“We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately & safely. And we will do it in full coordination with our allies & partners.”
That was how Biden described his plans for the US exit from Afghanistan in April of this year.
Yet the same operation left hundreds of Afghans eligible for UK and US residency at the mercy of the Taliban. So far from being safe and orderly, at least seven Afghans were killed in the suffocating crushes which swelled around the airport gates.
The haste with which it was conducted ensured that billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment was received by a grateful, fledgling tyranny. And the failure to adequately prepare for an airlift of vulnerable civilians left the entire operation hideously exposed to terrorist attack.
That last oversight was ruthlessly exploited on the 26th of August, when a suicide bomber killed over 180, including 13 members of the American armed forces. Those were the first US fatalities in Afghanistan that Biden had overseen. They died as part of an evacuation made necessary by the withdrawal their President ordered.
The volume of American-made equipment now in Taliban hands is staggering. Exact numbers are difficult to obtain, but the captured arsenal is easily sufficient to make violent resistance to Afghanistan’s new rulers almost impossible. The kit list includes over 300,000 assault rifles, and 64,000 machine guns. Over 22,000 American-made Humvees – each costing $220,000 – are now available to the Taliban. As are dozens of light attack aircraft and military helicopters.
The Taliban have wasted no time in putting their new American equipment to effective use. The Times journalist Anthony Lloyd has reported how resistance fighters defending the last free province of Panjshir had to watch columns of Humvees roar towards their positions, all flying the Taliban banner. He bore witness as a captured Panjshiri prisoner was dragged away, his wrists bound with American-made handcuffs:
“The fact that his wrists were bonded by steel etched with the words ‘Peerless Handcuff Company, Springfield, Massachusetts’ seemed somehow more grotesque than any other detail beneath the angry blue of the late summer sky”
To have American kit used to crush American allies. That is grotesque indeed.
Most frightening though, was not the loss of weapons and vehicles, but of ‘biometric devices’, which contain the fingerprints, retinal scans, and biographical information of former Afghan army personnel. Gold dust for a vengeful terror group intent on hunting down ‘collaborators’. This revelation was followed by the discovery that American officials had provided the Taliban with a list of Afghans allies they wanted to extract, in the hope that the militants would expedite their passage to Kabul airport. Yes, that’s right. The US handed the Taliban the names of people who had worked with the coalition. If that sounds like an act of madness, then you’re starting to glimpse just how shambolic the evacuation was.
Could the chaos at Kabul airport have been avoided? Keeping Bagram airfield open for longer would certainly have helped. The decision to abandon that base – given how familiar US forces were with its layout and defences – only grows more ludicrous with hindsight. If the goal was to extract as many Afghans as possible, then why not have a second airfield open?
In the event, American and allied forces had to conduct the entire evacuation from Kabul. The vast majority of the troops involved in the operation were deployed only a couple of days before the Afghan capital’s surrender. That the minds of decision-makers only turned to evacuation at the eleventh hour suggests a terrible lack of foresight. Especially given that British and American intelligence services had identified a rapid Afghan collapse as a ‘possible scenario’. The receipt of that intelligence seemed to produce little urgency amongst our leaders. It did not stop the Foreign Secretary from jetting off to a Cretan beach. Making his holiday doubly cretinous.
Where was the planning? Why were contingency measures for a mass evacuation not being put in place? Could it have been because Biden and co. were unwilling to acknowledge the consequences of the decision to withdraw? Preparing properly for an airlift would have meant taking ownership of the defeat, rather than the kudos that comes with ‘bringing the troops home’. I hope these were not thoughts had by those in the White House, but I suspect they were.
With no time to set up a perimeter which afforded some protection to themselves, American and British troops were forced to check each terrified Afghan with their bare hands, with a jostling crowd just a few feet away. Presented with such a vulnerable target, and a final chance to kill western infidels, the terrorists – in this case ISIS-Khorasan – were never going to let the opportunity slip by. It’s difficult to grasp the explosive power necessary to kill more than 180 people at once.
One of the 13 American dead was 23-year-old Marine Corps Sergeant Nicole Gee. She hailed from Sacramento, and had posted an Instagram photo just a few hours before being killed. It showed her cradling an Afghan child, with the caption: ‘I love my job’.
The ISIS attack allowed us a preview of Afghanistan’s future: A Hobbesian state, with iron law. Hobbesian in its chaos, with groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda causing mayhem, and simultaneously governed by the Taliban. A group who don’t blink at amputation for the pettiest of crimes. With followers sadistic enough to kill a teacher who dared to educate girls by disembowelling him, and then tearing his limbs off with motorbikes. No, I didn’t make that punishment up.
These are evil men. And now they run Afghanistan. They have every intention of dismantling the progress achieved in their absence. 8.2 million more children in school. A 75% hike in earnings. Maternal mortality cut by a third. Youth literacy increased by 18%. Secondary school enrolment up from 13 to 54%. An elected national parliament, where 27% of MPs were female.
None of that matters to the Taliban. All they care about is their faith, and enforcing absolute adherence to it. So they’ve told working women to stay at home. They’ve killed the musicians and comedians who’ve dared to defy them. In fact, they’ve re-imposed their total ban on music. For theirs is a death cult, which cannot accommodate joy.
They’ve assassinated many who worked with the coalition, and they’ve massacred members of the Hazara minority. They will go on doing it, as long as no one stops them. They choose to take life, often in the most brutal, indiscriminate ways, and then consider it an act of faith, of worship, of piety. People like Sergent Gee choose to save it.
Already, the 13 dead servicemen have been returned home. 13 coffins have been returned to 13 sets of mourners. They will be lowered into 13 trenches, to the echo of gun salutes. And when the coffins come to rest, and the dirt is piled on top, they will leave American military families, doing their quiet best.
Of this I am sure: At those 13 funerals, there will be crying, maybe singing. What there will not be, is deranged firing into the sky, or crazed ululations or veneration of the fallen martyrs. There will be no shrieks for vengeance, no curses hurled at the foreign infidel.
But thanks to our leaders, nor will there be any justice. There will be only defeat.
Illustration by Oliver Buckingham