On April 14th, US President Joe Biden announced that US forces would withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11th (recently pushed forward to August 31st), exactly two decades after the catastrophe that drove the US military into this Central Asian country in the first place.
After two decades and a trillion dollars in expenditure, just what the American intervention has achieved seems far from certain.
This notebook aims to chart some of the consequences of Biden's decision to withdraw, from the refugee crisis to the impact on the Afghan military that will have to face the Taliban alone after the Americans have gone.
Since Biden's April announcement, the Taliban have maintained the offensive, with the BBC noting that at they have "taken more territory in Afghanistan in the last two months [by late July] than at any time since they were ousted from power in 2001". By July 21st, General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, was able to claim that "there's a possibility of a complete Taliban takeover", noting that the Taliban controlled more than half of the country's 419 districts.
Fears of a fresh civil war have also reportedly forced thousands of Afghan families to flee to havens such as Central Asia and eastern Turkey (the Economist, noting that many Afghan refugees in Turkey would like to reach Greece, claims that "the influx could indeed become a problem for the EU soon"). This is not to mention the internal displacements: in mid-July, the UN Refugee Agency reported that "the worsening security situation across Afghanistan in the wake of foreign troop withdrawal and Taliban advances, has forced an estimated 270,000 from their homes since January ... bringing the total internally displaced to more than 3.5 million".
If a new civil war should trigger another wave of refugees, the question would then be, there could they go? Throughout Afghanistan's decades of violence, external migrants have fled mainly to neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, each of which now hold around 3 million Afghan refugees. Yet, now, severe punishment could await undocumented refugees caught in Iran, where they have faced tough treatment from the security forces in the past (e.g. border guards have been reported to fire at vehicles suspected of carrying migrants). Pakistan, for its part, has refused to host more Afghan refugees, claiming that it has reached the limit of its capacity to support them.
Migration routes out of Afghanistan. The vast majority of Afghan refugees end up in either Iran or Pakistan.
The Afghan Military
Prospects for the Afghan military in its struggle against the Taliban do not look altogether promising either. This is particularly so in the case of the Afghan Air Force (AAF), one of the government's vital key assets in its fight against the Taliban. Indeed, the Taliban, who have no air force of their own, have for years had to contend with the capability of well-trained Afghan pilots to "strike Taliban forces massing for major attacks, shuttle commandos to missions and provide life-saving air cover for Afghan ground troops", according to a Reuters article.
Yet now, this is all at risk. As a recent congressional report notes, the US military withdrawal also entails the exit of US military contractors, who "provide an array of functions, including logistics, maintenance, and training support for ANDSF [Afghan National Defence and Security Forces] ground vehicles and aircraft; security; base support, and transportation services". Their departure could "significantly impact ANDSF sustainability, in particular their ability to maintain aircraft and vehicles".
The report also notes that as of June 30th, only 167 out of 211 available aircraft in the AAF inventory had the aircrew and readiness level to be fully operable (by July 23rd, Reuters would report that a full one-third had become inoperable due to spare parts shortages).
Furthermore, the report claims that "all aircraft platforms are overtaxed due to increased requests for close air support, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance missions, and aerial resupply now that the ANDSF largely lacks US air support [with] all airframes [...] flying at least 25% over their recommended scheduled-maintenance intervals". According to a NATO mission, "crews remain over-tasked due to the security situation in Afghanistan and the OPSTEMPO [Operations Tempo] has only increased".
Indeed, pilots are not only being over-tasked - in some occasions, they are being assassinated. A Reuters special report details the targeted killing program taken by the Taliban in recent months to eliminate several Afghan pilots while they are off-duty. According to US Brigadier General David Hicks, who oversaw the training of the Afghan Air Force for some years, the lives of these pilots were "at much greater risk during that time (off base) than they were while they were flying combat missions". Reuters quoted a Taliban spokesman as saying that pilots for the Afghan air force were being "targeted and eliminated because all of them do bombardment against their people". So far, more than ten Afghan pilots have been assassinated in this fashion.
Taliban-initiated attacks rose significantly after the initial US-Taliban deal was signed by the Trump Administration in February 2020. These high levels have been retained since.
Source: SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction)
This chart reflects the last. Since the sustained rise in Taliban attacks did not occur until after the deal was struck on February 29th 2020, much of this rise would not be captured by the figures for Quarter 1 of 2020. On the other hand, by Quarter 1 of 2021, the rate of attacks had reached an extraordinary level.
