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August 31: Evacuation deadline stands

August 25, 2021

Summary: The Kabul airport evacuation organised by several thousand “infidel” Western soldiers is a brain drain of talented Afghans and a poor look for the Taliban who want to begin presenting themselves to the international community as a credible government.  It is a chaotic media circus.  Western forces are operating in a high risk environment, hostage to accidental clashes or a “deniable” attack from a variety of terrorist sources.  They do not want to be there any longer than they have to. 

Much debate and speculation in the last few days about whether America will extend the time needed to continue the evacuation of Afghans and internationals from Kabul airport (other international forces will fall into step with whatever American decision is taken).  Yesterday a Taliban press conference stated that they would not permit an extension. President Biden appears to have accepted this, stating that the 31st August deadline would remain (while hastening to claim that the US evacuation programme was on track).  Boris Johnson’s online G7 group seems have amounted to little more than sternly “insisting” that the Taliban allow safe passage for other Afghans wishing to leave Afghanistan after the evacuation.  It seems as if the British part of the evacuation could stop in the next day or two.

Assessment 

                It is worth remembering the 31st August 2021 marker is an artificial deadline.  The deadline agreed at the Doha Peace Agreement, signed in February 2020, was for American forces to be out by 1 May 2021.  It rapidly became apparent to Joe Biden’s administration, after inheriting some shoddy and cynical Trumpian homework, that extracting all US troops and equipment was a tall order that could not be achieved by then.  The deadline was extended without Taliban consent, defiantly – but also quite bizarrely – to 11 September 2021, the 20th anniversary of the Al Qaeda attacks on mainland America.  Perhaps quickly recognising that these optics were not good, the deadline was rowed back slightly, to 31 August.  That date has not been agreed in any conference or treaty, it exists as a quirk of international fate. 

                The Taliban do not want this deadline extended.  Six thousand-plus infidel soldiers are spoiling their victory parade.  It is not a good look for the leadership: they are keen to present themselves as a credible and natural government in waiting.  This international crisis, playing out in the full glare of the media is not helping.   Many of Afghanistan’s best and brightest – many formerly targets of the Taliban for assassination – are leaving, perhaps for good, and will no longer be available to rebuild the country under Taliban direction.  One wonders what the Taliban – particularly the younger fighters in from the provinces – make of these scenes.  Their propaganda machine has told them for years that they are overwhelmingly popular, the historic vanquishers of infidel invaders, liberating a grateful people. But this grateful populace seem to flee in terror wherever they go.

                The international forces are in an exceptionally high risk environment.  The risks of accidental clashes are high – both sides appear to be shooting bursts of gunfire in the air as a crude method of crowd control.  The Taliban have darkly warned of “consequences” if the deadline is breached.  It is perhaps unlikely that the Taliban will launch direct attacks against the Americans and British, but “deniable” attacks could come from many sources.  Islamic State, rebuilding their strength in eastern Afghanistan, are opposed to the Taliban and would love to create more violent mayhem.  Other groups – the Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda, remnants of the former army and police and even nascent anti-Taliban forces are lurking in the wings.  If a rocket or suicide bomb landed in the crowded environment of the airport the impact could be catastrophic.

                The situation at the airport has become a media circus – a numbers game in which western governments brandish statistics to demonstrate progress (as they did every year in Afghanistan).   Last year western European governments were broadly hostile to the idea of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers.  This time next year, they will likely be the same.  This is a brief window of compassion, perhaps laced with some cynicism.  European governments do not want to be on the wrong sign of a photograph of a baby being thrown over barbed wire. 

But, as long as an international airlift continues, fearful Afghans will keep coming.  In a crisis, those affected do not make good decisions.  Rumours and misinformation spread easily.  As the deadline draws nearer, the panic may increase – and so might the risk of deaths to stampede,  gunfire or a terrorist bomb.  It is unlikely that the US and British forces – operating from this highly vulnerable arena – will ignore the deadline or specify the actual date and time they will leave.  It may well be before the 31st.

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