August 18, 2021


Much of the discussion, though, makes a potentially flawed assumption. This is that the Taliban of 2021 is the Taliban of the 1990s.

More by Correspondent

Afghanistan Falls to the Taliban – So What?

Afghanistan Falls to the Taliban – So What?

With the withdrawal of US and allied military forces from Afghanistan, the country’s security forces evaporated and the national government fled in the face of a rapid and determined Taliban onslaught. This leaves the deeply conservative and exceptionally brutal Islamist group in control once again, 20 years after it was ejected from power for its complicity in the 9/11 attacks.

The scenes of desperate Afghans trying to board the last planes out of Kabul airport, some of whom fell to their deaths while clinging on to the fuselages of planes, are heart-rending. Already billboards advertising clothes and make-up for women are being whitewashed over as the al-Qa’ida-linked group reasserts control, and there are reports of atrocities against those who worked with the government and the international community, as well as the re-imposition of strict limits on the freedom of women.

Blame is already being squarely pinned on US President Joe Biden by his political adversaries, both Republicans and within the left of his own Democratic party. Allied nations such as the UK are blaming the US. The wider consortium that intervened in Afghanistan, NATO nations and numerous ‘partners’ as diverse as Mongolia, are blaming the US AND the UK.

Others blame Pakistan, which supported the Taliban directly in the 1990s and inadvertently harboured its remnants after 2001, allowing it to reconstitute. President Biden has levelled much of the blame at the corrupt and incompetent elite of Afghanistan while expressing his sympathy for the average Afghan. (He refers to the ones who don’t have foreign passports and apartments in Dubai, London or further afield.)

All are right – and all are wrong.

Soft colonialism

Four US Presidents (JFK, LBJ, Nixon & Ford) oversaw Vietnam until the debacle of the fall of Saigon in 1975, and four US Presidents (Bush Jr., Obama, Trump & Biden) oversaw the intervention in Afghanistan. Blame must be shared equally for taking the wrong path in the fork in the road every time, including when Presidents decided to continue their successor’s policies regardless of party. It was particularly shameless of the US Republican Party to take down its 2020 webpage praising the ‘deal’ President Trump had done with the Taliban – but it is also particularly heartless of the so-called ‘compassionate’ President Biden, whose son served in Afghanistan, to abandon the country with such ease.

But the intervention in Afghanistan was doomed from the start. Some call the title, ‘the graveyard of empires’, a cliche: but Alexander the Great, Queen Victoria, the USSR and now the US all know it is true. It is a physically arduous country with a culture that is impenetrable to many from the outside, even those who share the Muslim religion or close geographical proximity. It has a history of brutal invasions by others in search of a strategic position or access to mineral resources – but it also has a history of successful resistance. It is also deeply divided by multiple ethnicities and religious sects.

The kaleidoscopic nature of Afghanistan was met in the latest intervention (or, as the Afghans called it, ‘another invasion’) with a kaleidoscope of responses. NATO led a counter-insurgency mission: the US set up a parallel counter-terrorism mission. The UN was there but not really there. The soldiers, diplomats and development workers worked to different agendas. Engagements with Afghans were minimal, performed wearing body armour and helmets while sipping tea on the earth floor of a tiny dwelling, while heavily armed troops circled in the vicinity. Kabul became a party town for the international community, fuelled by drink, drugs and sex, all in front of Afghan waiters, drivers and cleaners. Afghanistan was a social science lab for academics who suddenly found themselves earning six-figure salaries and wielding enormous influence.

For the actual Afghans, little things changed – girls went to school, women went to work, the news media was free and they suddenly discovered a thing called TV entertainment. But when night fell, and then increasingly during the day as well, the Taliban were still there.

For those who wish to assign blame, they should buy a mirror and assign it to themselves – those contractors and consultants to whom most of the nearly $3 trillion dollars expended went. For those who were not there and didn’t really care – their politicians are just representing them. Approval in the US for the withdrawal from Afghanistan has dropped from 69% to 49% – but it will go back up again. Short, victorious wars are good – long wars spell doom for national leaders and sometimes even whole governmental systems. Ask the British Empire and the USSR.

The Taliban surprised everyone – and might surprise us again

Much of the discussion, though, makes a potentially flawed assumption. This is that the Taliban of 2021 is the Taliban of the 1990s.

The Taliban of the 1990s was a pariah state, a brutally repressive force that persecuted women and minorities and harboured the terrorist group al-Qa’ida, all the while encouraging the opium industry that fuelled a spike in heroin use around the world. Some of the current Taliban commanders who are taking selfies in the Presidential Palace in Kabul are survivors of the 1990s.

However, insurgencies and terrorist groups learn (perhaps unlike established governments). The Taliban knows that this time around it needs to engage with the outside world to survive, to trade, and possibly even receive aid: it also knows that the outside world is different, with a new, non-Cold War global power dynamic. The Taliban was already engaging with countries like China and Russia before it retook the country and Turkey amongst others has already expressed its interest in engaging, It also seems likely that it had some kind of external assistance in re-taking the country so quickly.

The New Taliban (if we can call them that) has expressed its plan for a peaceful transition, has not embarked on wholesale, bloody retribution and has guaranteed the rights of women to education up to university level. During the COVID pandemic, it was unique amongst terror groups and insurgencies in its proactive approach to virus prevention, although it stopped short of cooperating with the then government of Afghanistan. Maybe the New Taliban is different. If it is, it might not be that different from a number of other distasteful but nonetheless internationally recognised governments.


Related Articles