Why shouldn’t the Taliban win?
by Dr. Asim Yousafzai
With much less than anticipated difficulties, the Taliban came roaring back to Kabul, 20 years after they were dethroned by the US forces in the wake of 9/11 terrorist attack. Ironically, the Taliban flag was hoisted on Kabul on the 20th anniversary of the most horrific attacks on the US soil. At the twilight of US presence in Afghanistan, the horrendous attack by ISIS-K killing hundreds of Afghans and 13 US service members at Kabul airport is a grim reminder to the world that the war in Afghanistan is far from over.
US-backed President Ghani fled to Tajikistan, Rashid Dostum and Atta Noor fled to Uzbekistan and millions would be fleeing to the neighboring countries in the coming weeks and months. The scene was left wide open for Taliban to take over and they have announced an interim government in Kabul. Ashraf Ghani has been replaced by Abdul Ghani Baradar. Worried Afghans have seen this movie several times in the past four decades. Afghanistan has been pushed back to darkness, yet again.
Images of shocked Kabul residents hanging on to the fuselage of a US C-17 military plane taxing on the Hamid Karzai International Airport were watched all over the world in disbelief. The plane, with a capacity of 300 people, carried 640 people on board. The utter chaos at the Kabul Airport would be haunting the US and western policy makers for a long time to come as terrorized residents are trying to flee the country. Notwithstanding the impressive numbers, the chaotic evacuation has to come to an end with over one hundred Americans still stranded in Kabul.
After the 2020 Doha deal, it was clear that the US and its NATO allies would be exiting the Afghan theater, but few thought that the Afghan government and military would collapse like a house of cards, and even fewer predicted the Taliban entering the presidential palace even before the last US troops leave the country by the end of August. The Taliban leaders are assuring the Kabul residents that their safety would be ensured, but no one is truly buying it. Public flogging can be seen throughout the country. Taliban have not changed at all.
On paper, the number of Afghan security forces, armed with American weapons, was about three hundred thousand. However, most of them turned out to be ghost soldiers, and that’s why there was absolutely no resistance offered to the Taliban advances. On the other hand, the number of Taliban fighters is around 60 to 70 thousand. They do not put on fancy uniforms, most of the fighters do not even have shoes on their feet. Most western military analysts now believe that the Taliban are the strongest in 20 years. Billions of dollars were poured in to build a sizeable Afghan military, but it turned out to be a futile exercise.
The Taliban knew that America would one day leave Afghanistan. They were just waiting for the right time; the Taliban had both the watch and the time at their hands. A Taliban prisoner told the Americans in 2010, "Your watch's battery will run down, and its hands will stop. But our time in the struggle will never end. We will win." Afterall, he was right.
How Did the US Lose Its Way?
American policy makers stumbled from counterinsurgency to rebuilding the country to bringing democracy to the country to building a military. None of it materialized. The American strategy was to capture major cities in Afghanistan; a strategy called population-centric counterinsurgency. But rural areas, outside the district centers, remained under the de facto Taliban control. Then, at a time when the United States was shifting responsibility for security to the Afghan forces, the Taliban were slowly targeting cities. The Taliban has been moving slowly with this strategy for the past 10 years. President Trump’s abrupt decision to leave Afghanistan by 2021 was politically motivated, without any benchmarks for success, and without holding the Taliban accountable. An exit timetable, without extracting sufficient guarantees from the Taliban, should never have been announced in the first place. President Biden was in a bind; he had to either go back with full force or exit unceremoniously. He chose the latter.
Armed with political and military support from the neighboring countries, the Taliban have been very tactful. Instead of the ethnic Pashtun-dominated south and east, they deployed forces in the northern and northwestern provinces, where government forces and government-backed militias were more powerful. The Taliban knew that they can easily repel government troops from the south and east at any time. For the past two months, thousands of Afghan soldiers have been laying down their arms and taking off their uniforms. Afghan forces had little will to put up a fight, though they had the full capacity. As the Afghan military's resistance continued to crumble, the strength, training, and future of this multi-billion-dollar force is in question.
Why are the Taliban Winning?
The Taliban, originally a group of ethnic Pashtuns and hardline Sunni Wahhabi ideologues, has been trying to draw to its fold other ethnic groups in Afghanistan over the past several years.
The Taliban's attempt to seize the Tajik-dominated province of Badakhshan is bearing fruit.
Many frustrated Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek leaders are coordinating with the Taliban. As a result, the Taliban were able to impose control beyond their traditional sphere of influence. Taliban have also been building alliances in the past several months and Taliban leaders held meetings with top Chinese and Russian leaders. It will not be a surprise if the regional countries jump to recognize the Taliban government. The Taliban is a very powerful organization with the right strategy, planning and coordination and the biggest mistake the US and NATO allies made was to downplay the Taliban’s strength.
The level of corruption in the Afghan government reached astronomical limits. Billions of dollars came in to Kabul Bank and then safely funneled to bank accounts in the Gulf region. Corruption, mismanagement and incompetence of the Afghan government, coupled with lack of security and lack of access to justice are the major contributing factors of the Taliban’s swift ascendence to power.
The Taliban have ruled Afghanistan with brute force for four years from 1996-2001; they can do it again, even if few recognize them at the international level. The Taliban do not need money from the outside world; the illicit drug trade is enough to keep them afloat. Ninety percent of the heroin market in the United States and Europe comes from Afghanistan. In the south of the country, the Taliban have taken control of everything from opium cultivation to heroin and methamphetamine production and smuggling. On top of that the Taliban have now access to all the military equipment of the Afghan army and air force. Taliban also control mineral deposits, including some Rare Earth Elements, worth at least one trillion dollars in Khanashin district of Helmand province.
Why didn’t the Afghan leaders come together and develop a viable military? Because the powerful elites in Kabul were hoping that the US would probably never leave, and their perks and privileges would continue indefinitely. It is time for Afghans to come together and take back their country.
Al-Qaeda, Taliban and Pakistan
Taliban have promised in the Doha agreement that they will not allow foreign groups to use the Afghan soil for planning attacks against the US and European allies. However, it is wise to not trust a terrorist organization. Taliban’s relationship with Al-Qaeda is still intact and that al-Qaeda is also fighting the Taliban to fight Afghan forces. If the Taliban can reassure neighboring countries that their economic interests and security will not be harmed, then these countries will ignore whether or not the Taliban have relations with anyone else. Besides, they have no choice. Pakistan has traditionally supplied Taliban fighters from its soil and the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan is the victory of Pakistan. Pakistan is already weighing its options to formally recognize the Taliban government in Kabul.
How adversely will the Taliban’s victory impact Pakistan or other regional countries has yet to be seen. The Taliban’s main goal of revival of their Islamic Emirates has come to fruition. Consequently, the world needs to be prepared to deal with two Islamic Emirates: one in Kabul and one in Tehran.