The price of defeat: The US fled Afghanistan exactly a year ago, but the real consequences are yet to come
The Americans were preparing to pull their troops out of Afghanistan for months, but the operation still turned out to be a disaster. Footage of young Afghans clinging to Lockheed C-5 Galaxy cargo planes at Kabul Airport went viral all over the world. And although it seems these images have vanished from mainstream discourse, the consequences of those events are yet to come. RT asked experts what President Joe Biden’s first and most important foreign policy decision cost his administration.
Fleeing on camera
The Cold War was full of symbols. One of the most striking of these was footage of US military personnel pushing helicopters off the landing deck of the destroyer USS Kirk in the Mekong Gulf in 1975. The helicopters had been operated by pilots taking part in the US military mission in South Vietnam who were removing diplomatic staff from a besieged Saigon, along with their families. They no longer planned to return to the burning capital, so the expensive aircraft were sunk in the South China Sea.
While the helicopters on the deck of the Kirk were a striking, albeit isolated, case of such an incident being caught on camera, the multi-day flight of thousands of people fearing the Islamist dictatorship of the Taliban, who were rapidly taking control of Kabul, was shown on all social networks. The situation was exacerbated by a terrorist attack in the now almost forgotten style of the aughts.
On August 26, an explosion was heard in an airport terminal building packed with refugees. Approximately 170 civilians and 13 American servicemen were killed. At the same time, the world was innundated by videos of groups of grim men in turbans sitting at tables in the government offices of the presidential palace. Kalashnikov assault rifles from all over the world, as well as American M4s and Swiss SGs, could also be seen in the frame.
George W. Bush, who started the Afghan War, promised to quickly end the scarcely comprehensible conflict launched as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But this did not work out for him, nor for his successors Barack Obama or Donald Trump. It was clear to both the military and politicians that it was probably impossible to do so without suffering critical losses. Trump came closest to withdrawing troops by concluding an agreement with the Taliban that was criticized in the United States, but his defeat in the presidential election prevented him from finishing the job. As a result, responsibility for the exodus of Americans from Afghanistan fell on Joseph Biden, who had already studied the problem as vice president under Obama and firmly linked his fate with this operation during the election race.
Referring to a report by the Watson Institute, a Washington Post article on the troop withdrawal noted that 71,000 civilian Afghans and Pakistanis had died in the war over 20 years. The drone strike that followed the terrorist attack at the airport claimed the lives of ten civilians but was one of the last, if the recent (August 1, 2022) elimination of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was recognized as a terrorist, isn’t counted.
The agreements with the Taliban and the chaotic evacuation from Kabul were the first significant foreign policy steps of the new Democrat administration after Trump left the White House. And, most likely, they have become a time bomb for the electoral prospects of the current cabinet and the top-tier of the Democratic Party in general. At least, experts interviewed by RT hold this view.
“This was an important turning point in American history, the consequences of which will take several decades to see. In a narrower sense, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan turned out to be the defining point of the entire policy of the Biden administration. It was a watershed moment,” Vladimir Vasiliev, chief researcher at the Institute for US and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, said in a conversation with RT.
“First of all, it caused a split in American society and the American political elite. There was polarization in the assessment of this event on the part of both parties and their leaders. In words, and maybe in deeds, the Democrats supported this initiative. Biden took full responsibility, believing that he had ended this 20-year war, which had cost the Americans a trillion dollars,” the expert added.
According to Vasiliev, representatives of the Republican Party still consider the evacuation from Afghanistan comparable to the exit from South Vietnam and Southeast Asia in the mid-70s. In their pre-election narrative, this can still be used as justification to demand either the voluntary early resignation of the incumbent president, or even his impeachment, if a favorable political situation develops.
According to Reuters, Biden’s current approval rating barely reaches 40%, whereas 55% of Americans are dissatisfied with his actions. The disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan could be the starting point for the downfall of the Democrats. The ongoing pandemic, tensions in Asia, and an imminent economic recession are also contributing to the president’s declining popularity. Nancy Pelosi’s recent Asian tour may just have been an attempt to rectify the situation for the party.
“While before the troop withdrawal, most Americans supported Biden, maybe blindly, maybe due to inertia – Afghanistan changed everything,” Vasiliev said. “Since then, his degree of public support has fallen sharply and is now at a critically low level. And today, we could even say this trend is irreversible.”
According to available data, including an analysis by auditors from the public organization Open the Books, the US military left up to 650,000 weapons to the rapidly advancing Taliban forces. This includes 350,000 modern M4 assault rifles and obsolete M16s, 65,000 machine guns, 25,000 submachine guns, and 2,500 mortar launchers. According to the organization’s estimates, the Americans left up to 22,000 Humvees and 110 UH-60 Black Hawk combat helicopters. Even if these figures are an exaggeration (as seems to be the case), it is logical to assume that withdrawing all of America’s remaining troops within just a week after pumping the entire region with weapons for 20 years would result in precisely this outcome. Army General Austin Miller, a special forces soldier who was in charge of the troops in Afghanistan, demonstratively handed over his command before the start of the troop withdrawal and now works as an adviser in a private company.
“We can only call what happened a ‘withdrawal operation’ with a grain of salt. In fact, it was a genuine escape, with allies thrown under the bus. Afghans who worked for the Americans, mountains of weapons worth billions of dollars, helicopters, and vehicles were all abandoned – it’s hard to call this a ‘withdrawal operation,’” Yuri Rogulev, director of the Foundation for the Study of the United States of the Moscow State University, said.
“This flight marked a turning point for the Biden administration, after which its approval rating plummeted and never rebounded. After that, no matter what the White House took on, it ended up the same way – in failure. And in this sense, it is a symbolic act that lays bare all the contradictions in America’s relations with many countries and reveals its attitude towards former allies.”
According to Vasiliev, the failure in Afghanistan put an end to the administration’s domestic political ambitions. One year on, the cabinet has been unable to implement any of the major policy initiatives in its domestic agenda. Given the circumstances, the Biden administration justified the withdrawal by saying, “We are leaving Afghanistan to focus our actions on countering Russia and China.” Despite all its “adventurism and absurdity,” this line began to be implemented and provoked the Russian side to take forceful measures.
“This goes to show that the United States can do this to any of the protégés, allies, or clients that they supported,” Rogulev said, pointing to a century-old tradition of US foreign policy. “They have abandoned Afghanistan completely. They don’t provide it with any financial support or even humanitarian aid. This is also an example for Pakistan to keep in mind.”
According to Vasiliev, the increased tensions surrounding Taiwan and US-Chinese relations are a direct consequence of the military detente in Afghanistan.
In light of the unsuccessful end of the war in Afghanistan, he questions the Democratic Party’s prospects for retaining control in both chambers of Congress in the upcoming election. “The 2020 mandate has been exhausted,” Vasiliev said.
“Approval ratings are ephemeral. They can climb. But since then, we have not seen an upswing. No fluctuations. So, to say that no one noticed the setback in Afghanistan would be a mistake. I think the images of the departing plane and people falling from it are still engraved in everyone’s memory,” Rogulev noted.
Comparing this with the Vietnam flight of 1975, Rogulev makes one distinction. At that time, the US troops had been truly defeated. There was no defeat here – what happened was a demonstration of a lack of any common strategy or clear position. The fact that the troops were withdrawn was not the problem.
“But how it was carried out and the consequences it has led to, both for Afghanistan and the rest of the world – that’s what we need to talk about.”
Rogulev believes that the troop withdrawal has weakened America’s position in the Middle East. “The general image of the United States as a country that can bring something positive has disappeared in the region.”
According to Vasiliev, an investigation into the matter still lies ahead, after which there will be a big shakeup in the US State Department. “This is a problem that has been kind of put off,” he said. “So far, no one has been held accountable.”
“The Republicans tried to initiate this through Congress, but only a special bipartisan commission can identify the people responsible and give a real assessment. And as of today, there’s been none. It’s like the collapse of the Soviet Union – there is the fact that it happened, but everyone has to figure out why for themselves.”