The United States and NATO will withdraw from Afghanistan nearly 20 years since their first intervention in this country. President Joe Biden decided all troops must pull back by September 11, four months later than the original deadline set by the Trump administration. The Taliban perceive the Americans’ withdrawal as a win. It remains to be seen if this will suffice or if they try to press their advantage and continue their war against the government in Kabul.
2004: Kabul, the city of kites
In the autumn of 2004, I arrived in Afghanistan to report on-scene about the first free presidential election in the country’s history. Three years had passed since the United States attacked the Taliban regime which, starting the mid-90s, were controlling most of Afghanistan. The Taliban had set up a regime based on a radical interpretation of the Sharia – they had reduced women to mere household duties, robbing them of the chance for a proper education or the opportunity to pursue a career. They had banned music and kite-flying, introduced public executions on stadiums, including stoning women to death for adultery, etc. Yet this isn’t what had antagonized the Americans. The Taliban had accepted to provide sanctuary to America’s public enemy number one – Osama bin Laden, accompanied by his Al-Qaeda fighters, and had set up training camps for him and his men. In exchange, bin Laden had assisted the Taliban in the war against the Northern Alliance, which had rallied all forces opposing the Taliban under its banner, made up primarily of Tajiks and Uzbeks. Two days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Al-Qaeda had taken out the most formidable adversary of the Taliban, Ahmed Shah Massoud, nicknamed “the Lion of Pankshir”, a legendary commander of the anti-Soviet Mujahideen and the leader of the Northern Alliance. The Taliban had figured that, with Massoud dead, the Northern Alliance would collapse and they would finally seize control of the entire country. What they hadn’t accounted for, however, was the Americans’ thirst for revenge after the September 11 attacks, as well as the brittleness of their own regime. Washington had issued the Taliban an ultimatum – surrender bin Laden. When they refused, the Americans attacked Afghanistan. It was not a large-scale invasion, with hundreds of thousands of troops. The United States opted for a mixture of special forces, aviation and dollars, which were used to finance and/or bribe local warlords. The Northern Alliance deployed its own offensive, coordinating with Washington. Within just two months, the Taliban had been crushed, and by the start of December the future of the country was already discussed in Bonn, where an interim leadership was elected. The new regime started to rebuild from scratch a country swept by decades of conflict, in desperate need of institutions, infrastructure and security forces. Afghanistan was promised financial assistance and expertise, and the international coalition forces would make sure everything was kept safe.
In the autumn of 2004, with the first presidential election, which was followed by parliamentary elections the next year, the foundations were now laid for Afghan democracy. At the time, the country was dealing with an insurrection of certain Taliban groups, which however paled in comparison with the Americans’ war in Iraq. When I got to Kabul, I saw a lot of journalists whom I’d met back in Baghdad, where I had been a war correspondent that summer. We all thought Kabul was a joke compared to our previous assignment, and we burst out laughing whenever one of our colleagues who’d been staying in Kabul long enough would tell us to avoid this or that road, since there had been a suicide attack there the month before, or to always be on our guard because the Taliban would launch a missile on the city every few weeks – these things happened several times a day back in Baghdad. Every now and then westerners would get kidnapped or killed. I recall reading somewhere back then that two Swiss men, dressed in Afghan clothes, had been found shot dead in a park. But overall, the city was safe and you could go about your business wherever you pleased, even unaccompanied by a local.
Perhaps the most iconic symbol of the newly-acquired freedom were the Afghan kites, which I saw filling up the skies of Kabul from the first day I set foot there.
“You have the watches, but we have the time”.
The election was won by the Western-linked Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun ethnic like most of the Taliban, who had served as interim president. Karzai was relatively young and charismatic, with a significantly different reputation than the grim Taliban leaders, most of whom were fanatics with base-level education born in rural areas, or the Mujahideen commanders of Massoud’s generation. A lot was expected from the new president, and people’s hopes for a better future ran high. Ten years later, when Hamid Karzai completed his second term as president, Afghanistan was a far cry from what the people had hoped in 2004. Karzai’s regime had been synonymous with corruption. Reconstruction was far from over. The country continued to be the world’s largest heroin producer. And the Taliban insurrection had only grown stronger as years went by.
2014 was the year when, after a prolonged conflict by means of which they had tried to eradicate the Taliban on the open field, NATO gave up its war on insurgents and withdrew most of its forces from Afghanistan. The only troops that stayed behind were assigned to train Afghan security forces, guard certain objectives and carry out missions on a much lower-scale than previously arranged.
Up to that point, the war had already claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, a few thousands among the ranks of the international coalition. After their initial defeat in 2001, the Taliban had rebuilt their strength in Pakistan, with the support of the Pashtuns in this country, with whom they had tribal connections. Pakistan had been turning a blind eye to all the cross-border coming and going. Islamabad is constantly looking for so-called “strategic depths”, territories where they can pull back in case of a powerful attack from India, so they sought to enhance their influence in Afghanistan by means of military groups, whenever working with the Government was not an option.
From one borderland skirmish to another, the Taliban ended up consolidating their standing in Afghanistan bit by bit, waging a war that starts in spring, when snows melt down and mountain passes open up again, and ends with the beginning of the cold season. NATO and the United States deployed a considerable amount of forces – the NATO mission alone at one point deployed a record-high number of 130,000 troops, all better trained and equipped, adding to which were a few hundred thousand Afghan military and security forces. Faced with this overwhelming force, the Taliban relied on guerilla tactics and the rough terrain, but most importantly, on time. “You have the watches, but we have the time”, one Taliban fighter famously said at one point, and he’s been quoted extensively in the last 10-15 years. Warfare may be a way of life for the Afghan tribes, but not for the international forces they are up against. The theory was that, if the insurrection went on long enough, the Americans would eventually crack, even though they couldn’t be defeated on the battlefield. It was a strategy that had worked well for them during their turbulent history. One after another, empires (the Soviet Union being the most recent example in the 80s, and the British empire in the 19th century) were forced to give up on Afghanistan, a country that in time earned the name “the graveyard of empires”.
“Time to end the forever war”. The Americans are leaving. The Taliban are staying.
The Americans did finally crack, because the war in Afghanistan is the longest war ever recorded. By the end of February, 2020, they had reached an agreement with the Taliban. Donald Trump promised he would pull back all standing forces from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. The deadline turned out to be unrealistic, so Joe Biden decided, after taking over as president of the United States, to keep these forces on the ground after this date. But it will merely be a four-month delay. On April 14, Joe Biden announced that all American military will withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, which will mark 20 years since the terrorist attacks that prompted the military intervention in Afghanistan. Biden referred to the US servicemen killed the war, whose exact number he has carried with him during his time as vice-president. The American president spoke of the difficulties faced by those people who have family serving in warzones. He also mentioned his personal experience, his late son Beau, who died to an illness, having served in the war in Iraq. President Biden said the original objective of rooting out Al-Qaeda and preventing future attacks against the United States planned from Afghanistan has been fulfilled. Bin Laden was killed 10 years ago. The president admitted the ideal conditions for a withdrawal will never be created, and concluded “it’s time to end the forever war”.
Following Biden’s remarks, NATO, which had avoided to own up to Donald Trump’s plans for Afghanistan, also announced it would withdraw its troops over the coming months.
A withdrawal from Afghanistan was necessary, in all likelihood. It’s hard to imagine the United States winning this year or five years from now a conflict that has been raging for two decades, and where the enemy continues to consolidate its position – at present the Taliban control a significant part of the territory, especially rural and remote areas. Yet although their objectives in Afghanistan may have been attained, the Americans’ retreat from the standoff against the Taliban is perceived as a defeat of the United States. And this defeat might turn into a disaster, all the more so as there is a precedent. When it pulled back from Afghanistan in 1989, the Soviet Union left behind an Afghan army to be reckoned with, which it had trained and equipped and was now seasoned by the years of fighting off the Mujahideen. For three years Najbullah’s army fought bravely and successfully, only to virtually collapse overnight. There’s no guarantee the current Afghan army won’t share the same fate, and the Taliban would claim power for themselves again. The possibility is quite real as long as there’s no peace settlement between the government in Kabul and the Taliban, not even in the event the two sides do sign a peace treaty. After all, Afghanistan has been known in these last two decades for having a long tradition of backstabbing, violating agreements and swapping allies. As regards the rift between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, stipulated in the agreement with the United States, there’s no guarantee this was real and that, once they see themselves their own masters in Afghanistan, the Taliban won’t resume their close cooperation with their old allies.
All the Taliban need to do, for the time being, is sit tight and wait a few months without provoking the Americans. Only after they’ve pulled back completely and a new global power gets swollen by the graveyard of empires, will we find out what the Taliban are really getting at and if kites will continue to fly over Kabul.