Reflections from the US: The Taliban had never gone away

Even with US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, Taliban controlled one-third of Afghanistan, had an estimated 85000 fighters and had been collecting taxes and raising money through narcotics smuggling

Reflections from the US: The Taliban had never gone away

Abhijit Shanker

This past week the world watched a blow-by-blow account from Afghanistan, some images etched in our memory. Most unforgettable possibly was the image of a US Air Force plane leaving the tarmac with a few hundred Afghans running alongside.

A few friends and former colleagues stationed in different parts of the world called me to ask what might be in store for this ill-fated country. In turn, I called an Afghan friend of mine, who had until recently hobnobbed with the erstwhile President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, advising him on community engagement and women’s welfare programs, in-person and on Zoom. He had, in the past, spoken fondly of the (now) former President, singing praises of his knowledge and inclusivity.

This was before President Joe Biden delivered on his election promise of withdrawing American troops from the beleaguered country, after a 20-year presence. Alas, Ghani would never be judged on these qualities by the foreseeable future, post his flight, some say with bundles of cash, to Tajikistan.

This friend of mine blamed Pakistan for the current state his country was in. He also told me that the name Taliban, though had its origins in Pashto, had been duly market researched by its masters in Quetta, Pakistan, in the early 1990s. The idea was to find resonance and acceptance among the Afghan citizens, to counter the ongoing march of the Mujahedeen. He reminisced that unlike the images from 2021, the Taliban’s coming to power in 1996 was celebrated with horse races and firecrackers on the streets of Kabul.

Alas, they did not keep their promise and ravaged the country until they were ousted by the US and NATO troops soon after the world changed post 9/11. Within a few months after the Taliban refused to hand over Osama Bin-Laden to the Americans, the Americans installed Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s President. He would become the country’s longest serving elected President, serving from 2002-2017, when he handed the reins to the now deposed Ashraf Ghani.

It’s being debated in TV newsrooms and in newspaper columns whether this decision will blotch Biden’s legacy. Before we ponder that possibility, we must consider the real cost of this ‘forever’ war. By official estimates, the 20-year war cost 40,000 Afghan civilian lives, 64,000 Afghan Military and Police lives, and another 3,500 international soldiers were killed.

The US spent $815.7 billion on war and $130.5 billion on reconstruction projects. If the superpower had managed Afghanistan’s economy for 20 years at $20 billion annually, it would still be left with more than half the amount it spent on war in the country.

It is also being actively speculated whether the Taliban would have been able to march into the Presidential Palace, had the American troops been around. Perhaps not. The question that begs to be asked is if the Americans were training the local troops, did they not do a good job of it? Did the successive US Presidents – George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump misreport the progress to their citizens?

The current President, Biden, with his four decades in foreign policy, is clearly the most experienced among the Presidents America has had in the past 30 years. Is he then playing the long game, or is this a misstep?

"The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army. They're not—they're not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable," Joe Biden had insisted in a press conference on July 8. Comparisons with Saigon are inevitable – in the long run, the 2021 troops withdrawal will be etched in history as having led to the Taliban’s onboarding as the new rulers of Afghanistan.

At the same time, we must remember that it was during Donald Trump’s presidency that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was released from a Pakistani prison in 2018. Baradar is now tipped to become Afghanistan’s next President. He scurried back from Doha just as the Taliban were entering the Presidential Palace. I saw a video online with Talibs occupying the same chairs my Afghan friend and his tribe were sitting on, just a couple of months ago.

The legitimacy accorded by the powers that be, through Doha negotiations, has landed Afghanistan its destiny. The last time around, when the Taliban was in power, only four countries -- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Turkmenistan recognized it. The next few months will decide the way the wind will blow.

Imran Khan, the Pakistani Premier has already issued a statement endorsing the Taliban, saying “Afghans have broken the shackles of slavery.” There is little doubt Pakistan sees this turn of events as its victory, making a hardliner of Khan. The other player in Asian politics, the Chinese President Xi Jinping has said in the past that the “Asian security should be managed by Asians”. Whether China will bite into Afghan politics is something we don’t know yet, but its investment in Pakistan by default extends its interest to the country.

Americans are gone, but will they ever be able to absolve themselves of the travesty which has befallen Afghanistan – a country which has apparently never lost to a foreign power?

To conclude, we would do well to remember that the Taliban never really went away. Even with the US and NATO troops present, they held sway over one third of the country, maintaining a troop size of 85,000. According to a UN report, their annual budget was USD 1 billion – the money they raised through drug trafficking, mineral trading, and exports.

They also maintained a robust tax collection system. It would be wrong to assume that they regrouped within a few days of the US troops withdrawal. It would also be wrong to pretend this would matter to the Democrat voters in 2024, when Biden is up for re-election. He has brought the troops home, that’s what he promised in his bid to defeat Donald Trump.

According to The Hill, 73% Americans approve of Biden’s decision. That statistic probably foretells the American involvement in the region.

(The author worked for a decade with the United Nations in New York, serving as UNICEF’s Chief of Communications)

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