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Blitzkrieg by the Taliban
From the American invasion of Afghanistan to the advancement of the Taliban in the rural areas and their blitz capture of the urban centers and eventually the capital, all it took was a single week. We are living in a fast-paced world, churning information at an unprecedented rate. The volatility of global power dynamics makes it hard to keep track and wrap your head around global affairs.
Afghanistan has been a host of such an enigmatic situation for quite some time now. From changing leadership to war fronts, there has been a lot at play. In 2019, the US had finally conceded that the Taliban were invincible to be annihilated militarily. It recognized them as a legitimate political power in February 2020 in Doha. The US gave up on trying to work through its toxic forceful marriage with Afghanistan (which was led by selfish motives) and decided to leave abode in 2021 (on the 20th anniversary of 9/11).
The US announced to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan claiming to have strengthened the Afghan National Army (ANA) enough to ensure Afghanistan’s security and having fulfilled its goal in Afghanistan. The intra-Afghan dialogue had to follow the Doha peace deal but the efforts were overall futile. In May, the Taliban started capturing rural areas and then moved towards the urban centers, starting from the areas with the least Taliban influence, particularly the North.
Taliban took over Afghanistan with minimal bloodshed after the Afghan government left the power structures vacant to be taken over. Although the Taliban takeover had started to appear inevitable, the fast pace with which it happened and the inefficient and minimal fight put up by the ANA is what came as a surprise. Let’s try and understand if the American invasion (motivated by vengeance) has done more harm than good to Afghanistan.
It was supported by the Imperial legacy of trying to train and bridle the brown barbaric people and appearing as a hero on the world stage. The US has failed because of its lack of knowledge of the ethnic, social, historical, and geographical diversity of Afghanistan. The war of the US in Afghanistan was driven by revenge and it met a similar fate as revenge does in life – humiliation and futile gains.
Why Did the US Enter Afghanistan in the 21st Century?
The United States entered Afghanistan in October 2001 for a war of retribution, fueled by the global outrage on the 9/11 twin tower attacks and with the UN’s backing. When the Taliban refused to give Usama Bin Laden to the US, the US invaded Afghanistan, announcing a global war on terror and aiming to ensure that this territory would not be used against it by the terrorists. It defeated the Taliban within 60 days, facing a loss of only 4 US soldiers.
President George W. Bush decried it as one of the biggest “bargains” of all times. Carter Malkasian in his book “The American War in Afghanistan” published in 2021 writes, “The ease of the 2001 success carried away sensibility.” The US got complacent and there it was, the fatal beginning of a shameful defeat because it didn’t have any idea of what it wanted to achieve after that.
Bush, in his State of the Union address in 2002 said that “Washington had no appetite for rebuilding Afghanistan and almost no understanding of the war-ravaged country, let alone of how much work would be needed to secure and reconstruct it.” The claim that Biden has recently reassured as well.
From American Victory to Failure in Afghanistan
The US, the self-declared “indispensable” power, stands humiliated once again. Whatever it was that they were fooling themselves with, they had to eventually accept the ground reality of the unwinnable war. “The American War in Afghanistan” by Carter Malkasian explains how the conflict once known as “the good war” (when compared with the war in Iraq) went catastrophically down the drain.
Despite the most sophisticated weapons in the world and a huge military presence of US and NATO soldiers (140,000 at its peak when increased by Obama in 2011), the US failed to defeat the Taliban. Why did the western powers keep fighting this unwinnable war at a cost of more than $2 trillion and over 3,500 allied lives lost?
Malkasian argues that between 2001 and 2006, the US made series of mistakes such as failing to invest in and train the ANA, empowering militias, conducting overly aggressive counterterrorism (CT) operations, shutting the Taliban out of the political settlement, and alienating the Pashtuns which paved way for the failure.
At the time of Taliban reemergence in 2006, their forces were estimated at only 10,000, which should have been containable, but the unfamiliarity of the foreign forces with the terrain of Afghanistan, both geographic and cultural, and the distraction of the US forces by the civil war in Iraq let it strengthen. In the end, did the US intervention in Afghanistan do more harm than good?
Just to prevent itself from another attack, the US exposed the Afghans to prolonged harm and instability. What good are the gains in terms of rights and liberty for women and people amidst violence, uncertainty, and unrest? The parallels are drawn between the failure of the US-trained army in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the evacuation of desperate people by the US from Vietnam’s Saigon 1975 and Kabul in 2021.
