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Witnessing the final days of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan

A white blimp flies high above the city of Kabul. Launched by NATO, it hovers above Afghanistan’s capital 24 hours a day, scanning for imminent explosive attacks – a symbol of America’s supervision over the Afghan people and their government. But while the blimp remains, America and their allies are swiftly departing, leaving a country they have been at war in for two decades. And in their place has come the resurgence of Taliban control, a spike in civilian casualties, and critical disruption of the humanitarian system.

During the past few weeks I have been researching the impact of explosive violence on civilians in Afghanistan, and as I collected data on the harm caused by the war, US, UK and NATO partners have been steadily and assuredly withdrawing thousands of their troops. This withdrawal includes the complete evacuation of their largest base, Bagram.

Epitomising the overall approach to the withdrawal, Bagram was reportedly abandoned overnight, without consultation with their Afghan allies. The Americans reportedly just switched off the lights, and under that cover of darkness anti-government groups and looters swooped in and staked claim to millions of dollars’ worth of equipment. The Afghan government were to later claim that they only found out the Americans had left two hours after the lights of the base had been extinguished.

The speed of NATO’s withdrawal is bested by that of the Taliban advance. Before the US even began their evacuation, the Taliban was making headway across the northern provinces. Now, as of July 17th, it is reported that they control 222 (56%) of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, with 112 (28%) being contested – leaving 18% in control of the government (which include most provincial capitals). The Taliban contest these figures, claiming that they control over 85% of the districts, but this is unverified.

Mapping Taliban Control of Afghanistan – source Long War Journal – accessed on 18th July

To represent just how unpredictable the situation is, and how quickly the Taliban are advancing, on 11th July I was due to fly to Bamyan, a city that has largely remained peaceful during 30 years of conflict. Due to fluctuating security throughout the country, I sought out the advice of multiple intelligence analysts regarding the safety of the area, including information provided to me by the United Nations. On the evening of Saturday 10th July, I got the green light from all of my advisors; the city had been inactive for months and they seemed assured that it would be safe to visit.

By the afternoon of the 11th July, the Taliban had taken multiple districts in the province, clashes were erupting around the city, and members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) were carrying the dead bodies of their fallen comrades in front of the Governor’s house, protesting the lack of support they had received from the government. The trip was cancelled.

Throughout the relentless push of the Taliban, senior members of the Afghan government have largely remained quiet. This silence has played into the hands of the Taliban. On paper, the government has a clear advantage regarding troops and equipment. Their advantage, however, has translated to the mobilisation of a lesser force. Soldiers complain about the idleness of their government, that they have not received payment in months, and have been left without food, water and ammunition. Sources claim that commanders have abandoned their troops, to retreat to the safety of the cities, or further afield. Reports of generals fleeing to Turkey, the UAE and other, more secure, countries have surfaced – men of military power following the example of ministers and politicians.

Such claims are bolstered by a source in the Afghan Ministry of Defence, who says that he has processed dozens of visas and passports for the families of ministers and other VIPs, allowing them to evacuate the country. The low morale among the Afghan National Army (ANA), fuelled by the rumours and actions of their leaders, has reportedly led to troops surrendering to the Taliban without resistance, handing over their weapons and in some cases defecting altogether.

If they do, they reportedly receive about three month’s salary from the anti-government group, and the promise of a peaceful invasion. In a traditional carrot-and-stick approach, in cases where the troops do not put down their weapons, there have been reports of the Taliban publicly executing unarmed Afghan Special Forces to show that, if they resist, even the strongest of the ANA will fall.

The dissatisfaction with the government and their apparent self-interest is shared among civilians. It is hard to meet an Afghan who believes that the government works for the interests of the people. Instead, when asked about their government, they claim that “they are looking to line their pockets as quickly as possible before they leave, taking as much as they can with them”, “the only people they care about is themselves, their family, and their friends”, “unlike other countries, they don’t provide us with food, jobs or protection” and statements of a similar trend. In addition to the perceived negligence of the government, the Taliban’s use of propaganda through social media to emphasise their strength has seemingly been effective in convincing people in Afghanistan that they will soon claim victory; many people I’ve spoken to believe that the Taliban will gain control of the country within months. It is not uncommon to be in a meeting where government officials, anonymous for their safety, have discussed who would keep their job when the Taliban take over.

Also concerned about the uncertainty of the security situation, the risk of civil war, and the prospect of Taliban rule, expats are fleeing the country. The compound I am staying in, for instance, was housing 600 guests in April, now there are around 40 residents, with many leaving before the end of the month. Of those I have spoken to, some who have been in the country for over a decade, many no longer believe – with the Taliban 50km to the north and 60km to the east – that Kabul will remain a safe place for expats, especially not those who have been in, or have cooperated with, the American forces. Women are a group most at risk if the Taliban take over. Others, however, are just fed up with the increased difficulty to conduct their work amid a deteriorating security situation.

In addition to the situation outside its walls, the compound itself is reducing its staff due to the cost of running such a large place with so few guests – such staff include security personnel, who are imperative to provide expats with assured safety. In addition, as organisations leave the compounds, their security goes with them, and these safe havens become more vulnerable – some guests have even spoken of blocking doors and collecting arms, just in case the compound is invaded.

One member of staff who had just received his termination letter, detailed how he fears for his life every time he travels home because, if people found out he was working with Americans, he would be targeted by the Taliban. It’s a fear shared by many who have cooperated with international organisations, especially American groups. The staff member explained how the Taliban had planted a bomb under his neighbour’s car, killing him, because he worked as a security guard at a government building. As well as the security risk to him, the soon to be former staffer now has no job to provide food for his family or pay off his debts; he scorned the government for their lack of support.

The ripple effect due to the rise in violence following the withdrawal has already changed the lives of many. One such victim was at an emergency hospital – a farmer who hit a roadside improvised explosive device (IED) while driving his tractor to his farm, losing his right leg, injuring his left, and receiving severe shrapnel wounds to his chest. He had been transported from his home in Logar to Kabul and had not spoken with his family in the two weeks he had been at the hospital. He said that the Taliban had come into his village and warned that they had contaminated the roads with IEDs, but he said that the roads were the only way to access his farm and a source of food for his family.

He explained that there had not been an explosive incident in his village in the last 20 years, but in the last three weeks, there had been three incidents, in which seven people had died. Through tears, he said: “I was once a man, now I am half a man.”

He feared for his future and the safety of his family, not just because of the increased violence accompanying the withdrawal but because, with his body and tractor destroyed, he could no longer feed his seven children. It was his belief that people are fleeing Logar in their hundreds, coming to the city of Kabul, because of the heightened dangers in the provinces and little access to healthcare. Similar reports from Bamyan and other districts surrounding Kabul, were easily sourced, with displaced persons citing the conflict as their reason for fleeing their homes.

A 12-year-old child who was shot during the war – the bullet hit spine, paralysing him (taken 13th July)

Mass displacement is not unique to the surrounding areas of Kabul, it is taking place across the country, other major cities such as Kunduz in the north are seeing a dramatic influx of displaced persons. The UNHCR, in a statement released on 13th July, estimates that 270,000 people have been newly displaced, bringing the total to 3.5 million.

For Kabul, a city built for two million people and already housing over 4.3 million, intelligence analysts estimate that two million newly displaced individuals could enter the capital in the coming months. As more people enter the city, the already stretched health system is going to be challenged. Many of the physical rehabilitation centres, hospitals, and other services are already at their capacity, and many victims of the war can’t access medical services due to transportation issues, or a lack of available space. The food and water supply, sanitation, medicine, and available shelter are also predicted to become scarce in the cities, as people flee to their apparent safety, especially with the new IED contamination and checkpoints set up by the Taliban on access roads, disrupting major supply routes.

To reach these cities, cars and buses have to travel across miles of roads contaminated with IEDs, through contested districts where the exchange of fire between the Afghan Army, the Taliban and other groups – such as factions of the Islamic State – is becoming more intense, poses a major threat of being caught in the crossfire. These dangers have also had an impact on the ability of humanitarian organisations to provide care to those who cannot reach the cities. This is especially daunting for the thousands of Afghans who are disabled and need constant care and medication.

