Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 424, 18 August 2021

Afghanistan: After two decades, the Taliban returns with ease, as the political, military and militi
D. Suba Chandran

In the news
On 15 August 2021, the Taliban captured Kabul, entered the Presidential Palace. Ashraf Ghani, who was then the President of Afghanistan, fled the country earlier. He was quoted to have said in a social media posting: "The Taliban have won with the judgement of their swords and guns, and are now responsible for the honour, property and self-preservation of their countrymen…They are now facing a new historical test. Either they will preserve the name and honour of Afghanistan, or they will give priority to other places and networks."

On 17 August, in a news conference in Kabul, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban's spokesperson, said: "We don't want Afghanistan to be a battlefield anymore - from today onward, war is over…I would like to assure the international community, including the United States, that nobody will be harmed…We don't want any internal or external enemies." He was also quoted to have committed to the rights of women. Enamullah Samangani, another leader of the Taliban's cultural commission, was quoted to have stated: "The Islamic Emirate doesn't want women to be victims…They should be in government structure according to Shariah law."

On 16 August, US President Biden made a lengthy statement on the current situation in Afghanistan. He said: "Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building.  It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland...When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban.  Under his agreement, US forces would be out of Afghanistan by 1 May, 2021 — just a little over three months after I took office." He also stated: "I stand squarely behind my decision…I am President of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me." He also seems to be placing the responsibility on the Afghan leadership, when he said: "After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces...Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision."

On 16 August, Dmitry Zhirnov, Russia's Ambassador to Afghanistan, was quoted to have stated: "I judge by the first day of their control over Kabul. The impressions are good. The situation in Kabul is better now (under Taliban) than it was under Ashraf Ghani." Also on the same day, a spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: "China respects Afghan people's right to decide their own destiny and future, and is willing to continue to develop friendship and cooperation with Afghanistan."

Issues in the background
First, Taliban's rapid takeover of Afghanistan. It all started on 6 August in Zaranj, the capital of Nimroz province in southwest Afghanistan. In the next one week, all the major provincial capitals fell one by one – Herat, Kunduz, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar. On 15 August, they captured Jalalabad and Kabul. The surprising element of the rapid takeover was not just the speed but the lack of opposition; the provinces and their capitals fell to the Taliban without any fight. For the Taliban, it was a walkover, contrary to what happened in the 1990s. Between November 1994 and September 1996, it had to fight hard for almost two years to capture Afghanistan. In 2021, it could do it in a week.

Second, the leadership crisis and the fleeing of the President. Ashraf Ghani made a bold statement on 14 August about not surrendering to the Taliban and not allowing the achievements of the previous decades to fall down. However, his fleeing the following day underlines the resolute of his leadership. On 11 August, following the fall of other major cities, Ghani flew to Mazar-e-Sharif to meet with Abdul Rashid Dostum. In retrospect, it appears, Ghani could not build a political consensus amongst the Afghan leaders. Nor he could lead the Afghan security forces effectively. During the middle of the Taliban's rapid advance, he fired the Afghan army chief. While talking about the Taliban's advances, one has to analyze why the Afghan political leadership failed to rise when the country demanded them the most. 

Third, the melting of Afghan security forces. The US and its allies, over the last two decades, have spent billions of dollars on building a modern Afghan security force, which is believed to be more than 300,000. They were trained, equipped and provided with modern weapons and vehicles. Unfortunately, the Afghan security forces disappeared without putting up a fight when the Taliban entered the provincial capitals. Early reports indicate that there were multiple deals between the local commanders of the Afghan security forces and the Taliban. Others report the morale was down ever since US President Biden announced the withdrawal. A comparison with how Ahmad Shah Massoud fought the Taliban during 1994-96, with less external support should be useful. Massoud also finally gave up Kabul, but after putting up a fight.

Fourth, the melting of the militias. Besides the Afghan security forces, there were numerous militias led by warlords in the north, west and east of Afghanistan. Ismail Khan in Herat, and Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Noor in Mazar-e-Sharif are a few to name, who were known for their military acumen, militia support, and the anti-Taliban sentiment. Ismail Khan was captured by the Taliban in Herat; Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Noor were reported to have fled Mazar-e-Sharif into Uzbekistan. According to early reports, the Taliban have agreed to Ismail Khan to continue to govern Herat. It appears that the militias that were pro-government until a week earlier, also have entered into tactical deals with the Taliban.

Fifth, the chaos and calm in Afghanistan, following the Taliban takeover. The international media focussed on what happened in the Kabul airport following the takeover, with multiple videos showing people wanting to get out of Afghanistan by clinging into aircrafts that are leaving Kabul. In few cities, there were reports about protests against the Taliban. For example, the protests in Jalalabad. The Taliban came down ruthlessly on these protestors. On the other hand, there are also reports on how the cities including Kabul, are getting ready for the Taliban rule.

Sixth, the Taliban promises. While it has promised women's rights and even asked them to get back to work, there are suspicions. According to initial reports and statements, there is a difference between how the senior Taliban leaders have made statements on women rights and how reports and interviews of the Taliban commanders on the ground reflect a different position. The majority responses to the Taliban's promises so far has been cynical, keeping the old record, and the differences between the Taliban leaders and its commanders.

Seventh, local opposition to the Taliban. When the Taliban was capturing city after city without any resistance, the citizens mobilized in Kabul to vent out their anger against it. As could be seen from what happened in Jalalabad, there was a protest against the Taliban's return. However, as of now, they seem to be isolated events, than a common sentiment against the Taliban amongst the population. Will they come to the streets to protest against the Taliban remains to be seen.

Eighth, Biden's resolve to complete the withdrawal. His statement on 16 August underlines the following: taking responsibility for the decision to withdraw; its finality; his decision as a follow up to the previous administration's deal with the Taliban in 2020; the objectives of the US in Afghanistan having met, following the disruption of al Qaeda; and the inability of the Afghan leadership to come together and build a new Afghanistan.

Ninth, the Chinese and Russian resolve to stay in Afghanistan. While all other embassies in Kabul are either leaving the city or reducing their footprints, China and Russia are doing the opposite. During the recent months/years, Moscow and Beijing, along with Islamabad, have engaged with the Taliban. In recent months, perhaps, both China and Russia were also getting ready for the Taliban's return in Afghanistan.

In perspective
First, the facts. Taliban has returned to Kabul after two decades. The Afghan government has failed to respond. The Afghan security forces have melted without a fight. The much-famed militias have decided to strike deals. Clearly, the Taliban has recaptured Afghanistan without any resistance. Second, the US and the other countries that have invested billions of dollars and sacrificed hundreds of their soldiers have decided to cut their losses and get out of Afghanistan. Third, both the above mean that the Afghans have been left to fend for themselves after so many promises. Two generations of Afghans would be facing the wrath of the Taliban now. Fourth, the nation-building process, and the idea of a liberal, moderate, democratic and inclusive Afghanistan are in tatters, as the Islamic Emirate returns.

The Taliban should pick up from where it left two decades ago; the rest of the world should hang its heads in shame of what it had failed to build in Afghanistan during the last two decades. Still, there are lessons to learn, if there is a willingness. Else, one could go along with the narrative of the Taliban's old and new international friends, that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan would be different this time. It would be wishful thinking. Taliban would not change its colours.

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