November 13, 2001: A victorious United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, popularly known as the Afghan Northern Alliance – an anti-Taliban joint military front – entered Kabul supported by the US-launched Operation Enduring Freedom, as the Taliban fled the Afghan capital.
Fast forward 19 years, nine months and two days. August 15, 2021: A victorious Taliban – having secured swift control over most of the war-ravaged nation’s 34 provincial capitals – takes over Kabul, as the Afghan president flees to Tajikistan. The president’s departure came as talks were ongoing to ensure a “peaceful transition of power” to the Taliban.
There was no major incident of bloodshed as the Taliban overthrew the Afghan government. The Taliban, in a statement earlier, said they did not intend to take the capital by force, nor did they plan on taking revenge on those working for the Afghan government. The latter is in contrast to the actions of the Taliban over the last few weeks, when they actively sought out and summarily executed individuals who had worked for the Afghan government or international forces, in every district they captured.
The frightening prospect of retribution from the Taliban had forced many to leave their homes in the districts and flee to Kabul, where they felt they had some sort of safety. But within two weeks of a stunning encroachment drive, the Taliban surrounded the Afghan capital and demanded the surrender of the current government. While unbelievable – an assessment by the American military had earlier suggested it would be a month before the Taliban could aim for the capital – the worst nightmare of most Afghan citizens unfolded in front of their very eyes. The scenes at Kabul airport were heart-wrenching, as thousands attempted desperately to leave the capital and five people were reportedly killed. It is unclear whether this was a result of a stampede or gunfire, since both the US military and the Taliban are firing rounds at and around Kabul airport. The former fired in the air to prevent people from boarding a military flight meant for US diplomats and embassy staff, while the latter fired rounds to stop people from getting inside the airport. All international flights have been cancelled.
A Chinook helicopter was seen flying above the US embassy in Kabul as the US evacuated their officials. Germany was sending an A400M transport aircraft with paratroopers to help its diplomats and their supporting staff exit the city. Canada has already evacuated its officials, while NATO has suggested that despite Taliban advances, it will continue to maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul.
After the killing of more than 6,000 US service members and contractors, 1,100 NATO troops, 73,000 Afghan defence personnel, including police, and around 47,000 Afghan civilians over almost two decades, Afghanistan has fallen back into the hands of the Taliban.
The US had previously spent $84 billion to train an elite Afghan troop of 300,000. But in the face of the unflinching encroachment by the “75,000-strong” Taliban force, the Afghan army could not hold its ground. In places, force was not ever required; the army and police simply fled their posts in fear of the Taliban. Perhaps, the elite Afghan troops were not trained well enough by the US. The failure of the Afghan troops should be assessed by the US to identify the gaps that have led to this shameful disaster.
So, what’s next for Afghanistan?
While world leaders are expressing concern, their words ring hollow. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in a television interview, said: “Nobody wants Afghanistan to be a breeding ground for terror … or to lapse back into the pre-2001 situation”. If this was the case, why did the UK pull out its troops from Afghanistan without first putting in place a mechanism to support the Afghan government?
As recently as August 13 this year – despite the rapid advances of the Taliban – Johnson told the media the West would not send its forces back to Afghanistan. And the British withdrew their troops from Afghanistan knowing that the state might collapse after the retreat.
Similarly, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had expressed concern about the development regarding the Taliban, calling them “deeply, deeply troubling”, he did not do anything to try to stop the Taliban advances, except for an ineffective air intervention.
Emboldened by their recent success, the battle-hardened Taliban is now unlikely to act as a malleable force that could be manhandled – let alone handled – by the international community. Moreover, there is no guarantee that they will not support the al-Qaida. Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan government’s chief negotiator, had earlier blamed the Taliban for committing “grim crimes”, saying: “Thousands of terrorists, along with the constant presence of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, from Jaish-e-Muhammad to Lashkar-e-Taiba, have entered Afghanistan and are fighting against our people”.
A UN Security Council report dated June 1 of this year suggested: “A significant part of the leadership of Al-Qaida resides in the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region, alongside Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent. Large numbers of Al-Qaida fighters and other foreign extremist elements aligned with the Taliban are located in various parts of Afghanistan.”
The report further added: “Ties between the two groups remain close, based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle and intermarriage. The Taliban has begun to tighten its control over Al-Qaida by gathering information on foreign terrorist fighters and registering and restricting them. However, it has not made any concessions in this regard that it could not easily and quickly reverse, and it is impossible to assess with confidence that the Taliban will live up to its commitment to suppress any future international threat emanating from Al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida and like-minded militants continue to celebrate developments in Afghanistan as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global radicalism.”
The Taliban, despite acting sensible during the international negotiations, have consistently gone back on their words. “A few days ago, here in Doha, we talked for 48 hours with the representatives of the Taliban and agreed to speed up the negotiations and the political solution of the issue with the presence of a mediator, but on the contrary, the Taliban violated this commitment, intensifying war, and violence, and launched offensive attacks on cities,” said Abdullah Abdullah during a meeting with representatives from the UN, EU, US, Britain, China, Russia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Qatar.
Taliban’s future plans
However, apart from the immediate threat of the Taliban turning on the Afghan citizens they consider to have collaborated with the Western allies, there is another fear: the Taliban’s future plans. It looks like, this time, they have a grander plan for a sustainable stay in the country. There have been reports in various international media outlets that the Taliban are going door-to-door looking for girls and women between ages 12 and 45 to marry them off to Taliban fighters. This will serve three predominant purposes: enable them to extract allegiance from a majority of the common population, suppress women, and ensure the legacy of the Taliban in every household through procreation. If this turns out to be the case, the sacrifices of many years will go in vain.
And the West will not be able to erase from history their responsibility for the sufferings of millions of Afghan civilians. The West invaded Afghanistan when they thought it was a good idea, gave hope to the locals, recruited them in the fight against the Taliban, but hastily withdrew from the country when they realised that the economic costs of the war are not worth shouldering. Abandoning the country and its people without providing them with strategic support to keep the Taliban in check has been an act of cowardice and selfishness, to say the least.
At the time of writing this column, a coordination council is being formed, which includes former president Hamid Karzai, to facilitate a transition of power. There is little doubt that the Taliban is going to form the new Afghan government, and China and Russia are expected to be among the first countries to recognise them, for various geopolitical and economic interests.
While the Taliban has promised to spare government officials, ensure respect for “life, property and honour” of the people and create a “secure environment” for charities, embassies and businesses, there is no certainty that they will honour these pledges.
In the long run, if a Taliban government endures – which looks like a distinct possibility – how the West will engage with Afghanistan remains to be seen. But whatever be the case, the botched job of the West in Afghanistan has sent a very wrong message to terrorist outfits around the globe – one that proves that with the right tactics, anything is possible, even the defeat of an international force. One only hopes that the retreat of the West from Iraq does not encourage a similar triumphant re-emergence of terrorists and insurgents in the Middle East.
The future shape of Afghanistan will unfold in the coming days and weeks, as will the true intent of the Taliban. The fear is, neither will be palatable for the country’s neighbours, former allies or its people.
Tasneem Tayeb / THE DAILY STAR (BANGLADESH)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK