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Return of US troops to Afghanistan parallels Iraq

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As the Afghan capital, Kabul, reeling from a relentless attack by Taliban forces, the first contingents of US Marines tasked with rescuing Americans and others were ready to arrive in Afghanistan over the weekend, administration officials said Friday. .

The urgency of the new mission was underscored by the fierce advances of the Taliban that have stunned the world as diplomats face growing regional instability and a growing humanitarian crisis. By Friday, the Taliban, seizing US-funded military equipment as they move seemingly unopposed across the landscape, had captured Afghanistan’s second and third largest cities and most of the homeland.

The arrival of 3,000 soldiers will more than double the number of American forces in the battered country after the long-promised withdrawal to end America’s longest war had proceeded apace and was scheduled to conclude in September.

Analysts said the Taliban may have waited to attack Kabul, partly due to the US presence and also because Islamic extremists are likely to besiege, isolate and starve the city by cutting off most of its land exit routes. . Unlike other Afghan cities, Kabul also has a huge population of about 6 million people, swollen in recent days by those fleeing from other parts of the country.

“We have noted with great concern the speed with which they have been moving and the lack of resistance they have faced,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Friday. He said Kabul was not in an “environment of imminent threat” but that the Taliban are “clearly” trying to isolate it.

Pentagon and State Department officials continue to insist that the US Embassy will not be shut down completely, despite the fact that most employees are likely to leave, leaving only a reduced staff. Employees were reportedly ordered to begin destroying confidential embassy files, and there are plans, not yet finalized, to relocate the entire embassy operation to Kabul’s fortified Hamid Karzai International Airport.

The alarming events in Afghanistan were echoed in the more than 15 years of the United States’ war in Iraq. In both cases, the civilian and military commanders possibly lost sight of the original strategic objectives of their missions and exceeded their effectiveness. In the case of Iraq, American troops had to return three years after their withdrawal to fight a new enemy, the Islamic State, while in Afghanistan the last soldier had not yet left before the threat roared back.

Rapid victories by the Taliban over the past week indicate that, as in Iraq, America’s training and plans for civil liberties and democracy are often outstripped by corruption, tribal instincts for self-preservation, and fear. absolute that Islamist militants can incite with stoning, beheadings and others. cruelties.

On Friday, the Taliban seized Logar, a small provincial capital about 30 miles from Kabul, the seat of power for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his government.

It was a small but significant victory in an advance that has brought more than half of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals under the control of the Taliban; That includes Kandahar, its second-largest city and the birthplace of the militant group.

In Kabul, panic appears to have started, with reports that high-level officials such as Vice President Amrullah Saleh have fled the country amid rumors that Ghani will resign.

“From the second half of the Trump administration until now, we have been boosting the morale of the Taliban and discouraging the morale of the Afghan government,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, explaining the speed with which they were moving forward. the Taliban.

The Taliban were strengthened when President Trump’s envoys agreed last year to sit in Doha, Qatar, with their representatives, the first time a U.S. government had ever done so. But he eliminated the Afghan government, which felt marginalized. That was highlighted when one of the agreements between the United States and the Taliban forced the Afghan government to release some 5,000 Taliban prisoners, many of whom are fighting today.

Except for geography, the resurgence of the Taliban and the rise of the Islamic State read like the same haunting story of American intervention. In its early days, the Islamic State resembled the Taliban of late. Racing through the rugged terrain of the Middle East in August 2014 on worn out Toyota pickups, Islamic militants streaked through one city, then another, and another. Entire units of the army, all paid for and trained by the United States, disintegrated.

The Islamic State traversed wide swaths of Syria and Iraq, commanding a full third of each country for what it claimed was its caliphate. And the United States, three years after its last soldier withdrew from Baghdad, returned to a war it thought it had left behind.

In Afghanistan, the question is whether he will have a chance to leave in the first place. The Taliban, the Afghan Islamist group that the United States defeated after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has arguably never been stronger.

Its resurgence, like that of the Islamic State in 2014, has seen it take over, with astonishing ease, areas it could never hope to break in the past. The Taliban now have their knife to the government’s neck.

As in Afghanistan, it was war weariness that pushed then-President Obama to withdraw from Iraq in 2011. In a ceremony to mark the departure of the last remaining US troops in December of that year, although it was not “perfect,” Obama said, “We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-sufficient Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”

But in mid-2014, with the Islamic State collecting millions of dollars in materiel – Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, self-propelled howitzers, some 2,300 Humvees – and turning its gaze toward Baghdad, Obama had to justify the use of military power once. . more in Iraq to lead an international coalition against the militants. That campaign, while coming to an end, continues to this day.

In Afghanistan, the collapse of the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), which the United States supported with a trillion dollars for two decades, has been distant. more jarring than the experience with their Iraqi counterparts in 2014, who took three years to gather forces.

In just a little bit For a week, an Afghan government force with 300,000 soldiers on the books ceded territory to an adversary less than a third its size. Government soldiers have surrendered en masse, bequeathing the militants thousands of trucks, dozens of armored vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, artillery and mortars, seven helicopters (another seven were destroyed) and several ScanEagle drones.

The approach to Kabul prompted Biden’s decision on Thursday to dispatch the 3,000 soldiers and Marines. In addition to helping evacuate parts of the embassy, ​​the troops will expedite the transportation out of Afghanistan of interpreters who worked with US military and diplomatic missions and who would risk dying under the Taliban because of their US affiliation.

Urgency distinguished the scene of Afghanistan today from Iraq in the 2010s.

“Despite the panic, the Islamic State did not threaten the capital” of Baghdad, said Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to both countries. “It was quite clear that the Islamic State would be in its full extent next to Fallujah,” 40 miles west of Baghdad.

One tactic both governments resorted to when confronting Islamic forces was to call in local militias to join in their defense. There were very different consequences. In Iraq, those militias were backed by Iran, survived to fight another day, and now threaten American forces still there. In Afghanistan, Ghani made the call and few local militias responded or were able to muster a defense.

In Iraq, 6,000 American troops were eventually reassigned to dismantle the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State. Pentagon officials now say the new operation in Afghanistan, which will also send 3,000 troops to Qatar to provide backup, is limited and narrowly defined.

The Pentagon’s Kirby declined to describe the new push as a combat mission. “We are all aware of the dangerous situation in Afghanistan and the deteriorating security situation,” Kirby said. The troops will be fully equipped, armed and will have the right to attack in broadly defined self-defense, he said.

“If we need to adjust, in any way, to the left or to the right, we will do it,” he added.

But veteran diplomats and observers in the region warn of how dangerous deeper involvement can be.

“We cannot get caught up as defenders of the capital and saviors of millions of Afghans,” Crocker said. “We would risk a Beirut-style situation.” He was referring to a deployment to Lebanon by US Marines that continued beyond its original mission and was attacked by suicide bombers. In the 1983 attack, 241 Marines died.

Other observers thought that US forces could avoid being sucked into an endless swamp in Afghanistan.

“I don’t see a world where we go back to Afghanistan,” said a retired US military officer who fought in both countries. He requested anonymity because he continues to work on policy issues with government agencies.

“Iraq matters in a way that Afghanistan simply does not matter. We returned to Iraq because Iraq borders on all these countries that we care about ”- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey -“ and I don’t think we care much about Pakistan or Iran, at least in a positive sense ”.

Wilkinson reported from Washington and Bulos from Beirut.

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