The unseemly haste with which the US and its allies have completed their military withdrawal from Afghanistan raises serious concerns about the ability of the Afghan government and the Taliban to agree a lasting peace deal for the country.
Under the terms of the original withdrawal policy that US President Joe Biden announced in April, all US forces were to be withdrawn from Afghanistan in September, in time for the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks in 2001, which was the cause of Washington’s initial military intervention.
Yet, such is the Biden administration’s determination to end Washington’s long and costly involvement in the 20-year long Afghan conflict that the US withdrawal, together with the removal of the last remaining combat Nato forces, has been completed two months ahead of schedule. The US handover at the end of last week of the symbolic Bagram air base located north of the capital Kabul, and once the centre of the US-led coalition military effort, effectively means that US and other Nato combat operations are at an end.
Moreover, the completion of the American withdrawal has been undertaken without a peace deal between Afghanistan’s democratically-elected government and the Taliban, which was supposed to be a key element of the agreement made last year between the Taliban and former US President Donald Trump.
In an attempt to end hostilities in a conflict that has been dubbed America’s longest war, Mr Trump agreed to withdraw American forces – which then stood at around 10,000 – from Afghanistan by the spring of this year. In return, the Taliban undertook to enter negotiations with the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to conclude a lasting peace deal.
Mr Trump fulfilled his end of the bargain, reducing US forces to around 2,500 by the start of this year. But progress in the Qatar-sponsored peace talks has been painfully slow, not least because Taliban negotiators have shown little enthusiasm for constructive talks with their Afghan counterparts.
For most of last year the talks stalled over the Taliban’s demand for the unconditional release of thousands of its fighters from detention, which was not accomplished until last autumn.
More recently, the movement appears to have concentrated its efforts on strengthening its insurgency operations in Afghanistan with the aim of intensifying the pressure on Mr Ghani’s government into making painful concessions.
The Taliban’s procrastination tactics during the past year have certainly led to accusations from senior US officials that the Taliban are not honouring the peace deal agreed with the US last year, and have instead been responsible for an increase in violence throughout the country, carrying out a campaign of assassinations against prominent Afghan government officials and civil society activists, and mounting one of the largest Taliban offensives to date which the Afghan security forces are struggling to contain.
According to the US think tank Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, Taliban forces now control 188 of 407 districts in the country.
In such circumstances, with the Taliban blatantly violating the terms of their deal with the US, Mr Biden would have been fully justified in delaying the completion of America’s withdrawal or, at the very least, maintaining a residual military presence to maintain support for the beleaguered Afghan security forces.
Instead, Mr Biden’s decision to accelerate the withdrawal timetable raises serious questions about Washington’s future support for the Afghan people, and appears to have encouraged the Taliban in the belief that they can achieve their objectives through force of arms instead of focusing their efforts on a diplomatic resolution of the conflict.
The Biden administration continues to insist that it remains committed to supporting the Afghan security forces. Earlier this week the Pentagon announced that it will establish an American command centre in Qatar to support the Afghan military. But the main activity of the new office will be to manage Washington’s financial support for the Afghan military, not providing the hard firepower the Afghans require to prevail against the Taliban.
Furthermore, the manner of the Americans secretive departure from Bagram air base last week, where they left without even informing their Afghan allies of their intentions, highlights a worrying lack of trust between the US military and their erstwhile Afghan allies.
According to local Afghan soldiers, who were at the base when the Americans withdrew last week, the first intimation they had that the move was taking place was when the electricity generators suddenly stopped working and all the lights went out.“
It just went dark,” Sgt Ehsanullah, an Afghan soldier stationed at the base at the time told the Wall Street Journal. Once the power went out, the water also stopped pumping. Afghan looters took advantage of the blackout to enter the facility and begin looting it before being driven away.
To judge by the recent performance of some members of the Afghan forces, their willingness to maintain the fight against the Taliban is diminishing at an alarming rate. Many cases have been reported of Afghan security forces laying down their arms and surrendering territory to the Taliban, while earlier this week an estimated 1,000 Afghan troops based in the north of the country were reported to have fled across the border into neighbouring Tajikistan.
The worsening security situation notwithstanding, Taliban officials continue to insist that despite the territorial gains they have made recently throughout the country they are still committed to the peace process. Earlier this week the Taliban said they intended to present a written peace proposal to the Afghan government as soon as next month.
"The peace talks and process will be accelerated in the coming days... and they are expected to enter an important stage, naturally it will be about peace plans," said Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid." Although we (Taliban) have the upper hand on the battlefield, we are very serious about talks and dialogue."
As part of efforts to break the diplomatic impasse, Iran this week hosted a meeting of senior Taliban and Afghan government representatives in Tehran, with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif saying that Iranian mediation had become necessary because of the “failure of the US in Afghanistan”.
Whether others can succeed where the Biden administration has so clearly failed remains to be seen. But the fact that the two sides in the conflict are still talking – albeit in Tehran – raises the faintest glimmer of hope that a return to all-out civil war in Afghanistan can still be avoided.