This feeds into the perception of the US as a power that goes for reckless invasions and pulls out when the human and financial costs become unbearable. The legacy of the United States as a global leader and policeman has been tarnished by its successive failures in its efforts of enforcing order in other countries.
The American invasion and withdrawal left a security vacuum in the countries and created more instability instead of sustainable institutions and peace. Despite all the time, sufferings, and sacrifices, the situation in Afghanistan is far from the intended one.
Reasons for the Failure
ANA: Aloof from the Afghan Ethno-sectarian and Regional Realities
The US formed a new armed force in Afghanistan based on the US model of centralized and rigid hierarchy. It spent $88 billion on it but focused on mere recruitment and training instead of institution building. Despite the advanced training and provision of sophisticated weaponry, it failed to strengthen it as an institution.
Armed forces had a disproportionate representation of various ethnicities compared to their population percentage in Afghanistan. This imbalance made it look like a foreign force, creating mistrust and misunderstandings among different sectarian groups towards the army.
Inefficient Afghan National Army
US senior officials kept announcing till the very end that the Afghan forces (300,000 on-paper) were strong and trained and could defend the country in the absence of the US military on the ground. However, they didn’t put up a strong fight and proved to be rogue in opposition to the Taliban who were much less in number (only 60,000).
The enfeebled army lacked the strong “asabiyya” (group solidarity) that the Taliban had. The soldiers had low morale due to often being unpaid. Corrupt high-ranking officers received paychecks for ghost soldiers (300,000 membered Afghan security forces on paper but way lesser in reality). The army was also tired of fighting their people and was dependent on the US for logistics, training, and fighting.
Lack of a Clear Military Strategy
Afghanistan’s policymakers, in the absence of security analysts, didn’t have a proactive policy to combat. The Afghan security apparatus focused on responding to insurgents’ attacks instead of using a well-chalked-out defense plan. Afghanistan’s Intelligence Agency National Directorate of Security (NDS) was unable to disseminate actionable intelligence and faced challenges in accessing Pashtun areas because of Tajik dominance in its echelons.
Failure of the Corrupt Puppet Government in Afghanistan
The US-backed government in Afghanistan was comprised of the elite and it was elected by an allegedly rigged election. It was highly aristocratic, corrupt, and had internal fault-lines. The Afghan elite siphoned off funds that were meant for strengthening the defense forces and structural reforms in the country.
Ashraf Ghani (ex-President of Afghanistan) fled with a lot of money and possessions leaving the Afghans behind to protect themselves. The power was left vacant for the Taliban to take over, which they did on the 15th of August 2021.
Taliban Breakthrough of the Ethnic Differences: Increased Public Support
The Taliban, comprising of Pashtun majority, received broader public support from various ethnicities this time. The Afghan government and army had a disenfranchised relationship with society. Afghans were now fed up with paying bribes to the post-2001 security force, as quoted by Sarah Chayes in her book “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security”.
The Afghan government failed to reach out to the North (which had evaded Taliban influence previously). The Taliban won over the trust and allegiance of the opposition warlords from non-Pashtun ethnicities.
Modified & Moderate Approach by the Taliban
Afghanistan’s south and east have been strongholds of the Taliban. Meanwhile, The north, meanwhile, had since the onset of civil war in the early 1990s been a bastion of resistance to the Taliban. Taliban have broken through the ethnic lines due to endemic corruption by the government.
People shifted from supporting the ANA, national and local commanders. Taliban (primarily Pashtun) captured the Northern cities (ethnically non-Pashtun) before the center. This explains the weakness of the state’s writ.
A Legitimate Diplomatic Power in the Region
The global leader US acknowledged the Taliban as a legitimate power by signing the Doha agreement with them in February 2020. This officially began the entry of the Taliban into the diplomatic realms of the world. Taliban have recently been assuring their commitment to establishing an inclusive and pluralistic government in Afghanistan.
The Taliban leaders have been engaging with regional powers to establish diplomatic relations and win legitimacy for the future power dynamics in Afghanistan. Given the Taliban’s indomitable strength now, foreign states like China, Russia, and Iran are engaging with them on the diplomatic front to mitigate threats posed to them by the militants in Afghanistan.
Taliban 2.0 or the Taliban 1.0 Masquerading as 2.0?
The Taliban takeover was unexpectedly peaceful, unoppressive, and overall bloodless when compared to their first time. They have occupied more territories than they had in 1996. They have also unexpectedly won allegiance and faced minimal deterrence by the opposing non-Pashtun highlands (mainly in the north).
Instead of going for a military takeover, they have predominantly followed an efficient strategy emphasizing the peaceful surrender (tasleem) invoking Afghan brotherhood. They seem to have learned over 20 years that they would have to shun their previous austere method and adopt a diplomatic strategy. They are open to dialogue and seek international recognition because they do not want to be isolated like their previous rule.
The ground realities of Afghanistan and the world have changed a lot since then. Also, the country cannot be stabilized without foreign assistance. The foreign reserves of Afghanistan, amounting to $9 billion are offshore and cannot be accessed by the Taliban without the host states’ approval, primarily the US. For now, they are frozen until and unless a certain government is installed in Afghanistan.
Taliban have announced general amnesty to all the people who had worked with the US and Afghan government against them. Their official statements claim their willingness for an inclusive government under the Sharia auspices and provision and protection of women’s rights. They are media-savvy and realize the potential and influence it has.
They have announced that they’ll allow media to work freely given they follow certain restrictions. However, it is yet to unfold if all of this is only to win over the world diplomatically or it would be practiced on the ground as well. To build a functioning government instead of ending up in a pariah state, the Taliban would need foreign recognition as the economy would collapse in the absence of international assistance and trade.
Afghan Civilians at the Forefront
Whoever wins in a war and transfer of power, the ones to bear the brunt are always innocent civilians. South Asia is inhabited by 1.94 billion people, out of which ~2% i.e. 39 million live in Afghanistan. According to World Bank statistics, the GDP of Afghanistan, before the Taliban takeover, stood at $20bn.
54.5% of the population in Afghanistan lived below the poverty line before the pandemic hit while the current estimates claim it to have risen to 72%. Millions of Afghans (18.4 million, according to WHO’s Regional Emergencies Director) are stranded in Afghanistan in the need of humanitarian aid.
Although media is reporting that life is going on uninterrupted in Afghanistan, commodity prices have increased due to uncertainty, and medicine and food supply lines are interjected due to trade disruptions. Taliban are repeatedly announcing that they will ensure the provision of fundamental rights to the citizens, but it isn’t easy for people to forget their oppressive and barbaric rule in the past.
Anticipated Future of the Afghan Crisis
The situation in Afghanistan is in flux right now. It is yet to unfold what the new political structure in Afghanistan would look like. The Taliban are assuring that a political setup would be announced soon. 70% of the Afghan population is below the age of 25 and all they have known is war. The people are sick of war and desperately want peace.
The softened narrative of Taliban leadership and their vows for a peaceful settlement and “inclusive government” compels one to be optimistic. Although, given their barbarism and oppressive rule in the past, their renewed face is hard for the people to accept. The uncertainty of the future left aside, the Afghans are majorly happy to have gotten rid of “foreign” occupation and the corrupt puppet government and army.
The Taliban are reported to be allowing free movement across various check posts where people have had to pay bribes in the past. They are reassuring that they have also softened over the years and want the progress of Afghanistan and its people. Savior complex in the western colonizers and enforcement of the rule of their choice has exposed the locals to dislocation and violence under wars of occupation.
The US doesn’t care about what it has left Afghanistan with and how peace in Afghanistan would be achieved in the future because it was concerned about its face-saving. It would continue to aid Afghanistan and maintain its military presence in the surrounding region.
What Does the Path to Stability Look Like?
The path to stability in Afghanistan paves from an inclusive government, the one that takes various ethnicities as well as genders (especially women) on board. How “inclusive” a government is formed is yet to unfold. Governance needs more than just intention, but intentions provide fertile soil to begin the journey. Regional powers need to collectively deploy their leverage to enable peace in Afghanistan and conclude an interim, inclusive government.
Some mechanism of check and balance should be installed by the international community under which the Taliban would be bridled. The UN has to chalk out a plan to monitor the abuse of women and minority rights and to ensure that the Taliban’s promises are translated into action. Perhaps the Afghans are better with the Taliban (the devil they already know) than they were with the US occupation and the uncertainty and mayhem brought by it.
Afghanistan needs peace and stability to heal and thrive. The world has tried to fix it on its terms for so long. Perhaps it should be left to its own devices so that it can fix itself, since the real healing comes from within. The real litmus test to differentiate between Taliban 1.0 and 2.0 has officially begun now that the foreign troops have left. Only time will tell if they walk the talk or not.
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