The ICRC, Norwegian People’s Aid, HALO trust, and other organisations, all share a concern that such increased clashes and IED contamination, and the necessity to negotiate with new authorities in contested regions in order to be granted safe access, has suppressed their ability to provide critical services and supplies (such as food and medication) to the provinces. These difficulties are augmented by the Taliban’s control of almost all major logistical land borders, and the main source of supply, in and out of the country. The capture of Spin Boldak, which connects Kandahar (Afghanistan) and Chaman (Pakistan), is of particular concern.

In addition, one source – a pilot, who flies staff and equipment for two of the largest NGOs in the country – claimed that he was receiving more and more red lights (no-fly commands), even around major cities, due to the intensified fighting. For instance, in Lashkar Ghar, it is reported that the ANA are 500m away from the runway, and the Taliban is 1km away – if a bullet was to hit a fuel tank, it would likely be lethal for pilots and humanitarian staff.

There are rumours of bullets already striking humanitarian planes: luckily none have hit critical points, so far. In addition, there are concerns amongst aviators that they can no longer predict when flights will go ahead, as “a flight that is a ‘green light’ in the evening, might be a ‘red’ in the morning”. Some had received red lights as late as ten minutes inbound to their destination, just highlighting the increased danger to these humanitarian workers. To protect their staff, many organisations have suspended operations due to increased risk – a prime example is HALO trust, who suspended operations following the attacks of July 8th by IS-K, in which 11 deminers died, and are returning their much of staff and equipment back to the safety of Kabul.

As the withdrawal continues, and the intensity of the conflict rises, the situation is fast becoming too dangerous for many INGO staff. They are making every effort to revaluate their process of providing care in order to continue or resume services as quickly as possible in a way that is safe for their workers. Until this has been achieved, however, many people in need are going without access to healthcare, food, water, medicine, and other valuable resources and services.

Photo of HALO cars sitting in compound, waiting to resume operations. They have been out of operation since July 8th (when 11 deminers were killed by IS-K) – Taken on 12th July

As the international humanitarian system struggles, the government needs to increase their humanitarian capacity – something that they seemingly haven’t done in over a decade.

Government health facilities remain too poorly equipped to meet the current needs of the Afghan people – they have limited equipment and limited specialist staff.

A common complaint is that the government has failed to provide equipment and funding, relying on donations from the international sphere. In the limited areas that humanitarian services and centres are running, they do not provide transport to victims, making them inaccessible to most. One centre, for instance, that housed victims paralysed by conflict was able to accommodate just 22 survivors, there were only four other centres like this around the country. The health administrator of the centre said all the current residents had been injured in 2003, and they did not have room for more people. This means that, for those paralysed later than 2003, who do not have access to another source of care, they have likely been homeless, sitting on a waiting list for up to 17 years – if they are not dead already.

The ICRC centre in Kabul houses around 40 newly paralysed people, suggesting that there must be hundreds, if not thousands, just in the capital alone. Emphasising the failures of the government system, the ICRC say that the recommended time in hospital for a newly paralysed person is 6-8 weeks, but in government hospitals – despite being advised otherwise – they release patients after 4-6 days, meaning the ICRC has to take them in for continued care and to help them learn to adapt to a new life without control over their body.

Photo of a paralysed man in the residential centre, who has been here since 2003, when he was first injured. Taken on 7th July

This is just one example of the numerous centres and ministries in Afghanistan that are failing to provide appropriate healthcare, education, psychological support, housing and other critical services.

Ministers blame a lack of funding for their poor services and lack of capacity, but when asked about budgeting there is a lack of transparency across the board. Speaking to one government-funded school, they said that, due to the ‘old management system’, they have no idea how much goes in and how much comes out of the department responsible for funding them – “we request funds, present our budget, then receive an amount of money with no explanation as to why they’ve given us this much”.

When discussing the government system with one of the largest humanitarian organisations in Afghanistan – kept anonymous to avoid animosity with the government – they stated that “in the past we offered to help [the government] with material and training and our offer was declined. To try to make such facilities work would be like to try to move a mountain, due to bureaucracy, limited professionalism, lack of dedication… The day [our international organisation] leaves, facilities, equipment and fully trained medical and managerial staff will be handed over to the Government. In the meantime, thousands of patients will have the opportunity to receive a proper treatment.”

Whatever the reason – a lack of funding or a broken system – with the limited availability of care provided by the government, and the reduced capacity of international humanitarian organisations, the prospect of the rising number of war victims seems bleak.  

To highlight the increasing demand, since the beginning of the withdrawal in April, war-related civilian casualties have risen dramatically, with a 29% increase in the first quarter of this year compared to 2020, and a larger proportion of women and children being targeted, according to a statement by the UNHCR. This disruption of critical medical supplies in and out of, as well as around the country is likely to have critical consequences for newly injured civilians – which are increasing daily.

So, with a dramatic rise in casualties, a worsening humanitarian crisis, and growing control of the Taliban – what has the last 20 years of conflict achieved?

Ignoring the suppression of Al-Qaeda, arguably the biggest accomplishment of NATO’s intervention is the progress of female rights, social and economic inclusion, and education. According to the World Bank, the UN, and Amnesty, 39% of girls now attend school in Afghanistan (compared to 6% in 2003), 5% of women now go to university, 22% have jobs, 20% are in the civil service, and 27% are MPs, with 1,000 owning businesses by 2019.

Unfortunately, even this progress will likely be reversed if the Taliban are to regain control. Reports claim that they have already begun to impose new restrictions on women similar to that of their rule between 1996-2001 in the north, such as not being able to leave the house without a male companion and wearing a hijab. There are plenty of female Afghan civil servants, ministers, students, doctors, and directors in the country – but their future if the Taliban regain power is very insecure.

Intelligence analysts in the country believe the Taliban may hold siege over the major cities, cutting off critical supplies until the government gives in. According to some reports, the Taliban are already enacting this tactic on cities in the north and south of the country. If this happens, there are fears that places such as Kabul with implode with crime as people fight over food, medicine, water and other resources.

Alternatively, the Taliban could try to take the country by force, leading to the onset of a grisly civil war, which may see state powers surrounding Afghanistan funding the various parties to the conflict – exacerbating its lethality – in an attempt to assert influence over the country.

In the best, but most unlikely, outcome, a peace agreement will be achieved and a ceasefire will be maintained – but with the draconian policies of the Taliban theocracy, it is unlikely they will find a middle ground with the westernised Afghan government. The prospect of such an agreement is soon to be tested. The current proposition of the Taliban is for them to hold a three-month ceasefire in return for the release of 7,000 captive fighters, and their removal from the United Nations blacklist. If this will work, it is too soon to say.

According to one government official, there is also the possibility of Chinese intervention – he stated “all the great powers want to control Afghanistan. The Russians came first, then the Americans, now it is China’s turn”. China has deeply criticized the Afghan war, and have expressed their worries about the withdrawal. With Afghanistan’s Asian neighbours bringing together their top diplomats to discuss how to prevent Afghanistan from slipping into civil war, we may soon know whether other powers in the region will step forward to try to bring ‘peace and stability’ to the region.

Whatever the eventual outcome, “the forever war” – once dubbed ‘the good war’ – is coming to an end, at least for NATO. It seems as though Joe Biden and his allies have come to the same conclusion that Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith gave in an interview in Helmand, 2008: the war cannot be won militarily. With the Taliban on the verge of complete control over the country, it seems that Carleton-Smith’s prediction will come true, though it is a prediction that sharply jars with the claim by the Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, that the UK may be withdrawing most of its troops from Afghanistan but it was not defeated on the battlefield.

The truth is the war did fail. And what the UK and NATO are leaving behind from this failure is a country on the verge of catastrophe.

And the ones who will suffer the most are the innocent Afghan civilians who, for most, have grown up knowing nothing but war. As one civilian who has lived through the Soviet invasion, the Taliban rule and now the ‘War on Terror’ put it: “The story of Afghanistan is war, this is just a new chapter”.