Afghanistan: End of an Era | Daily News

Afghanistan: End of an Era

America’s longest war came to an end just before midnight local time in Afghanistan, when the last evacuation flight flew out of Kabul airport. A Boeing C-17 Globemaster military transport plane took off carrying the US Commander who oversaw the evacuation operation, Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue of the 82nd Airborne Division, and the acting US Ambassador Ross Wilson, who were the last two Americans to step off the tarmac in Kabul, just minutes before the August 31 deadline. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said later that “a new chapter has begun”, with the military operation over and a diplomatic mission just starting. US diplomatic operations have now been moved from Kabul to Doha, Qatar, he said.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, said Afghans now “face a moment of decision and opportunity. Their country’s future is in their hands. They will choose their path in full sovereignty. This is the chance to bring their war to an end as well.”

There was no fanfare or ceremony, and no Hong Kong-style handing over of flags to Kabul’s new masters – the Taliban, whom the US had driven out exactly 20 years ago, in an invasion that followed the horrendous 9/11 attacks in New York. The explicit aim of this mission was to hunt down the leaders of the al-Qaeda terrorist group, which was widely believed to be behind the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban, which was ruling Afghanistan from 1996, was more or less collateral damage in this exercise. With both al-Qaeda and the Taliban out of the way, the US managed to establish a “democratic” Government in Afghanistan, albeit one which was rife with corruption and infighting.

Nevertheless, Afghanistan did gain a measure of democracy and freedom after the harsh rule of the Taliban, which had banned education for girls and public performances of music. A generation of Afghan women have cherished this freedom and reached top positions in governance, Armed Forces, public service and sports. All these gains have now been lost, although the Taliban say they have “changed” over the last 20 years and will allow women to learn and work, strictly within their interpretation of Islamic laws.  

The problem with the American and Allies’ mission in Afghanistan was trying to portray it as a nation-building exercise, for which Afghanistan did not have the capacity with its endemic corruption, crumbling public service and dilapidated infrastructure. It seems that the Western powers had not learned the proper lessons from Vietnam and other such forays into foreign theatres of war. Iraq is another classic example of this hubris.

But the human cost of the war is the biggest factor that perhaps led to the US decision to exit Afghanistan by the August 31 deadline. As Blinken noted, it was time to “learn lessons” from the US’s 20-year presence in Afghanistan. The US alone lost 2,461 Service Members, including the 13 who perished in the suicide attacks at the Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul. Nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians and 70,000 Afghan soldiers and police are estimated to have died in the violence since 2001. Many civilians died in Allied drone attacks as well as in car bomb attacks by insurgents.

But in a way, Afghanistan’s problems are just beginning. With the Taliban asserting its control around the country, ISIS-K (which claimed responsibility for the Kabul suicide attacks) increasingly active and the US vowing to continue airstrikes against them, it seems certain that the last American flight out will not mean the end of the daily violence faced by ordinary Afghans, most of whom desperately want to get out of the country.

Around 2,000 “hardcore” IS fighters are said to be on the ground in Afghanistan. It is well known that the ISIS-K and the Taliban do not exactly see eye to eye. The Taliban is impatient for global recognition and any terror attacks launched on or from Afghan soil will not do them any good. Moreover, neighbouring nations are already jittery that the Taliban victory could embolden terror groups operating in their countries. The Taliban are caught between a rock and a hard place on this issue and the sooner they get rid of the terror cells in Afghanistan, the better it is for them.  

The Taliban now face the challenge of cobbling together a ruling council or coalition that should be acceptable to the rest of the world. Diplomacy is certainly not their forte, but they must come to grips with it to survive in this globalised world. With Afghan Central Bank assets frozen by the US and the IMF withdrawing assistance programmes, the ball is now in the Taliban’s court to honour civilized norms of governance if it wants to unlock those finances and other forms of assistance that can help the Afghan people to emerge from their present misery. The Taliban now have an opportunity to prove that they have indeed changed for the better and are keen to set the course for a future better for their country. 

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