In Kabul, young Afghan journalists remain “stoic and courageous” as they cover the mayhem, says Saad Mohseni, whose Moby Group runs Tolo TV, the largest media operation in Afghanistan. “My journalists have the pain of the country written in their faces,” he writes in a text.
In the Afghan military, “the mood toward the U.S. is souring by the hour,” as they watch the rapid retreat of American troops and contractors, says David Sedney, who spent much of the past two decades as a Pentagon official dealing with Afghanistan. “As the full implications of the U.S. abandonment sink in, dynamics are in motion that could lead in many directions, almost all of them bad.”
President Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops after two decades of war is understandable, however dispiriting it is to these Afghans. What’s harder for the Afghans to fathom is why Biden pulled the plug so quickly, with so little apparent planning for what’s next. Leaving the modest remaining force of 2,500 U.S. troops there a while longer would have been a low-cost way of sustaining the shaky status quo.
Instead, we have “rapid disintegration,” according to Frederick W. Kagan, a former West Point military history professor who has advised three U.S. commanders in Kabul. The Taliban, intoxicated with imminent victory, are advancing toward major provincial capitals. The Afghan army is buckling in many areas. And in the vacuum, ethnic militias and criminal gangs are becoming the only security for a terrified population.
Biden has a last chance to salvage some of this wreckage when President Ashraf Ghani visits Washington on Friday. He can’t offer Ghani U.S. military muscle — it’s too late for that. But he can pledge financial and diplomatic support that, perhaps, could allow Ghani’s government to avert total collapse. And he can mobilize the international consensus — which includes Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran — against a Taliban military takeover in Kabul.
Biden had hoped for an intra-Afghan peace agreement before U.S. troops departed. He won’t get that, largely because the triumphal Taliban have dragged their feet. Resolution of the conflict — on the battlefield or in negotiations — won’t come until after U.S. troops have left. The Taliban appear startled by the speed of their advance; they have begun privately messaging Americans about the mundane realities of governing, such as operating dams or maintaining a power grid, U.S. officials say.
“I don’t think the president understood how precarious the situation would become” as soon as he announced on April 14 that he planned to withdraw all troops by Sept. 11, says Kagan. Biden’s pledge to remove U.S. military forces came as the Afghan fighting season was beginning. Rampaging Taliban rebels seized about 50 district capitals after May 1. But they’ve held back from capturing big provincial capitals such as Kandahar or Jalalabad, perhaps because they fear U.S. reprisals or maybe just because their forces are stretched.
Although Pentagon civilian and military leaders widely opposed Biden’s decision, they have moved to implement it quickly and decisively. They don’t want scenes of last-minute chaos, with Taliban flags atop captured U.S. Army vehicles or American helicopters lifting desperate stragglers from rooftops.
Every week, U.S. Central Command sends out a news release, as reliable as the Grim Reaper, counting the drawdown. As of Tuesday, the Pentagon had removed the equivalent of 763 C-17 loads of materiel and disposed of 14,790 pieces of equipment.
The Taliban is like the proverbial dog that caught the car. It has achieved its dream of forcing American withdrawal, but now what? Afghanistan is a much more urban and modern nation than when the Taliban were driven from power 20 years ago. Kabul and other major cities may not fall easily; even if the army crumbles, militias will keep fighting.
Americans grew tired of this war, but they won’t like scenes of our departure, either. What Biden owes Afghanistan and America both is a frank explanation of what he’s doing — and how he plans to keep faith with the Afghan people to provide as honorable a retreat as possible. But for Afghanistan, and perhaps Biden, too, this will be a summer of pain.