Wrap-up of Kabul stories
I have analyzed Afghanistan situation in my previous articles of April 14, April 22, August 15 and August 16. Now it is the turn of story 5.
Kabul and the whole country surrendered without resistance to the Taliban rapidly
After the bloodless capture of Kabul on August 15, the Taliban announced that it had taken control of the entire territory of Afghanistan. Shortly after the news broke, it was reported that President Ashraf Ghani had resigned and left the country. The Afghan armed forces trained by the United States and allies have almost completely vanished, partly surrendering, partly fleeing to neighboring states.
In the end, the collapse happened faster than any Western intel “expert” expected in four furious days by astonishing guerrilla blitzkrieg in Afghan-style: lots of persuasion, lots of tribal deals, zero columns of tanks, minimal loss of blood. On Sunday, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem proclaimed: “The war is over in Afghanistan,” adding that the shape of the new government would soon be announced. The official proclamation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan would be made inside the presidential palace.
Last days events in Kabul and the American military helicopter hovering over the US Embassy building in Kabul reminds vividly of last days in Saigon, again “Saigon moment”.
Reactions, from near and far
Russian Ambassador Zamir Kabulov told that the Russian diplomatic mission is working in a relatively normal mode. “The Taliban have guaranteed security not only for the Russian embassy but for others as well,” he added. China announced to establish new diplomatic relations with Afghanistan after situation stabilizes. Both China’s and Russia’s Foreign Ministries have been in frequent contact to coordinating processes.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Qureshi spoke to his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Wednesday to brief him about the efforts Islamabad is making to develop a “regional consensus on the evolving situation in Afghanistan”.
Another kind of message comes from Western Europe. All Western countries are evacuating their residents and embassy staff. The situation in Afghanistan is a political and humanitarian catastrophe, leader of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), the conservative candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, Armin Laschet said in Berlin on Monday. “This is the biggest fiasco in the history of the NATO alliance,” he said. According to the politician, it is necessary to discuss the causes of the situation, draw conclusions and analyze errors.
The US President Biden’s recent address blamed everyone but himself for the ongoing American debacle in Afghanistan. The Biden administration’s rush for the exit in Afghanistan has been accompanied by a similar rush to judgement among pundits and commentators who, by and large, have castigated the US president for a decision that many see as unnecessary and a betrayal, both of those who served in Afghanistan and of the Afghan people themselves.
Nonetheless the decision to cut and run is being seen as a terrible blow to US credibility – to its reliability as a partner and indeed to its moral standing in world affairs. How does this fit with Biden’s motto on taking office, “America is back” (Where, one may ask?).
Obviously, there are smiles in Moscow and Beijing, at least for now. The Western model of liberal interventionism – promoted as a means of spreading democracy and the rule of law – has perhaps been tested to destruction in Afghanistan. One cannot see much enthusiasm for similar undertakings in the future.
NATO and other US allies who joined in the Afghanistan project are experiencing emotional pain and embarrassment. They feel badly let down. Even British ministers, jealous of their often touted “special relationship” with Washington, have been openly critical of President Biden’s decision.
Afghan Army, fighting or not fighting?
Basically, the Afghan military did fight and die. Nearly 60.000 Afghan soldiers and police officers lost their lives in combat during America’s 20-year war there and hundreds of thousands of others were wounded.
On paper, the US trained a standing force of some 300,000 conscript Afghans ostensibly organized and equipped to wage war against the Taliban. The reality is, however, that the vast majority of these conscript troops were poorly trained, poorly equipped and abysmally led. They were combat-capable only if they were backed up by either US, NATO, or elite Afghan special forces, but void of that, they melted away at the first sign of adversity and this was already before the recent end collapse.
The US did train about twenty thousand of elite commandos, organized as military (under the Defense Ministry) or paramilitary (under the Afghan intelligence service) forces. These units were involved in extremely intense fighting against the Taliban and suffered high casualties as a result. When the US withdrew from Afghanistan, these elite forces were left alone to fight the Taliban. Lacking US logistical support, these forces found themselves cut-off, out of food, water and ammunition and subsequently destroyed.
Militarily, the Afghanistan war had an ironical end, particularly from the American/NATO point of view.
The rapid collapse of Afghan ground forces was inevitable without the permanent air support of the US Air Force and this is especially true with “close or near support”, which was available so far, the US had locally held and maintained fleets of Apache attack helicopters, A-10 ground-attack aircrafts, AC-130 gunships, F-15 and F-16 and other fighter jets.
While the US officially focused on pulling US troops out of Afghanistan, what they really pulled firstly out, was the locally held air power that supported not only US troops but more importantly also Afghan soldiers. The irony is that the US Air Force hated the Afghan campaign because the war lacked the kind of targets the US Air Force was designed to strike. “Hit and hide”-tactics used by the Taliban was very successful and frustrated American pilots.
The United States has the most sophisticated and highest tech air force in the world. The F-22 and F-35, the two flagship fighter bombers and air superiority aircraft, lead the world in stealth and overall capability. Yet it was the 1960s-70s vintages of A-10, AC-130, F-15 and F-16, which have made “the basic hard work” of vital near air support and other operations in Afghanistan war. The new “superiority” aircraft are just making ambitious single strikes but hard warfare is done by the old “work horses”.
The situation is similar with the Russian Air Forces in Syria, main basic hard work is done by SU-24 and SU-25 aircraft as well as MI-24 attack helicopters.
Military-political factors behind the collapse
Of the total $2 trillion price tag of America’s longest war, about 10% ($180 billion) was allocated to the training and equipping of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). This investment was key to the rationale for the US withdrawal from the country. The US and NATO worked to support a national army of approx. 300,000 soldiers, a border police force, a prison system and a special operations force for counterterrorism operations. Of these various institutions, the special operations forces, at 20,000-30,000 strong, was considered the most successful. US officials conceded that training a modern police force largely failed and the similar failure with the national army.
Biden showed impatience, if not disdain, for the poor performance of the Afghan forces in the face of the Taliban surge from the countryside to provincial capitals and then Kabul. The collapse of the forces will be studied in the years ahead but among the factors to be considered, here are some apparent.
The political context remained intact, in which the old warlord system of regional militia and power centers was never dismantled by the US. This was a significant mistake because it undermined the political base of creating a new security culture in which the Western-trained national-security forces would really enjoy a monopoly of power and prestige.
The shortcomings of the Afghan political system and failures of local US administration to confront corruption and mismanagement in the country created and maintained large political mistrust. President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country on Sunday, failed to inspire Afghans. People in rural areas saw Kabul elite plundering wealth for their own benefit but who were not able to enhance the socio-economic fundamentals of this very poor country.
Biden blamed the Ghani administration and its military leaders: Where is the political will to fight? The US had provided capacity in terms of equipment and training but capabilities are only part of the equation while the political will is another part. Rather than focus only on the collapse of the armed forces, it will be critical to examine how the civilian leadership failed to mobilize the forces in an effective way.
Hundreds of Pentagon reports with sharp analysis about the progress and shortcomings of US efforts in Afghanistan, however entailed a tendency to create metrics of such progress that in hindsight were misleading and confirmed only the hubris of Pentagon/NATO bureaucrats.
Another problem, from the US view point, was the availability of “educated” people, US experts estimated that half of the recruits to the armed forces were illiterate. The US had to launch a program to teach reading and writing to the troops before it could address other essential skills for the defense of the country. The goals of the program were to have soldiers who could count, write their names and use a basic vocabulary. Recruited soldiers would routinely leave their posts after payday and walk to their villages to provide their monthly pay to their families, often disappearing for long periods before returning to their official duties. This is not the way to create a well-functioning and combat-capable military troops.
China, Russia and Afghanistan
There are plenty of well-argued reasons to assume that China is poised to swoop in and enlarge its cooperation with Afghanistan, subsequently filling the void left by the departing US and NATO forces.
China is getting ready to make an uncontested entry into post-US Afghanistan, with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Kabul authorities are increasing their engagement with China on an extension of the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which involves the construction of highways, railways, and energy pipelines between Pakistan and China. China has reportedly long wanted to expand its BRI to Afghanistan and has been requesting Kabul’s participation for at least a decade. One of the specific projects in the discussion is reportedly the construction of a major road funded by China between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar, which is already connected to the CPEC route.
Chinese officials have reportedly been in communication with Taliban leaders on a regular basis since the Trump administration inked a peace accord with the militant group. China has launched a range of infrastructure projects in domestic regions close to Afghanistan. Gwadar harbor in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, which borders Afghanistan, was likewise built and is reportedly operated by China. Both projects are being constructed as part of the CPEC. The Chinese authorities reportedly have offered the Taliban billions of dollars in infrastructure and energy projects in exchange for an end to hostilities in Afghanistan.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative aims to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks covering 60 nations. At a cost of $4 trillion, the initiative will not only improve inter-regional connections, but also strengthen China’s global influence. Afghanistan can give China a strategic platform that is perfect for serving as a commercial hub connecting the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe.
Russia and Pakistan inked a large agreement of gas pipeline connecting Karachi, Gwadar and northern Punjab. Spanning more than 1.100 kilometers, the pipeline dubbed the “Pakistan Stream” is expected to have a discharge capacity of up to 12.3 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year (Russian LNG). The pipeline would connect liquefied natural gas terminals in Karachi and another port city, Gwadar, with power plants and industrial hubs in Pakistan’s northern region of Punjab, which includes the city of Lahore. Construction works on the Pakistan Stream gas pipeline project will be completed as early as 2025. This infrastructure will support both Chinese BRI and later serve as a base for enlarging pipeline network to Afghanistan.
China is also going to mine Afghan rare earth elements/minerals (REE). Preliminary report indicates there are rare earth minerals deposits in Afghanistan, which the US was not able to utilize but now it seems that China will harvest the yield. REEs are vital elements in the modern technology, especially in the modern military technology (more info here).
When considering the political situation, the collapse of President Ashraf Ghani’s government came as a sudden shock only for some states, while neighbouring great powers China and Russia had been quietly preparing for this expected outcome for months and engaged in contacts with the Taliban. Moscow and Beijing are primarily concerned about maintaining security, Russia can now formalize these contacts with the Taliban to reaffirm its security obligations among ex-Soviet Central Asian republics.
China has offered substantial economic help through the BRI to the Taliban, with the agreed quid pro quo that the Taliban will not support any Islamist insurgencies in the Xinjiang province of China. Russia and China are now capable of filling any political vacuum in the Middle East region.
Biden’s messy exit from Afghanistan has handed China a golden opportunity to portray US as an unreliable and untrustworthy ally, threatening to undermine America’s credibility and raising questions over its long-term commitments to allies elsewhere, especially in Asia. The Biden administration’s spectacular failure to predict the sheer speed of the Afghan government’s collapse has already been branded as one of the greatest intelligence failures in decades.
Biden’s vow to double down on its strategic engagement with the Indo-Pacific through “a strong military presence” has gone hand in hand with disengagement from the Greater Middle East, including Afghanistan. Biden’s withdrawal plan in Afghanistan was largely driven by his aim to refocus America’s strategic resources on China but its poor execution has undermined broader strategic goals.
Chinese state-run media outlet Global Times warns Taiwan against acting as the US puppets, calls Afghan pullout a “Lesson” for them. They should wake up to the reality that if a war breaks out in the Strait – the island’s defense will collapse and the US military won’t come to help.
Any war and especially “forever war” like Afghanistan war is and will always be full of accidents, messy events and coincidences so soon military actions are initiated. That is the very nature of a war.
As a British general stated in the interview during Falkland war, “war is always a dirty business, it has its own logic, many times it is getting worse, before worsening.”