Politics

Afghanistan breakdown: US completes military withdrawal

US withdrawal
The world watched as the Taliban advanced across the country on Sunday  August 15 and narrowed in on the gates of the capital, Kabul. Source: Defence Images (via. Flickr)

By Manal Ahmed | Political Editor

On the morning of Monday, August 30, Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul was targeted by rocket attacks. The Islamic State in Afghanistan (IS-K) claimed responsibility for the attack as the United States was in the final hours of withdrawal.

There have been no reported casualties yet, which many believe to be thanks to a US anti-missile defence system that intercepted the rockets, however US President Joe Biden’s administration has not mentioned this system. 

This attack came after the United States renewed air strikes in Kabul, following  two bombing attacks outside the Kabul airport the previous Friday that resulted in the deaths of 13 US army personnel and at least 169 Afghans, with hundreds left wounded.

The attacks, claimed by an ISIL affiliate ISIS-K, occurred at the airport gate where US Marines had been screening Afghans. Biden addressed the international community after these attacks and was seen bowing his head in frustration. The image was widely circulated amongst media outlets and social media websites as critics took the photo as a visualisation of Biden’s apparent weakness.

Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the US Central Command, had confirmed during the weekend preceding the second attack on the airport that a military strike had been conducted, “eliminating an imminent” threat to the airport and its operations. The drone strike had targeted two vehicles parked in a residential building close to the airport, witnesses told The Associated Press. The death toll is uncertain, with claims of as many as 10 people killed.  


Taliban declare ‘War is over’ as Kabul falls 

The world watched as the Taliban continued their thundering advance across the country on Sunday August 15 and narrowed in on the gates of the capital, Kabul, that morning. Throughout the day, many journalists observed a tense atmosphere enveloping the capital as the streets went silent and the road became empty.

According to Al Jazeera, Afghan guards and police that were typically stationed by intersections, controlling traffic, had abandoned their posts, or had begun dressing in plain clothes to avoid run-ins and tension with the incoming Taliban fighters. 

Taliban soldiers remained outside Kabul while a delegation entered the Presidential Palace, aiming to negotiate a peaceful transition of power. A Taliban spokesperson informed Associated Press that it would be from there the Taliban would announce the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the official name of the state before the militant group was ousted by US-led forces in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

This advance by the Taliban occurred two weeks before President Biden’s final withdrawal date of August 31, therefore speeding up the withdrawal of US military and intelligence. 

Al Jazeera obtained exclusive footage of Taliban forces entering the Presidential Palace hours after President Ashraf Ghani was reported to have fled the country to an unknown location – later revealed to be the UAE, which had granted humanitarian visas to Ghani and his family – to “avoid bloodshed”.

It was from the Presidential Palace that a Taliban high-ranking member announced the “War was over” and that all individuals should hand in their weapons as they would not need them for protection anymore. 


Distressing scenes at Kabul’s Airport 

Crowds of fearful Afghans were seen on Monday 16, attempting to cling onto a US military plane, departing to Qatar, at the Hamid Karzai International Airport. At least two people are reported  to have fallen to their deaths. 

Another video showed three individuals lying on the ground in the airport, unmoving. It is unknown whether this occurred from attempting to cling onto the aircraft or from warning shots fired by the Taliban to control the crowds.

Individuals were delayed from boarding the flight as many were climbing the corridor to the plane. Pictures of overcrowded US flights to Qatar and Islamabad showed the depth of fear and the chaos that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the change of power. 

In the days following, many Western nations attempted to withdraw as many of their citizens as possible until the withdrawal of US forces was complete, due to the significant strength the US military provided when holding the Kabul airport.

However, Taliban-controlled checkpoints to the airport have resulted in significant limitations to foreign nationals and Afghan residents in peril. Taliban, Afghan and US troops had been regularly firing warning shots intended to disperse the large crowds gathered.  

These events took place amidst significant withdrawal of US personnel from the embassy in the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul. Smoke was seen rising from the area as diplomats were instructed to ensure all sensitive documents, US flags or other materials were destroyed.

Throughout the day, embassy personnel were seen being airlifted from the roof to the airport, reminiscent of the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh city) in 1975. 

The fall of Saigon occurred when the communist forces of North Vietnam, the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong, had captured the capital of South Vietnam. While the US military had formally ended active involvement in the war two years prior, the complete withdrawal of US presence from the country became a historically poignant moment for the international community. Many parallels have been drawn between this event and the withdrawal from Afghanistan as the war had become deeply unpopular amongst the American public due to the significant loss in life and the enormous costs.

Later in the day, the US flag had been taken down, signalling the final formal step in the closure of the embassy. The limited diplomatic staff had been operating from the airport until the total US withdrawal on Tuesday,  August 31. 


International response

Prior to the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, the Chinese Foreign minister had met with a nine-member delegation in July in Tianjin.

The presence of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the founders of the organisation and the deputy leader, and the acknowledgment of the significant role they would have in the peace process seemed to be a significant blow to Ashraf Ghani’s government.

Preceding this meeting, General Secretary  of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping, had informed Ghani of “China’s firm support of the Afghan government to maintain the nation’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.”

