Task Forces

19.08.2021.

Afghanistan - Early Lessons and Questions

By Jovan Kovacic New Europe, Aug 15, 2021

The bitterly divided government in Kabul is no more after President Ghani and some 80 ministers and senior government officials fled the Taliban’s swift conquest of the country, the speed and efficiency of which would have put the German Blitzkrieg to shame.

Disastrously faulty intelligence assessments only last week gave Kabul 90 days to fall and had planners drafting an orderly evacuation of thousands of Westerners and their local staff.  All were stunned to see the city overrun in less than 76 hours as Taliban calmly strolled into the presidential palace on Sunday.

Mayhem and desperation overwhelmed the airport on Monday, as hundreds of Afghans overran the runway in front of a rolling American C-17 aircraft, prompting an Apache chopper in low flight to clear a path for the aircraft. Flights were later suspended after videos showed desperate people clinging to the fuselage.

The Taliban said they want a "peaceful transfer" of all power and rejected the notion of a transitional government. Their promise of safety to all who stay and those who wish to leave Kabul, was received with overwhelming skepticism.

In fact, the US doubled the initial contingent of well-trained troops sent in to safeguard the evacuation to 6,000. Tens of thousands of Afghans who have worked for Western governments, NGOs, the media, as well as other rights activists and artists are now living in fear. European officials warned the hastened retreat meant the evacuation of local helpers risked being cut short, Politico reports.

The two-decade-old conflict in Afghanistan, ignited by the 9/11 attacks, killed tens of thousands of people, cost in excess of $ 2 trillion and thousands of US army casualties, all in what is now crystal clear was: - an exercise in futility.  

On paper, the Afghan security forces numbered somewhere around 300,000 people, but in recent days these have rapidly shrunk to some 50,000, if that many, according to U.S. officials. These shortfalls can be traced to numerous issues that sprung from the West’s insistence on building a fully modern military with all the logistical and supply complexities one requires, and which has proved unsustainable without the United States and its NATO allies.

At the height of the war, more than 100,000 American troops occupied Afghanistan, as did tens of thousands from about 40 nations in the United States-led NATO coalition. In the past five years, more than 50,000 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed, and tens of thousands wounded. The Taliban’s losses are believed to be comparable. Out of about 3,550 NATO coalition deaths in Afghanistan, nearly 2,400 have been Americans.

Earlier, negotiations in the Serbian capital Belgrade started in early 2018 between some Taliban commanders still controlling swathes of Afghanistan and the Kabul government broke off after the third round in 2019 to resume at an unspecified future date, now clearly never. Those peace negotiations coincided with record violence from both sides. In just the last quarter of 2019, the Taliban carried out 8,204 attacks, the highest over the past decade. The United States dropped 7,423 bombs and missiles during the year, a record since the Air Force began recording the data in 2006, according to US sources.

During one of the peace talks rounds in Belgrade in 2019, the Taliban commanders of some 20 provinces talked directly to President Ashraf Ghani for the first time ever, albeit over Skype. Their demands were mundane – they were asking for bridges, roads, water, concrete infrastructure and economic projects.

It is very easy to draw a conclusion that Kabul made a classic mistake simply by ignoring provinces and areas under enemy control in retaliation, which begs the question: why wasn’t some of the vast international aid implemented in Taliban territories to blunt their influence? Where did all that aid to Afghanistan disappear? Or, most of all – why were they never really eradicated?

These talks in Belgrade, held understandably under a media blackout, hosted by the Serbian Foreign Ministry and organized by the East West Bridge think-tank, were followed by the US-Taliban talks in Qatar where the two sides signed the deal in late Feb 2020.

The agreement laid out a timetable for the final withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, a war-torn country fighting foreign powers for the past four generations and described as an incubator of terrorist plots. It now brings back powerful images of Saigon in 1975, an association State Secretary Anthony Blinken adamantly rejects.

The scenes of packed and fearful people in their thousands unfolding at the airport are not helpful where thousands are still stranded, scared to death. Odds are the Taliban will not attack them but will revel in the humiliation and use it as a propaganda tool.

In Vietnam in 1975 as in Afghanistan today, the under-armed but committed, almost fanatical local forces drove out a superpower, showing that it pays to be patient and dig in. Time always works for the local population and resistance against regimes propped up by foreign powers. No one can accuse the Taliban of not being fanatical to their cause. Their brutal rule, adhering to the strictest Islamic code with an abhorrent lack of respect of human and especially women’s rights, was cut short by the US intervention in 2001 and later carbon copied by the homicidal ISIS fighters.  

It also showed that bestiality and brutality pay off when launching an offensive against a puppet regime after the West announced its intention to pull out. Fearful what would happen to them if overrun by Taliban and remembering the town squares awash in blood from executions from the last time this happened, most US-trained government troops chose to surrender or flee. Some even turned their guns at their former colleagues and trainers. The US has spent close to $85 billion to train and equip a military force which has crumbled like a house of cards, thanks inter alia to massive corruption and theft among its ranks.

The international reaction was pitiful at best. Top UN and EU brass called for moderation and threatened sanctions and isolation, a home-oriented talk with an impact akin to waving a fist at an unloading bomber in the sky and swearing at its pilot.

The Taliban need no international recognition for the time being – they have Pakistan at its long and porous border, the country which helped build them in the first place then watered them to full bloom. Given the reaction of a part of Pakistani military and intelligence staff, it seems it will continue doing so with even greater fervor and pride. They can always depend on Qatar for financial aid as well, and a lot depends on how Erdogan will reassess the Turkish-Afghani relationship. In his dire straits, he will grasp any straw that he can turn into benefit.

Then there are the oil- and gas-rich former Soviet republics to the north, whose proximity means that Moscow will have to make a deal of sorts with the Taliban to ensure security on that border. Last but not least, there is China which has become an integral part of the recent negotiations on the handover of power in Kabul. Afghanistan has always straddled the ancient and recently revived Silk Road stretching from the Great Wall of China, across the Pamirs, through Afghanistan, and into the Levant and Anatolia. Its length was about 4,000 miles. That route and plan is now more important than ever before, as China strives for world dominance.   

Even if the Taliban stay quiet and taciturn in their stunning victory, it’s a safe bet that there is not a single terrorist cell in the world that is not celebrating and getting false courage from these developments which they will translate into a resounding defeat of Western powers, which will serve to feed their lore and mythology for centuries to come. The Western security services best be very alert now for any signs of unrest or operational activity among the underground capillaries of Hamas, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS or semi-legitimate organizations like the Moslem Brotherhood and various Moslem aid charities.

The Taliban have undertaken the obligation not to allow terrorist cells, fighters and leaders on their territory, a vow which they will probably keep for a short while. The Talib this time do not owe much to other countries, traditional sponsors of terrorism. However, is time on their side?  

Those terrorist links that partially birthed the Taliban are powerful bloodlines, i.e.: the Haqqani Network, known for its campaign of suicide bombings, is integral to the Taliban leadership. The network’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is the Taliban’s deputy leader and military commander. The Taliban even now refuse to acknowledge the word “terrorist” and have never disavowed the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization which was the root cause of their own downfall 20 years ago.

Their weakest point now will be their behavior in the weeks to come.  Even if the transfer of power goes peacefully, how long will it take for the bloodlust of vengeance to prevail? Will women once again be barred from work and schools, public life and be yet again reduced to the status of slaves? Judging by latest reports from Kunduz, just a week into the Taliban rule, all signs are there that, despite the initial “charm offensive”, the Taliban have not changed. There are still many mullahs who believe that the Taliban black on white banners should fly over Jerusalem - could their deadly pipe dream prevail?

Another burning question right now is how will this debacle impact on the US-led Western presence in Iraq, amid calls by Baghdad for foreign troop withdrawal?

The Taliban will now be under a microscope for even miniscule signs of terrorist activities or repeated bloodshed and human rights violations, but how will the world react in case of infractions is the multi-billion-dollar question.