The Return of the Taliban

Despite limited options, India must work with other nations for stability in Afghanistan

Ajay SinghAjay Singh

Everyone saw it coming, but nobody expected it to unravel so fast. From the time President Joe Biden announced that he would withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, (less around a battalion to guard the Embassy), security analysts had predicted that the Taliban would take over the country in a year or so—maybe two years at the most.

But less than three months after the US commenced its withdrawal, the Taliban have already roared through Afghanistan, taking over 204 of its 407 districts; it held only 73 at the beginning of May. It has seized the major towns of Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat and Kandahar and gained control of the major border crossings and highways. In most cases, the Afghan security forces have surrendered without a fight. Without the US air support and intelligence, they stand little chance against the well-armed and highly motivated Taliban fighters. With just around 15 per cent of the country still under government control, the question of a Taliban takeover is not about ‘when’ but ‘how soon?’

US secretary of state Blinken with Indian external affairs
minister S. Jaishankar

The symbolic end of the US withdrawal came with the handing over of the crucial Bagram Base, north of Kabul. At 3 am in the morning of July 2, US troops filed into the cavernous doors of the mammoth transport aircraft and the last aircraft took off from one of its twin runways. The withdrawal was low key, even without the customary photo op. It did not have the frantic desperation of Vietnam, when US helicopters lifted off from the US embassy in Saigon, with the panicked staff hanging on to them. But it was still a defeat and contained the hidden chaos.

Over 16,000 pieces of equipment were destroyed before departure to prevent them from falling in hostile hands. Looters entered the base, grabbing laptops and whatever else they could find—because of the lack of coordination with the Afghan security forces who were to take over the base. Over 17,000 Afghan personnel who had worked with the US, hurriedly sought asylum in neighbouring countries fearing reprisal from the Taliban. And predictably, a rocket landed near the base almost as soon as it had been vacated. The base which once saw over 100,000 troops passing through it and witnessed over 200 take-offs and landings a day, was silent and empty. Like the rest of Afghanistan, it seemed resigned to its fate, as it awaited the Taliban poised in the shadows.

Around 7,000 NATO troops from other countries boarded their aircraft and returned home as well, signalling an end to Operation Resolute Support. The 7,800 contractors who provided logistics support, too returned. And though General Austin Miller and President Joe Biden have gone to great lengths to assure Afghanistan that it has not been abandoned; it has. What support remains now is around USD 3 Billion in security assistance, ‘over the horizon’ strikes from US bases and aircraft carriers in the Middle East, and some drone-based surveillance. That has nothing more than symbolic value.

In effect, it means that after 20 years of war, 3,500 casualties (not counting over 2,41,000 Afghans) and over USD3 trillion of treasure, the US has packed up and gone with only one of its stated aims achieved—the elimination of Osama Bin Laden (which in hindsight could have been done even without the US invasion). In everything else, it is virtually back to square A.

The Taliban have returned. They are stronger than before. The Republic of Afghanistan is on its way to becoming an Emirate. Democracy, which the US invested so much in, is threatened since the Taliban don’t believe in elections. Human rights are out of the window; and Afghanistan is set to return to the Medieval ages. The US has now been perceived to be the loser. And just as the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan precipitated the disintegration of USSR, the US defeat there will hasten its ‘terminal decline’ and pave the way for their other actors—China and Russia—to assert their domination on the world stage.

Afghanistan has already descended into instability. The US had erred in not equipping the Afghan National Army (ANA) adequately and now it is in no position to stave off the rampaging Taliban. Local militia have joined the ANA in the battle, but that is a recipe for even greater disaster. It was the proliferation of local militia that had hurled Afghanistan into the civil war after the Soviet withdrawal. In places where the Taliban have taken over, the same diktats of women being not allowed to move out without a male chaperone, men forced to grow beards, Islamic courts passing medieval punishments, and suppression of minorities have begun. Taliban 2.0 seems poised to take over Afghanistan and this heralds a bleak period where its instability could spill over to the entire region.


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