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As US Departs Afghanistan, A Changing Balance Of Forces Emerges

Written by: (Contributed) on 13 July 2021


The planned withdrawal of United States and NATO troops from Afghanistan is best viewed in the context of prolonged military failure resting upon decades of poor planning and questionable intelligence assessments.

Declassified documents from the period leave few doubts, in sensible minds, about the outcome.

Behind the scenes, however, other factors give reason to regard the US-led withdrawal as a hurried departure before greater problems, which have already begun to loom on the horizon, arise.

Earlier this year the US announced their intention to withdraw their military presence from Afghanistan by September. It would appear the logical outcome following the publication of a declassified documents by the Washington Post which revealed the Pentagon has been 'hiding unquestionable evidence the war had become unwinnable'. (1)

The documents, a collection of 2,000 pages of notes and 428 interviews, revealed a widespread military miscalculation and subsequent cover-up; early in the occupation then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was actually quoted as stating 'I have no visible information into who the bad guys are', as evidence of a massive intelligence failure. (2) In fact, the whole Bush administration, of which Rumsfeld formed part, appeared completely out of their depth in Afghanistan, from Day One of Operation Enduring Freedom on 7 October 2001. The operation had been planned by the Pentagon to specifically remove the Taliban from control of the country; it has proved a dismal failure.

Later US presidential administrations, following the closure of the operation on 28 December 2014, merely continued the military occupation without important questions being asked. There were, therefore, no sensible answers provided about the massive cost of the operation, loss of life and failure to achieve even limited objectives.

The estimated cost of the operation lies between $934 billion and $978 billion, not including costs incurred with CIA intelligence operations and Veterans Affairs medical expenses. (3)

More than 775,000 US troops served in Afghanistan; a total of 2,400 lives were lost together with a further 20,589 wounded. (4) When those of coalition allies are added, the totals rise 3,502 to 18 May last year, which include 41 Australians killed and a further 261 wounded.

The figures rest upon a further 60,000 Afghani security force personnel killed by the Taliban during the same period together with an estimated total of 157,000 lost lives amongst the civilian population.

At no time has any publicity been given to the position that the US was automatically responsible for the security of Afghanistan following their invasion. The US aid allocation of $133 billion to re-build Afghanistan was a fraction of what was required to transform the war-torn country. The fact Afghanistan was responsible for 82 per cent of global opium production in 2018 is evidence that after seventeen years the US and NATO military occupation of the country had not resolved even the most fundamental of social and health problems arising in their midst. (5) 

The roots of Operation Enduring Freedom lay hidden in military planning from the previous Cold War. While the stated intention was to promote 'democratic values', the quirky neo-conservative political philosophy was little other than a convenient cover for aggressive militarism and neo-colonial economic theories. It became fashionable during the period of the so-called New World Order. The theory had many supporters in Washington and the Pentagon, and would appear to have clouded their judgements when planning the Afghanistan debacle. Their military planning, to return to previous US diplomatic positions without concern or regard for practicalities of the present day, would appear to have taken place inside an ivory tower of their own making. 

Afghanistan was regarded as a strategic asset for the US during the 1950s Cold War period. During the 1950s-79 period, US foreign assistance amounted to about $500 million in loans and included King Zahir Shah visiting President John F. Kennedy in Washington in 1963. US Peace Corps and US Aid were also active in Afghanistan during the period 1962-79. (6)

Part of the US aid budget for Afghanistan included the construction and maintenance of the Bagram Air Base, a mini US city about fifty kms north of Kabul, which was used a bulwark against the former Soviet Union. Numerous other bases and military facilities were also established. The King, however, was later deposed in the early 1970s and the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seized power in April, 1978, unleashing the forces of the Saur Revolution which included large-scale land distribution. The relations of production were marked by an almost pre-feudal system. The ruling PDPA administration in Kabul was supported by the former social-imperialist Soviet Union, which sent thousands of advisors. They were later backed in December, 1979, by a Soviet Army presence inside the country.

In response, US began supporting the Mujahideen, a collection of Islamic fundamentalists, fanatics and jihadists to destabilise the PDPA. It was a foolish move. They quickly evolved into the Taliban which seized power in Kabul in 1996 after a four year civil war following the PDPA administration falling in 1992.

Throughout the period a great deal of US aid was channelled through the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organisation in neighbouring Pakistan which caused a huge disruption to the country and neighbouring region. Afghanistan, and other neighbouring countries, soon became a magnet for Sunni Islamic-backed terrorist organisations; they also bit the hand which fed them. 

Following the 9/11 terrorist outrages in the US, Afghanistan together with Iraq were held responsible and military invasions took place. Nearly twenty years later, however, the US and NATO forces were never able to establish control of Afghanistan.

In early July the announcement that all US and NATO troops had left the Bagram Air Base followed the military facility coming under rocket barrages claimed by Islamic State. It has revealed a seriously deteriorating security situation. (7) The base, which was the main command centre for anti-Taliban operations for nearly twenty years, was evacuated. (8)  

Elsewhere, reports the Taliban have already secured control of an estimated 85 per cent of the country, reveal the US-backed puppet administrations in Kabul and 34 provinces are in serious difficulty and likely to fall in due course. (9) A recent US intelligence assessment concluded the central government in Kabul 'could fall within six months of the US military departure'. (10)

Behind the scenes, however, moves by China to construct the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative across Afghanistan appear a strategic part of a changing balance of forces taking place across the wider region. Afghanistan, strategically, is the shortest route from China to the Middle East. An official diplomatic statement issued by Hekmat Khalil Karzai, Deputy Foreign Minister, noted the moves included 'a unique effort for China to re-unite the region … with … connectivity and co-operation among countries primarily in Euro-Asia … with sixteen countries connected by the OBOR'. (11) It was, furthermore, noted the initiative was a 'very important step towards regional co-operation, regional and inter-regional connectivity … with … a unique effort for China'. (12)

While it has been noted the Taliban regard China in relatively friendly diplomatic terms, it would appear the US-backed puppet administrations, even with their huge military presence, have been unable to prevent China from successfully building growing trade relations inside Afghanistan. China has also become its biggest trading partner in recent years and the recent initiatives were announced as enabling Afghanistan to become 'an economic hub' of bigger regional economic development. (13) 

Feasibility studies publicised with the diplomatic statement included reference to Afghanistan being rich in natural resources and possessing an estimated 1,400 types of minerals and ores. Mining was now regarded as possible even though 'none of the mining has been utilised' to date. (14)

In conclusion, it would appear traditional US regional hegemonic positions have well and truly eclipsed; the US appear fully aware their present position in Afghanistan has become untenable. They also appear to have no wish to continue to provide defence and security provision for China's trade relations with Afghanistan.

1.     The Afghanistan Papers – At war with the truth, The Washington Post, 9 December 2019.

2.     Ibid.

3.     Ibid.

4.     Ibid.

5.     Ibid.

6.     Wikipedia: Afghanistan-US Relations, 11 July 2021.

7.     US, NATO troops leave Bagram, The Weekend Australian, 3-4 July 2021.

8.     We owe it to our helpers to save then from certain death, Australian, 7 July 2021; and,
        Taliban enter first provincial capital, Australian, 8 July 2021.

9.     China prepares, The Insider, 9 July 2021; and, Mission accomplished: Biden, The Weekend Australian, 10-11 July 2021.

10.   Afghan security on slide: US chief, Australian, 1 July 2021.

11.   One Belt, One Road, The Daily Outlook (Afghanistan), 3 April 2017.

12.   Ibid.

13.   Wikipedia: Afghanistan-China Relations, 11 July 2021, and, ibid.
14.   One Belt, One Road, ibid., 3 April 2017.


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