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US leaves Afghanistan
Published in Ahram Online on 31 - 08 - 2021

Celebratory gunfire resounded across Kabul on Tuesday as Taliban fighters took control of the airport seconds after the last US military aircraft had taken off, marking the end of a 20-year war that has left the extremist militia stronger than it was in 2001.
Taliban fighters entered the airport after the last US troops flew out on a C-17 aircraft a minute before midnight local time, ending a hasty and humiliating exit for Washington and its NATO allies.
"It is a historic day and a historic moment," Taliban Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference at the airport after the departure. "We are proud of these moments, that we liberated our country from a great power."
America's longest war, also dubbed in the US media as "the forgotten war," took the lives of nearly 2,500 US troops and an estimated 240,000 Afghans and cost some $2 trillion.
Although it succeeded in driving the Taliban from power and stopped Afghanistan from being used as a base by Al-Qaeda to attack the United States, it ended with the hardline Islamist militants controlling more territory than during their previous rule.
Those years from 1996 to 2001 saw the Taliban's brutal enforcement of their strict interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia, and the world is now watching to see if the movement forms a more moderate and inclusive government in the months ahead.
Thousands of Afghans have already fled, fearing Taliban reprisals. More than 123,000 people were evacuated from Kabul in a massive but chaotic airlift by the US and its allies over the past two weeks, but tens of thousands who helped Western nations during the war were left behind.
Having failed to anticipate that the Taliban would prevail so quickly, Washington and its NATO allies were forced into a hasty exit, leaving behind thousands of Afghans who helped them and may have qualified for evacuation and others who feel at risk.
The emergency air evacuation came to an end a minute before a Tuesday deadline set by US President Joe Biden, who inherited a troop withdrawal deal made with the Taliban by his predecessor, Donald Trump, and decided to complete the pullout without preconditions.
Biden's decision has led to the biggest crisis of his presidency thus far and raised far-reaching questions about the capability of Western democracies to build lasting institutions in their image overseas and their willingness in the future to do so.
The swift Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has drawn comparisons to the capture of Saigon by North Vietnamese forces in 1975 and shaken generations of US veterans who served there and watched the war's final days with sadness.
Biden in a statement commended US troops for carrying out the largest airlift in US history "with unmatched courage, professionalism, and resolve." He said that "now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended."
Biden's legacy, however, risks being damaged by events beyond his control. Not least the fact that when he marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks next month, the Taliban – hosts of Al-Qaeda in 2001 – will celebrate their renewed control of a failed state again rife with terrorists.
Meanwhile, the idea touted by Biden in Europe that "America is back" is being questioned by allies, who sense a continuation of some of ex-president Trump's isolationist tendencies.
The chaotic and bloody US retreat, a humbling exercise that confounded everything Biden promised about a stable, honourable US exit only six weeks ago, stained the aura of competence he sold to the country in the last election and raised questions about his leadership, candour and capacity to deal with the multiple crises facing America and the world.
While his defenders claim he is being unfairly blamed for two decades of strategic failures in Afghanistan, Biden surely authored his own postscript of incompetence and did not predict the shockingly rapid collapse of the Afghan state and army.
A contingent of Americans, estimated by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as fewer than 200 and possibly closer to 100, wanted to leave Afghanistan but were unable to get on the last flights.
General Frank McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command, told a Pentagon briefing that "there's a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure… We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we'd stayed another 10 days, we wouldn't have gotten everybody out."
The leaving US troops destroyed more than 70 aircrafts and dozens of armoured vehicles and disabled air defences that had thwarted an attempted Islamic State-Khorasan rocket attack on the eve of their departure.
But as the Taliban watched US troops leave Kabul on Monday night, eight of their fighters were killed in clashes in the Panjshir Valley north of the capital, said Fahim Dashti, a spokesman for the recently formed Afghan National Resistance Forces.
Several thousand anti-Taliban fighters from local militias and remnants of army and special forces units have gathered in the valley under the command of regional leader Ahmad Massoud.
In his statement, Biden defended his decision to stick to Tuesday's deadline. He said the world would hold the Taliban to their commitment to allow safe passage for those wanting to leave Afghanistan.
He was due to address the American people late on Tuesday, Cairo time, hoping to fix some of the damage done to his reputation as a capable president who claims to have long foreign-policy experience.
Biden has said the US long ago achieved its objectives in ousting the Taliban in 2001 for harbouring Al-Qaeda militants who masterminded the September 11 attacks. He has drawn heavy criticism from Republicans and some fellow Democrats in the US for his handling of Afghanistan since the Taliban took over Kabul this month after a lightning advance and the collapse of the US-backed government.
Blinken said the US was prepared to work with the new Taliban government if it did not carry out reprisals against opponents in the country. "The Taliban seeks international legitimacy and support," he said. "Our position is any legitimacy and support will have to be earned."
Taliban Spokesman Mujahid said the group wanted to establish diplomatic relations with the US despite two decades of hostility. "The Islamic Emirate wants to have good diplomatic relations with the whole world," he said.
Neighbouring Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, told a news conference in Islamabad that he expected a new "consensus government will be formed in the coming days in Afghanistan."
The Taliban must now revive a war-shattered economy without the foreign aid running into billions of dollars that had flowed to the previous ruling elite and fed systemic corruption. People living outside Afghan cities face what UN officials have called a "catastrophic" humanitarian situation, worsened by a severe drought.
McKenzie said the Taliban had helped to secure the airfield as the US carried out the evacuation. He cited a rare convergence of interests: the Taliban wanted the US out of Afghanistan, and the US wanted to leave.
But he warned that the Taliban would have difficulty grappling with Islamic State, a fierce enemy of both the West and the Taliban. He declined to speculate about future cooperation with the Taliban following the US departure, even as Biden has promised to hunt down Islamic State militants responsible for last week's bombing.
"They [the Taliban] let a lot of those people... out of prisons, and now they're going to be able to reap what they sow," McKenzie said. The withdrawal opens a new chapter in US efforts to keep the pressure up on groups it sees as mortal enemies, including Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.
Following a suicide attack on Kabul Airport last week in which 13 US troops and 170 Afghans were killed, the US military flew in drones for strikes in Afghanistan on Friday and Sunday to attack Islamic State targets. Experts warn that US intelligence is far harder to collect from overseas and that strikes are more risky.
The risks inherent in Biden's promised "over the horizon" anti-terror strategy were highlighted by the deaths of a young Afghan family this weekend in a US drone strike on what the American military insisted was a vehicle bomb destined for Kabul Airport.
At least 10 Afghans were killed, including six children, by the US missile.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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