The last image of the war in Afghanistan shows a US solider all geared up, with his combat helmet and bulletproof vest and holding an automated weapon in his right hand, going up the cargo hatch and boarding the last US transport out of Afghanistan. The photo was shot using night vision optics, giving it the specific green tint. The soldier is Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, one of the most prestigious United States military units, which fought in all the major wars, starting with the First World War and ending with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of the international media writes that Donahue was the last American soldier to leave Kabul, a reference to the long tradition of military commanders who are the last to leave their post, or the ship that is about to sink.
Donahue’s picture may be the last of a Kapuściński-style report, describing the images that grabbed the headlines in the last two weeks and telling the stories behind them. Picture 1. Posters of women at a beauty salon in Kabul are painted over by an Afghan. Such displays are henceforth anathema in Taliban-held Kabul. During their previous spell at the helm of Afghanistan, the Taliban forbade women from studying and working, also barring them from leaving their homes unaccompanied by a man. Music and dance were banned. In the name of the fight against idolatry, the Taliban destroyed statues from the world heritage of mankind. Video 1. Afghans desperately clinging onto a military plane taking off, one of them falling from the sky. This is the same desperation one can see in the thousands of civilians that took the airport by storm, trampling each other for a seat on one of the planes leaving the country. It is clear they don’t believe the promises the Taliban have thrown at them, saying they will be safe and the regime will be more tolerant this time. Picture 2. Sergeant Nicole Gee cradling an Afghan baby. The child is most likely one of the many thrown over the fence by their parents at Kabul airport. Just a few days after the picture was taken, Nicole Gee, aged 23, was killed in a suicide bomb attack claimed by ISIS-K. The attack claimed the lives of another 12 US military, just as young as Nicole, and some 100 Afghans. Video 2. A group of Taliban young fighters, all armed and with a blank stare, standing in a television studio, where they went to tell the Afghan people they have nothing to fear. Picture 3. A helicopter hovering over Kabul, depicted next to the image of a helicopter taking off from the US Embassy in Saigon, when the capital of Southern Vietnam fell, at the end of another war that exacted a heavy toll on the United States.
Some 2,500 US military and over 1,000 soldiers from allied states died in the 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan. Adding to that number are the thousands of civilians, so-called private contractors who supported the Coalition war effort, as well as the employees of humanitarian organizations and journalists. Still, these figures pale in comparison to the number of Afghan victims, estimated to stand in-between 165 thousand (Associated Press) and 240 thousand (Reuters). The financial cost was also huge – over 2,000 billion USD.
Everything ended with a large-scale evacuation operation from an airport surrounded by the Taliban. President Joe Biden described the operation as the biggest of its kind in American history. 120 thousand people, both foreigners and Afghan, have been evacuated in just two weeks. In different circumstances, this would be impressive. But now, it is just a bitter consolation. Many other Afghans have stayed behind, risking persecution at the hand of the Taliban, who have already arrested and executed people associated with the old regime.
The future of Afghanistan is grim. On the one hand, the Taliban will impose their own harsh regime. Even if they stay true to their word and don’t return to the terror of the 1990s, life won’t be easy. All the progress reported in the last twenty years, all the steps taken towards a more inclusive and democratic society, have been discarded. All the plans for building a different future for Afghanistan will have to be put on hold, at least for the time being.
The country will not just collapse into political oblivion, but it will also be gripped by a severe economic crisis. The UN and NGOs warn that a humanitarian crisis is imminent, as the country urgently needs food and medicine. Thousands of specialists playing a key role in the administration have fled the country these days. Most of the country’s monetary reserves, totaling approximately nine billion dollars, have been blocked in offshore accounts. All the funding that has so far helped the Afghan government survive has been withdrawn. There has been much talk about Afghanistan’s deposits of rare earth minerals, roughly estimated at 1 trillion USD. But these deposits need to be exploited – the government has known about them for years, and during the American presence in Afghanistan, these deposits were never turned into a “gold mine”.
Finally, peace is not a certainty, no matter what the Taliban say. An anti-Taliban resistance has been forming in Panjshir Valley. The Islamic State still has hundreds, if not thousands of fanatics willing to blow themselves up in the middle of a crowd of civilians. The Taliban have been at war with the Islamic State for a number of years, without seemingly managing to defeat them. Now, it’s even harder to believe they will succeed in the near future.
On their part, the Americans will have to deal with the consequences of this failure, because no matter how you look at it, the war in Afghanistan was a failure, a defeat. Yes, the United States won (nearly) all the battles, as they did in Vietnam. Yes, the objectives that initially triggered the war have long been met: most of the Al-Qaeda militants hiding in Afghanistan since 2001, including Osama bin Laden, have been killed or captured. Any survivors are still in hiding, and its very unlikely they still have any capacity of orchestrating attacks of the same magnitude as in September, 2001. Yet, the reconstruction of Afghanistan, the creation of a democratic and prosperous state that should no longer be used as a safe haven by terrorist organizations, has failed. Al-Qaeda’s allies from 20 years ago, the Taliban, have again seized power. Their ranks now include a number of Muslim extremists. America lost. And this will empower a great number of Jihadis, from Asia to Africa, making them believe they too can win their wars. It remains to be seen whether these wars will remain within the confines of their own countries, or if they will once again spread to America and Europe.