. Our side doesn’t get to decide when the terrorists give up. Our publics would understand this cost-benefit analysis if leaders properly explained it. They have before, in the Cold War, not for merely 20 years, but for over 45 years before the Soviet Union collapsed,” he said.
For the West more broadly, Bolton says, the Afghan withdrawal dangerously impugned US worldwide resolve. After four aberrant years of Trump, Biden pledged that “America is back” and would provide competent leadership.
But having followed Trump’s erroneous exit policy, and then bungled it, Biden’s credibility lies in tatters. Beijing, Moscow and Tehran are fully alert, looking for opportunities to exploit US weakness.
Doing good by the Afghans had a substantial collateral benefit of America, Britain and others pursuing US strategic interests, but it was not central to the reason why the US was there, Bolton says.
Biden had intended to spend five days at the presidential retreat in Maryland but was forced to return to the capital.
Bob Gates, an American intelligence analyst who served George WBush and Barack Obams as US secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011, some years ago wrote in his memoirs that Biden was a man of integrity, incapable of hiding what he really thinks, and
“… one of those rare people you know you could turn to for help in a personal crisis.”
Still, Gates said he thought Biden had been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades. The events of the past week have served to reinforce his views.
What did NZ gain from involvement in Afghanistan?
The informed observers Point of Order consulted said our involvement reinforced the notion we were prepared to share a burden in an international struggle while we might not have been directly involved – as we did in South Arica, the first and second world war, Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam – and now Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 10 New Zealanders killed in the current campaign didn’t die in vain, they maintain.
Opinions will be divided on that judgement.