Afghanistan struggles to safeguard stability as fragile state faces abrupt US withdrawal

US Embassy and other diplomatic missions in Kabul are watching a worsening security situation and looking at how to respond

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Afghan forces at the vast Bagram airbase were shocked to find remaining US troops had suddenly left overnight without informing them of any formal handover.

Set in the imposing mountainous terrain of the country's east, Bagram has become emblematic of the international coalition’s failure in Afghanistan, which went from a small counterterrorism effort to destroy Al Qaeda’s most important base of operations to a multi-decade “nation building effort”.

The site, originally built by the former Soviet Union in the 1950s, is the size of a small town and could accommodate up to 100,000 military personnel at the height of Western involvement in the country.

Now large parts of the base are eerily deserted and many buildings have been looted of what little was left behind by the Americans as they departed last week, with desperate locals finding what they can to sell as scrap.

US forces destroyed vast amounts of non-military material at the site that would have been more expensive to fly out of the country.

“We [heard] some rumour that the Americans had left Bagram … and finally by 7am, we understood that it was confirmed that they had already left Bagram,” Gen Mir Asadullah Kohistani, the field’s new commander said.

“In one night they lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area,” said Afghan troop Naematullah, who asked for his full name not to be used.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon insisted it had co-ordinated with Afghan authorities but did not provide the exact hour of the final US departure from the base for security reasons.

"This wasn’t done in a vacuum," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

"Afghan leaders – civilian and military – were appropriately co-ordinated with and briefed about the turnover of Bagram Airbase."

While the base is in better condition than when the coalition arrived in 2001, much of the site was destroyed in the Afghan civil war of the 1990s by the time international forces arrived and it is feared the airfield could soon become another warzone as Taliban militants advance relentlessly against the Afghan Army.

Gen Kohistani meanwhile said the nearly 20 years of US and Nato involvement in Afghanistan was appreciated but now it was time for Afghans to step up.

“We have to solve our problem. We have to secure our country and once again build our country with our own hands,” he said.

An Afghan soldier takes a selfie inside Bagram's US airbase, about 70 kilometres north of Kabul, after all American and Nato troops left on Monday.  AFP

US embassy on high alert

The completion of the US withdrawal now leaves a crumbling Afghan Army to hold back a surge of Taliban advances, with many provinces on the edge of falling to complete takeover by the militants.

US intelligence assessments about the balance of forces remaining in the country predict the Taliban could gain complete control within six months.

The Long War Journal website, which has tracked the conflict since 2008, says the majority of Afghans now live in areas under Taliban control, with 11.3 million people now living in territory in militant hands and 10.8 million living in government-controlled districts.

Those remaining districts may not simply be contested between the government and the Taliban, but instead an array of local militias and security forces could fragment and ethnic violence could take hold.

“Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualised if it continues on the trajectory it is on,” said Gen Austin Miller, the commander of the US-led mission in Afghanistan, at a press conference on Tuesday. “That should be a concern for the world.”

It is now feared the US diplomatic presence in the country could become untenable.

A US Embassy representative told the Associated Press that security assessments were frequent these days. Speaking on condition of anonymity in line with briefing rules, she said the embassy was currently down to 1,400 US citizens and about 4,000 staff working inside the compound.

The Australian Embassy closed and most other Western embassies reduced their staff.

Most expatriate or foreign staff with international aid organisations in Kabul also left, said Naemat Rohi, deputy director of Akbar, an umbrella organisation representing 167 aid organisations, including 87 international charities.

“They said they were going on R&R, but that was just so as not to create panic among their local staff ... they were leaving for their security reasons,” he said.

The exodus prompted the Taliban to issue multiple statements assuring aid groups and Afghans working for Western organisations they had nothing to fear.

Afghan soldiers and residents flee

A day before, more than 1,000 Afghan troops fled into neighbouring Tajikistan following clashes with the Taliban, as the insurgents gained momentum on the battlefield.

The exodus of troops followed another weekend of fighting across much of the northern countryside where the Taliban have overrun dozens of districts, spurring fears that Afghan forces are in crisis.

"Afghan forces have lost their morale," said analyst Atta Noori in Kabul.

"They are confused – in almost every district that the Taliban capture, they send a team of elders to talk to the soldiers and get them to surrender."

"It is an emergency situation for the Afghan government. They need to step up their counteroffensive as soon as possible."

The Taliban pressed on with their offensive across the north at the weekend, seizing most of Badakhshan and Takhar provinces with government forces holding little more than the provincial capitals.

The speed and ease of the Taliban's effective takeover of the provinces represent a massive psychological blow to the Afghan government.

Both provinces had once served as strongholds for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance during the gruesome civil war in the 1990s and were never routed by the militants.

On the borders, Tajikistan rushed its own troops to "strengthen" the border, while Moscow said it had temporarily closed one of its consulates in Afghanistan's north as the security situation deteriorated.

The Afghan soldiers "did not want to surrender. They had asked for reinforcements but their call was ignored," said Abdul Basir, a soldier based with a battalion in Badakhshan province that had members flee over the border.

Tens of thousands of Afghan families are fleeing to escape the Taliban’s rapid advance into the country’s northern region, part of a larger refugee crisis that is brewing as the US speeds up its troop withdrawal after two decades of war.

The militants have burnt farmland and forced citizens to leave their towns and villages, Mohammad Amiri, a deputy spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, said by phone on Monday. “The Taliban prefers violence over talks and has accelerated its violence nationwide in order to achieve its own political agenda,” he said.

Western security officials said insurgent forces have captured more than 100 districts but the Taliban say they have control of more than 200 districts in 34 provinces comprising over half the Central Asian country.

In one night they lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area
Naematullah, Afghan soldier

Peace talks

While the transfer of Bagram Air Base to the Afghan Army added momentum to a Taliban drive to seize control over new districts, Taliban leaders renewed the long-stalled talks with Afghan government envoys in Qatar's capital Doha last week.

"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," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters on Monday.

"Possibly it will take a month to reach that stage when both sides will share their written peace plan," he said. The latest round of talks were at a critical juncture, he said.

"Although we [Taliban] have the upper hand on the battlefield, we are very serious about talks and dialogue."

Responding to a request for comment on Mr Mujahid's remarks, a US State Department representative said a negotiated settlement was the only way to end 40 years of war in Afghanistan.

"We urge the sides to engage in serious negotiations to determine a political roadmap for Afghanistan’s future that leads to a just and durable settlement," the official said.

"The world will not accept the imposition by force of a government in Afghanistan. Legitimacy and assistance for any Afghan government can only be possible if that government has a basic respect for human rights."

Updated: July 06, 2021, 7:55 PM