When US forces left Bagram air base last Friday, they shut off the electricity and scuttled away in the dead of night, not telling the new Afghan commander they were leaving, says Emily Tamkin in the New Statesman. It was “a fitting symbol of the US’s inglorious exit”. Just 650 soldiers will guard the US embassy in Kabul – a far cry from the 140,000 of a decade ago. Over a 20-year period, $2.3 trillion, 7,400 coalition lives (including 457 Britons) and 120,000 Afghan lives have been squandered in this “graveyard of empires”. For what? The Taliban now controls more than a third of the country and is advancing on its cities. No wonder President Biden said “I want to talk about happy things” when he dodged questions from reporters about the state of Afghanistan.
It’s not all bad news, says Con Coughlin in The Daily Telegraph. Yes, the western occupation over two decades had a “bewildering array of conflicting objectives”, from defeating Islamist terrorism to safeguarding female education and eradicating the drugs trade – but Afghanistan’s transformation to democratic rule is a “shining achievement”. It’s the “high-handed approach” to the exit that sticks in the throat. The Americans barely bothered to consult the UK. Boris Johnson had no choice but to hastily withdraw all but a few of our troops, shamefully leaving the last British forces to conduct their flag-lowering ceremonies in secret. Russia and China now have all the justification they need to accuse western powers of “betraying the Afghan people in their hour of need”.
Meanwhile, the brave interpreters and fixers who helped coalition forces face possible beheading at the hands of a vengeful Taliban, says David Von Drehle in The Washington Post – and they’ve heard “zip” from Washington about a rescue plan. The Taliban were notorious for mass executions in Kabul’s football stadium in the 1990s. If that happens again, Biden “will own that shame”. Afghanistan’s women are in peril, too, says Shabnam Nasimi in the Telegraph. Great progress had been made thanks to Nato’s presence: fathers now proudly tell me “my daughter works as a doctor”, and there’s a greater proportion of women at the top of Afghan politics than there is in the US. But as the West turns tail, how long before women and girls are told they can’t work or go to school any more? A generation saw Britain and the West as a beacon of hope. “They have been abandoned to the Taliban.”
A new silk road?
If China is tempted to gloat about the West’s failure in Afghanistan, it shouldn’t, says David Von Drehle in The Washington Post. Xi Jinping is already waging “an undeclared war” on Uighur Muslims as it tries to extend its Belt and Road Initiative through its western provinces to Europe. “A Taliban state next door is Beijing’s nightmare.” Which is why China is engaged in secret talks with the Taliban, says the FT. Fearing a power vacuum in Afghanistan, it is keen to rebuild the country’s shattered infrastructure, channelling funds through its ally Pakistan. As an Indian official put it: “China is Pakistan’s wallet.”