Afghanistan’s second-largest city, Kandahar, has fallen to the Taliban, an enormous psychological and strategic boost for the movement. About a third of the country’s regional capitals are in its hands.
In response, British troops are travelling to Kabul to help with the evacuation of British citizens and Afghan fellow workers, some 4,000 people. It comes as UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has warned that the country is “heading towards a civil war”. As matters stand, it can only be a matter of time, perhaps even days, before the capital falls.
US President Joe Biden must take responsibility for much of what has happened. Certainly the Afghan government and army, both riddled with corruption, as they have been for the last 20 years, have failed catastrophically to defend the country, notwithstanding the billions that have been spent on their establishment and support by the US.
But the way in which the US withdrawal has been managed has ensured the worst possible outcome. He has continued Donald Trump’s policy of wholesale withdrawal from the country without, it would seem, a coherent attempt to manage the inevitable consequences, of which he must have been aware.
During the Obama years, he was intimately involved with in framing US policy in Afghanistan. The anniversary of the entry of the US into Afghanistan — to deal with Osama bin Laden — may well be marked by the establishment of Taliban rule over the entire country. It is not a happy outcome to Biden’s first major foreign policy initiative.
Of course, it was impossible for the US to continue the kind of large-scale deployment of US troops that it sustained for most of that time, but what might have been possible would have been the maintenance of a modest but sufficient body of personnel to support the Afghan forces, particularly with intelligence and air support. Britain could have continued to play a supporting role.
Only a month ago, Biden said “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely”. How wrong this has rapidly proven.
All we can do now is to plan for the flight of refugees from Afghanistan to neighbouring countries and ensuing geopolitical instability.
It is a grim conclusion to 20 years’ engagement in the region.