Who could have predicted or even imagined for a second that after 20 years of war in Afghanistan the Taliban would be more entrenched than ever in the country and gaining in the international legitimacy that was denied them before the US decided to topple them by military force in October 2001 in revenge for the September 11 attacks by the Afghanistan-based Al-Qaeda?
In less than a month from today, all US and NATO forces will have been withdrawn from Afghanistan, a country that faces uncertainties as to its security, political stability, and its future as a state worthy of the name.
The other day while on an official visit to India US secretary of state Antony Blinken said that if the Taliban take power by force in the country Afghanistan will become a “pariah state.” However, what has been taking place on the ground in Afghanistan over the last few months with the accelerating withdrawal of US forces, and apparently without close coordination from a military and a political point of view with the Kabul government, has been the Taliban’s taking power by the use of military force all over the country.
In parallel with its military victories, neighbouring powers have been warming to the Taliban. China received a delegation from the Taliban two weeks ago. India, once an avowed adversary of the Taliban, has opened channels of communication with them. Russia, although it has deployed additional forces near the Afghan border to the north, has been trying not to antagonise the Taliban and is encouraging political dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The Russian special envoy to Afghanistan said a week ago that the Taliban do not present a threat in the near future to the security of the countries of Central Asia. He added, surprisingly, that the mere presence of the Taliban along the frontiers of Afghanistan with some former Soviet Central Asian republics was a “guarantee” that threats from terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State (IS) and other smaller terror groups — he referred to 20 of them that are no less brutal than IS — would be held in check by the Taliban.
In the meantime, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan organised joint military exercises from 5 to 10 August with the aim of maintaining closer cooperation to meet new “emerging threats” in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the forces taking part in these exercises are training to “destroy” terror organisations that decide to send their fighters across the border.
On 6 August, the Taliban seized control of Zaranj, the capital of the Nimroz province, which is considered to be a major border crossing and a transit point for trade between Afghanistan and India through an Iranian seaport. Controlling the border crossing will give the Taliban new revenues in the form of customs duties. This is not the first border crossing that has fallen. They have already captured one in the north of the country and another one to the east along the Afghan-Pakistan border. In addition, it seems that they are bent on seizing major cities before 11 September in order to encircle Kabul and are waiting for the Kabul government either to fall or to surrender to them.
A US intelligence officer assigned to the Indo-Pacific region told the Washington Examiner on 4 August that Zaranj was the first Afghan provincial capital to fall to the Taliban and it carried with it what he termed “significant symbolism.”
This “symbolism” is dangerous as it could discourage Afghan soldiers from carrying on the fight against the Taliban. Already the Taliban are carrying out brutal acts against captured Afghan soldiers in the fighting against government forces in order to demoralise other units defending major cities like Kandahar and Herat that the Taliban want to capture. If they succeed, their next objective will be Kabul.
This week, the US diplomat in charge of the Afghan peace talks — he could be called their “godfather” — told the Radio Azadi radio station that the Taliban is “a reality that the government cannot eliminate. Likewise, the Taliban cannot establish by force a government that would be accepted by the majority of Afghans and the international community.” I wonder how the thousands of Afghan, American, and European families whose sons lost their lives in the killing fields of Afghanistan over the 20-year war in the country will react to such a statement by the US top diplomat to the Afghan peace talks.
It is as if the last 20 years did not happen. But even so, the war will have cost US taxpayers more than $2 trillion including veteran care and interest payments on war borrowing, according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University in the US, which also estimates that more than a 170,000 people died in the conflict, counting Afghan fighters and contractors. The figure includes 2,400 US troops and 40,000 civilians who have died fighting the Taliban over the last two decades.
The above figures are quoted in an article by journalist Megan K. Stack that appeared in the US magazine the New Yorker on 4 August. She wrote that the US will end “the longest foreign war in its history, and few can articulate what it was for.”
No one would argue against this, even as they witness the return of the Taliban, not only in Afghanistan, but also on the international scene and now having unprecedented “respectability.” General Austin Scott Miller the longest-serving general in America’s longest foreign war, said during the handover of command in Afghanistan to the commander of Central Command, General Kenneth F. McKenzie, who will oversee Afghan operations from Tampa, Florida, “our job now is not to forget, and it will be important to know that someone remembers, that someone cares, and that we are able to talk about it in the future.” These are very somber words.
It is a tragedy that the war against terror has failed utterly in Afghanistan. With the return of the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda still operating, there can be no guarantee that the two will not resume their cooperation and coordination, this time benefiting from 20 years of experience in resisting the mightiest military force on the planet, the US military.
In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Al-Qaeda believed that it could take on the US. It planned and carried out the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001. After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, I wonder what conclusions Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terror organisations such as IS will draw and what their strategy will be?
One thing is certain: all terrorist organisations and groups have been emboldened by the latest turn of events in Afghanistan. If the Taliban seize power in Kabul, they will conclude that persistence in fighting established governments in the name of Islam has been vindicated by the second precedent of the Taliban. The first precedent was in 1996 when they became the masters of Afghanistan for the first time.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly