It was quite the handover at Kabul airport this week. The last American troops to exit Afghanistan reportedly left facing an ‘elite unit’ of the Taliban. In a season finale that the most dystopian screenwriter would have struggled to invent, the elite Taliban unit was itself bedecked in US military kit. That is, they were not only wearing uniforms and protective kit provided by the fleeing US army, but were parading the airport with US-provided guns in US-provided vehicles.
This was the culmination of a fortnight that the White House is still trying to present as a success. One of the biggest airlifts in history, they insist. In reality the Biden administration has pulled off a feat few of us thought possible. A military-political defeat that gets worse the more you look at it.
Take the issue of the kit that the Americans have left behind. I’m sure by now every-one has seen the lists of armaments that the US left with the swiftly dissolved Afghan army that America and its allies struggled to train for two decades.
The Taliban inherited that -defeated army’s kit in its entirety. That entirety includes 33 Black Hawk helicopters, 43 MD 530 helicopters, 32 Mi-17 helicopters, 23 A-29 light attack planes, at least 33 other attack planes and three gigantic Hercules aircraft thrown in for good measure. Thanks to the largesse of the American taxpayer, the Taliban now has more attack helicopters than the UK, and is better armed than almost every Nato country, apart from the US.
When these facts emerged this week, a portion of the commentariat tried to pretend this was no great shakes. These last defenders of the President insisted it didn’t matter that the Taliban had control of all these Black Hawks. For how could a group of goat-herders, who have barely learned to operate their rusty old Soviet motorcycles, be expected to retrain as helicopter pilots? As if they were listening, right on cue, the Taliban began flying one of their new Black Hawks over the skies of Kabul. That was quite the F-you: top kit, in new hands, only one previous owner, hardly used.
Perhaps aware this does not look great, the US military is claiming to have disabled some of the kit they left behind. On Monday, General McKenzie said that before leaving Kabul airport the US military -permanently disabled 150 vehicles and aircraft so they can ‘never be used again’. The rocket air defence system was reportedly kept online until the last minute and then demilitarised.
Certainly it is good to know that the Americans didn’t leave a ground-to-air missile system at the airport so the Taliban could shoot down the last American plane as it left Kabul airport. But aside from that, it is hard to see the success here. For instance, there is no word on whether the US managed, in their hasty withdrawal, to disable the 350,000 assault rifles they left behind. Or the 126,000 pistols, 1,000 armoured vehicles, 64,000 machine-guns, 22,000 Humvees or 42,000 pick-up trucks and SUVs. The American military may have managed to leave some kit at Kabul airport that will only be useful for the Taliban to sell on for parts. But the kit in the rest of the country seems to have been handed over in good working condition. We’ll be seeing the fallout from that for a long time to come. And we’ll be lucky if that kit only remains in Afghanistan.
Because while the Taliban may be better armed than most western countries, it does not employ its military capabilities to similar ends. In another demonstration that they can indeed get their choppers in the air, this week one of the Taliban’s new helicopters flew over Kandahar. A man’s body was hanging beneath it on a rope, leading to immediate speculation that this was an Afghan interpreter. In fact on this occasion it turned out to be a Taliban operative, but since the group have been dispensing 'collaborators' with characteristic brutality since taking Afghanistan back, you can see how the impression was formed. Hanging your enemies from a helicopter has a very Taliban ring to it.
Like all Islamists, the Taliban are rather good at this sort of thing. They loathe modernity and everything that the modern West has brought the world. But they are perfectly happy to use the fruits of that modernity against it. So while left to their own devices, the Taliban would have struggled to invent (let alone operate) the wheel, the modern world just keeps putting its finest weaponry in their hands. And if you are gifted such things then of course you will use them, albeit for your pre-medieval aims.
The defeated powers are playing the game of ‘reformed Taliban’ to buy themselves the tiniest amount of time in what looks set to be a long game of humiliation. Canada’s minister for equality, Maryam Monsef, addressed the Taliban direct last week. In a video message she called on ‘our brothers, the Taliban’, to ‘ensure the safe and secure passage’ out of Afghanistan of anyone who wants to leave.
Yet in the competition for lead Pollyanna in the West, Monsef doesn’t even make the finals. That award must surely go to the US special representative to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. As the last US troops were leaving, Khalilzad could be found proclaiming the Taliban ‘now face a test’. What is that test? ‘If you can get one Black Hawk over Kabul on the first day, how many days will it take you to get the whole fleet in the air?’ No, according to Khalilzad the big test for the Taliban is: ‘Can they lead their country to a safe and prosperous future where all their citizens, men and women, have the chance to reach their potential?’
If you had to take a guess, what would the answer to that question be? I would go for ‘no’. Khalilzad continued: ‘Can Afghanistan present the beauty and power of its diverse cultures, histories, and traditions to the world?’ Again, that’d be a ‘no’ from me.
Just about the only things the Americans didn’t give the Taliban was a drone capability. America still has the advantage there at least. Perhaps now would be a good time to use it.