It was only a matter of time before the US finally pulled the plug on its longest-running war. But the speed and ease with which the Taliban wrested control of Afghanistan took the world by surprise. With the Taliban trying to reassure the world that they have changed, will things truly be different this time around? And what does their return mean for Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region?
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.