Former United States President George W Bush, who initiated the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, has warned the US and NATO military withdrawal now speeding to a conclusion will lead to a return of brutal Taliban rule.
“The consequences are going to be unbelievably bad,” former President Bush said in an interview with German broadcaster Deutsche Welle released on Wednesday.
In the rare media interview recorded at Bush’s summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, the former president was asked whether the withdrawal is a mistake. Bush replied: “You know, I think it is, yeah.”
“It’s unbelievable how that society changed from the brutality of the Taliban, and all of a sudden — sadly — I’m afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm,” Bush said.
Bush was president when al-Qaeda operatives hijacked commercial airliners and flew the planes into the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon military headquarters outside Washington, DC on September 11, 2001. The US invaded Afghanistan the following month in pursuit of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was being hosted by the Taliban.
Now almost 20 years later, President Joe Biden is following through on a negotiated agreement with the Taliban to withdraw US and foreign forces.
Emboldened by the Western withdrawal, Taliban fighters have been surging through district after district, taking control of large swaths of the country. Taliban leaders said last week their fighters had seized control of 85 percent of the land in Afghanistan – a claim the Kabul-based government dismissed as propaganda.
Although exact details of how much of the country the group controls are difficult to determine because of Afghanistan’s rugged mountainous terrain, the Taliban is moving swiftly, often taking government forces by surprise.
On Wednesday, the Taliban claimed it had seized control of a major border crossing with Pakistan, taking down the Afghan government flag from atop the Friendship Gate between the Pakistani town of Chaman and the Afghan town of Wesh, Reuters news service reported. The Afghan interior ministry on Wednesday said the Taliban had been repelled and government forces were in control.
Taliban fighters captured an important district in Herat province overnight Thursday into Friday – Torghundi, a northern town on the border with Turkmenistan, home to tens of thousands of minority Shia Hazaras.
The Taliban persecuted the Hazaras when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
In remarks at the White House on July 8, Biden had said the US military would complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of August, ahead of schedule, and dismissed mounting concerns about the developing civil war.
“This is the right decision, quite frankly, overdue,” Biden said at the White House.
Biden has been pushing for peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Western-backed government in Kabul. Top delegations of the Afghanistan government and senior Taliban leaders have agreed to meet in Qatar to jump-start the talks stalled for months.
In Bush’s interview with Deutsche Welle, which focused on outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political legacy and their friendship, Bush said Merkel had supported the deployment in Afghanistan in part “because she saw the progress that could be made for young girls and women in Afghanistan”.
During the Taliban’s rule in the late 1990s, women were largely confined to their homes, and girls had no access to education. Despite protestations from the US and Europe, the Taliban enforced its version of Islamic law.
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“I’m sad,” Bush said. “Laura and I spent a lot of time with Afghan women, and they’re scared. And I think about all the interpreters and people that helped not only US troops but NATO troops, and it seems like they’re just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people. And it breaks my heart.”
As US first lady in 2005, Laura Bush had travelled to Kabul where she promoted education for women and met with women entrepreneurs and Afghan women who were learning to read for the first time. She remains a staunch supporter of the American University of Afghanistan, which educates men and women in Kabul.
The US has had about 4,000 troops in Afghanistan in recent months, according to Associated Press reporting, and the withdrawal is now about 95 percent complete, the US military’s Central Command said Tuesday.
The US plans to keep about 650 troops in Kabul to protect its embassy and the international airport.
The US has been in talks with Turkey to take over the long-term security of the airport. The Taliban threatened serious consequences, saying the move is “ill-advised, a violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity and against our national interests”, a statement from Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Tuesday.
US Army General Austin “Scott” Miller has relinquished command of US forces in Afghanistan, and returned to the US on Wednesday. Miller had warned in a media conference at the end of June that Afghanistan was at risk of falling into a civil war.
The US will begin flying out Afghan interpreters, drivers, and clerks who assisted US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and who may be in danger of harm or death under Taliban rule.
“Our objective is to get individuals who are eligible relocated out of the country in advance of the withdrawal of troops at the end of August,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
Congress is drafting legislation to provide expedited visas for as many as 18,000 Afghans, and Biden administration officials are developing a logistical plan to relocate an unspecified number while they wait for visa processing.
Biden has said no one who supported the Americans would be left behind.