A QUICK reminder of the facts seems in order after watching President Joe Biden suggest that the Afghan forces lacked the spine for a fight, had capitulated before the advancing Taliban in a matter of days and were to blame for the rapid fall of Kabul rather than the US.
When the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden post 9/11, the major military campaign waged to oust the militant group from power was aerial bombing and missiles with small groups of special forces personnel (the number is not in the public domain) on the ground alongside the Northern Alliance forces.
Once they realised they could not face the onslaught, the Taliban were said by experts to have melted into the countryside, with some crossing the Durand Line (the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan) into their reported safe havens on the Pakistani side in the erstwhile tribal areas.
After effecting regime change, as the US and its Nato allies embarked on a programme to recruit, train and equip Afghan security forces, it seemed the Taliban were also quietly regrouping and slowly starting their hit-and-run guerrilla attacks on the forces propping up their opponents in Kabul.
Do such numbers of those who lost their lives on the battlefield, belong to a force with no appetite for a fight?
Over a two-decade period of hostilities, say published statistics — a Brown University study and the Associated Press — 2,448 US soldiers and 3,846 US ‘contractors’ or mercenaries lost their lives while battling Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In total, 1,144 soldiers of the US-Nato alliance were killed including 457 British Army personnel.
The British defence ministry website says of the 457 soldiers who died, about 10 per cent fell victim to illness, accidents and ‘non-combat’ injuries. I am not sure whether the same sort of proportion applies to the US and all Nato deaths as I have not found the relevant figures.
Now let’s look at the number of Afghan security forces killed in the war over the same period. The figure stands at between a staggering 66,000 to 69,000 soldiers and police personnel. Do such numbers of those who lost their lives on the battlefield belong to a force with no appetite for a fight?
There can be no denying that failures happened at multiple levels. Reports of massive corruption and nepotism in the appointments of top military commanders, an unspecified number of ghost soldiers, active duty soldiers not being paid their salaries were just some.
For example, in just one reported incident, the US stopped disbursement of salaries to 3,000 soldiers who only existed on the books. For several years, the Afghan media group ToloNews website has been reporting how family members or rich supporters (naming names in cases) of the Ghani administration, politicians and officials were being made generals.
The same website also carried stories of how a number of these generals with salaries of between 40,000 and 60,000 Afghanis a month (approximate $450 to $675) had built luxurious mansions, in one case on a lakeside (and abroad too), and nobody ever asked them how they were able to do that on their salaries.
But again, it would be foolhardy to blame just the Afghan elite for their loot and plunder, even though their sins were graver since they were robbing their own people, and not mention the killing US ‘contractors’ seem to have made over the years, with a large percentage of American dollars heading back home.
Friends living in the Washington, D.C. area mention the rise in affluence in parts of Virginia, for example, where a number of these contractors and other influential figures live and who are involved in ‘democracy projects’ such as the doomed Afghan one.
So, to imply that members of the forces that lost over 65,000 members were cowards and not prepared to fight for their country would be an utter travesty. If the US felt it had no strategic compulsion to maintain its presence in Afghanistan it could have left — and it did.
But making such uncalled-for remarks was quite pathetic. Listing some of the Afghan failures that led to the fall of not just Kabul but the whole country to the Taliban over a few days was the easy part; any attempt to list the miserable US failures would be impossible in a single column.
Suffice it to say that each of the Afghan failures, from reported widespread corruption to nepotism to making no effort to engage with all the groups with a stake in the country’s future for years, was also a US failure.
And more so because Washington allowed it to happen under its very nose and did very little to put a stop to it. Surely, when you control the purse strings and the security apparatus, you have the means to ensure a better government than the one that existed.
As things stand today, the Doha Accord looks like it was meant to achieve just one aim. A safe passage for US troops and other personnel exiting Afghanistan. We are where we are now and a postmortem of the past won’t bring it back.
Looking ahead, British Chief of Defence Staff Gen Nick Carter says the Taliban, the “country boys”, need to be given space and judged afresh as, in his view, they are considerably changed from their first stint in power from 1996 to 2000. He has defended both the Taliban and Pakistan in media interviews.
His Pakistani counterpart (de facto), fellow cricket fan and friend Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa says he expects the Taliban to fulfil their promises to the global community on women’s rights and human rights among other things. Prime Minister Imran Khan thinks the Afghans have “broken the shackles of slavery”.
I have just one question for each of the three gentlemen. How many Afghan women have you talked to before reaching your conclusions and expressing your expectations on the future of Afghanistan under the Taliban? My readers can call me a hypocrite as we both know what the likely answer will be.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, August 22nd, 2021