THE speed with which the Taliban overran Afghanistan and its capital clearly took President Biden aback. But he cannot have been surprised at the events themselves; for there was a grim inevitability to the way in which the dominoes fell once the United States announced that it was pulling its troops out of the country.
Empathy is one of the political trademarks of the new US President. But, if it was on display in his words and actions this week, it was distinctly one-sided. “How many more generations of Americans’ daughters and sons would you have me send to fight?” President Biden said on US television in his first public comments since the fall of Kabul. But there was no sympathy for the Afghans who fell to their deaths while clinging to the outside of departing US aircraft — nor for the countless despairing fellow citizens left behind.
What has been nakedly exposed this week is that the unfolding of events has been more about the US than about Afghanistan. The US troop withdrawal was tied to a narrative in domestic politics with a decree that it must be complete by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 rather than timed to fit with favourable developments on the ground in Afghanistan. When things began to go wrong, President Biden took to blaming the hapless Afghans.
The US first intervened in Afghanistan under George W. Bush, with little strategic thought about what to do after chasing al-Qaeda — and its Taliban allies — out of the country. Much the same may be said of Donald Trump, who, in 2020, signed a “peace deal” with the Taliban, in which he committed the US to a withdrawal date in return for tenuous promises that the Taliban would act responsibly. The fundamentalist insurgents simply bided their time and stubbornly dragged out the peace talks to no fruitful conclusion. Despite that, President Biden has essentially continued the Trump strategy and then expressed surprise at the outcome.
Analysis by The Washington Post suggests that the Pentagon fell victim to the conceit that it could build from scratch an enormous Afghan army and police force numbering 350,000 personnel, modelled on the centralised command structures and complex bureaucracy of the US army. But there was a cultural incompatibility, rooted in a failure to understand Afghan society, the complexity of its factionalism, the power of its warlords, and the structures of corruption associated with the various regional militias.
The generals repeatedly ignored the warnings of the US military trainers that it was impossible to impose American military structures when fewer than five per cent of Afghan recruits could read. “Some Afghans also had to learn their colors, or had to be taught how to count,” one despairing military trainer said. A quarter of the army deserted every year.
Small wonder, then, that this army melted away in the face of the pugilistic zeal of the Taliban. Individuals swiftly recalculated where their interests lay and capitulated without violence, or switched sides as Taliban leaders used a combination of cash, threats, and promises of leniency to speed their progress.
President Biden, in the face of this, tried to sound resolute. But his combination of ignorance, hubris, and callous indifference has brought him to the first low point of his presidency.