America is giving up on the war in Afghanistan. The result may be to hand more power to the Taliban.
How did we get here?
Immediately after 9/11, George W Bush declared war on the rabble of dusty warlords in charge of Afghanistan, known as the Taliban. They had enabled the al-Qaeda hijackers, he said, and were harbouring Osama bin Laden. When the Taliban refused to hand Bin Laden over, Bush swore they would share his fate. Twenty years, $1 trillion and more than 100,000 casualties later, the Taliban are as strong as ever, while US troops are packing up their kit bags and heading home.
Why are the Americans leaving?
President Biden says “it’s time to end America’s longest war”, much to the chagrin of his generals, who warned him not to pull out, and the shaky pro-western government in Kabul. But Biden has never been up for the fight. In 2009 he scribbled a memo to his then boss, Barack Obama, and faxed it to the Oval Office, urging the president to say no to army top brass requesting a troop surge. He lost that argument, says Susan Glasser in The New Yorker, but more than a decade later, “Biden finally got to say no to the generals”.
Is he right?
Voters think so. Biden ran on a promise to end America’s “forever wars”, and few Americans see the point of a conflict they can’t win, being waged 7,000 miles away for reasons they can’t quite remember. Nevertheless, says The Economist, “the decision was wrong”. The US army has a skeleton crew of 2,500 in Afghanistan, and not one American soldier has been killed in combat for more than a year. It doesn’t cost much to keep them there and their presence secures a much bigger Nato force, which will now surely leave. Don’t forget, says Roger Boyes in The Times, handing Kabul to the Taliban means the “crushing of women’s rights”, a comeback for public floggings and a safe haven for jihadists. Biden and his “boy-scoutish” advisers might be extracting American troops from a rotten mess, but they’re doing nothing to end it.
Has anyone ever conquered Afghanistan?
Many have tried and failed – it’s known as the “graveyard of empires”. When the Mongol horde turned up in 1221, the Afghans put up such a good fight that they killed Genghis Khan’s grandson. The Mughal emperors of India did canny deals with local warlords, earning them nominal control in the 17th and 18th centuries, but constant tribal revolts meant they didn’t get a minute’s peace. The Afghans held off the British in the 19th century and gave the Russians hell in the 20th century.
What can we expect when the Americans leave?
The Taliban want to take back the power they enjoyed before the American invasion in 2001, when they controlled 90% of the country and imposed a hardline form of sharia law. They didn’t offer much in the way of public services, but their Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice lustily enforced prohibitions on behaviour they deemed “un-Islamic”. TV was banned, you could be flogged for listening to pop music and men could be jailed for having too short a beard. Afghans were forbidden from keeping birds or flying kites. Girls weren’t allowed to go to school and could be killed if they tried. In the most conservative areas, women weren’t allowed out at all, and were beaten if they were found in the street without a close male relative.
Will it be the same if they get into power this time?
General Sir Nick Carter, who served several tours of Afghanistan, reckons the Taliban are a reformed bunch. “The country is in a better place than it was in 2001,” he says, “and the Taliban have become more open-minded.” It’s not a common view. Western intelligence agencies (and plenty of others) say it’s much more likely that Afghanistan will become a breeding ground for Islamic extremism, just as it was in the 1990s. Dr Sajjan Gohel from the Asia-Pacific foundation think-tank is among the pessimists: “There will now be a new wave of foreign terrorist fighters from the West travelling to Afghanistan for terrorist training.” There hasn’t been a single international terror attack planned from Afghanistan since 9/11. That could be about to change.
What about women’s rights?
These have come a long way in the two decades since the American invasion. There are now 250-300 female judges in the country, for example, and there’s no shortage of female teachers, journalists and CEOs. In January, however, two female judges were shot and killed on their way to work – the latest in a string of assassinations of senior women by religious fanatics. Some of these hits have been claimed by Isis, but there’s no doubt a return to power for the Taliban would be a blow to Afghan women.
Where did the Taliban come from?
They are a relic of the Cold War. The CIA covertly funded Afghan guerrilla fighters known as the mujaheddin to fight back against the Soviets, who occupied Afghanistan throughout the 1980s after a daring and brutal coup. In December 1979, elite Soviet troops dressed in Afghan uniforms stormed the Tajbeg Palace in Kabul. They murdered Afghanistan’s inept and bloody leader, Hafizullah Amin, as well as his son, and massacred more than 300 of their bodyguards in 40 minutes. The Russians then installed a puppet successor, effectively occupying the country for a decade, but the mujaheddin – warlords from the Pashtun ethnic group in the tribal south – never stopped fighting back. They became heroes, easily recruiting zealous young tribesmen, especially students educated at Pakistani madrassas. These warrior-scholars became the Taliban – the word literally means “students”. And they were a big hit. In the 1987 Bond film The Living Daylights, they were the goodies.
What happens next?
It’s not looking good. The Taliban believe they have defeated America. Even if they negotiate, rather than bomb, their way back into government, legal protections for women and other freedoms are unlikely to last. They have shown no interest in giving up links with terrorists in al-Qaeda, which are in many cases tribal and marital bonds that will naturally outlast any peace agreement. Biden may be pulling troops out of the country now, but a future president might have to send them back in.
🇦🇫 If the Taliban do get back into power, one thing they’ll lack is allies. Afghanistan shares a border with China and would be a natural partner for Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure projects. But the Chinese hate religious extremists as much as any western power, and are not afraid to do something about it. Just look at their treatment of the relatively mild Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, the region of northeast China that borders Afghanistan. And the Iranians, who share the Taliban’s loathing for the West, don’t share their austere religious beliefs and want nothing more than a peaceful neighbour. That’s hardly likely if Afghanistan becomes a playground for al-Qaeda hotheads.