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The US Withdrawal From Afghanistan

Aug 30, 2022
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27
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On August 30th of 2021, the United States left Afghanistan after a 20-year occupation.

In this episode, we look at what happened, and why the return of the Taliban didn't come as a shock to everyone.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

[00:00:30] This episode is going to be released on August 30th of 2022, almost exactly a year to the day since the United States officially left Afghanistan.

[00:00:41] You may well remember the pictures from the last day of the withdrawal, as people frantically struggled to get onto planes and fly out of Kabul.

[00:00:51] But you may now know the story behind the occupation, and how the events of August the 30th were just the end of a long and protracted withdrawal from the country, and how the return of the Taliban was, to some, utterly predictable.

[00:01:10] OK then, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

[00:01:15] As the departure date approached, the international community watched nervously. Many were concerned that the US exit was too rushed, it was too quick. 

[00:01:26] These fears were quickly confirmed. As the US forces prepared for their departure, Afghanistan broke out in a civil war. The Taliban, the Islamist group that the US had removed from power when they first invaded Afghanistan, were waiting in the shadows. 

[00:01:46] Politicians, foreign diplomats, reporters, and ordinary citizens scrambled to escape, fearing for their lives under a Taliban takeover. Although the revival of the Taliban shocked many, to others it was not a surprise in the slightest.

[00:02:04] Now, to understand the events of August the 30th of 2021, we need to first remind ourselves exactly what the US was doing in Afghanistan in the first place, a country literally on the other side of the world.

[00:02:21] This can, of course, all be traced back to one day, September 11th of 2001.

[00:02:28] It would be on this day that the terror group al-Qaeda mounted the deadliest ever terror attacks on US soil. 

[00:02:36] Multiple airlines were hijacked mid-flight. Two were flown into the Twin Tower skyscrapers in New York. The attacks had been masterminded by Osama bin Laden, a militant Islamist leader who operated a terror training base in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. 

[00:02:56] President George W. Bush announced a new global operation to root out anti-Western extremists. The so-called “War on Terror” had begun.

[00:03:08] Their first objective was to bring bin Laden to justice for the 9/11 attacks. The US demanded the Taliban government in Afghanistan to hand him over and when the Taliban refused, the US declared war. On October 7th of 2001, the US and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan.

[00:03:30] And as you will remember, the US victory was swift. In just two months, they drove out the Taliban government and captured the capital city of Kabul. 

[00:03:43] The invasion ended the seven-year reign of the Taliban and in the early months of the war it seemed that the group could never return to power in Afghanistan. 

[00:03:54] Now, as a quick reminder of who the Taliban actually are and where they come from, the group can trace its roots back to another Afghan war, the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979 to 1992. 

[00:04:11] After the Soviets had been pushed out of Afghanistan in 1992, this Islamist group, the Taliban, which literally means “the students” in Pashto, rose to dominance in the war-torn country.

[00:04:26] By 1996, they had captured the government of Afghanistan. The Taliban was not just opposed to Communism. They also condemned liberalism and any form of secular culture. Their rise to power did nothing to deradicalise or demilitarise them. 

[00:04:46] True to their fundamentalist roots, they implemented an extreme interpretation of Islamic laws throughout the country. Women could not attend school. Adultery was punishable by death. They also maintained close ties to extremist anti-Western terror groups, including Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. 

[00:05:08] Their rule would last until 2001, when they were easily defeated by the US. 

[00:05:15] For the Americans though, the military victory was only the beginning. They wanted to install a pro-Western democratic political system in Afghanistan to make sure that the country could never again become a hideout for Islamist terrorists. 

[00:05:33] To achieve this, the US pursued what it called a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, an approach to governance that would warm the population to Western ideals and draw them away from Islamist values. 

[00:05:49] For the next twenty years, they built schools, dug wells, and gave agricultural training to farmers. They hoped this would be enough to affect a wholescale cultural transformation. 

[00:06:00] The US poured troops and money into the Hearts and Minds strategy but, as the events of last August made evident, this strategy had not worked as planned. 

[00:06:13] The Taliban may have been pushed out of government, but they were far from disbanded

[00:06:19] They continued to fight the Western invaders, targeting areas that were receiving Western aid by mounting ambushes and laying improvised explosive devices, bombs essentially. 

[00:06:32] If the local Afghans were starting to support the new Western-backed government, the Taliban would even turn to killing civilians. 

[00:06:40] Afghanistan soon turned into a military, financial, and political mess for the United States. 

[00:06:48] Over a 20-year period, an estimated $2.3 trillion was spent on the war. Over 2,000 US military personnel and almost 4,000 military contractors were killed.

[00:07:02] On the Afghan side, almost 50,000 civilians had lost their lives.

[00:07:08] The more that the US forces tried to win over the country to democratic ideals and the new Western-backed regime, the more pushback they experienced from the Taliban. 

[00:07:20] There seemed to be no end in sight to the occupation until the election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016. During his election campaign, he had promised to reduce the US’ foreign military presence and focus on domestic issues. 

[00:07:37] In 2019, he took the first step towards a full withdrawal. He reduced US troops in Afghanistan from 14,000 to 4,500, down from about 100,000 at the height of the US presence in the country. 

[00:07:54] But some were worried. Many in Western military intelligence warned that the country would plunge into chaos without the backing of the United States, believing that the US and the Afghan government had never truly brought the Taliban under control. 

[00:08:12] The group had simply retreated to the rural provinces where they continued to resist the occupiers and the government, simply waiting for the right moment.

[00:08:22] And as much as the Trump administration wanted to wash its hands of this endless occupation, it wanted to do so without leaving a complete bloodbath in its wake

[00:08:35] This is why, in the months leading up to the withdrawal, Washington piled pressure on the Taliban and Afghan government to come to a peaceful agreement. 

[00:08:46] The US wanted the two groups to enter a power-sharing deal to push the country through the withdrawal. After this, there would be a national election.

[00:08:57] But the Afghan government resisted making deals with their sworn enemy, the Taliban. This is, of course, understandable. After more than a decade of being supported by the West to destroy the Taliban’s power base, they were now being pressured to join hands with them. 

[00:09:18] Then, on February 29th of 2020, Trump signed a peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. 

[00:09:26] The conditions were that they would stop attacking US personnel and supporting al-Qaeda. 

[00:09:31] In return, the US would complete their withdrawal by May of 2021. 

[00:09:38] The promise of a US withdrawal emboldened the Taliban, it made them feel more confident. 

[00:09:45] Although they did stop attacking the US and its allies, they intensified their attacks against Afghan security forces. 

[00:09:53] There was a 70 percent increase in Taliban attacks on the government in the 45 days after the February 2020 US-al-Qaeda deal compared to the same period the previous year. 

[00:10:06] This deterioration, understandably again, made many in the US government nervous. 

[00:10:14] In January of 2021, Joe Biden took over from Trump as president and he did stick to the basic withdrawal commitment. The only thing he changed was that the withdrawal would be complete later, by the end of August rather than in May, as Trump had originally promised.

[00:10:33] At this point, in anticipation of a US exit, the Taliban swept through Afghan provinces with a speed that shocked even experienced observers. The whole country broke out in panic. 

[00:10:47] The Afghan government urged volunteers to arm themselves. They even solicited support from prominent warlords that had moved abroad to come back and defend the government. 

[00:10:59] In April of 2021, civilian casualties were up 29 percent compared to the same period in 2020. The majority of these were from Taliban attacks. 

[00:11:12] And on the US side, the United States administration was still divided over withdrawal. The only advantage that Kabul, that the Afghan government, held over the Taliban was its air power but it relied completely on US technicians, operators, and finance for air strikes. 

[00:11:33] Many thought that the US should not leave Kabul, until the Afghan government, could defend itself without relying on American forces. 

[00:11:43] Even the CIA director Bill Burns told the Senate that the withdrawal would only lead to the rise of Islamic extremism in the region again. But on May 1st, the first phase of the operation to withdraw began. Throughout May, the US focused on flying key pieces of military equipment out from the country. 

[00:12:06] The withdrawal was really happening.

[00:12:09] In June, Ghani, the president of Afghanistan, was on a warpath. He chose men with military experience to head his new cabinet, including a prominent warlord general called Bismillah Khan Mohammadi. 

[00:12:25] The sole objective was to protect Kabul and the ten largest cities in the country. 

[00:12:31] Some Afghan politicians started leaving the country, fearing that they would be murdered by the Taliban as Western collaborators

[00:12:38] The Taliban weren’t exactly known for their forgiveness.

[00:12:43] The group vowed to keep fighting the Kabul government until Ghani was removed from power. They resisted the international community’s pleas for them to lay down arms

[00:12:54] From May to July, 80 out of 400 districts in Afghanistan had fallen to the Taliban who referred to themselves as the ‘Islamic Emirate’ and spoke of their intention to establish what they called a ‘pure Islamic regime’. 

[00:13:11] In the areas they controlled, the Taliban were already reinstalling their extremist interpretation of Islamic governance. Reports began filtering through about the Taliban already banning women from work in the areas they controlled and publicly executing people without trial

[00:13:29] Although their justice might have been medieval, their methods of takeover were sophisticated

[00:13:36] They doubled down on diplomacy, getting Iran, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan to keep trade through the border crossings that they controlled. Now that they had control over commodity flows through Afghanistan, they could use this to pressure the Kabul government to give in, to surrender.

[00:13:56] Already by July, countries that bordered Afghanistan were treating the Taliban as the government-in-waiting. New Delhi, India, was negotiating with them on equal terms even as they nominally supported Kabul, as they supported the Western-backed government. 

[00:14:15] On July 3rd of 2021, the US handed over its main military base in Afghanistan, Bagram Airfield, to the Kabul government. Not even the maintenance staff were left. Now, only 600 US troops were left in the whole country to protect the US diplomatic mission. 

[00:14:35] Bagram had been the centre of US operations since the time of the invasion so this was a major step in the withdrawal and underlined the seriousness of the US commitment to leave the country on the planned August deadline. The second most important air base in the country, Kandahar, would be next.

[00:14:55] And although Biden promised one billion dollars and an additional 37 Black Hawk helicopters to Afghanistan to make up for the loss of the air bases, the US had not trained the Afghans in operating air equipment. 

[00:15:10] These capabilities were useless to the Kabul government unless the US military was there to operate them.

[00:15:18] By mid-July the US withdrawal was more than 95 percent complete. In the north of Afghanistan, the warlords who had helped the US defeat the Taliban twenty years ago were once again battling the Islamist group. The Taliban were assaulting the city of Kandahar in the south and Wala-e-Naw in the North West. 

[00:15:39] The Taliban knew that they were winning. 

[00:15:42] They had been waiting for twenty years, and now they simply had to wait for a few more weeks. 

[00:15:48] By early August, almost 300,000 Afghans had fled their homes, anticipating the Taliban advance. These internal refugees descended on the large cities, the last strongholds of the government’s power. 

[00:16:05] Now, the Taliban controlled more than half of Afghanistan’s 400 districts.

[00:16:11] They hadn’t yet captured Kabul, but they were quickly encircling the capital. 

[00:16:16] In foreign embassies, people were trying to find reliable sources of food and petrol.

[00:16:22] There was a mad rush to escape. 

[00:16:25] With the Taliban closing in, the only place where foreign nationals and diplomats could guarantee their safety was Kabul’s International Airport. However, many American citizens could not reach this secure zone as the routes into it were so dangerous. 

[00:16:42] International news crews descended onto the airport to record the final flights out of this war-torn nation, and there were eerie parallels with the United States’ withdrawal from Saigon in April of 1975. 

[00:16:57] The disorder and urgency that they found there became a symbol of the US’ mishandling of their departure. The US Air Force was flying aircraft into and out of Kabul every 24 hours filled with US citizens and eligible Afghan refugees. 

[00:17:14] And, the stream of evacuees kept coming. 

[00:17:18] At this stage, the US was trying to evacuate 9,000 people a day from the country and the few remaining military personnel were overwhelmed.

[00:17:29] On August 16th, Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban ran onto the airport’s tiny airstrip, following a moving plane. Some people were so desperate to escape that they fell to their deaths after hanging off the wheels of planes.

[00:17:45] On August 26th, two suicide bombers and gunmen killed 60 Afghans and 12 US troops at the airport. This was the largest number of US military troops killed in Afghanistan since 2011.

[00:18:01] But Joe Biden remained committed to the withdrawal, now only one week away. Afghan leaders, he said, had to fight for themselves. 

[00:18:11] And at 11:59pm on August the 30th the last US military planes finally left Kabul airport, drawing a line under the 20-year occupation of the country.

[00:18:24] Afghanistan was, yet again, under Taliban control.

[00:18:29] The hope for a peaceful transition seems naïve looking back, but the US government had not been the only one who still clung to optimism about an independent Afghanistan.

[00:18:42] Even experienced reporters familiar with the country were shocked by how quickly the Taliban took back power in August 2021. Many had truly believed that Afghanistan had been transformed under the new, Western-backed regime

[00:18:59] The Afghanistan that many reporters were familiar with seemed to confirm the idea that the country had undergone a profound cultural shift during the occupation. 

[00:19:11] In their bases in cities like Kandahar and Kabul, they would have seen a university educated urban population that now included women, people with office jobs, private sector or NGOs. 

[00:19:25] Many young people had never known Taliban rule. 

[00:19:30] For these observers, it is understandable that they would have believed that there could be no way that the nation would return to rule by an extremist militia who imposed the most fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law on their population.

[00:19:46] For the Taliban, however, things looked very different. For 20 years, the Taliban had been ready to take back Afghanistan when the opportunity presented itself.

[00:19:57] They knew the opportunity would come, and they saw that there were deep structural problems with the Western occupation of the country.

[00:20:06] For many reasons, the US-backed regime in Kabul was very fragile. 

[00:20:11] Not only did the country’s economy depend on massive amounts of foreign aid from the West, but the Kabul government actually had very shallow roots in wider Afghan society. 

[00:20:23] After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, the country was deeply divided. 

[00:20:30] From the perspective of white-collar professionals and businessmen in Kabul, it was easy to forget that 80 percent of Afghans are involved in agriculture, they’re farmers, essentially. 

[00:20:42] The Taliban controlled many rural provinces even back in 2020. 

[00:20:47] Many other provinces were only weakly under the control of government’s forces. This was partly because after the US invasion, many Afghans who had once opposed the Taliban’s harsh regime had quickly become sceptical of the US-backed government. This was especially the case among Pashtuns, a major ethnic group in Afghanistan.

[00:21:11] Pashtun people thought that the US-backed government was too dominated by Tajiks, an ethnic group that had historically been hostile to the Pashtuns. There was a lot of mistrust and it didn’t help that the Tajik-dominated government would raid, bomb, and detain Pashtun tribe members. 

[00:21:32] These discriminatory policies made the Taliban, whose leadership and founding members were mostly Pashtuns, more appealing to some. 

[00:21:41] And, unsurprisingly, the Taliban found it quite easy to take control of districts where Pashtuns lived. 

[00:21:49] So, Afghan opinion of the Taliban is complex. And clearly, not everyone who ended up supporting their resurgence was motivated by purely ideological or theological reasons. 

[00:22:03] For many, it was simply practical, it was a case of survival, to not oppose the Taliban.

[00:22:10] And this was especially true outside the cities.

[00:22:14] For years, the Taliban had proven themselves competent administrators in the rural regions. 

[00:22:20] They had stepped into places where the central government had either been too corrupt or unpopular to govern. 

[00:22:27] This didn’t just make the population see them as legitimate rulers. It also made them a lot of money. They controlled the lucrative poppy trade but also made their wealth from more legitimate sources.

[00:22:41] In return for providing security in parts of the country where the government had lost control, the Taliban took taxes on commodities like fuel that passed through their territories. 

[00:22:52] The Taliban takeover was ultimately financed by this wealth. Even as fighting intensified in August, the Taliban made sure that their tax revenue would not be disrupted. 

[00:23:05] In a shrewd move, they prioritised capturing strategic economic positions. 

[00:23:10] They took over key border posts, which ensured that trade and business continued and that the tax revenue which would have been sent to Kabul was going to the Taliban instead. 

[00:23:23] Now, looking at Afghanistan in 2022, it’s easy to think that the last twenty years had never happened. 

[00:23:32] Despite two decades of propaganda efforts and aid by the US and its allies, the Western-backed regime had failed to win the hearts and minds of the population outside the urban centres. 

[00:23:45] The tragedy of the Afghan situation is that by 2021, the US had few options other than to fully withdraw. By then, it was impossible to correct the blunders of the US and NATO occupation without staying on in the country for decades more. 

[00:24:04] And the West, especially the United States, was no longer in the business of nation-building. 

[00:24:11] Afghanistan had, yet again, lived up to its nickname as a “graveyard of empires”.

[00:24:18] In the 19th century the British and the Russians fought “The Great Game” in Afghanistan, with both losing spectacularly.

[00:24:26] In the 21st century, even the richest and most powerful country in the world would join this list of foreign invaders that “lost” in Afghanistan.

[00:24:36] But of course, as with any conflict, it is not the invaders, but the ordinary civilians that suffer the most. 

[00:24:44] When international organisations and the US cut off aid and financial loans to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, its economic and social services began collapsing. In May 2022, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator announced that 95 percent of Afghans are not getting enough to eat. 

[00:25:04] Rightly or wrongly, August the 30th of 2021 will go down as a monumentous date in the history of both the United States and Afghanistan, a time when Western rule ended and Taliban rule restarted. 

[00:25:20] The chapter on foreign occupation is now closed, and a new chapter under the Taliban is just starting.

[00:25:28] Time will only tell how long, and how dangerous, this chapter will be.

[00:25:35] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

[00:25:41] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:25:45] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:25:49] Looking back on the previous 365 days, how do you think Afghanistan has fared versus expectations?

[00:25:57] What other options did the United States have?

[00:26:00] Is the region now more dangerous or is it a safer place since the United States has left?

[00:26:07] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:26:10] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:23] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

[00:00:30] This episode is going to be released on August 30th of 2022, almost exactly a year to the day since the United States officially left Afghanistan.

[00:00:41] You may well remember the pictures from the last day of the withdrawal, as people frantically struggled to get onto planes and fly out of Kabul.

[00:00:51] But you may now know the story behind the occupation, and how the events of August the 30th were just the end of a long and protracted withdrawal from the country, and how the return of the Taliban was, to some, utterly predictable.

[00:01:10] OK then, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

[00:01:15] As the departure date approached, the international community watched nervously. Many were concerned that the US exit was too rushed, it was too quick. 

[00:01:26] These fears were quickly confirmed. As the US forces prepared for their departure, Afghanistan broke out in a civil war. The Taliban, the Islamist group that the US had removed from power when they first invaded Afghanistan, were waiting in the shadows. 

[00:01:46] Politicians, foreign diplomats, reporters, and ordinary citizens scrambled to escape, fearing for their lives under a Taliban takeover. Although the revival of the Taliban shocked many, to others it was not a surprise in the slightest.

[00:02:04] Now, to understand the events of August the 30th of 2021, we need to first remind ourselves exactly what the US was doing in Afghanistan in the first place, a country literally on the other side of the world.

[00:02:21] This can, of course, all be traced back to one day, September 11th of 2001.

[00:02:28] It would be on this day that the terror group al-Qaeda mounted the deadliest ever terror attacks on US soil. 

[00:02:36] Multiple airlines were hijacked mid-flight. Two were flown into the Twin Tower skyscrapers in New York. The attacks had been masterminded by Osama bin Laden, a militant Islamist leader who operated a terror training base in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. 

[00:02:56] President George W. Bush announced a new global operation to root out anti-Western extremists. The so-called “War on Terror” had begun.

[00:03:08] Their first objective was to bring bin Laden to justice for the 9/11 attacks. The US demanded the Taliban government in Afghanistan to hand him over and when the Taliban refused, the US declared war. On October 7th of 2001, the US and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan.

[00:03:30] And as you will remember, the US victory was swift. In just two months, they drove out the Taliban government and captured the capital city of Kabul. 

[00:03:43] The invasion ended the seven-year reign of the Taliban and in the early months of the war it seemed that the group could never return to power in Afghanistan. 

[00:03:54] Now, as a quick reminder of who the Taliban actually are and where they come from, the group can trace its roots back to another Afghan war, the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979 to 1992. 

[00:04:11] After the Soviets had been pushed out of Afghanistan in 1992, this Islamist group, the Taliban, which literally means “the students” in Pashto, rose to dominance in the war-torn country.

[00:04:26] By 1996, they had captured the government of Afghanistan. The Taliban was not just opposed to Communism. They also condemned liberalism and any form of secular culture. Their rise to power did nothing to deradicalise or demilitarise them. 

[00:04:46] True to their fundamentalist roots, they implemented an extreme interpretation of Islamic laws throughout the country. Women could not attend school. Adultery was punishable by death. They also maintained close ties to extremist anti-Western terror groups, including Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. 

[00:05:08] Their rule would last until 2001, when they were easily defeated by the US. 

[00:05:15] For the Americans though, the military victory was only the beginning. They wanted to install a pro-Western democratic political system in Afghanistan to make sure that the country could never again become a hideout for Islamist terrorists. 

[00:05:33] To achieve this, the US pursued what it called a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, an approach to governance that would warm the population to Western ideals and draw them away from Islamist values. 

[00:05:49] For the next twenty years, they built schools, dug wells, and gave agricultural training to farmers. They hoped this would be enough to affect a wholescale cultural transformation. 

[00:06:00] The US poured troops and money into the Hearts and Minds strategy but, as the events of last August made evident, this strategy had not worked as planned. 

[00:06:13] The Taliban may have been pushed out of government, but they were far from disbanded

[00:06:19] They continued to fight the Western invaders, targeting areas that were receiving Western aid by mounting ambushes and laying improvised explosive devices, bombs essentially. 

[00:06:32] If the local Afghans were starting to support the new Western-backed government, the Taliban would even turn to killing civilians. 

[00:06:40] Afghanistan soon turned into a military, financial, and political mess for the United States. 

[00:06:48] Over a 20-year period, an estimated $2.3 trillion was spent on the war. Over 2,000 US military personnel and almost 4,000 military contractors were killed.

[00:07:02] On the Afghan side, almost 50,000 civilians had lost their lives.

[00:07:08] The more that the US forces tried to win over the country to democratic ideals and the new Western-backed regime, the more pushback they experienced from the Taliban. 

[00:07:20] There seemed to be no end in sight to the occupation until the election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016. During his election campaign, he had promised to reduce the US’ foreign military presence and focus on domestic issues. 

[00:07:37] In 2019, he took the first step towards a full withdrawal. He reduced US troops in Afghanistan from 14,000 to 4,500, down from about 100,000 at the height of the US presence in the country. 

[00:07:54] But some were worried. Many in Western military intelligence warned that the country would plunge into chaos without the backing of the United States, believing that the US and the Afghan government had never truly brought the Taliban under control. 

[00:08:12] The group had simply retreated to the rural provinces where they continued to resist the occupiers and the government, simply waiting for the right moment.

[00:08:22] And as much as the Trump administration wanted to wash its hands of this endless occupation, it wanted to do so without leaving a complete bloodbath in its wake

[00:08:35] This is why, in the months leading up to the withdrawal, Washington piled pressure on the Taliban and Afghan government to come to a peaceful agreement. 

[00:08:46] The US wanted the two groups to enter a power-sharing deal to push the country through the withdrawal. After this, there would be a national election.

[00:08:57] But the Afghan government resisted making deals with their sworn enemy, the Taliban. This is, of course, understandable. After more than a decade of being supported by the West to destroy the Taliban’s power base, they were now being pressured to join hands with them. 

[00:09:18] Then, on February 29th of 2020, Trump signed a peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. 

[00:09:26] The conditions were that they would stop attacking US personnel and supporting al-Qaeda. 

[00:09:31] In return, the US would complete their withdrawal by May of 2021. 

[00:09:38] The promise of a US withdrawal emboldened the Taliban, it made them feel more confident. 

[00:09:45] Although they did stop attacking the US and its allies, they intensified their attacks against Afghan security forces. 

[00:09:53] There was a 70 percent increase in Taliban attacks on the government in the 45 days after the February 2020 US-al-Qaeda deal compared to the same period the previous year. 

[00:10:06] This deterioration, understandably again, made many in the US government nervous. 

[00:10:14] In January of 2021, Joe Biden took over from Trump as president and he did stick to the basic withdrawal commitment. The only thing he changed was that the withdrawal would be complete later, by the end of August rather than in May, as Trump had originally promised.

[00:10:33] At this point, in anticipation of a US exit, the Taliban swept through Afghan provinces with a speed that shocked even experienced observers. The whole country broke out in panic. 

[00:10:47] The Afghan government urged volunteers to arm themselves. They even solicited support from prominent warlords that had moved abroad to come back and defend the government. 

[00:10:59] In April of 2021, civilian casualties were up 29 percent compared to the same period in 2020. The majority of these were from Taliban attacks. 

[00:11:12] And on the US side, the United States administration was still divided over withdrawal. The only advantage that Kabul, that the Afghan government, held over the Taliban was its air power but it relied completely on US technicians, operators, and finance for air strikes. 

[00:11:33] Many thought that the US should not leave Kabul, until the Afghan government, could defend itself without relying on American forces. 

[00:11:43] Even the CIA director Bill Burns told the Senate that the withdrawal would only lead to the rise of Islamic extremism in the region again. But on May 1st, the first phase of the operation to withdraw began. Throughout May, the US focused on flying key pieces of military equipment out from the country. 

[00:12:06] The withdrawal was really happening.

[00:12:09] In June, Ghani, the president of Afghanistan, was on a warpath. He chose men with military experience to head his new cabinet, including a prominent warlord general called Bismillah Khan Mohammadi. 

[00:12:25] The sole objective was to protect Kabul and the ten largest cities in the country. 

[00:12:31] Some Afghan politicians started leaving the country, fearing that they would be murdered by the Taliban as Western collaborators

[00:12:38] The Taliban weren’t exactly known for their forgiveness.

[00:12:43] The group vowed to keep fighting the Kabul government until Ghani was removed from power. They resisted the international community’s pleas for them to lay down arms

[00:12:54] From May to July, 80 out of 400 districts in Afghanistan had fallen to the Taliban who referred to themselves as the ‘Islamic Emirate’ and spoke of their intention to establish what they called a ‘pure Islamic regime’. 

