Scenes of thousands of Afghanis crowding the Kabul Airport, sometimes crushed to death while trying to flee the country, are harrowing enough. But they might not be the worst to come out of this country, war-torn for over four decades now, following the astonishing Taliban takeover.
At least seven Afghans including a two-year-old girl died were trampled to death while applying for evacuation on board British, American and NATO military and civilian planes outside the British embassy. Jane Ferguson, one of the few Western correspondents still in Kabul, said, “the scenes are apocalyptic. People are fainting and dying. Children are going missing.”
The Biden administration’s obsession with a quick withdrawal has led to massive, widespread chaos all over Afghanistan, made worse by the humiliating escape of former Afghani president, Ashraf Ghani while Taliban fighters were hours away from the presidential palace. The Afghan army and security forces – financed and equipped for over 20 years in the presence of the US and NATO – simply collapsed and disappeared.
Taliban leaders have been trying hard to assure the outside world that they are not back in Kabul to implement the same, terrifying regime that marked their short reign, which ended with the US occupation of Afghanistan in late 2001 to retaliate against the Taliban hosting Al-Qaeda, which proudly claimed responsibility for the 11 September attacks.
Taliban leaders say they have learned from their mistakes. They have vowed to form an inclusive government made up of different political groups and ethnicities, to respect women’s and girls’ right to education, not to revive their policy of banning women from any appearance in public except with a male guardian and, most importantly, not to let Afghanistan to become a safe haven for militant and terrorist groups from all over the world.
However, many Afghanis and most world countries remain doubtful that those pledges are more than lip-service to win international recognition, and would not be carried out on the ground. In the light of past experiences since the country fell into chaos and civil war after the former Soviet Union occupied it to back up its communist allies in 1979, there seems to be more opportunity for the situation in Afghanistan to deteriorate than for it to improve.
Many fear the deceptively nonviolent, swift entry of the Taliban into Kabul, and the official new Taliban rhetoric on future “moderate” rule, will be able to keep the peace, and that civil war will break out as soon as US, British and other troops leave the country within days, or weeks, depending on Biden’s decision on how long he would allow US troops to maintain their presence at the airport to evacuate American and a few thousand Afghan nationals after the 31 August deadline he set earlier.
The US president seems himself doubtful while offering a few inducements, mainly economic assistance. He told reporters at a recent news conference, “the Taliban has to make a fundamental decision. Is it going to attempt to unite and provide for the well-being of the people of Afghanistan, which no one group has ever done for hundreds of years? If so, it’s going to need everything from additional help in terms of economic assistance, trade and a whole range of things.”
But it is very hard to believe that the Taliban, with its extremist ideology and leaders, will be able to achieve what “no one group has ever done for hundreds of years.” Reports on the ground indicate that Taliban fighters have already begun searching homes, hunting for former Afghan leaders they accuse of cooperating with US and NATO allies. Peaceful protests in a few Afghani cities raising the national flag, instead of the white Taliban banner, were met with violence and deadly shots from Taliban fighters holding automatic machine guns. Tajik leaders, including the son of the late Ahmed Shah Massoud, announced that they have already recruited a small army to resist Taliban rule.
Meanwhile, Biden’s gamble that the Taliban would keep their word in fear of losing US aid could be easily be disregarded, considering the announcements made by more influential neighbours, namely Russia and China, that they were ready to recognise and help the new Afghani government formed by the Taliban. Even the Shiite majority Iran, which nearly went to war with the Taliban in the early 1990s after the slaughter of Iranian diplomats on sectarian grounds, issued friendly statements, though they expressed more joy with the humiliating US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The same applies to India, despite awareness that the Taliban takeover would weaken its interests in Afghanistan and embolden its historic rival, Pakistan, where many Taliban leaders were based for decades.
In the worst case scenario, Afghanistan will deteriorate into civil war again; extremist groups, including Daesh or the so-called Islamic State, will find a safe haven where they can move and plan freely, fearing only occasional US aerial raids as the situation is in Yemen or other failed states in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Regional and influential world countries will pick sides based on their share of whatever gains they can draw from this impoverished, vast country. But those who will pay the heaviest price are the Afghan people who will witness yet another episode in their long, bloody history.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly