Triumph of the Taliban

Photo source: Guardian

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

The Taliban swept the whole of Afghanistan in less than a week in August 2021. The capture was an ominous one, and the most significant coup d’etat in the region. It all began when a Taliban commander won a fight with Afghan forces in the southwestern border capital of Zaranj.

Zaranj’s fate then set a pattern, as Taliban insurgents overrun state defences in a continuous effort. Within a matter of days, other cities such as the key city of Kunduz in the north, Pul-e-Khumri and Ghazni, sitting on the strategic approaches to Kabul fell, too. Then, in the most devastating blow, the second and third largest cities of Kandahar and Herat would also fall to the Taliban.

Taliban’s advance in 2021 has also brought stories of horror, including details of reprisals against former government workers, summary executions, beheadings, and kidnappings of girls for forced marriages. There were bodies lying in the prisons, with dogs next to them.

As the Taliban pressed their growing advantage, ambassadors were trying to evacuate their embassies, as insurgents cut the main roads between cities, and started deals for the capitulation of state forces. The despondent, often hungry, defeated defenders started registering complaints about how reinforcements promised by the erstwhile civilian government in Kabul failed to arrive at many places.

Amid the advance, many commoners wanted to flee the country. They kept crowding at the gates of Kabul’s parks, and other open spaces. Families were fighting for food. However, there was a specific class of people who also welcomed the Taliban, approaching their gun-totting occupiers for selfies.

After the sudden demise of the civilian government, politicians and analysts kept on wondering how all this happened, when Americans had funnelled trillions of dollars into Afghanistan’s security forces, numbering about three hundred thousand, whose abilities were long touted by Western generals.

Ashraf Ghani’s sudden departure, without informing anyone, also led to the collapse of police machinery and the army, and a vacuum was created which was difficult to fill.

The Taliban had adopted an emirate label for governance, and incorporated several new features in the government, including the 1964 constitution, which is a monarchist constitution. Since their triumph on the streets of Afghanistan, they formed an interim government without any hassle and were dictating terms.

They all along had wanted a council of senior clerics, along the lines of Iran’s guardian council, to vet laws and decrees on the basis of their conformity with religious law. Many of the ministries are now being run by college-educated Islamists.

Also, Ghani’s perception to test their power on the battlefield in 2020 and 2021 was ill-judged. With the Taliban in power again, Afghanistan was even coined by people as the world’s first narco-state.

For Ryan Crocker, who was the US ambassador to Afghanistan under Barack Obama, the answer to the Taliban's victory was straightforward. Biden’s plan to continue with the withdrawal of US forces was akin to 'giving the country to Taliban fighters'. Other critical observers, such as the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, which has tracked corruption and waste in the US-led effort, have put a warning note since long on whether the money spent on military training and salaries was well spent, cautioning that the 'question … will ultimately be answered by the outcome of the fighting on the ground'.

One of the other serious mistakes, the Afghan army did was defending the inner cities only, and not the countryside, letting the Taliban isolate and besiege provincial capitals, and cut off lines of communication, ultimately squeezing Kabul. Add to that, the Afghan army had low morale, for various intrinsic reasons, which included monetary, such as the prospect of a good salary. Taliban, on the other hand, invested heavily in religious education and cultural affinity, which gave them stronger reasons to fight to death and capture, despite being lightly armed.

Tribal elders were also seen negotiating a pullout. This important scenario reflected a defeat that was foretold and long coming. Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has chronicled the war, echoed this assessment.

The rapidity of the Taliban’s victory has delivered a tremendous boost to Islamists everywhere – be it Syria, Mozambique, jihadists sitting in Birmingham, Manila, or even Kashmir. When a breeding ground has been reborn, it has made many believe that al-Qaeda will soon have its political and military arsenal redeployed. 

According to a UN assessment, al Qaeda is already present in fifteen per cent of Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, an affiliate of the group, 'operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces.'

There has been a lack of coherence in understanding how Middle East politics shaped up when it came to recognising the power of extremist Islamist elements. Investigative journalist, Jason Burke went on to write in a Guardian Oped: ‘one of the many reasons for the US failures in Afghanistan was an inability in the early years of the conflict there to distinguish between al-Qaeda, a small group of largely Arab Islamists committed to the overthrow of regimes in the Middle East as well as a war against Israel and the West, and the Taliban, a reactionary Afghan movement with a strong local ethnic and nationalist element that aimed to impose a rigorous religious rule on a single country.’

Relations between the Taliban, which contain many different factions, and al-Qaeda have evolved dramatically since. On occasions, they have been unpredictable, but most of the time cordial. As the decades have passed, personal relationships and familial links have been forged. Leaders of other militant networks have acted as intermediaries. Some priorities still differ. Although, the Taliban are very much more globally aware than they were twenty years ago. This makes them share the political worldview of al-Qaeda in new and important ways. US intelligence services, several times, have characterised the relationship as close.

After the takeover, the Taliban are trying to seek international legitimacy, a kind of it which was apparent, when they were in power before. They have also not been blamed for any international terrorism yet, and don’t want to be. 

As of now, instead of flying planes into buildings in US cities, al-Qaeda is trying to rest on a model of competitive governance, and protection of communities, that feel marginalised, vulnerable or threatened by forces who they dislike. This will also result as another feather in the cap for the Taliban, to maintain a ‘smooth defacto relationship’, which historically runs deep anyways.

After tasting power, the Taliban introduced the same theocratic rules that they applied in rural areas when the civilian government was functioning. It includes girls-only education in primary school, sanitised curriculums, women employed only in essential services, such as education and health, no mixing of genders, a ban on leaving home alone for women, enforcement of burqa, no TV, no music, compulsory attendance at mosques, and so on.


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