Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?
The President: Because you — the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable…
Q. Do you trust handing over the country to the Taliban?
The President: No, I do not trust the Taliban.
Q. So why are you handing the country over…?
The President: It’s a — it’s a silly question. Do I trust the Taliban? No. But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more re- — more competent in terms of conducting war.
I take those verbatim words from the White House transcript of Joe Biden’s press conference following his statement there on 9 August. On 16 August, the President made another statement about the situation in Afghanistan, which was developing not so well. In it, Biden blamed the Afghans. The ‘political leaders gave up and fled the country,’ he said, ‘The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight… American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.’ In the same speech, the President boasted that ‘We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability’ to see trouble coming; yet the administration had not been able to look over the horizon of one week.
President Biden would not be alone in considering the Afghan government (now deceased) as weak and the army as reluctant to fight, but he does not ask himself why they were. (Indeed, he cannot really do so, having declared, a week earlier, that the army was great.) Politics and military affairs, like stock markets, depend on what people think about the future. If a government knows that its main source of foreign backing has publicly set a date (11 September!) by which it will withdraw, its future looks black.
A fortiori, if troops think their government is on the slide and the enemy is about to take over, their morale will collapse and they will not fight. Why should they end up either dead or imprisoned for a lost cause? American troops did not leave because the Afghans were giving up: the Afghans gave up because the Americans were leaving. It is shabby of Biden to blame his own clear mishandling of the situation on the people who had become his country’s clients. Even to nations much stronger than Afghanistan — notably the Nato allies or South Korea — the Kabul scuttle sends a frightening warning.