It was a breathtaking 11-day blitz across Afghanistan that got the Taliban forces to Kabul. All the big cities on the way had fallen without any resistance. The Taliban soldiers triumphantly walked into the capital as the Afghan army, deployed for the defence of the city, completely disappeared. In what could be described as an ironic twist of fate, almost a full 20 years after its government was ousted, the conservative Islamist movement is back in power.
To be honest, the return of the Taliban was foretold after the US signed an exit agreement with the insurgents in Doha in February 2020. It was not a document of surrender, but neither was it a declaration of victory for the most powerful military power on earth. The Doha agreement simply paved the way for the pulling out of foreign forces, thus ending America’s longest war.
There was always a question mark over how long Afghan government forces would be able to hold out without on-ground US support. Yet, no one really expected the fall would come so swiftly. As it happened, the Afghan forces, raised and trained by the Americans, just melted away in the face of the lightning insurgent onslaught. Kabul was taken without a bullet being fired. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, along with his key ministers, fled the country as the Taliban fighters closed in.
It all happened as the last American soldiers were packing to leave Afghanistan, ending the so-called ‘forever war’. In some ways, the mayhem that followed the Taliban capture of Kabul revived the memories of US military humiliation in Vietnam, more than half a century ago.
It was the humbling of yet another superpower in the land often described as ‘the graveyard of empires’. The American exit was perhaps even more shambolic than its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Indeed, there is never an elegant way to retreat from a war that has long been lost. Yet, the shameful flight was extremely shocking. It has been a chaotic endgame that left even the Taliban themselves stunned and unprepared.
So, where do these developments leave Afghanistan, its people and, indeed, the region? And what does it portend for Pakistan, perhaps the country that will be impacted the most after Afghanistan?
But with the US now in perception control mode and the Taliban attempting to rebrand themselves for a changed world, it is essential that we take a look back, before trying to predict what may lie ahead for Afghanistan and the region.
A DESIRE FOR REVENGE
The US went into Afghanistan in 2001 out of a desire for revenge following the 9/11 attacks on American soil, with little understanding of the land. It was an unwinnable conflict from the beginning, but lies covered their failure. For almost two decades, successive American administrations deliberately misled their people over a war that had gone terribly wrong.
Even some top American military and civilian officials would later admit that they didn’t have the “foggiest notion” of what they were undertaking. Tens of thousands of Afghans were killed in the war that cost close to a stunning trillion dollars.
Since 2001, over 775,000 US troops had been deployed in Afghanistan. But they could not defeat the insurgency. In an ironic twist of fate, the US negotiated its exit with the very leaders it had declared terrorists and sought to annihilate. Some of them were even former inmates of the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison.
Now the triumphant Taliban have returned, restoring their so-called Islamic Emirate. It’s the beginning of what is being described as the Taliban 2.0.
The American exit was perhaps even more shambolic than its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Indeed, there is never an elegant way to retreat from a war that has long been lost. Yet, the shameful flight was extremely shocking.
The radical Islamist movement had ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, imposing a harsh, regressive, authoritarian order. Their return has inevitably evoked the memories of that repressive era, which had pushed Afghanistan into perhaps the darkest period of its recent history.
The Taliban then had imposed harsh social policies, which included forcing women to wear burqas, banning music and television, and implementing harsh criminal punishments for petty offenses. Women were banned from working and were not allowed access to education.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan became a centre of activities for Al Qaeda and other transnational jihadi groups. It turned into a pariah state. Except for Pakistan and, for a brief period, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, no other country recognised the regime.
While the new dispensation is yet to take shape, there is growing anxiety, both in Afghanistan and outside, over the prospect of the return of a similarly authoritarian rule. There is also the question of whether the Taliban 2.0 would be any different from the past radical Islamist regime led by late Mullah Omar, the supreme leader and founder of the movement.
The impact of the seismic change in Afghanistan goes beyond its borders. And, indeed, the resurgence of the Taliban, after their ouster from Afghanistan in 2001, also took place beyond the country’s borders.
Once the US air bombardment began in early October 2001, the Taliban were ousted in quick succession from most of Afghanistan’s cities. They pulled out from Kabul within hours of the American-backed Northern Alliance forces entering the city and put up no resistance.
Taliban fighters melted into the population or took sanctuary across the border in Pakistan. Most of the leadership survived the offensive and moved to Pakistan — with the prominent exception of Mullah Omar, who stayed back in Afghanistan. In that initial displacement period, senior leaders were fragmented and disunited over what they should do next. The shock and trauma of the fall of their regime had paralysed the leadership. The organisation had crumbled.
There was no structure with which to regroup and revive. While some were determined to fight, others were more inclined to explore negotiated political options. The Taliban’s isolation increased, as their support among the Afghan people declined.
In the first 18 months after being ousted from power, the movement faced the danger of fracturing. Some elements even broke away to form their own factions. Occasional statements and threats from senior leaders condemning the occupation found little traction among the Afghans.
It took more than two years for the Taliban to recover and rebuild their structure. But the rebirth had more to do with the failures of their opponents. The absence of governance by the new US-installed dispensation had led to a complete breakdown of law and order in eastern Afghanistan. It had brought back the rule of rogue warlords. The Taliban and their family members, who had laid down arms and moved back to their villages, and tribal elders, were targeted by the newly installed administration.