[00:13:11] In the areas they controlled, the Taliban were already reinstalling their extremist interpretation of Islamic governance. Reports began filtering through about the Taliban already banning women from work in the areas they controlled and publicly executing people without trial

[00:13:29] Although their justice might have been medieval, their methods of takeover were sophisticated

[00:13:36] They doubled down on diplomacy, getting Iran, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan to keep trade through the border crossings that they controlled. Now that they had control over commodity flows through Afghanistan, they could use this to pressure the Kabul government to give in, to surrender.

[00:13:56] Already by July, countries that bordered Afghanistan were treating the Taliban as the government-in-waiting. New Delhi, India, was negotiating with them on equal terms even as they nominally supported Kabul, as they supported the Western-backed government. 

[00:14:15] On July 3rd of 2021, the US handed over its main military base in Afghanistan, Bagram Airfield, to the Kabul government. Not even the maintenance staff were left. Now, only 600 US troops were left in the whole country to protect the US diplomatic mission. 

[00:14:35] Bagram had been the centre of US operations since the time of the invasion so this was a major step in the withdrawal and underlined the seriousness of the US commitment to leave the country on the planned August deadline. The second most important air base in the country, Kandahar, would be next.

[00:14:55] And although Biden promised one billion dollars and an additional 37 Black Hawk helicopters to Afghanistan to make up for the loss of the air bases, the US had not trained the Afghans in operating air equipment. 

[00:15:10] These capabilities were useless to the Kabul government unless the US military was there to operate them.

[00:15:18] By mid-July the US withdrawal was more than 95 percent complete. In the north of Afghanistan, the warlords who had helped the US defeat the Taliban twenty years ago were once again battling the Islamist group. The Taliban were assaulting the city of Kandahar in the south and Wala-e-Naw in the North West. 

[00:15:39] The Taliban knew that they were winning. 

[00:15:42] They had been waiting for twenty years, and now they simply had to wait for a few more weeks. 

[00:15:48] By early August, almost 300,000 Afghans had fled their homes, anticipating the Taliban advance. These internal refugees descended on the large cities, the last strongholds of the government’s power. 

[00:16:05] Now, the Taliban controlled more than half of Afghanistan’s 400 districts.

[00:16:11] They hadn’t yet captured Kabul, but they were quickly encircling the capital. 

[00:16:16] In foreign embassies, people were trying to find reliable sources of food and petrol.

[00:16:22] There was a mad rush to escape. 

[00:16:25] With the Taliban closing in, the only place where foreign nationals and diplomats could guarantee their safety was Kabul’s International Airport. However, many American citizens could not reach this secure zone as the routes into it were so dangerous. 

[00:16:42] International news crews descended onto the airport to record the final flights out of this war-torn nation, and there were eerie parallels with the United States’ withdrawal from Saigon in April of 1975. 

[00:16:57] The disorder and urgency that they found there became a symbol of the US’ mishandling of their departure. The US Air Force was flying aircraft into and out of Kabul every 24 hours filled with US citizens and eligible Afghan refugees. 

[00:17:14] And, the stream of evacuees kept coming. 

[00:17:18] At this stage, the US was trying to evacuate 9,000 people a day from the country and the few remaining military personnel were overwhelmed.

[00:17:29] On August 16th, Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban ran onto the airport’s tiny airstrip, following a moving plane. Some people were so desperate to escape that they fell to their deaths after hanging off the wheels of planes.

[00:17:45] On August 26th, two suicide bombers and gunmen killed 60 Afghans and 12 US troops at the airport. This was the largest number of US military troops killed in Afghanistan since 2011.

[00:18:01] But Joe Biden remained committed to the withdrawal, now only one week away. Afghan leaders, he said, had to fight for themselves. 

[00:18:11] And at 11:59pm on August the 30th the last US military planes finally left Kabul airport, drawing a line under the 20-year occupation of the country.

[00:18:24] Afghanistan was, yet again, under Taliban control.

[00:18:29] The hope for a peaceful transition seems naïve looking back, but the US government had not been the only one who still clung to optimism about an independent Afghanistan.

[00:18:42] Even experienced reporters familiar with the country were shocked by how quickly the Taliban took back power in August 2021. Many had truly believed that Afghanistan had been transformed under the new, Western-backed regime

[00:18:59] The Afghanistan that many reporters were familiar with seemed to confirm the idea that the country had undergone a profound cultural shift during the occupation. 

[00:19:11] In their bases in cities like Kandahar and Kabul, they would have seen a university educated urban population that now included women, people with office jobs, private sector or NGOs. 

[00:19:25] Many young people had never known Taliban rule. 

[00:19:30] For these observers, it is understandable that they would have believed that there could be no way that the nation would return to rule by an extremist militia who imposed the most fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law on their population.

[00:19:46] For the Taliban, however, things looked very different. For 20 years, the Taliban had been ready to take back Afghanistan when the opportunity presented itself.

[00:19:57] They knew the opportunity would come, and they saw that there were deep structural problems with the Western occupation of the country.

[00:20:06] For many reasons, the US-backed regime in Kabul was very fragile. 

[00:20:11] Not only did the country’s economy depend on massive amounts of foreign aid from the West, but the Kabul government actually had very shallow roots in wider Afghan society. 

[00:20:23] After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, the country was deeply divided. 

[00:20:30] From the perspective of white-collar professionals and businessmen in Kabul, it was easy to forget that 80 percent of Afghans are involved in agriculture, they’re farmers, essentially. 

[00:20:42] The Taliban controlled many rural provinces even back in 2020. 

[00:20:47] Many other provinces were only weakly under the control of government’s forces. This was partly because after the US invasion, many Afghans who had once opposed the Taliban’s harsh regime had quickly become sceptical of the US-backed government. This was especially the case among Pashtuns, a major ethnic group in Afghanistan.

[00:21:11] Pashtun people thought that the US-backed government was too dominated by Tajiks, an ethnic group that had historically been hostile to the Pashtuns. There was a lot of mistrust and it didn’t help that the Tajik-dominated government would raid, bomb, and detain Pashtun tribe members. 

[00:21:32] These discriminatory policies made the Taliban, whose leadership and founding members were mostly Pashtuns, more appealing to some. 

[00:21:41] And, unsurprisingly, the Taliban found it quite easy to take control of districts where Pashtuns lived. 

[00:21:49] So, Afghan opinion of the Taliban is complex. And clearly, not everyone who ended up supporting their resurgence was motivated by purely ideological or theological reasons. 

[00:22:03] For many, it was simply practical, it was a case of survival, to not oppose the Taliban.

[00:22:10] And this was especially true outside the cities.

[00:22:14] For years, the Taliban had proven themselves competent administrators in the rural regions. 

[00:22:20] They had stepped into places where the central government had either been too corrupt or unpopular to govern. 

[00:22:27] This didn’t just make the population see them as legitimate rulers. It also made them a lot of money. They controlled the lucrative poppy trade but also made their wealth from more legitimate sources.

[00:22:41] In return for providing security in parts of the country where the government had lost control, the Taliban took taxes on commodities like fuel that passed through their territories. 

[00:22:52] The Taliban takeover was ultimately financed by this wealth. Even as fighting intensified in August, the Taliban made sure that their tax revenue would not be disrupted. 

[00:23:05] In a shrewd move, they prioritised capturing strategic economic positions. 

[00:23:10] They took over key border posts, which ensured that trade and business continued and that the tax revenue which would have been sent to Kabul was going to the Taliban instead. 

[00:23:23] Now, looking at Afghanistan in 2022, it’s easy to think that the last twenty years had never happened. 

[00:23:32] Despite two decades of propaganda efforts and aid by the US and its allies, the Western-backed regime had failed to win the hearts and minds of the population outside the urban centres. 

[00:23:45] The tragedy of the Afghan situation is that by 2021, the US had few options other than to fully withdraw. By then, it was impossible to correct the blunders of the US and NATO occupation without staying on in the country for decades more. 

[00:24:04] And the West, especially the United States, was no longer in the business of nation-building. 

[00:24:11] Afghanistan had, yet again, lived up to its nickname as a “graveyard of empires”.

[00:24:18] In the 19th century the British and the Russians fought “The Great Game” in Afghanistan, with both losing spectacularly.

[00:24:26] In the 21st century, even the richest and most powerful country in the world would join this list of foreign invaders that “lost” in Afghanistan.

[00:24:36] But of course, as with any conflict, it is not the invaders, but the ordinary civilians that suffer the most. 

[00:24:44] When international organisations and the US cut off aid and financial loans to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, its economic and social services began collapsing. In May 2022, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator announced that 95 percent of Afghans are not getting enough to eat. 

[00:25:04] Rightly or wrongly, August the 30th of 2021 will go down as a monumentous date in the history of both the United States and Afghanistan, a time when Western rule ended and Taliban rule restarted. 

[00:25:20] The chapter on foreign occupation is now closed, and a new chapter under the Taliban is just starting.

[00:25:28] Time will only tell how long, and how dangerous, this chapter will be.

[00:25:35] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

[00:25:41] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:25:45] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:25:49] Looking back on the previous 365 days, how do you think Afghanistan has fared versus expectations?

[00:25:57] What other options did the United States have?

[00:26:00] Is the region now more dangerous or is it a safer place since the United States has left?

[00:26:07] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:26:10] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:23] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

[00:00:30] This episode is going to be released on August 30th of 2022, almost exactly a year to the day since the United States officially left Afghanistan.

[00:00:41] You may well remember the pictures from the last day of the withdrawal, as people frantically struggled to get onto planes and fly out of Kabul.

[00:00:51] But you may now know the story behind the occupation, and how the events of August the 30th were just the end of a long and protracted withdrawal from the country, and how the return of the Taliban was, to some, utterly predictable.

[00:01:10] OK then, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

[00:01:15] As the departure date approached, the international community watched nervously. Many were concerned that the US exit was too rushed, it was too quick. 

[00:01:26] These fears were quickly confirmed. As the US forces prepared for their departure, Afghanistan broke out in a civil war. The Taliban, the Islamist group that the US had removed from power when they first invaded Afghanistan, were waiting in the shadows. 

[00:01:46] Politicians, foreign diplomats, reporters, and ordinary citizens scrambled to escape, fearing for their lives under a Taliban takeover. Although the revival of the Taliban shocked many, to others it was not a surprise in the slightest.

[00:02:04] Now, to understand the events of August the 30th of 2021, we need to first remind ourselves exactly what the US was doing in Afghanistan in the first place, a country literally on the other side of the world.

[00:02:21] This can, of course, all be traced back to one day, September 11th of 2001.

[00:02:28] It would be on this day that the terror group al-Qaeda mounted the deadliest ever terror attacks on US soil. 

[00:02:36] Multiple airlines were hijacked mid-flight. Two were flown into the Twin Tower skyscrapers in New York. The attacks had been masterminded by Osama bin Laden, a militant Islamist leader who operated a terror training base in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. 

[00:02:56] President George W. Bush announced a new global operation to root out anti-Western extremists. The so-called “War on Terror” had begun.

[00:03:08] Their first objective was to bring bin Laden to justice for the 9/11 attacks. The US demanded the Taliban government in Afghanistan to hand him over and when the Taliban refused, the US declared war. On October 7th of 2001, the US and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan.

[00:03:30] And as you will remember, the US victory was swift. In just two months, they drove out the Taliban government and captured the capital city of Kabul. 

[00:03:43] The invasion ended the seven-year reign of the Taliban and in the early months of the war it seemed that the group could never return to power in Afghanistan. 

[00:03:54] Now, as a quick reminder of who the Taliban actually are and where they come from, the group can trace its roots back to another Afghan war, the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979 to 1992. 

[00:04:11] After the Soviets had been pushed out of Afghanistan in 1992, this Islamist group, the Taliban, which literally means “the students” in Pashto, rose to dominance in the war-torn country.

[00:04:26] By 1996, they had captured the government of Afghanistan. The Taliban was not just opposed to Communism. They also condemned liberalism and any form of secular culture. Their rise to power did nothing to deradicalise or demilitarise them. 

[00:04:46] True to their fundamentalist roots, they implemented an extreme interpretation of Islamic laws throughout the country. Women could not attend school. Adultery was punishable by death. They also maintained close ties to extremist anti-Western terror groups, including Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. 

[00:05:08] Their rule would last until 2001, when they were easily defeated by the US. 

[00:05:15] For the Americans though, the military victory was only the beginning. They wanted to install a pro-Western democratic political system in Afghanistan to make sure that the country could never again become a hideout for Islamist terrorists. 

[00:05:33] To achieve this, the US pursued what it called a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, an approach to governance that would warm the population to Western ideals and draw them away from Islamist values. 

[00:05:49] For the next twenty years, they built schools, dug wells, and gave agricultural training to farmers. They hoped this would be enough to affect a wholescale cultural transformation. 

[00:06:00] The US poured troops and money into the Hearts and Minds strategy but, as the events of last August made evident, this strategy had not worked as planned. 

[00:06:13] The Taliban may have been pushed out of government, but they were far from disbanded

[00:06:19] They continued to fight the Western invaders, targeting areas that were receiving Western aid by mounting ambushes and laying improvised explosive devices, bombs essentially. 

[00:06:32] If the local Afghans were starting to support the new Western-backed government, the Taliban would even turn to killing civilians. 

[00:06:40] Afghanistan soon turned into a military, financial, and political mess for the United States. 

[00:06:48] Over a 20-year period, an estimated $2.3 trillion was spent on the war. Over 2,000 US military personnel and almost 4,000 military contractors were killed.

[00:07:02] On the Afghan side, almost 50,000 civilians had lost their lives.

[00:07:08] The more that the US forces tried to win over the country to democratic ideals and the new Western-backed regime, the more pushback they experienced from the Taliban. 

[00:07:20] There seemed to be no end in sight to the occupation until the election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016. During his election campaign, he had promised to reduce the US’ foreign military presence and focus on domestic issues. 

[00:07:37] In 2019, he took the first step towards a full withdrawal. He reduced US troops in Afghanistan from 14,000 to 4,500, down from about 100,000 at the height of the US presence in the country. 

[00:07:54] But some were worried. Many in Western military intelligence warned that the country would plunge into chaos without the backing of the United States, believing that the US and the Afghan government had never truly brought the Taliban under control. 

[00:08:12] The group had simply retreated to the rural provinces where they continued to resist the occupiers and the government, simply waiting for the right moment.

[00:08:22] And as much as the Trump administration wanted to wash its hands of this endless occupation, it wanted to do so without leaving a complete bloodbath in its wake

[00:08:35] This is why, in the months leading up to the withdrawal, Washington piled pressure on the Taliban and Afghan government to come to a peaceful agreement. 

[00:08:46] The US wanted the two groups to enter a power-sharing deal to push the country through the withdrawal. After this, there would be a national election.

[00:08:57] But the Afghan government resisted making deals with their sworn enemy, the Taliban. This is, of course, understandable. After more than a decade of being supported by the West to destroy the Taliban’s power base, they were now being pressured to join hands with them. 

[00:09:18] Then, on February 29th of 2020, Trump signed a peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. 

[00:09:26] The conditions were that they would stop attacking US personnel and supporting al-Qaeda. 

[00:09:31] In return, the US would complete their withdrawal by May of 2021. 

[00:09:38] The promise of a US withdrawal emboldened the Taliban, it made them feel more confident. 

[00:09:45] Although they did stop attacking the US and its allies, they intensified their attacks against Afghan security forces. 

[00:09:53] There was a 70 percent increase in Taliban attacks on the government in the 45 days after the February 2020 US-al-Qaeda deal compared to the same period the previous year. 

[00:10:06] This deterioration, understandably again, made many in the US government nervous. 

[00:10:14] In January of 2021, Joe Biden took over from Trump as president and he did stick to the basic withdrawal commitment. The only thing he changed was that the withdrawal would be complete later, by the end of August rather than in May, as Trump had originally promised.

[00:10:33] At this point, in anticipation of a US exit, the Taliban swept through Afghan provinces with a speed that shocked even experienced observers. The whole country broke out in panic. 

[00:10:47] The Afghan government urged volunteers to arm themselves. They even solicited support from prominent warlords that had moved abroad to come back and defend the government. 

[00:10:59] In April of 2021, civilian casualties were up 29 percent compared to the same period in 2020. The majority of these were from Taliban attacks. 

[00:11:12] And on the US side, the United States administration was still divided over withdrawal. The only advantage that Kabul, that the Afghan government, held over the Taliban was its air power but it relied completely on US technicians, operators, and finance for air strikes. 

[00:11:33] Many thought that the US should not leave Kabul, until the Afghan government, could defend itself without relying on American forces. 

[00:11:43] Even the CIA director Bill Burns told the Senate that the withdrawal would only lead to the rise of Islamic extremism in the region again. But on May 1st, the first phase of the operation to withdraw began. Throughout May, the US focused on flying key pieces of military equipment out from the country. 

[00:12:06] The withdrawal was really happening.

[00:12:09] In June, Ghani, the president of Afghanistan, was on a warpath. He chose men with military experience to head his new cabinet, including a prominent warlord general called Bismillah Khan Mohammadi. 

[00:12:25] The sole objective was to protect Kabul and the ten largest cities in the country. 

[00:12:31] Some Afghan politicians started leaving the country, fearing that they would be murdered by the Taliban as Western collaborators

[00:12:38] The Taliban weren’t exactly known for their forgiveness.

[00:12:43] The group vowed to keep fighting the Kabul government until Ghani was removed from power. They resisted the international community’s pleas for them to lay down arms

[00:12:54] From May to July, 80 out of 400 districts in Afghanistan had fallen to the Taliban who referred to themselves as the ‘Islamic Emirate’ and spoke of their intention to establish what they called a ‘pure Islamic regime’. 

[00:13:11] In the areas they controlled, the Taliban were already reinstalling their extremist interpretation of Islamic governance. Reports began filtering through about the Taliban already banning women from work in the areas they controlled and publicly executing people without trial

[00:13:29] Although their justice might have been medieval, their methods of takeover were sophisticated

[00:13:36] They doubled down on diplomacy, getting Iran, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan to keep trade through the border crossings that they controlled. Now that they had control over commodity flows through Afghanistan, they could use this to pressure the Kabul government to give in, to surrender.

[00:13:56] Already by July, countries that bordered Afghanistan were treating the Taliban as the government-in-waiting. New Delhi, India, was negotiating with them on equal terms even as they nominally supported Kabul, as they supported the Western-backed government. 

[00:14:15] On July 3rd of 2021, the US handed over its main military base in Afghanistan, Bagram Airfield, to the Kabul government. Not even the maintenance staff were left. Now, only 600 US troops were left in the whole country to protect the US diplomatic mission. 

[00:14:35] Bagram had been the centre of US operations since the time of the invasion so this was a major step in the withdrawal and underlined the seriousness of the US commitment to leave the country on the planned August deadline. The second most important air base in the country, Kandahar, would be next.

[00:14:55] And although Biden promised one billion dollars and an additional 37 Black Hawk helicopters to Afghanistan to make up for the loss of the air bases, the US had not trained the Afghans in operating air equipment. 

[00:15:10] These capabilities were useless to the Kabul government unless the US military was there to operate them.

[00:15:18] By mid-July the US withdrawal was more than 95 percent complete. In the north of Afghanistan, the warlords who had helped the US defeat the Taliban twenty years ago were once again battling the Islamist group. The Taliban were assaulting the city of Kandahar in the south and Wala-e-Naw in the North West. 

[00:15:39] The Taliban knew that they were winning. 

[00:15:42] They had been waiting for twenty years, and now they simply had to wait for a few more weeks. 

[00:15:48] By early August, almost 300,000 Afghans had fled their homes, anticipating the Taliban advance. These internal refugees descended on the large cities, the last strongholds of the government’s power. 

[00:16:05] Now, the Taliban controlled more than half of Afghanistan’s 400 districts.

[00:16:11] They hadn’t yet captured Kabul, but they were quickly encircling the capital. 

[00:16:16] In foreign embassies, people were trying to find reliable sources of food and petrol.

[00:16:22] There was a mad rush to escape. 

[00:16:25] With the Taliban closing in, the only place where foreign nationals and diplomats could guarantee their safety was Kabul’s International Airport. However, many American citizens could not reach this secure zone as the routes into it were so dangerous. 

[00:16:42] International news crews descended onto the airport to record the final flights out of this war-torn nation, and there were eerie parallels with the United States’ withdrawal from Saigon in April of 1975. 

[00:16:57] The disorder and urgency that they found there became a symbol of the US’ mishandling of their departure. The US Air Force was flying aircraft into and out of Kabul every 24 hours filled with US citizens and eligible Afghan refugees. 

[00:17:14] And, the stream of evacuees kept coming. 

[00:17:18] At this stage, the US was trying to evacuate 9,000 people a day from the country and the few remaining military personnel were overwhelmed.

[00:17:29] On August 16th, Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban ran onto the airport’s tiny airstrip, following a moving plane. Some people were so desperate to escape that they fell to their deaths after hanging off the wheels of planes.

[00:17:45] On August 26th, two suicide bombers and gunmen killed 60 Afghans and 12 US troops at the airport. This was the largest number of US military troops killed in Afghanistan since 2011.

[00:18:01] But Joe Biden remained committed to the withdrawal, now only one week away. Afghan leaders, he said, had to fight for themselves. 

[00:18:11] And at 11:59pm on August the 30th the last US military planes finally left Kabul airport, drawing a line under the 20-year occupation of the country.

[00:18:24] Afghanistan was, yet again, under Taliban control.

[00:18:29] The hope for a peaceful transition seems naïve looking back, but the US government had not been the only one who still clung to optimism about an independent Afghanistan.

[00:18:42] Even experienced reporters familiar with the country were shocked by how quickly the Taliban took back power in August 2021. Many had truly believed that Afghanistan had been transformed under the new, Western-backed regime

[00:18:59] The Afghanistan that many reporters were familiar with seemed to confirm the idea that the country had undergone a profound cultural shift during the occupation. 

[00:19:11] In their bases in cities like Kandahar and Kabul, they would have seen a university educated urban population that now included women, people with office jobs, private sector or NGOs. 

[00:19:25] Many young people had never known Taliban rule. 

[00:19:30] For these observers, it is understandable that they would have believed that there could be no way that the nation would return to rule by an extremist militia who imposed the most fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law on their population.

[00:19:46] For the Taliban, however, things looked very different. For 20 years, the Taliban had been ready to take back Afghanistan when the opportunity presented itself.

[00:19:57] They knew the opportunity would come, and they saw that there were deep structural problems with the Western occupation of the country.

[00:20:06] For many reasons, the US-backed regime in Kabul was very fragile. 

[00:20:11] Not only did the country’s economy depend on massive amounts of foreign aid from the West, but the Kabul government actually had very shallow roots in wider Afghan society. 

[00:20:23] After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, the country was deeply divided. 

[00:20:30] From the perspective of white-collar professionals and businessmen in Kabul, it was easy to forget that 80 percent of Afghans are involved in agriculture, they’re farmers, essentially. 

[00:20:42] The Taliban controlled many rural provinces even back in 2020. 

[00:20:47] Many other provinces were only weakly under the control of government’s forces. This was partly because after the US invasion, many Afghans who had once opposed the Taliban’s harsh regime had quickly become sceptical of the US-backed government. This was especially the case among Pashtuns, a major ethnic group in Afghanistan.

[00:21:11] Pashtun people thought that the US-backed government was too dominated by Tajiks, an ethnic group that had historically been hostile to the Pashtuns. There was a lot of mistrust and it didn’t help that the Tajik-dominated government would raid, bomb, and detain Pashtun tribe members. 

[00:21:32] These discriminatory policies made the Taliban, whose leadership and founding members were mostly Pashtuns, more appealing to some. 

[00:21:41] And, unsurprisingly, the Taliban found it quite easy to take control of districts where Pashtuns lived. 

[00:21:49] So, Afghan opinion of the Taliban is complex. And clearly, not everyone who ended up supporting their resurgence was motivated by purely ideological or theological reasons. 

[00:22:03] For many, it was simply practical, it was a case of survival, to not oppose the Taliban.

[00:22:10] And this was especially true outside the cities.

[00:22:14] For years, the Taliban had proven themselves competent administrators in the rural regions. 

[00:22:20] They had stepped into places where the central government had either been too corrupt or unpopular to govern. 

[00:22:27] This didn’t just make the population see them as legitimate rulers. It also made them a lot of money. They controlled the lucrative poppy trade but also made their wealth from more legitimate sources.

[00:22:41] In return for providing security in parts of the country where the government had lost control, the Taliban took taxes on commodities like fuel that passed through their territories. 

[00:22:52] The Taliban takeover was ultimately financed by this wealth. Even as fighting intensified in August, the Taliban made sure that their tax revenue would not be disrupted. 

[00:23:05] In a shrewd move, they prioritised capturing strategic economic positions. 

[00:23:10] They took over key border posts, which ensured that trade and business continued and that the tax revenue which would have been sent to Kabul was going to the Taliban instead. 

[00:23:23] Now, looking at Afghanistan in 2022, it’s easy to think that the last twenty years had never happened. 

[00:23:32] Despite two decades of propaganda efforts and aid by the US and its allies, the Western-backed regime had failed to win the hearts and minds of the population outside the urban centres. 

[00:23:45] The tragedy of the Afghan situation is that by 2021, the US had few options other than to fully withdraw. By then, it was impossible to correct the blunders of the US and NATO occupation without staying on in the country for decades more. 

[00:24:04] And the West, especially the United States, was no longer in the business of nation-building. 

[00:24:11] Afghanistan had, yet again, lived up to its nickname as a “graveyard of empires”.

[00:24:18] In the 19th century the British and the Russians fought “The Great Game” in Afghanistan, with both losing spectacularly.

[00:24:26] In the 21st century, even the richest and most powerful country in the world would join this list of foreign invaders that “lost” in Afghanistan.

[00:24:36] But of course, as with any conflict, it is not the invaders, but the ordinary civilians that suffer the most. 

[00:24:44] When international organisations and the US cut off aid and financial loans to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, its economic and social services began collapsing. In May 2022, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator announced that 95 percent of Afghans are not getting enough to eat. 

[00:25:04] Rightly or wrongly, August the 30th of 2021 will go down as a monumentous date in the history of both the United States and Afghanistan, a time when Western rule ended and Taliban rule restarted. 

[00:25:20] The chapter on foreign occupation is now closed, and a new chapter under the Taliban is just starting.

[00:25:28] Time will only tell how long, and how dangerous, this chapter will be.

[00:25:35] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

[00:25:41] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:25:45] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:25:49] Looking back on the previous 365 days, how do you think Afghanistan has fared versus expectations?

[00:25:57] What other options did the United States have?

[00:26:00] Is the region now more dangerous or is it a safer place since the United States has left?

[00:26:07] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:26:10] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:23] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]