The United States completed the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan this Monday (30), a day before the deadline announced by President Joe Biden. Thus, the military presence of two decades in the Asian country ends, the longest war in its history.
The last plane took off at 11:59 pm (4:29 pm GMT) from the convulsed airport in Kabul, after an operation to evacuate 122,000 people since August 14, the eve of the Taliban’s takeover of the capital.
The Islamic fundamentalist group thus returns to power from which it had been expelled by Operation Enduring Freedom, which aimed to punish it for having sheltered and protected Al Qaeda, the terrorist network that committed the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States.
On Twitter and in interviews, spokespeople for the group like Zabihullah Mujahid and Qari Yusuf said Afghanistan has become “totally free and independent”. Gunfire and fireworks took over the Kabulite night.
Biden is due to speak this Tuesday. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a brief statement and said the US had temporarily suspended its diplomatic representation in Afghanistan but would continue to talk to the Taliban.
Initiated 19 years, 10 months and 24 days ago, the action consisted of the longest US military engagement.
It ended with a chaotic retreat marked by fiascos: from the images of an Afghan falling from the sky after grabbing a C-17 freighter taking off to the attack that took place last Thursday (26), which with nearly 200 deaths was the most lethal in the capital throughout the war.
On the final flight, the last to board were General Chris Donahue, commander of the country’s military forces on Afghan soil, and Ambassador Ross Wilson. Still, General Kenneth McKenzie, head of Central Command, said, “We don’t take out all the ones we’d like.”
About 6,000 Americans were rescued from the country, and about 200 of those who still wanted to leave ended up being left behind. The Taliban, campaigning to appear moderate, said anyone who wants to leave when commercial flights take place will not be stopped. It remains to believe in the promise.
Over the two decades, according to a study by Brown University (USA), about 160,000 people died (of which 2,298 American soldiers, 3,814 mercenaries, 1,145 allies; the rest, Afghans). The cost was $2.26 trillion, a number that the Pentagon puts at around $1 trillion.
Combat actions peaked from 2010 to 2012, when around 100,000 soldiers operated in the country. In 2014, they were closed and only a residual force remained in Afghanistan, transferring bases and missions to the local army.
These forces completely failed to contain the Taliban, which, after spreading across the country and carrying out terrorist attacks, gradually gained ground in the Afghan interior.
Last year, President Donald Trump kept his promise to disengage the United States from what he called futile wars and signed a peace deal with the Taliban, believing in the assumption that the group would negotiate its way into a coalition government.
Biden was elected in November and, after taking office in January of this year, announced in April that he would stick to the agreement — but he would leave by September 11, not in May, as agreed. The Taliban used this as an excuse to tear up their part of the deal.
He started a campaign through the Afghan interior and co-opted tribal leaders. The result was an overwhelming military campaign against major urban centers, which in two weeks saw the entire country capitulate and Kabul occupied without resistance, with President Ashraf Ghani fleeing to Abu Dhabi.
This was largely because Biden decided to anticipate the departure of the troops, which would take place at an even closer date, August 31st. So its roughly 3,500 soldiers, plus another 7,000 allies, left quickly: in the week before the capital’s fall, 95% of the forces had already left.
The withdrawal process led to a rush to the final part of the exit, mobilizing 6,000 soldiers who for the most part had never set foot in the country — the case of the 13 who died in the attack on Thursday.
The decision to anticipate the exit came amid Taliban threats that it would not allow the extension of the operation, as countries like the United Kingdom and Germany wanted, but mainly with the emergence of the EI-K (Islamic State Khorasan), the Afghan arm of the notorious terrorist group.
Opponent of the Taliban, the group was responsible for the attack on Thursday and for firing rockets intercepted by the US against the airport on Monday. The tension was growing.
On Sunday, the US killed at least seven people when it hit a car bomb that was being taken to the airport with a drone. One family says there were more people, including seven children. On Monday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the threat of attacks remains “very active”.
And the end of the war does not mean the end of military operations, particularly against groups like the EI-K in Afghanistan. Drone and plane attacks are customary in other tattered states such as Syria.
Biden promised a new statement on the case on Tuesday (31) and stressed, in a statement, that the world will demand from the Taliban the promise to maintain free passage for those who wish to leave Afghanistan.
As in Vietnam nearly half a century ago, the American withdrawal was marked by international humiliation. There are, of course, differences, but the Biden government will now have to do a long job of reducing political harm by its decision.
But, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said on Monday (30), it is just the beginning of a major humanitarian crisis. The agency estimates that by the end of the year 500,000 of the 37 million Afghans will have left the country, which already has 2.2 million refugees in camps in Pakistan and Iran.
In addition to the renewed terrorist threat from the EI-K, which like its rival Taliban had attacked Kabul before, one focus of concern is obviously the group itself consolidating in power once again.
The Taliban have denied that they will repeat the obscurantist and violent regime of its first incarnation, from 1996 to 2001, but the reality is looking very different. “My uncles are police officers and two weeks ago they fled to Pakistan. The Taliban came to our house and asked about them. We said we didn’t know and were tortured. After that we fled to our village, but if they find us we will die “, wrote an Afghan to a group of Brazilian activists trying to help refugees.
Another, who communicates by audio messages, cried and asked, “Please don’t forget us.” Activists want support from Brazilian senators for granting visas to refugees.
Another Afghan who is also in hiding, journalist Ahmed Ali, said over the weekend that he was looking for a way out of the country by land. He, who has worked with Westerners, said relatives in Kabul were interrogated as the Taliban had access to identities, personal data and biometrics on all their targets after the takeover of the Interior Ministry.
As the drama unfolds, the US has followed tense coordination with the Taliban, judged by the White House as a lesser evil given the risk of seeing the entire withdrawal operation collapse.
The rush was so great that there is still no estimate of the arsenal left behind, not to mention the relatively well-equipped Afghan Armed Forces, which are now under Taliban control — the extremist group even has an Air Force, which took over some of the Brazilian fighters. Super Tucano whose pilots failed to escape.
Other countries operate at different speeds. China, as the frequent presence of Taliban spokesmen in its state networks shows, wants the most stable regime possible to ensure the security of its western border.
Over the years, the Taliban have fomented Islamic terrorist groups in Xinjiang Province, the mostly Muslim territory oppressed with an iron fist by Beijing — the US accuses the communist dictatorship of genocide there, which is naturally seen by the Chinese as political propaganda .
Before the final offensive, the US rival in Cold War 2.0 rallied support for the Taliban in exchange for ending those ties.
Russia, on the other hand, has maintained a regulatory distance, but with moves to become a central player in the region’s politics. His envoy for Afghan affairs, Zamir Kabulov, told Russia-24 channel on Monday that the embassy in Kabul is “building ties” with the new government owners.
In addition, the Russian criticized the American decision to freeze most of Afghanistan’s international reserves, which total US$9.4 billion. From a military point of view, seeking to keep its Central Asian flank under control as well, the Kremlin now maintains a routine of permanent exercises with its allies bordering Afghanistan, such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.