On Monday, General Scott Miller, the top US commander in Afghanistan, relinquished his post at a ceremony in the capital of Kabul.
While Miller will be replaced by another four-star general who will assume authority from his US-based post to conduct possible airstrikes in defence of Afghan government forces (at least until the US withdrawal concludes by 31 August in line with President Joe Biden's announcement) this marks yet another step in the US putting to bed what has become known as its "forever war".
The ceremony, which occurred in in the heavily fortified Resolute Support headquarters in the heart of Kabul, also comes at a time of rapid territorial gains by Taliban insurgents across Afghanistan.
Why is this happening?
'You have the watches. We have the time.' So goes the old Afghan proverb often credited to the Taliban by Western analysts.
This is the moment the Taliban have been waiting for since the US invaded in 2001.
On Thursday, Biden reiterating that US military operation in Afghanistan will end on 31 August, delivered an impassioned argument for exiting the nearly 20-year war without sacrificing more American lives.
This, even as he bluntly acknowledged there will be no “mission accomplished” moment to celebrate.
Biden pushed back against the notion the US mission has failed but also noted that it remains unlikely the government would control all of Afghanistan after the US. leaves. He urged the Afghan government and Taliban, which he said remains as formidable as it did before the start of the war, to come to a peace agreement.
“We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build,” Biden said in a speech from the White House’s East Room. “Afghan leaders have to come together and drive toward a future.”
The administration in recent days has sought to frame ending the conflict as a decision that Biden made after concluding it’s an “unwinnable war” and one that “does not have a military solution.”
On Thursday he amplified the justification of his decision even as the Taliban make rapid advances in significant swaths of the country.
“How many more, how many more thousands of American daughters and sons are you willing to risk?” Biden said to those calling for the US to extend the military operation. He added, “I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan, with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome."
The new withdrawal date comes after former president Donald Trump’s administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban to end the US military mission by 1 May.
Biden after taking office announced US troops would be out by the 20th anniversary of the 11 September, 2001, attack, which al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden plotted from Afghanistan, where he had been given refuge by the Taliban.
While Biden has denied that a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan is 'inevitable', many remain pessimistic about the future of the country.
How much has the Taliban advanced?
- In recent weeks, the Taliban have gained several strategic districts, particularly along the borders with Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
- The Taliban control more than one-third of Afghanistan’s 421 districts and district centers.
- A Taliban claim that they control 85 percent of the districts is widely seen as exaggerated. The claim is impossible to independently verify and remains disputed by the government.
- Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP their fighters had captured the border town of Islam Qala on the Iranian frontier and the Torghundi crossing with Turkmenistan.
- With the Taliban having routed much of northern Afghanistan in recent weeks, the government holds little more than a constellation of provincial capitals that must be largely reinforced and resupplied by air.
- The Kabul government has repeatedly dismissed the Taliban's gains as having little strategic value, but the seizure of multiple border crossings along with mineral-rich areas will likely fill the group's coffers with several sources of new revenue.
- US forces this week vacated Bagram Airfield — the US epicenter of the conflict to oust the Taliban and hunt down the Al-Qaeda perpetrators of the 2001 terrorist attacks that triggered the war — under the cover of darkness.
Are the Afghan forces properly equipped? No.
While the Afghanistan National Defence and Security Forces, mostly funded by the United States and NATO, have put up resistance in some parts of the country, Afghan government troops overwhelmingly appear to have given up the ghost.
As per Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib, who attended the handover, the US and NATO withdrawal has left a vacuum that resulted in Afghanistan’s national security forces stranded on the battlefield without resupplies, sometimes running out of food and ammunition.
Where India stands: As a major stakeholder in the peace and stability of Afghanistan, India is keeping a watchful eye.
New Delhi, which already invested approximately $3 billion in aid and reconstruction activities in the the war-torn country, has been supporting a national peace and reconciliation process which is Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled.
In March, Afghan foreign minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar visited India during which Jaishankar conveyed to him India's long-term commitment towards a peaceful, sovereign and stable Afghanistan.
'Closely monitoring' situation: MEA: After India evacuated staff posted in its consulate in Kandahar in view of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, the Ministry of External Affairs on Sunday said safety and security of Indian personnel is paramount, adding that the consulate general has not been closed in the war-torn country.
"India is closely monitoring the evolving security situation in Afghanistan. The safety and security of our personnel is paramount," the foreign ministry has said in a statement. "The Consulate General of India in Kandahar has not been closed. However, due to the intense fighting near Kandahar city, India-based personnel have been brought back for the time being," MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said in a statement.
He also emphasised, "this is a purely temporary measure until the situation stabilizes. The Consulate continues to operate through our local staff members."
Referring to the functioning of visa and consular services in capital city Kabul, he said "Arrangements are being made to ensure continued delivery of visa and consular services through our Embassy in Kabul."
"As an important partner of Afghanistan, India remains committed to a peaceful, sovereign and democratic Afghanistan," he added. Describing the security situation in Afghanistan as fluid and deteriorating, the Afghan envoy to India Farid Mamundzay has said the Taliban need to cease violence and there should be an end to the bloodshed.
"More than 200,000 Afghan civilians are displaced already. There is an active fight going on between Afghan forces and Taliban fighters in 200 districts out of a total of 375. There is also trouble in 18 border districts that share a border with several countries Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran," the envoy said.
With inputs from agencies