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Editorial: ‘Fall of Kabul’ is defining failure in misguided US ‘war on terror’

  • August 17, 2021
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

Afghanistan has been a warzone for the 20 years since the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States. Now, that conflict is coming to what can only be called a miserable end.


The Taliban, Afghanistan’s former rulers, have taken control of the capital Kabul and declared victory over the government. President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country. His administration has imploded.


At the moment of implosion, scenes inside the city were bizarre. Armed Taliban fighters seized government agencies, and even moved into the president’s office, while citizens fled the city in trucks or rushed to banks to withdraw money.


Helicopters came and went to the U.S. Embassy, evacuating staff.


Some U.S. media have begun calling this the “Fall of Kabul,” a direct reference to the dramatic scenes of helicopters ferrying people away from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) when the South Vietnamese capital fell to the North in 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War. For the United States, these are scenes of humiliation.


What opened the gate to Taliban control’s lightning return was the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of U.S. troops under President Joe Biden. Biden had stated just a month before gun-toting fighters posed for a photo in Ghani’s office that “the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” Biden must now regret those words.


The present Afghan War began in 2001, when the United Nations Security Council granted the U.S. and its allies leave to retaliate for 9/11. The U.S. and U.K. militaries unleashed strikes against the Taliban for harboring al-Qaida, the militant group behind the airborne attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia. A multinational force then occupied Afghanistan, ostensibly to bring peace and order to the country. The world had come together to fight terror.


However, a conflict started in the name of “justice” was soon a quagmire, eventually becoming the United States’ longest war. Behind that is the “war on terror,” a policy carried on by successive U.S. administrations that has badly lost its way.


The George W. Bush administration launched the war in Afghanistan. It then, also in the name of the “war on terror,” went on to invade Iraq. The administration of his successor Barack Obama found and killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. This reduced tensions, but Obama failed to turn his attention to Afghanistan’s revival.


Spurred by the sense that the Afghan conflict had become a “forever war,” Donald Trump’s administration hastened the drawdown of U.S. troops in the country and totally disregarded the policy’s impact on Afghans’ morale. That set the stage for the Biden administration to horrendously underestimate the Taliban’s power.


The Afghan government also bears a heavy responsibility for the debacle we now see unfolding. Officials redirected into their own pockets the streams of international money coming into the country for reconstruction, and turned a deaf ear to a citizenry increasingly distrustful of politics.


The government also frequently paid its soldiers late, creating dissatisfaction and a receptive audience for Taliban recruiters offering high wages to Afghanistan’s young men. There were also reportedly cases of U.S.-supplied cutting-edge military equipment being sold for a profit.


What turned the tide in the Taliban’s favor on the battlefield was that, as U.S. forces were pulled out, the Afghan Army could not mount any real resistance to the sudden Taliban offensive. City after major city could not hold against its advance.


The United States gave policy pride of place in its war on terror. The Afghan government could not stand without leaning on U.S. military protection. It is undoubtable that the chaotic mess we see now was produced by a mix of overweening conceit and overconfidence.


The next problem is: How will the Taliban run Afghanistan? The previous Taliban regime followed its own peculiar interpretation of Islam. They barred girls from education and banned recreation, and implemented punishments like public stoning,

inviting the international community’s opprobrium.


However, democratic ideals have spread slowly through Afghan society for the past 20 years, and girls’ education has been guaranteed.


This time around, there are apparently areas under Taliban control where women have been banned from working. A return to the oppression of the first Taliban government would be utterly unacceptable.


The U.N. Security Council declared in a press release that it does not support a return to Taliban rule. It goes without saying that international monitoring of developments is a must.


What is most concerning is that Afghanistan could go back to being a breeding ground for terrorism. In the peace agreement it signed with the U.S. last year, the Taliban vowed that it would not get involved with al-Qaida again. However, the militants have already repeatedly broken their pledge under the same agreement not to pillage local populations. Concerns remain that al-Qaida will bounce back. The U.S. military believes the terror group could recover within two years.


The global situation has changed a great deal since 9/11. The U.S. has poured some $88 billion (about 9 trillion yen) into the country since 2001, and lost around 2,400 soldiers to the war there. In the meantime, China has raised its global profile to the point that it is a challenger to the United States.


The “Fall of Kabul” is likely to yet further decrease international confidence in the U.S. America-led democratization of Afghanistan has failed, but the “war on terror” is not over. Terrorism is a threat to global society. There is now an urgent need to build a worldwide anti-terrorism network, one that includes the U.S., China and Russia.

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