The last US and Nato troops left the strategically and symbolically important Bagram air base in Afghanistan last week, and with it America’s longest war. Their withdrawal has emboldened a resurgent Taliban, which risks erasing the important gains enjoyed by the country — albeit at the cost of 120,000 Afghan deaths. Protracted, worsening conflict looks likely for a country that has already suffered so much. Coalition forces must now urgently focus on evacuating Afghan interpreters and other civilian personnel who served them. The coalition’s chequered legacy of the past two decades will be further tarnished unless more is done to help those left behind.
Bagram, once a Soviet foothold, is a symbol of US military might but also misdeeds, as the scene of the torture of detainees. The White House shelved a plan two weeks ago to keep a presence at the base until the totemic withdrawal date of September 11 2021. That would have kept open the possibility of air strikes in remote parts of the country, and the ability to evacuate more of the estimated 25,000 interpreters who risk falling victim to Taliban retribution. Despite a statement from the militant group that interpreters would not be targeted — as long as they showed remorse — around 300 have been killed since 2014.
The retreat of 19 nations’ troops brings the curtain down on an era of foreign policy defined by the 9/11 attacks. Just a smattering of less than 1,000 troops to guard the international airport and US embassy will remain. The rise of China, not Islamists in the Middle East, now dominates geopolitical thought in Washington. Inasmuch as terrorism is still a worry for the Biden administration, the domestic threat, including from white supremacists, is a rising concern. One can understand why Joe Biden — who did not oppose invasion in 2001 but whose thinking has been tempered by the service in Iraq of his late son, Beau — wants to end a war that has now seen its fourth US president. If after 20 years, $2.3tn and 7,400 deaths of coalition soldiers and contractors, certain strategic aims were not met, there is good reason to suspect they never would be.
One strategic aim was removing the Taliban from power. The coalition has failed in that aim. As the Taliban has ratcheted up violence they have captured 127, or a quarter, of the country’s district centres, according to the Afghanistan Analysts Network. The country, where the coronavirus pandemic also threatens to overwhelm its fragile health system, is on a precipice.
Therefore it is a matter of days, not months, that are critical for the interpreters and their families. They have been met with inconsistent policy across the Nato countries they served. Some have been promised expedited visas, only to be faced with requests for 30-page forms, while other countries have set arbitrary time limits on the service record for personnel they would consider.
Australia, which has a tough immigration policy at the best of times, has cited the pandemic as another reason for tightening controls. Canada, normally known for its welcoming stance, has been strangely opaque. The UK and the US have in recent weeks opened up relocation schemes, but it is not enough. Including family members, about 120,000 remain in Afghanistan who are now at risk, according to Human Rights Watch.
If interpreters’ visas cannot be expedited then the next best step is to evacuate them and their families to a safe haven while these are being processed, as the US has suggested. The rest of the coalition countries must do likewise. The clock is ticking, loudly.