What Afghans need is for the US to be a responsible partner and stop adding fuel to the fire by foretelling the collapse of the Afghan government after announcing troop withdrawal.
A few days after United States intelligence agencies released a report foretelling a collapse of the Afghan government within six months of foreign troop withdrawal, President Joe Biden promised continued military and economic support to his Afghan counterpart President Ashraf Ghani. All this happened after President Biden announced an unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan stating that he did not wish to pass this responsibility onto a fifth US President.
The president sees the war as a responsibility, but not the country the United States chose to “liberate”. The withdrawal is a matter of US national interest but that should not allow it to evade its responsibility towards Afghanistan.
The recent warning of an imminent collapse of the Afghan government begs the question of the accuracy of the intelligence assessment, as well as a look at recent military developments on the ground and the impact such an assessment might have on battlefield morale.
Afghanistan’s Taliban strategy
The accuracy of the assessment needs to be questioned due to the absence of concrete data and the existence of many moving variables. Though the US intelligence agencies might be equipped to study the capacity of the Afghan military, they have little access to facts on the ground regarding the Taliban.
The capacity, capability and strategy of the Taliban are as big a mystery to their fighters as it would be to any outsider looking in. The unpredictability of the local warlords’ behaviour in opposition to the Taliban, the uprising of local populations against the Taliban and the formation of militias across the country are all factors that cannot be accounted for to accurately predict the future.
US intelligence assessments have also been incorrect multiple times during the past two decades, and it could be wrong this time as well.
Afghan defence forces have been giving up districts with little resistance, a move that was labelled as tactical retreats by First Vice President Amrullah Saleh. There might be some wisdom to such a strategy as it negates the mobility guerrilla fighting offers the Taliban. When territory is given to the Taliban, their instinct is to hold said territory, which makes them stationary targets to the attacking Afghan defence forces.
However, such a strategy does create a sense of gloom among the population and the lower strata of the armed forces. People remember the news of the fall of districts more than they register the news of districts being taken back, such is human nature.
A major determining factor for the outcome of the looming civil war is the air dominance that the Afghan defence forces enjoy. The Taliban have been losing territory captured due to their inability to hold out against tactical bombing in support of the advancing military. Though the Taliban have been capturing districts surrounding provincial centres and major cities with the aim of advancing on the cities once the foreign troops completely withdraw, it is unlikely that cities such as Herat and Kandahar with large air bases would fall to the Taliban.
The Afghan defence forces are choosing to lose strategically unimportant territory only to invest in protecting crucial cities and bases. Bagram, The largest base the Afghan defence forces operate from, is highly unlikely to fall to the Taliban due to foreign presence in the area and the hesitancy of the Taliban to hit such areas hard.
This restraint would be due to the US-Taliban agreement where the Taliban pledged to not attack the United States or their allies’ interests. A functional Bagram air base would give the Afghan forces a vital advantage in the war.
Validating the Taliban
The latest assessment further reinforces the Taliban’s winning momentum. The Biden administration’s decision confirmed the Taliban’s claim of having defeated the world’s hegemon, a validation that has translated into high morale amongst their fighters at the cost of the Afghan defence forces' conviction to fight.
Trump’s remarks that the Afghan government would not last days already echoed among Afghans, only for the recent assessment to further show the US’ lack of faith in the fighting capabilities of the Afghan forces and their own ability to support them.
The United States role and power within the global system gives great weight to their judgment. To believe the Afghan government would collapse within six months creates a self-fulling prophecy that the Taliban would gladly attempt to realise.
There is no denying the intensity of the current fighting and the advances the Taliban have made however this should be seen as a mere offensive; it is hard to imagine the Taliban sustaining such intensity for a long period. The Afghan government and its forces need to hold their ground and see this period through.
Eventually, the Taliban momentum will wear off and the brutal nature of the conflict coupled with the improbability of a political settlement would force the international community to take a stance against the Taliban. This stance might look like tougher sanctions by the UN Security Council on the Taliban’s leadership and the US and allies’ sanctions on states sponsoring or harbouring the movement.
What Afghans need is for the US to be a responsible partner and stop adding fuel to the fire by making such rash assessments.
The Biden administration was poised to do better than Trump’s administration, something it could have achieved by not being so dismissive of the Afghan government and forces who embody their legacy in the region.
Obaidullah Baheer is a lecturer of Transitional Justice at the American University in Kabul. He holds a postgraduate degree in International Relations from the University of New South Wales where he majored in Peace and Negotiation.
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