After announcing his sudden and near-total withdraw of US forces from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden is having to send an additional 5,000 troops into Kabul to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport. This is being done to ensure that the Americans can evacuate most of the State Department personnel from the massive embassy in the embattled Afghan capital.
Meanwhile, US intelligence has changed its original assessment on the progress of the Taliban’s offensive into Kabul: Whereas the original assumption was that the Taliban would be at Kabul’s outskirts in 90 days, the military now believes it will take them only about 30 days.
Also read: A Saigon moment looms in Kabul
As this occurs, the Americans in the sprawling embassy compound are in the process of burning sensitive documents and making ready for a quick and spastic exit – of the sort that has defined most American experiences in the developing world since the 1970s (Vietnam, Iran, Syria and Libya, for example).
Yet it is entirely unclear what the intentions of the Biden administration as it relates to the fate of the embassy in Kabul are. Will the US military forces being deployed to secure safe passages between the embassy and the airport be able to remain there long enough to evacuate the personnel from the embassy, or will more reinforcements be required, the nearer – and more quickly – the Taliban get to the city?
Beginning in 2010, then-president Barack Obama oversaw the completion of the $773.9 million US Embassy in Kabul (you read that number right). It is one of the largest American embassies in the world.
When Obama authorized the funding of the project, everyone at the time interpreted that to be a signal that the United States planned to stay in Afghanistan – or at least Kabul – indefinitely. One can bet that the Afghan government and its military assumed that the Americans were planning to stay.
But the politics in Washington have changed. Now, the Biden administration wants out at any cost – even if facts on the ground are not conducive to a rapid American drawdown. Biden has made his choice, though, and he will not be dissuaded. As a result, the Taliban are surging across the country and will be upon Kabul shortly – and any American left in that embattled city will suffer the consequences.
These events in Afghanistan are all eerily reminiscent of some of the worst strategic blunders of the 1970s. It reminds one of the spastic race to get beleaguered embassy staff out of the last American redoubt in Vietnam, while the country was on the brink of a hostile takeover. But this is not the only unfortunate moment we are poised to relive of the American superpower in retreat.
Suppose the US military is unable to move the massive number of embassy staff and their families safely to the airport? Or, what if the Taliban get close enough to the Hamid Karzai International Airport that they can use heavy weapons to damage the runways, thereby making an orderly, safe evacuation of the US personnel impossible?
This is what happened toward the end of the American pullout from Saigon, which is why the United States was forced to rely on its fleet of helicopters to do the job that airplanes no longer could. And unlike Vietnam, Afghanistan is a landlocked country with dubious supply lines leading out to the distant oceans, where American power is most prevalent.
The Biden administration has rightly been castigated by the press for his apparent begging of the Taliban to leave America’s elephantine embassy unmolested as they march toward the capital. Clearly, there is concern that Biden’s last-ditch military solution for saving the embassy might be insufficient to the task at hand.
And should this effort fail, one can expect the situation to devolve from a repeat of Saigon to a horrible replay of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, when American embassy staff were taken hostage during a chaotic regime change in Iran from a pro-American monarchy to a virulently anti-American Islamist state. Now, the pro-American government in Kabul is about to be replaced by an anti-American Islamist state led by the Taliban.
Will history repeat itself in Kabul once the Taliban take the city? Are we in store for another hostage crisis?
This entire situation, of course, could have been avoided had President Biden simply followed the dictates of the Doha agreement that his predecessor Donald Trump had crafted with the Taliban. In that framework for an American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban agreed to work with the US-installed Afghan government rather than wage war upon it once the Americans left.
The moment that President Biden’s withdrawal order went through, the second that most US forces had left Afghanistan, the Taliban began assassinating Afghan leaders and marching toward Kabul.
US credibility is on the line. We are on the precipice of another horrifying display of American impotence. This can be reversed, however, if Biden changes his decision to withdraw US forces and launches a devastating counterattack on the Taliban fighters who have now massed in the open field of battle.
Once the Taliban are cut down to size, then the Americans can implement a phased and orderly withdrawal from the country while ensuring that their allies have a reasonable chance of survival. If not, the very worst aspects of the 1970s will be rehashed, with sloppy embassy evacuations and hostage crises in Afghanistan.
The world is watching. The region is burning. Biden is failing. America is vulnerable. Thus affirmations of China’s claims that America is in terminal decline appear apt to many observers outside of the Washington bubble.