Since the takeover, many suspect that China is among the nations attempting to gain an ally and foothold in Central Asia by encouraging the international acceptance of a Taliban-led government. 

In the week of the Taliban’s victory, many embassies announced significant changes to their staff and operation. Germany increased security to their embassy in Kabul, while reducing staff to the “operationally necessary, absolute minimum”, said the German Foreign Minister.

Norway, Finland, and Denmark have now closed their embassies, offering evacuation to Afghan embassy employees and their close relatives with Denmark being the first EU nation to offer residency to Afghan nationals they have worked with. 

The Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the country would help EU countries evacuate their citizens and Albania and Kosovo accepted a request from Washington to temporarily accept Afghan refugees. 

Britain, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and France had announced they intended to evacuate embassy personnel.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had claimed earlier in the month that he was confident that all British citizens and Afghan nationals to help the UK would be evacuated before Friday 27. However, this operation failed as hundreds remain stranded due to, according to some reports, international citizens being stuck in checkpoints heading towards the airport and the Taliban searching for Afghan nationals who aided NATO allies. 

Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that France had commenced discussions with the Taliban to explore how further evacuations could take place. The results of these discussions and a proposal by France, the UK, and Germany to establish a safe zone in Kabul for such evacuations were brought to an emergency UN Security Council session of veto-wielding powers this past Monday. 

The UK Foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was among those present at the meeting, and intends to visit Afghanistan’s neighbours, starting with a visit to Qatar and then Pakistan, to discuss refugee efforts.

In a press conference with the foreign minister of Pakistan, Raab confirmed that 15,000 people had been evacuated and announced the UK would be doubling its aid to Afghanistan to £286 million while also releasing the first instalment of £30 million aid that would be used to support Afghanistan’s neighbours. 


MPs express shock and concern

Johnson recalled Parliament from summer break for an emergency session to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. During the session, many MPs expressed their shock at seeing the airport footage in an emergency session on Wednesday 18, as it portrayed the very real fear of Afghans and the lack of trust in the Taliban’s assurances that they were different from the group of the late 1990s. 

MPs called for the family of constituency members to be granted immediate refugee status and be allowed to enter the UK and be reunited, while also giving immediate asylum to stranded aid workers, translators and anyone who had helped British military operations in Afghanistan as their safety was under immediate threat. They also urged the government to support the local councils of constituencies prepared to take on additional refugees. 

They had further critique of the current and previous governments, questioning why the consequences of war on the public had not been considered and why no budget for nation-building had never been established.

There was a consensus in the house that Britain must accept the inevitable refugee crisis that will emerge from the situation and play a role in both accepting refugees and facilitating neighbouring and regional countries that may struggle with the financial costs of housing more refugees. 

The former foreign secretary and current Chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, Jeremy Hunt, criticised Biden’s response to the tumultuous situation, stating that both “he [Biden] and President Trump should be deeply ashamed” of their actions that caused a return to a government that was responsible for the September 11 attacks.

He went on to discuss concerns that China would foster the growth of this government and, as a country that cared little for democratic values, would soon become the most powerful economy in the world.  

The Home Office announced a few days after the ‘fall of Kabul’ that a resettlement scheme was underway to aid Afghan citizens. The Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme (ACRS) aims to welcome 5,000 at-risk individuals in the first year and “up to 20,000” over the next few years.

The Home Office has determined that anyone who had “contributed to civil society” and been a vocal advocate for the democratic process or the rights of minorities would be considered at-risk, though no further information has been provided to aid Afghans as the scheme is not yet open. 

Currently, the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy is active to support relocation and other necessities to “current and former Locally Employed Staff” in Afghanistan. Information regarding eligibility and the application is available on gov.uk


Joe Biden’s Presidency 

Following the events that occurred at Kabul Airport at the end of the previous month, President Biden faced significant bipartisan criticism at home and international condemnation for the alleged poor handling of the withdrawal.

Despite this, he remained steadfast in continuing with the speed at which US troops had already been operating at, maintaining that the process was never going to be a smooth one. 

The president attempted to appear strong and decisive, justifying the rushed withdrawal in a televised address to the US public by stating that the primary goal of US intervention in Afghanistan was “preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland”, and not “creating a unified centralised democracy”.

The statement drew significant critique and fact checks from multiple media outlets. The BBC provided a contradictory statement made by then-Senator Biden at the start of the conflict, saying that the ultimate purpose of intervention was to “see a relatively stable government”, one which would provide the “foundation for future reconstruction of that country.” 

While there had been a universal push in the west to ensure the principle of “no one left behind” remained true and all citizens would be evacuated, many nations fell short of the withdrawal deadline from the Hamid Karzai Airport.

In their hasty withdrawal, the US has left behind between 100 to 200 citizens. International operations have now begun to be conducted from the Mazar-i-Sharif airport in northern Afghanistan, though there are many reports that the Taliban have prevented flights from the airport for a week. This has placed mounting pressure on Biden to ensure that the American citizens, among the hundreds stranded, return home. 

Manal Ahmed Politics

Follow @gairrhyddpol for all of the latest updates from the world of politics.

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