Cover Story: Afghanistan

Taliban takeover pushes Afghanistan into chaos

Print edition : September 10, 2021

Taliban fighters patrol Kabul on August 19. Photo: AP

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (centre) leaves after signing an agreement with the U.S. in Doha, on February 29, 2020. Baradar, who is likely to head the new government in Afghanistan, arrived in Kandahar, the Taliban’s former capital, on August 17, 2021. Photo: AFP

PRESIDEnT ASHRAF GHANI. He fled to the UAE before the Taliban took Kabul. Photo: Facebook/Ashraf Ghani/via REUTERS

President Joe Biden speaking to mediapersons about the evacuation of American citizens, at the White House in Washington D.C., on August 20. Photo: MANUEL BALCE CENETA/AP

U.S. Army Special Forces personnel and Blackhawk helicopters transporting NATO officers in Marjah’s Balakino Bazar neighbourhood on February 24, 2010. Photo: AFP

In this image courtesy of the U.S. Central Command Public Affairs, Afghans civilians are evacuated by the U.S. military on August 19, at an undisclosed location. Photo: AFP

The Taliban seizes power swiftly as the United States pulls out its troops after 20 years of misadventure, plunging Afghanistan into an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.

THE LIGHTNING SPEED AND THE EASE WITH which the Taliban forces retook the Afghan capital, Kabul, on August 15 after 20 years have taken everybody by surprise. According to reports, even the Taliban never expected to be in Kabul at such an early date. Unlike the last time when it was in power, this time the whole of Afghanistan, barring the Panjshir valley, is effectively under its control. Even before the fall of Kabul, all the border trading posts of Afghanistan had come under the Taliban’s control. On August 19, the Taliban announced that the country would once again be called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. It was the name the Taliban had adopted during its first stint in power.

There were some reports of violence in the first couple of days following the fall of Kabul and the ouster of the United States-backed Afzhar Ghani government. As the Taliban entered the city, Kabul residents panicked and fled to the countryside or to the airport. The scene at the Kabul airport was chaotic, with thousands of Afghans, many of them working either for the Ghani government or foreign governments, desperately trying to catch a flight out of the country. The U.S. gave priority to the evacuation of its own diplomats and security contractors.

Afghan employees of America who were promised residency permits in the U.S. were left stranded. A week after the fall of Kabul, thousands of them were said to have crowded around the airport perimeter, under the watchful eyes of the Taliban security force. The U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces had taken control of the airport after the unprecedented scenes of August 15 and 16. The Joe Biden administration had ordered the deployment of an additional 3,500 troops in Kabul for the specific purpose of securing the airport.

Several deaths were reported at the airport, some at the hands of the U.S. special forces. Others died after being run over by military aircraft or on falling off as they clambered up the wheels of the aircraft during its take-off. Among those who fell from the wheel of a U.S. plane was Zaki Anwari, a promising teenage footballer who had played for the country’s youth team. Another was a medical doctor. There was a stark display of desperation among the educated and the middle class in Afghan cities to escape from the impending Taliban rule.

Also read: After Taliban victory, Afghans fear return to the past

Thankfully for the Biden administration, there were no scenes of helicopters landing on the roof of the American embassy in Kabul as was the case during the capture of Saigon (the South Vietnamese capital) in April 1975. A picture of a U.S. Chinook helicopter hovering over the embassy building on August 15 got wide publicity. The Taliban could have made the U.S. exit a harrowing affair if it so wished. After all, the Taliban had control not only of Kabul but also of all the surrounding areas, including the pivotal Bagram airbase. The Kabul airport was theirs for the taking.

According to reports, the Taliban has given the U.S. time until August 30 to withdraw all its staff along with the Afghan nationals holding American visas. The Taliban has conveyed to all foreign embassies that they have nothing to worry about and that it will like them to stay. The security barriers that dotted the “green zone” where the diplomatic enclave was located have been removed now. The threats of suicide bombing and terror attacks seem to be over for the time being, with the Taliban in control.

Taliban’s assurances

The Taliban has assured worried citizens that there will be no victimisation of those who had worked for the previous government or were part of the armed forces. It has announced a “general amnesty” to all government workers and asked them to report for duty with “full confidence”. Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban’s Commission on Culture, issued a statement assuring women that they could continue working and studying as long as they observed the ‘sharia’ law. A female television anchor interviewed a senior Taliban functionary on the Tolo TV network, which had been critical of the Taliban in the past—an indication that it has been allowed to function, at least for the time being.

The Taliban has assured the international community that there will be no return to the bad old days when citizens were forced to pray five times a day and were banned from listening to music or watching movies and men had to have beards. When the Taliban took power for the first time in 1996, one of the first things it did was to torture and hang Mohammed Najibullah, the last secular leader of Afghanistan who had fought valiantly against the fundamentalist groupings propped up at the time by the U.S. President Ghani said he fled Kabul fearing that he would meet the same fate as Najibullah.

Also read: Taliban strike conciliatory tone after Afghanistan takeover

Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, told the Security Council that he had been receiving “chilling reports of severe restrictions on human rights” throughout the country. He said he was “particularly concerned” by accounts of mounting human rights violations against women. In some areas of the country, women and girls have been told not to venture out without a male guardian. In Kandahar, the city where the Taliban was born, women were reportedly not allowed to withdraw money from banks.

Within days of the Taliban taking control, there were reports of protests in at least four major cities, including Kabul. The protests in Jalalabad started after the Taliban banned the use of the tricolour national flag and replaced it with the distinctive white flag of the Taliban. The Taliban security forces used force to prevent the hoisting of the national flag in Jalalabad on August 19, Afghanistan’s Independence Day, resulting in the killing of at least three people. There have been reports from Asadabad of protesting civilians being killed. Hundreds of people took out a march in Kabul and other cities to protest the high-handedness of the Taliban forces that are now engaged in policing work. There have been scattered reports of reprisal killings by the Taliban forces in different parts of the country, despite the leadership’s assurances that there will be no victimisation.

Troop withdrawal against advice

Although it was taken for granted that the government in Kabul, propped up by Washington’s money and firepower, would inevitably fall with the withdrawal of the U.S. troops on the ground, it was hoped that the collapse would be delayed by some months, if not years. Before Biden took over the presidency, U.S. intelligence agencies had told him that the Afghan forces had the capacity to stave off the military threat from the Taliban for a year and a half at least.

These agencies reassessed their predictions in early August and concluded that the Taliban was capable of taking Kabul within a month to 90 days. But as events finally panned out, it turned out be an overly optimistic assessment. The Pentagon, including its current head, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, had advised the President against a precipitate withdrawal. He had told the President that the Taliban had become more powerful during the four years of the Donald Trump presidency. He drew comparisons with the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in 2014, which led to the rise of the Daesh (Islamic State). U.S. troops had to be rushed back to Iraq to combat the Daesh upsurge and the creation of an Islamic emirate.

Also read: The U.S. makes a hasty exit from Afghanistan

Earlier in the year, a congressional panel headed by Joseph Dunford, a retired general, had advised the Biden administration to delay the timeline for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and reduce their numbers only after the security situation improved there. By late last year, the Taliban was in control of more than 60 per cent of Afghan territory, although the government in Kabul controlled all the urban areas.

Biden had made up his mind to order the U.S. military to make a complete exit from Afghanistan, knowing full well that the days of the Afghan government propped up by Washington for two decades would be numbered. According to reports in the U.S. media, Biden told his Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan that though he realised that “civil war” in Afghanistan was inevitable after the troops left, he would stick by his decision. Troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was one of Biden’s major campaign pledges during the 2020 presidential election. Unlike President Barack Obama, who viewed U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan as “the good war”, Biden as his Vice President, even at the time called for a speedy drawdown of American forces from there.

