Afghans are bitter and feel betrayed but are resigned to their fate
The Taliban are cleverer but have not changed their spots, say Afghans, writes Nazes Afroz, former Executive Editor, BBC World Service and an Afghanistan expert
A young Afghan doctor friend, a researcher and public health expert, sent a cryptic message last month a week after I frantically tried to contact him. He was still in Kabul and he would let me know more later.
A few hours later he sent yet another message saying he and his two brothers had reached Kuwait with the military of a western country. I wanted to know where their parents were. He informed that the parents had stayed back in Kabul.
When I met him in 2003 for the first time, he was still in his teens. He had just enrolled in a medical college. After spending his early teens in refugee camps in Pakistan, he and his family returned to Afghanistan after international forces led by the USA drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan in 2001.
I stayed in touch with him over the years and saw him flourish. He finished his graduation in medicine, went abroad to do his masters on full scholarship. After obtaining his masters, he finished his PhD on the state of primary healthcare in Afghanistan. He got the citizenship of the country where he had studied and became a teacher and researcher in public health at a leading university there.
His tribulations and journey sum up the entire Afghanistan story as it is unfolding today. Being a citizen of a Western country, it was possible for him to get a seat on a plane. He could manage to take his two younger brothers with him. But thousands of Afghans are not as lucky as him and are still trying desperately to leave the country deep uncertainties and the spectre of another harsh Taliban rule, breakdown of governance, food shortages and endless conflict again haunts the unfortunate country.
The speed at which the Taliban took control over the whole of Afghanistan caught the Afghans by surprise. When they started taking over districts in remote provinces, there was no sense that they would be in Kabul in a matter of weeks. There were hopes that the Afghan armed forces with support from the militia under local leaders like Ata Mohammad Noor and Abdur Rashid Dostam in the northern provinces would be able to fend off the Taliban forces.
But the Afghan Army did not put up any resistance. There are reports that in some districts, they surrendered to just five or six Taliban fighters. So, the initial of murmurs of a ‘huge conspiracy’ even ‘treason’ is becoming stronger.
The Afghans I have been in touch with over the past few weeks inside the country or outside, believe that the USA handed over the country on a platter to the Taliban in order to ensure their own safe exit from the Afghan battle theatre, a theatre that the US had created as the death nail of communism by luring the USSR into it in 1979.
The US fulfilled its short-term foreign policy objective through creating and enhancing political Islam and international Jihad by bringing in thousands of radicalised and disaffected youths from a number of Muslim majority countries in the Arab world, North Africa, Caucasus and Central Asia to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Afghan Mujahideen.
The ruse of ‘Islam in danger in Afghanistan’ was employed by the Western spy agencies to sway these young Muslims. We witnessed a strange convergence of Western democracies and the theocratic Muslim dictatorships from 1979 as both were opposed to ‘godless communists’.
The fiercely independent and socially conservative Afghan tribespeople – like hundreds of times in their three millennia of history – were fighting their own war against what they considered a ‘foreign invasion’. But thanks to the skewed international efforts of the USA, the UK, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, their battle soon turned into an international Jihad. The Soviet army finally had no option but to withdraw in 1989.
The USSR imploded in 1991 and, elated with their ‘victory’ and fulfilment of their objective, the West turned its back against Afghanistan and left 30 million Afghans to the mercy of warlords and foreign fighters with an unimaginable cache of arms and ammunition at their disposal. There were no concerted efforts to ensure a peaceful transition from communist rule to the incoming governance arrangement by Mujahideen factions.
The following history is now well-known; the Mujahideen civil war led to the destruction of the country; that led to the rise of the Taliban with active support from Pakistan and the ISI; and they were welcomed by the ordinary Afghans as they initially brought in some sort of order from the chaos. But the Taliban unleashed inconceivable atrocities, especially against women and ethnic minorities. These atrocities were committed in the name of imposition of the strictest Sharia and also their antipathy towards other minorities.
