Veteran journalist Abdel Bari Atwan says the new Taliban government in Afghanistan will be focused on pragmatic state-building, but risks of a new civil war instigated by foreign powers remain.
On Saturday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani gave a speech praising the high morale of his army’s troops. On Sunday, he fled by helicopter to Tajikistan and became the former president. By Monday, Taliban commanders were seated at his desk in the presidential palace in Kabul.
There was no handover of power, there was a collapse and an armed takeover by the victorious Taliban. Agree with them or not, they stood firm for 20 years against the mightiest power in history, and turned it into the third empire (after the British and the Russian) to sip the bitter cup of defeat at the hands of the Afghan people’s resistance.
Equally humiliated were all the American military analysts who predicted that the Afghan army would hold out at least for a few months after the withdrawal of remaining U.S. forces in September and that Kabul would resist the Taliban advance.
But the army and state institutions disintegrated and the capital fell almost without a fight. Its skies were soon crowded with giant helicopters evacuating American diplomats and citizens, but not the Afghan military chiefs and politicians who collaborated with them and were left behind to their fate.
The same scenes we saw in Saigon after the American defeat in Vietnam were replayed in Kabul on Monday. All the traffic was in one direction: heading for the airport to find a flight on which to flee the city after the Taliban seized control of all the roads. But the number of planes was limited, and they were mostly reserved for people with white American and European skins.
The U.S. failed to build a strong and modern Afghan army, the same failure as in all other countries it invaded from Iraq to Libya to Vietnam. That explains its shockingly quick collapse after the U.S. spent more than $90 billion forming and training it, and perhaps double that amount arming it, to fight a poorly equipped popular militia.
The reasons for that failure are not hard to fathom. Every puppet army created by an invading power has suffered the same fate, from Antoine Lahd’s so-called South Lebanon Army to the Afghan National Defence and Security Force now.
What cause do such armies and their commanders fight for? To protect their country’s foreign occupiers? To retain privileges and make financial gains? Even the latter was little incentive for members of the ANDSF who were poorly paid, fed and treated. Tens of thousands sold their weapons or defected to the Taliban. We should not be surprised if their commanders end up selling Afghan kebabs from stalls in the U.S. like their SLA counterparts.
There are countries like Afghanistan and Yemen that are easy to invade but difficult to remain in, due to a combination of the pride, resilience and fighting spirit of their people and the ruggedness of their terrain. Invaders inevitably suffer tragic and humiliating defeat, as we have been witnessing again in Kabul.
The tough questions being asked now – especially in the six countries neighbouring Afghanistan – are about how things will unfold in the months and years to come, and which camp will the soon-to-be-formed Second Taliban Emirate stand in. There are no easy answers, but a number of factors need to be considered.
First, Al-Qaida in its former guise will not be returning to Afghanistan. Its leader Osama Bin-Laden was assassinated by the Americans. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the former Taliban leader who gave him sanctuary in gratitude for the sacrifices made by the Arab mujahideen, is also dead.
Afghanistan’s new rulers will be much more concerned to gain regional and international support for their legitimacy and state. But it cannot be ruled out that a new terrorist group may emerge under the auspices of the U.S., using the grievances of the Uyghur minority in China to recruit jihadists.
Secondly, there is a risk of renewed sectarian or ethnic civil war. Regional powers like Iran, Russia, India and Turkey – not to mention the U.S. and China – may try to exploit differences between religious, tribal or ethnic groups to play out their rivalries. The Taliban have tried to reassure most of these powers by sending envoys to their capitals. A delegation was in Beijing earlier this month to affirm that a Taliban-led government would not allow any foreign power (meaning the U.S.) to use Afghan territory to destabilise China or support Uyghur militants.
Third, both Russia and Iran discretely provided support to the Taliban, including funds and weapons, in their war against the U.S. occupation. The movement is unlikely to join any alliances against them, or to alienate Russia by destabilising Tajikistan or Iran by persecuting the Shia.
Finally, the Taliban’s founder and principal sponsor and ally is Pakistan. They can be expected to be guided by Islamabad’s geopolitical compass and follow its lead in forging alliances. At present, Pakistan has strong relations with both Iran and Turkey and stands in the same trench as China (which is why the U.S. drastically cut its aid to the country).
U.S. media reports of a power-struggle between rival wings of the Taliban are probably wishful thinking. The movement appears united under Mulla Abdul Ghani Baradar and there are no sign of internal splits.
We cannot foretell what might happen in future, but that could well depend on what the U.S. does. If it opts to wreak military revenge on the Taliban, the entire movement could transform into a new Al-Qaida and take the battle to America and its presence and bases worldwide.
This article first appeared in Raialyoum.