The fall of the cities

The Taliban fighters were knocking on the doors of Kabul by the beginning of the second week of August. Herat, Kandahar, Mazhar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad fell in quick succession like dominoes. Almost all the cities saw very little fighting, with the Afghan Army and special forces personnel either fleeing or negotiating their surrender. Kabul was taken without a fight after President Ghani fled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The day before he fled, Ghani had delivered a defiant speech, vowing to stop the Taliban at the gates of the capital.

By August 15, Taliban fighters had negotiated their way into the historical presidential palace. On their victorious march towards Kabul, they threw open the prisons in the cities they had captured, freeing thousands of people who had been imprisoned on the orders of the U.S. occupation forces and the authorities in Kabul. Before entering the capital, the Taliban captured the Bagram military base and freed the 5,000 Taliban prisoners held there.

Also read: Factbox: Who are the Taliban?

Biden had stated confidently as late as August 8 that the well-trained Afghan Army would be able to hold off a Taliban advance and that an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban was “not acceptable” to the U.S. But after the collapse of the Afghan government less than a week later, he said his predecessor Donald Trump was to a great extent responsible for the “disaster” in Afghanistan. Biden said he had “inherited a deal cut by my predecessor” that had left the Taliban “in the strongest position militarily since 2001”. He claimed that when he took over he had a choice of either sending more troops to “fight once again in another country’s civil conflict” or ordering a withdrawal. Biden said he was “the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan”. He reiterated that he would not hand over this legacy to a fifth President.

The day after the Taliban took control of the entire country, Biden, in a televised address, defended his actions, saying that he had the support of the American people. He tried to deflect the blame for the defeat on the Afghan Army and the government. He tried to gloss over the huge military defeat for the U.S. Many political commentators have maintained that the magnitude of the defeat in Afghanistan is worse than what the U.S. suffered in Vietnam in 1975. Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate’s Republican leader, said Biden’s “decisions have us hurtling towards an even worse sequel than the defeat in Vietnam”.

In his speech, Biden claimed that “nation building” and creating “a centralised democracy” in Afghanistan were never the U.S.’ goals. The only “vital interest” of the American occupation of the country, he insisted, had been to “prevent a terrorist attack on the American homeland”. The preceding George Bush and Obama administrations had claimed that the U.S. was in Afghanistan to usher in prosperity and democracy in the war-torn country. Biden did not express any regrets about the sufferings of the Afghan people because of the U.S. occupation.

Also read: U.S. President Joe Biden defends pullout as Taliban take control of Afghanistan

According to official estimates, more than a hundred thousand Afghans have been killed owing to the U.S.’ military intervention. The true casualty figures are said to be much more. The U.S.’ counter-insurgency measures included random drone strikes on wedding receptions and funeral processions. Thousands of Afghans were tortured and imprisoned under U.S. supervision.

U.S. military intervention

The military occupation began formally when the Bush administration started the global “war on terror” following the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil. But it was the Jimmy Carter administration’s intervention in 1978 that fuelled the civil war in Afghanistan and led to the country’s downward spiral. The Soviet Union’s military intervention on behalf of the beleaguered socialist government in Kabul provided the U.S. the excuse to arm and finance Muslim fundamentalist “mujahideen” groups. The Ronald Reagan presidency took the intervention a step further by actively encouraging Pakistan and Afghanistan to openly and actively support the mujahideen.

Thousands of fighters, including the likes of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, the current chief of Al Qaeda, were allowed to enter Afghanistan to fight against the then government in Kabul. The Taliban was to a great extent the creation of the same forces. The Bill Clinton administration had good relations with the Taliban during its first stint in power in Kabul. Unocal and other American companies had ambitious plans to build a pipeline connecting Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, which was to be extended to India later.

Najibullah’s left-wing government had fought for three years against the mujahideen and the warlords after the departure of the Soviet army. Even the Taliban could not control the northern part of the country. The Northern Alliance led by the Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Masood was supported by India, Russia, Iran and the West.

Also read: Responding with terror

But this time, both the U.S. and the government in Kabul were lulled into complacence after the Trump administration’s February 2020 agreement with the Taliban on withdrawing the U.S. troops from the country by 2021. During the many rounds of peace talks held in Doha, Qatar, in which senior representatives of the Afghan government were present, the Taliban spokesman repeatedly said they were amenable to a peaceful solution to the conflict.

At the same time, the Taliban leadership emphatically stated that it would under no circumstances share power with the Ghani government. It also said that it was against the “foreign” concept of multiparty democracy and that it would not compromise on the goal of re-establishing an Islamic emirate.

The writing was there on the wall for all to see. President Ghani never reconciled to the idea of the U.S. holding talks with the Taliban without keeping his government in the loop. The government in Kabul was abandoned at short notice by its American benefactors. The hasty withdrawal of the U.S. troops from the Bagram military base in July without informing the Ghani government is an illustration of the way Washington treated the government in Kabul.

Even before the last of the U.S. soldiers withdrew, the Pentagon had ordered the cessation of air support for the Afghan forces, which they had trained and financed at great cost to the American exchequer. The U.S. spent more $80 billion on the Afghan armed forces alone. The total financial cost to the U.S. taxpayer for the 20-year-long misadventure in Afghanistan is estimated to have exceeded $2 trillion. Much of this money went to American arms suppliers, contractors and foreign aid agencies.

Also read: The terror trajectory

After the Taliban went on the offensive capturing cities from early August, the U.S. conducted some air raids using B-52 strategic bombers, drones and aircraft carrier-based fighter jets, but it was too late to make a serious impact on the speedy Taliban advance. The Afghan Air Force, financed by the U.S., was not up to the task as without the U.S.’ technical help on the ground, it was virtually grounded.

Afghan Army ill-prepared

The Afghan Army in general was ill-prepared for combat, though it had more than 300,000 troops on its rolls. According to American intelligence agencies, the Taliban in comparison had only around 75,000 lightly armed fighters. The desertion rate in the Afghan Army was high even during relatively more peaceful times. The soldiers fighting to protect cities such as Kandahar, Kunduz and Mazhar were given limited food rations and inadequate quantities of ammunition. Many of them had not been paid their salaries for months.

Also read: Why the Afghan army folded, in the face of the Taliban

David Petraeus, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and a senior U.S. Army general who was in charge of the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan for two years, said the Biden administration did not realise that the swift withdrawal of intelligence and reconnaissance drones and military contractors who were helping the fledgling Afghan Air Force in the middle of a particularly intense fighting season would have a devastating effect on their morale. (In Afghanistan, the onset of winter causes a lull in fighting.) Petraeus said, more importantly, Afghan soldiers stopped fighting when they realised that there were no reinforcements to back them in the battlefield.

Ghani’s justification

President Ghani, whose resignation the Taliban had been demanding from the outset, has justified his decision to flee the country when the Taliban began to close in on the capital. He said his presence would have jeopardised the safety of Kabul’s residents. “If I had stayed, countless of our citizens would have been martyred and Kabul would have faced destruction,” he said on Facebook. Former President Hamid Karzai has formed a council along with Abdullah Abdullah, who was number two in the Ghani government, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the former Prime Minister, to coordinate the formal handing over of power to the Taliban. The Taliban has indicated that it will form a broad-based interim government.

Also read: Ashraf Ghani leaves Kabul 'to prevent bloodshed'

The new government is likely to be headed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban. He landed in Kandahar from Doha the day after the fall of Kabul on a military plane supplied by the U.S. Pakistan had kept him under house arrest in Karachi from 2010 to 2018. Like several Taliban leaders he had taken refuge in Pakistan in the wake of the U.S. invasion in 2001. But when the U.S. decided to negotiate directly with the Taliban, he was released from prison and relocated to Qatar to head the group’s political office there. He will be under the authority of the Taliban’s Supreme Leader, Haibutallah Akhundzada.

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