Taliban's Upper Hand After US Withdrawal From Afghanistan

Photo source: Business standard

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

L ike Bush, Barack Obama wanted to win the war in Afghanistan ‘at all costs’. He deployed hundred thousand troops during the surge in 2010, which gradually went down, but the presence remained there. Trump’s policy, however, was of a contradistinction, where he wanted to end the ‘forever war’. The Biden administration took a step further, and announced a decision of withdrawal, as he intended to extricate some 2,500 American troops, who are on the ground in Afghanistan, leaving a small force to guard the US diplomatic mission in Kabul. Comparisons of US leaving Afghanistan have been made to the US withdrawal from Vietnam, just like in the Iraq war in 2011.


President Biden in April 2021 had announced that all American troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. Unlike Trump, Biden had included NATO in making his decision to withdraw, and dispatched his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to the alliance’s headquarters, where he announced that the US would work with its allies to ensure a 'safe, deliberate and coordinated withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan.' Biden’s decision was aided by the recent appointment of William Burns, a diplomat, to run the CIA. 


Since the president's decision, the US Department of Defence had retrograded the equivalent of approximately 300 C-17 loads of material out of Afghanistan, and have turned nearly 13,000 pieces of equipment to the Defense Logistics Agency for disposition. US soldiers were also reported of exiting from the Bagram air base. However, the US would continue to provide monetary security assistance to Afghanistan.


The decision of withdrawal seems in lieu with the public mood in United States. Today, nearly three fourth of the American public wants the US troops to return back to their homeland, including military veterans, and their families. 


Post 911, around 2,300 US service members have been killed, and many more are wounded in America’s longest war. They have also consumed about $1 trillion dollars in the process. Was it a war that they ever won? They haven’t. It is imperative that there was little reason to wait for some perfect moment in the future. 


The Americans wanted to stay in Afghanistan to prove that Bin Laden was wrong about America’s long-term commitments in the region. But, the sense prevailed when they realised that they can’t fight a war for other peoples. Around 240,000 Afghan civilians had been killed since 2001, and the collateral damage also extended to Pakistan’s major cities.


In a Foreign Affairs Oped, President Ashraf Ghani, wrote: ‘the Afghan government respects the decision and views it as a moment of both opportunity and risk for itself, for Afghans, for the Taliban, and for the region.’


Despite Biden administration's decision of troop disengagement, many Democrat and Republican leaders are of an opinion that the move would destroy US's credibility, demoralise its allies, and produce new shock waves in the region. They also believe that the current uncertainty would put the Afghan army in travails, as major Taliban attacks would begin. If the army would crumble, the critics of the decision believe that the journalists, women, judges, democracy activists, will be left at Taliban’s mercy, and would be assassinated in the open. The situation has made many Afghan professionals pack their bags to other places for work. There also has been an increase of thirty to forty percent in border crossings, producing around thirty thousand refugees per week. Pakistan is already hosting three million Afghan refugees, and according to Prime Minister Imran Khan more refugee influx would be problematic for the country. 

When it comes to Pakistan, it has repeatedly denied that it was the architect of the Taliban enterprise, but there is little doubt that many Afghans who initially joined the movement were educated in madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan. Pakistan was also one of only three countries, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which recognised the Taliban when they were in power in Afghanistan. 

During Taliban's rule, in the past, they barred women to move out of their houses, had stopped their education, and they had beaten men for what they found as non-Islamic behaviour. Many women used to get stoned to death, and men were often killed as alleged collaborators of the state. They also maimed locals, used them as human shields, and their judges sanctioned amputations.  Ahmed Rashid wrote in his book Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia that from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban and their allies committed massacres against Afghan civilians, denied UN food supplies to 160,000 starving civilians and conducted a policy of scorched earth, burning vast areas of fertile land and destroying tens of thousands of homes. During their rule, they also banned hobbies and activities such as kite flying and keeping birds as pets. 

For ensuring punishments, it has been a group within the Taliban, called the Amri bil Marof (literally: order the good), that enforces the social rules. Its punishments brought the most terror to Afghans in the 1990s through imposing a two-strike ruleFirst a warning, second a punishment - public humiliations, prison, beatings, lashes. 

However, the Taliban had promised a change during the peace diplomacy with United States, including women empowerment and moderation in social life, according to ways of Islam. However, many Afghans believe that these statements are rhetorical, and that they will soon return to their old ways. 


The withdrawal would also pose newer problems for the operational reliability of the Afghan state forces: without Americans on the ground, spies will lose direct contact with informants. Access to bases in neighbouring countries will be heavily restricted. Flying missions from the Persian Gulf will take longer, and it will also dramatically shorten the time aircrafts can spend on targets. By stationing an aircraft carrier offshore, it would diminish its capabilities elsewhere.

But, US for a while was also overconfident of their victories. They even failed to recognise the will of Taliban for becoming a self reliant political and military entity through its primary sources of revenue at disposal such as drug trafficking, protection money, mining, exports and donations. And, with this stable money pouring in, it has made them as one of the world's top organised militia. 


At the same time, those who argue for a neo-imperial war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, cannot unravel why diplomacy through interlocutors didn’t prove as a vantage point, and why the wars in the past didn’t triumph. Infact, Taliban has tried to demonstrate the will to fight longer, and die in larger numbers than United States forces and Afghan forces are prepared to do. The only problem for Afghan government is that the Taliban wants to rule the areas they control and influence. And it’s a serious problem for them. They have already lost more than sixty four thousand police and army members, according to research done by Brown University in 2019.


Quite lately, the Americans had been providing air support to the Afghan army against Taliban. They have killed twenty thousand to thirty five thousand Taliban fighters, including many senior commanders.

Despite that, Taliban remains a major force to reckon with, has an upper hand in the war, and controls more territory than ever, since 2001.  The Long War Journal estimates that Kabul government controls only third of the 407 districts. The rest are up for grabs (46 percent), or under Taliban rule (19 percent). The Taliban also represents an informal power in its southern and eastern provinces, and has been welcomed in many provinces. Although, these statistics were before the US withdrawal, and are set to change, in favour of Taliban, as they have already started taking over certain places, which include two key border crossings near Iran and Turkmenistan. Infact, the Afghan army is already dispirited, and are leaving their posts, which are devoid of international support now. In the north, Taliban has pillaged homes and some 1100 odd Afghan soldiers have already retreated to Tajikistan, following an offensive from the Taliban in July 2021. In retaliation, women holding guns in northern and central Afghanistan attended processions as a defiance against Taliban. 


There is also a likelihood that Al-Qaeda might use Afghanistan as a base for extremist attacks against the United States, post withdrawal. It leaves Pentagon with an ambiguous situation, as they don’t know how to combat threats from the Taliban allies. When US invaded Afghanistan, it was home to only four extremist groups. Now, according to Pentagon, there are twenty such extremist groups. These extremist groups even have rifts between them. For example, ISIS considers Taliban to be heretics because of their willingness to talk with the United States. 

As for Al-Qaeda, and its offshoots and spawned branches, the total membership spans tens of thousands, and they have, at times, controlled multiple cities, indicating the spiralling effect of radicalisation the US invasions did to the region and beyond.


Before Al-Qaeda planned and launched the 2001 attack on America from sanctuaries in Taliban run Afghanistan, the Taliban were American friends, not foes. President Ronald Reagan’s administration developed a plan to stealthily promote freedom-fighter militarism among Afghanistan’s Islamic youths, propagated their jihadist lores, hoping they would someday rise up and oust the godless Soviet communist troops from Afghanistan. Reagan officials decided to flood rural Afghanistan’s madrassas with millions of schoolbooks, designed to foment Islamic militancy. Taliban’s offensive ultimately defeated the Red army.


For quite a while, Afghanistan’s geopolitics and geo-economics has given an allure to many other powers such as China, Russia and Turkey. However, the recent developments have taken China aback, where the country believes that withdrawal of US troops would be detrimental for its Belt and Road initiative, fearing that it will become a hub for East Turkmenistan Islamic movement, an affiliate of al Qaeda, which is waging a war in Xinjiang. Before the withdrawal, China had already secured drilling rights in three oil fields in Afghanistan for twenty five years, and wanted to invest in Afghanistan's unexploited reserves of copper, coal, iron, gas, cobalt, mercury, gold, lithium and thorium worth 1 trillion American dollars. Due to a new social and political conflict emerging in Afghanistan, only time would vouch on their investment decisions now. Russia, on the hand, had created its own peace diplomacy for Afghanistan, called Moscow Consultations, to invite warring factions, the regional and world powers, to have an opinion on the situation in Afghanistan. When it comes to Turkey, which has had friendlier relations with Afghanistan since 1920s, it wants to reach an agreement with the United States to run and guard the Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul.


US leaving Afghanistan would again create problems for Pakistan, as Taliban’s ideological and operational capability has spilled beyond borders. That’s why, Taliban is not only trying to upend the existing order in Afghanistan. The only thing which Taliban feels ticklish about is  the recognition of Afghan army in the local arena, and in the international community. If that happens, then the Taliban might have to cut a direct peace deal with the Afghan government, sooner or later.  

Taliban's survival has brought newer questions into limelight to which there are complicated answers. Despite embracing violence, the Taliban's perspective is actually two fold, as it wants a coherent peace plan with the government in a manner that weighs more towards them, which means that the government may have to give greater concessions. In such a situation, many Afghans believe that they would suffer in a new social system. 


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