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The Taliban are winning the war in Afghanistan. What’s happened and what we can expect

Afghanistan
©EPA-EFE/STRINGER  |   Taliban fighters are seen on the back of a vehicle in Kabul, Afghanistan, 16 August 2021.

The Taliban have conquered Afghanistan again, almost 20 years after they were chased away by a US intervention. How was this possible and, especially, what awaits us?

The Taliban’s lightning victory. A few explanations

The latest Taliban offensive was launched in spring, and at first it looked like it was following a common pattern in Afghanistan: insurgents intensify their attacks in spring, after mountain passes become accessible, and the situation calms down with the arrival of winter and snow. The difference this year was that, in parallel with the Taliban offensive, the last NATO and US forces were being withdrawn from the country.

The US withdrawal had been stipulated in an agreement signed with the Taliban in February 2020 by the Trump administration, and should have ended in May 2021, provided the Taliban cut off all ties with Al Qaeda and participated in peace talks with the government in Kabul. Negotiations with Kabul were dragging on - and now it turns out that the Taliban rather mimicked the willingness to dialogue, and their interest was to stall - and there is no evidence of them breaking ties with Al Qaeda. However, the new leader in Washington, Joe Biden, has decided that the withdrawal must continue, even if the completion of this stage was delayed by several months.

Although asked to consider an extension of the US presence in Afghanistan, Biden concluded that if Afghanistan failed to find peace and defeat the Taliban in 20 years, maintaining troops for another year or more would not have changed anything, and the United States could not afford a permanent presence there. Following Biden's decision, NATO countries that still had contingents in Afghanistan and showed reluctance when the agreement with the Taliban was announced in 2020 decided to withdraw their remaining troops too.

A key moment in this withdrawal was the leaving of the Bagram base, located a few tens of kilometers north of Kabul. The base was at the center of the American war effort, turning at one point into a real town, with a population of tens of thousands of people, with fast food restaurants, gyms, recreation areas, shops, etc. The Americans abandoned Bagram on the night of July 1st, without even telling the Afghan base commander that they were pulling out and leaving behind millions of things, from canned food to SUVs whose keys they had taken with them.  It was the moment that practically put an end to the American military operations in Afghanistan (after the withdrawal from Bagram, only a few sporadic bombings were reported). The way the withdrawal from Bagram took place was a further blow to the morale of government security forces and a new victory for the Taliban, who had already considered for months that they had won the war with the Americans.

The situation became worse for the Kabul government in July, when it became increasingly clear that the Afghan security forces were on the verge of confusion and unable to deal with the Taliban, although on paper they were clearly superior in numbers and equipment, and, moreover, some of the soldiers had been trained by US and NATO specialists. Nearly 100 billion dollars were invested in the Afghan security forces, an amount that would increasingly become a topic of discussion, as its lack of effectiveness became obvious. The fact that they were defeated, however, can be explained. First of all, those 300,000 people existed only on paper: many of these police officers and soldiers were “invented” so that their superiors could cash in some extra salaries.

Secondly, while these forces were focused on maintaining territories from static positions (a notable exception are the special forces), the Taliban took the liberty of hitting wherever and whenever they saw fit. Thirdly, these forces no longer benefited from the air support of the Western allies, who until then would intervene decisively every time the situation became more complicated. In fact, in the latter part of the war, the Afghan army was made up of several isolated, demoralized units, who knew they could be attacked at any time and that help would come from nowhere.

A fourth element that explains the defeat of the security forces is that of local agreements. Especially lately, the Taliban have won, without having to fight, town after town. This can only mean that local agreements have been made with tribes and various commanders or barons, who have only changed camps, just as they did before in the mid-1990s, when the Taliban conquered 90 % of Afghanistan, and at the end of 2001, when a handful of American soldiers, supported by aviation and allied with local forces, drove the same Taliban away.

Finally, one last element could be related to the Pakistani interference. The way the last Taliban offensive has been carried out suggests that it was prepared by people with a military background. In the mid-1990s, the Taliban were helped to win by advisers sent by the Pakistani army and secret services; most likely, Islamabad has played a role this time as well.

Pakistan sees Afghanistan as a vital area for its security, as it can secure its so-called “strategic depth”, an area in which it could withdraw in the event of a potentially devastating war with India. Moreover, tens of millions of Pakistanis are Pashtuns, which is the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, to which the Taliban belong as well.  The border established by the British at the end of the 19th century through the lands of the Pashtuns (the so-called Durand line, which today marks the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan) could not break the Pashtuns’ tribal ties. Finally, Pakistan's main intelligence service, ISI, has had ties to Islamist groups for decades, either in Afghanistan (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's forces since the anti-Soviet war, the Taliban, etc.) or targeting Indian Kashmir.