In March 16 testimony before the House Oversight subcommittee on national security, Inspector General [for Afghanistan Reconstruction] John F. Sopko “emphasized the Afghan government’s heavy reliance on foreign assistance, the fact that Afghan security forces are nowhere near self-sufficient,” according to the [Inspector General report for April 30th].
Despite some improvement, the force still faces “long-term capability and sustainability challenges that require various forms of continued U.S. military support,” Sopko said in his remarks.
“Persistent [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] weaknesses in mission-critical areas continue to hinder the force’s effectiveness, readiness and sustainability,” [Sopko] said, adding, “Though some ANDSF capabilities have improved ... the force still faces long-term capability and sustainability challenges that require various forms of continued U.S. military support.”
Without U.S. forces to provide counterterrorism support or to advise and assist Afghanistan’s security institutions, insurgency and insecurity will increase, Sopko said.
In an appearance on ABC News on Sunday [July 4th], Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the top American military commander in Afghanistan, warned that the pullout would be a psychological blow for demoralized Afghan forces.
Sayed Babur Jamal, an Afghan provincial legislator, told The Washington Post last month that government forces don’t have the will to fight. “Their morale is weak, and there is little coordination among the forces,” he said.
The Taliban continue to overrun military and police bases, seizing vehicles and weapons from surrendering local forces, Jamal said. And some 1,500 Afghan troops have fled into Tajikistan.
In fact, in late June, a number of news outlets, spearheaded by the Wall Street Journal, reported an assessment by the "US intelligence community" that the Afghan government could collapse in as little as six months after the withdrawal, a finding that Biden has denied.
The Economy of Afghanistan
An enduring challenge for Afghans has been the consistently undeveloped state of its economy, a topic covered in detail by economic historian Adam Tooze. Relying on data from the Brookings Institution's Afghanistan Index, Tooze points out that the official poverty rate has worsened even as GDP per capita has tended to increase. Now, over half of Afghanistan's population are considered in poverty.
This phenomenon can perhaps be traced to the "uneven development and vast inequality" of modern Afghanistan, with the "six major cities Kabul, Mazar, Jalalabad, Herat and Kandahar ... a world apart from the other 28 provinces". Tooze notes that "Western aid funneled into a hierarchical and balkanized social and political system has given rise to a parallel economies [sic]. Elites have monopolized growth for themselves. Meanwhile, those at the bottom are left behind". To illustrate this fact, Tooze includes a chart drawn by the World Bank comparing agricultural growth to overall economic growth. Again, the story is one of rural/urban disparity.
Source: World Bank
How has Afghanistan exhibited such uneven and unequal growth? Tooze provides one answer. Even though Western aid has been funnelled into Afghanistan in vast amounts -"in many years ... exceeding the measured size of Afghan GDP" - "tens of billions were swallowed up by corruption and the grey economy. Wealthy Afghans became large property owners in the Gulf states. So crass are these divides that they call into question the very notion of an Afghan national economy as we normally understand it". (Transparency International places Afghanistan as the 12th most corrupt country in the world, on a par with Guinea Bissau, Turkmenistan, Congo and Burundi).
Poverty and inequality have their consequences. As Tooze contends, "the Taliban are sustained by resilient organization, by commitment and by an underground economy of considerable scope ... but what ultimately keeps their movement alive is the misery of the Afghan countryside and the rage against pervasive corruption and injustice felt by so many young men".
This chart shows the staggering scale of US spending in Afghanistan since the start of the war. Reconstruction costs (which themselves are dwarfed by war costs) were for several years on the same degree of magnitude as Afghanistan's GDP (see below).
GDP of Afghanistan in constant 2010 US$ since the start of the American intervention.
Source: World Bank
And the Future?
Of course, the precise trajectory of Afghanistan post-US-exit will be impossible to predict. However, some consequences of the Biden Administration's withdrawal have already become apparently. An emboldened Taliban has gained territory, refugees are streaming out of the country, and the Afghan military begins to buckle under the pressure. Whether we will witness General Milley's worst-case scenario of a "complete Taliban takeover" remains to be seen. The impact of America's withdrawal on regional and global geopolitics is even more difficult to determine.