The future of Afghanistan may present us with a forecasting dilemma, but all prognoses must share at least one conclusion: Afghanistan has plunged into another black hole under the Taliban Spring. Developments in recent days, which brought the Taliban into Kabul, have certainly put paid to all US intelligence predictions regarding the power and endurance of the Afghan army.
Observers in Russia, the EU and elsewhere were as stunned as Washington while they watched the speed with which the army crumbled and vanished in the face of the Taliban march on the capital. It was all over in about three days, whereas the experts had thought the army could hold out for three to six months. Clearly, the foreign forces and intelligence agencies which were still on the ground in Afghanistan were cut off from reality, had no reliable information on the true capacities of the Taliban, and failed to appreciate the fragility of the US-made Afghan army.
Amidst all the confusion and upheaval, three scenes stand out. The first is the flight of the Afghan forces before the Taliban advance while President Ashraf Ghani and 200 other officials and their families boarded a plane to an unknown destination. The second is the image of the Taliban fighters waving their guns as they entered Ghani’s office which the former president’s secretary had formally surrendered to a delegation of Taliban leaders. Most of the weapons were American made. They had been seized as spoils of war from the army and at military camps the Taliban had conquered.
The third scene is US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin in a press briefing, saying he was “beyond disappointed” at the capitulation to the Taliban, blaming the army for not showing resistance, and expressing his concern that modern military hardware has fallen into Taliban hands. These three scenes confirm a single truth: the policies of the US and its allies in Afghanistan had the net result of re-empowering the Taliban in Kabul.
Henceforward the Taliban will manufacture the primary narratives in Afghanistan, leaving others to react. Their first will be that they have changed. Allowing women ‑veiled - to go back to school will be the banner headline for this. They will also claim they are now inclusive. They have begun speaking in terms of a roadmap for an interim phase which they will discuss with local forces, responding to questions concerning possible partners in an interim government, the agenda and whether Ali Jalali will head that government. The Taliban will, simultaneously, offer assurances concerning what they will do with the regular army and its weapons as well as the other government institutions, 90 per cent of which have fallen under Taliban control, according to that movement’s spokesmen.
Obviously, the new regime in Kabul will be eager to obtain international recognition, but will the international community buy its narratives? Can the Taliban win a minimum degree of international respect with its undisguisedly ultra conservative political, economic and social attitudes and practices?
The international community will be looking for answers to other concerns. Will the Taliban reduce the Afghan economy’s dependency on opium and the drug trade, or will it double that dependency, as many expect? Will the war lords returning to Kabul after 20 years be able to relinquish their strategic partnership with Al-Qaeda? Or will they use this partnership, with tacit blessing from Washington, to strike IS, which would effectively boost Al-Qaeda? What are the limits of foreign support for such a project? Finally, there are questions about world powers closer to Afghanistan. Will Russia recognise the Taliban? How will China deal with it? How will developments in Afghanistan affect the Middle East? Some have been plying the notion that additional Sunni breaks are needed to stop Iranian Shia expansion into the Arab world, and a Taliban Afghanistan fits the bill.
Meanwhile, all world powers have made it clear they are not prepared to step in to halt the Taliban’s speeding train. They simultaneously point to Washington’s dismal failure and remind us of Saigon in 1975. Yet, it is impossible to conceive of Afghanistan under the Taliban ever blooming into the flourishing Vietnam we see today. Most likely, it will continue to breed and foster terrorist organisations in an environment that Washington has been unable to change since 11 September. Ultimately, the US failed in its war against terrorism in Afghanistan. Worse, the scenario could repeat itself in Iraq where there is also a fragile security apparatus while Iranian militias effectively control key institutions and will now work to strengthen Shia control of Iraq in order to offset Sunni control in Afghanistan.
In sum, the Taliban Spring augurs no better than the Arab Spring, with the wars and upheavals it unleashed in this already conflict-plagued region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly