History repeats as a resurgent Taliban take power

BY TOM RUGMAN


The Taliban have taken control of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, initiating mass panic at Kabul Airport.


The events that have unfolded in Afghanistan over the last week are a lesson in just how quickly a society can unravel in catastrophic fashion. Over the past few months, the country’s stability has rapidly deteriorated as the withdrawal of US troops was initiated. Whatever else Joe Biden accomplishes in office, this will undoubtedly form part of his legacy as president.


Admittedly, this was in the making before Biden assumed office. Plans were made for an exit from Afghanistan by President Trump, with a scheduled departure date of 1st May following an agreement in February last year between the Trump administration and the Taliban. The crux of this agreement was a pledge by the Taliban that they would not harbour terrorists that could constitute a threat to the US and its allies, and in return, the US agreed to a phased withdrawal. President Biden pledged to uphold his predecessor’s agreement. He had previously committed to the withdrawal being completed by 11th September, seeking a symbolic closure on this era of American foreign policy, but brought the date forward to the end of this month after coming under fire for appearing to grant the Taliban a symbolic victory of their own. Now that deadline has also been rendered obsolete, and the Taliban have made concrete gains.


The president was reportedly advised by military chiefs to leave 3500 troops stationed in the country for strategic backup, a measure he decided not to take. Bagram Air Force Base, once the epicentre of American operations in the country, has been abandoned while a force of 3000 American troops has been sent to secure the departure of US personnel out of Kabul Airport. The UK government has taken similar measures; 600 British troops have been tasked with aiding the extraction of around 200 diplomats, as well as Afghans who have helped the British in the war, who would otherwise risk facing punishment at the hands of Afghanistan’s new rulers.


So how did we get here? And who are the Taliban? The group (who also refer to themselves as “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”) emerged in the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-90 as one of many mujahideen fighter groups, supported in part by the US to counter Soviet influence in the country. Following Soviet withdrawal, a civil war ensued between these rival groups, culminating in the Taliban taking power in 1996. The group installed an oppressive regime that curtailed the freedoms of Afghans, particularly women. The Taliban protected Osama bin Laden and the leadership of Al Qaeda, which formed in a similar fashion in the early 1990s, facilitating terrorist activities.


Following 9/11, the Taliban refused to hand Bin Laden over and the US subsequently mounted an invasion in October 2001. Over the next few years, efforts were made to establish a democratic administration but in 2004 an insurgency sprung up that quickly became difficult to control, prompting a troop surge that was maintained during the Obama administration. Donald Trump’s presidency marked a shift in US policy. With increasing domestic demand for the return of American troops, negotiations between the US and the Taliban opened in 2019, culminating in a withdrawal agreement that Biden has chosen to abide by, though it does mean his proclamation that “America is back” now rings rather hollow.


Political leadership in Afghanistan, meanwhile, is barren. President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country after sacking the Afghan military chief. Meanwhile, there are reports of the new Taliban government freeing prisoners, including IS fighters, by the thousands. From the beginning of this latest Taliban offensive in April, the odds seemed to be in the balance. Afghan Security Forces numbered around 300,000, but the military had been plagued with desertions, corruption giving rise to numerous ‘ghost soldiers’ supposedly on the government payroll, as well as a high rate of casualties. Furthermore, the withdrawal of American air support and contractors to service Afghan aircraft ended up neutering a key strategic weapon.


The number of “core” Taliban fighters meanwhile was estimated at between 60,000 and 75,000 but their numbers have visibly swelled significantly as they have swept the country, with reports of little resistance in cities such as Jalalabad. Taliban forces mounted a blitzkrieg-like campaign since April, capturing huge swaths of territory outside their usual sphere of activity in the south-west of the country. Kandahar and Herat, the second and third largest cities, both fell within a week as fighters moved east, scooping up provincial capitals. With the capture of Pul-e-Khumri and Ghazni just a few days ago, the Taliban had Kabul effectively surrounded. The head of the British Armed Forces had warned of a “security vacuum” as Taliban fighters swore they would enter Kabul “like a roaring lion” – and now the capital, and the country, is theirs.


The British response to these events meanwhile has exposed deep divides in the Conservative Party and the government. Boris Johnson said earlier this week that continued military presence was “unsustainable”, while also stating: “What we must not do is turn our backs on Afghanistan”. But that is exactly what the US and its allies, Britain included, have done. Rory Stewart, who previously served as the deputy governor of Maysar province in Afghanistan, has been a vocal critic of the withdrawal policy, calling the situation a “humanitarian catastrophe”. Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, has also criticised the prime minister, describing this as “the biggest single disaster of British foreign policy since Suez”.


The prime minister has since called a Cobra meeting while Parliament is due to meet on Wednesday to debate the path forward. Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has been conspicuously absent from public statements for the most part, breaking his silence to affirm his commitment to working with the Pakistani foreign minister in monitoring the region. Human rights organizations are predicting a mass exodus of people. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission estimated 900,000 Afghans have been displaced in the last 3 months. The manner of US withdrawal is conspicuously undignified, as commentators compared the evacuation of the American embassy in Kabul to the fall of Saigon in 1975. Only last month President Biden claimed: “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and running the whole country is highly unlikely”.


What future awaits Afghanistan? One of repression and justified resentment on the part of the Afghan people towards their partners in the West. Whatever defence government ministers may mount, this is a policy of capitulation and abandonment, with images of Afghanis swarming departing US aircraft, begging to be taken. And despite reassurances from Taliban spokesmen, we can have some idea of what hardships await the country.


The women of Afghanistan will surely be the ones to suffer the most from the consequences of the takeover. The Afghan Ministry of Refugees estimates that around 70% of the displaced are women and children. The last time the Taliban were in power, women were forbidden from work and education, and there are already reports in the country of the institution of forced marriages. 22 year old Fatima, from Ghazni province, recalls reports of sexual abuse when the Taliban entered her village. And remembering the regime of the 1990s, 38 year old Ziagul from Bamiyan told the Guardian: “Even then, when they attacked Bamiyan, they had raped women. This fear has always been in our minds”.


Meanwhile, there needs to be a complete reorientation of policy, as we continue to assess what the fallout of the takeover will be. The West is also still yet to confront the Taliban’s vast opium trade, which makes up a large part of their funding. And the “graveyard of empires” will surely be subject to yet more foreign interests; Russia and China conspicuously stated that their embassies would not be evacuating from Kabul. Taliban officials met with the Chinese foreign minister in July, while the new regime will doubtless be seeking recognitions of legitimacy from Iran and Pakistan, who have covertly provided support to the Taliban. Even while the group’s political leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, who will head the government, remains in Kabul, its "Supreme Commander", Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, remains in exile in Quetta, Pakistan - doubtless under the watchful eye of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s primary intelligence agency. The way forward from such a monumental setback is thus unclear. Afghans never took their freedom for granted, as we are idly permitted to do, and this is why.


Image - Flickr (Budiey)