The anti-communist war lasting for 13 years, the four years of utter chaos due to the civil war and the dark six years of the Taliban, together decimated the fabric of the Afghan society. From 2001, therefore, the Afghans believed that the international community had come to their rescue. Led by the USA, the international forces dislodged the Taliban from power in a war that lasted only a few weeks. Just as people of Afghanistan had welcomed the Taliban, hoping that they would restore order, they lined up the highways cheering as the foreign forces once again rolled into Kabul from the north.
The United Nations was mandated to help the Afghans in the physical as well as political rebuilding of the country. The failure of the ‘nation building project’ was embedded from the very outset as it was always heavily dependent on the will of the USA because it was contributing the largest number of soldiers to secure the country, and also making the biggest financial contribution in rebuilding a devastated country.
It was not however meant to be another ‘Marshall Plan’ as the sole objective of the USA was to dismantle the al Qaeda infrastructure in Afghanistan and to get hold of Osama Bin Laden.
The project to build an independent and professional Afghan army and other ancillary security forces like the Afghan National and provincial police suffered a serious setback when the USA turned its attention to Iraq starting with the second Gulf War in early 2003.
By the time the USA extricated itself from the quagmire in Iraq, and turned its eyes towards Afghanistan again in 2006-2007, the Taliban had the breathing space to regroup with shelters and support from the Pakistan security establishments including the ISI. They had started capturing remote rural areas. The effective training of building Afghanistan’s own security forces started only after 2007. The Western backers of the fledgling Afghan government had already lost five valuable years when their acceptance level was still high.
Meanwhile from 2001, in a zeal to get the al Qaeda fighters, the USA resorted to attacks from the air, night-time raids and search by breaking the doors of the villagers in the rural Pashtun land in the south. The air attacks resulted in a large number of innocent civilian deaths including children and women, making the Pashtun populace angry.
The night raid and search missions too antagonised the Pashtuns deeply as culturally their homes are their sanctum sanctorum. They felt violated with the raids. Using this anger and antagonism, the returning Taliban easily established their safe bases in the south of the country. From 2007-8 onwards the USA increased its military presence heavily but failed to dislodge the Taliban bases as local Afghans were already disaffected and were harbouring the Taliban fighters.
In 2011 the USA finally got Bin Laden in Pakistan and by then the al Qaeda infrastructure had largely been dismantled. So, the main objectives of the USA’s presence in Afghanistan had been achieved. From that time onward, we started hearing about departure plans of the NATO forces. NATO put a plan in place; that it would support the Afghan military and other security forces until 2024 with money and military hardware.
The USA’s parleys with the Taliban started almost five years ago that culminated in a deal last year in which the Taliban assured not to attack the US forces in exchange for a complete pull out of the US military by May 2021. Keeping to the timetable of this deal, when President Biden announced the complete pull out by 31 August, all hell broke loose.
Contrary to the widely held belief that Afghan forces would put up resistance against the advancing Taliban, they meekly surrendered. For months they clearly had seen the writing on the wall that the USA would cut its own losses and run. The morale in the Afghan Army was predictably low. They also witnessed the reprisal of the Taliban when they executed some unarmed soldiers who wanted to surrender following their defeat. Besides, they were hamstrung by the lack of logistical and air support that had so far been provided by the Americans. So, it was not surprising when they decided to cut down their own losses and capitulate.
The day the Taliban walked into the empty Presidential palace, a close former Afghan diplomat friend told me over the phone, ‘Nazes, I never imagined that I would have to see Afghans going through the same chaos, anarchy and mayhem twice in my lifetime. History will judge President Biden.’
The world is now busy analysing how the US lost its face and how its world dominance will suffer; how in the regional power game Pakistan pushed India out of Afghanistan; how it is the opportune moment for China and Russia to expand their sphere of influence in Central Asia by recognising the Taliban.
But in the final analysis it is the 40 million ordinary Afghans who have become once again the victims and pawns in this game of geo-politics. Yet again.
(Former Executive Editor for BBC World Service, South and Central Asia, Nazes Afroz has been visiting Afghanistan since 2002. Shuttling between London and India, he is an author and a media consultant)