What’s next for Afghanistan and for the region?

It is a long way from winning the war to effective governance. The maps can be misleading - even if they suggest a total Taliban victory, it is difficult to say how much of the territory of Afghanistan is really under Taliban control and how much it belongs to them only because some local commanders have recognized the Islamist movement's authority so that they could still keep their fiefs.A second aspect concerns governance itself. The Taliban are an insurgent movement that has recruited most of its fighters from rural areas, men with a relatively simplistic view of the world, largely tailored to the Pashtun tribal codes, and a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, according to which society should be governed precisely as in the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his first successors, the so-called “rightly guided caliphs”. A type of governing according to 7th century rules is possible in the short term (as shown by the Taliban, and terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State when they managed to seize certain territories), but it takes a little more, especially in the medium and long term, to face the challenges of the contemporary era. They require an administrative apparatus, which cannot be provided by a few fundamentalists with a limited understanding of the modern world - infrastructure must be maintained and expanded, services must be provided, imports must continue and, last but not least, revenues must be ensured, and the money brought in by drug trafficking or taxes levied locally by armed groups is not enough to administer a country.Finally, it remains to be seen what the reactions will be in the coming months and years. Domestically, it is not at all clear what will happen, for example, to other extremist groups, the most notable being the Islamic State. It has been present in Afghanistan for several years, where it had recruited several thousand fighters and even clashed with the Taliban, both for their excesses and for “stealing” some of the latter’s members. Will this conflict continue? Will the Islamic State grow? Will it disappear now that the Taliban have shown that they are the Islamist force that really matters? And how homogeneous is the current Taliban movement compared to how it was in the 1990s? Another thing that is yet to be seen is the Taliban's ability to go beyond the ethnic component of the movement, because otherwise the Tajiks (whom not even the Soviets managed to defeat in the Panjshir Valley, despite numerous offensives), the Uzbeks, the Hazara Shiites, who have ties to Iran, and others, may be tempted to take up arms.Externally, I do not think that any Central Asian state has forgotten the 1990s, when they had problems with local Islamist groups, whose militants had trained or been indoctrinated in Afghanistan; however, the links went even further, up to the Russian Caucasus and, through Al Qaeda, to the Middle East and beyond. We can assume that none of these neighbors of Afghanistan will passively watch the rebuilding of training bases, just as it we can assume that China will not allow the neighboring country to become a launching pad for the Uighur separatists in Xinjiang. A rebuilding of al-Qaeda's infrastructure as it was in the late 1990s is also unlikely: despite this hasty withdrawal of the United States, Washington still has enough tools at its disposal to intervene in key points, especially since technology is completely different than it was 20 years ago. The Taliban probably know this too and will no longer allow the preparation of a new 9/11 on their territory.Beyond that, however, nothing is certain. The Taliban have promised that this time their government will be more moderate and inclusive, but they have also promised to abide by the agreement with the United States, including by negotiating with Kabul - and now it is clear that those negotiations didn’t really take place. Afghanistan risks being thrown back into a dark time when music, kite flying or dancing would once again be banned, and stoning to punish adultery would become a public spectacle, replacing football matches on stadiums. A cemetery of the empires of yore, now ruled by fanatics in black turbans and haunted by the ghosts of a time when it seemed that history could take another turn.

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  • Nearly 100 billion dollars were invested in the Afghan security forces, an amount that would increasingly become a topic of discussion, as its lack of effectiveness became obvious. The fact that they were defeated, however, can be explained. First of all, those 300,000 people existed only on paper. Secondly, while these forces were focused on maintaining territories from static positions (a notable exception are the special forces), the Taliban took the liberty of hitting wherever and whenever they saw fit. Thirdly, these forces no longer benefited from the air support of the Western allies. A fourth element that explains the defeat of the security forces is that of local agreements.
  • It is a long way from winning the war to effective governance. The maps can be misleading - even if they suggest a total Taliban victory, it is difficult to say how much of the territory of Afghanistan is really under Taliban control and how much it belongs to them only because some local commanders have recognized the Islamist movement's authority so that they could still keep their fiefs.
  • Domestically, it is not at all clear what will happen, for example, to other extremist groups, the most notable being the Islamic State. Another thing that is yet to be seen is the Taliban's ability to go beyond the ethnic component of the movement, because otherwise the Tajiks (whom not even the Soviets managed to defeat in the Panjshir Valley, despite numerous offensives), the Uzbeks, the Hazara Shiites, who have ties to Iran, and others, may be tempted to take up arms.
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