A shocked world and a humiliated America have now come to terms with the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, two decades after they were toppled.
The handwriting was always on the wall. But few envisaged the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban to happen as fast as it did, and with as little resistance.
Even when the commander of the US-led mission in Afghanistan, Austin Miller, a general, warned in June that the country could be on the path to a catastrophic civil war, which he said should be a “concern for the world,” after America withdraws its forces, not many foresaw the Taliban sacking so swiftly the government that the world superpower had propped up in Kabul since 2001 when American forces had just as swiftly overrun the country.
But subsequent concentration of power in Kabul and the exclusion of important power brokers in rural Afghanistan availed Taliban fighters space and time to regroup.
No match for U.S. military might, they leveraged the local legitimacy they enjoyed to cling on till the foreign troops got tired and withdrew. Many Afghans are sympathetic to the Taliban because they delivered swift justice compared to the corrupt American-backed government in Kabul.
From obscurity to relevance
Afghanistan has a history of resistance to foreign occupation, including of the British Empire thrice, hence its moniker of “graveyard of empires.”
By 1979, armed opposition was threatening to topple the Afghans communist regime which was backed by the Soviets who had invaded the country.
Buoyed by America’s backing, mujahedeen rebels resisted the Russian forces until the Soviets yielded in 1989.
In his memoirs, Robert Gates, an ex-CIA official and defence secretary under Presidents Bush and Obama, recalled that there was an agreement in a staff meeting in March 1979 for the U.S. to provide funds for the mujahedeen to buy weapons.
Reeking under the loss of men, money and might, the USSR pulled out its troops from Afghanistan. Two years later, the USSR disintegrated into 15 independent countries.
Efforts by the Soviet-installed President, Mohammad Najibullah, to broker some deals were blocked by Washington which continued to arm the rebels.
The Soviet forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan sparked infighting among the rebels who then had arms in abundance in their hands .
In stepped the Taliban, meaning “students” in the Pashto language.
By September 1995, they overthrew President Burhanuddin Rabbani, one of the founding fathers of the Afghan mujahedeen that had resisted Soviet occupation.
By 1998, they were in charge of almost 90 per cent of Afghanistan.
The Taliban regime quickly consolidated power by restoring peace and order, fighting corruption and lawlessness and introducing economic reforms, all within their own interpretation of Islamic laws.
Largely of Pashtun stock, the group emerged from areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan, and were students of seminaries initially sponsored by Saudi Arabia to spread the theology of Sunni Islam.
They enforced a hardline interpretation of the Sharia law, the jurisprudence of Islam, sparking opposition from the West.
Then the 9/11 attacks happened in which terrorists said to be Al-Qaeda fighters bombed high-profile targets in the U.S., triggering the largest manhunt in the world.
Seeking to capture Osama Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures linked to the September 11, 2001, attacks, whom it claimed the Taliban were harbouring, the U.S. and its Nato and regional allies invaded Afghanistan in October that year.
By December, the Taliban government had been toppled, forcing the group’s then leader, Mohammad Omar, and other senior figures, including Bin Laden, to be on the run.
A major onslaught would ensue for two decades as the foreign troops sought to crush the Taliban whose members clung on to remote areas to sustain their relevance.
Their ouster paved the way for foreign powers to establish Western-type democratic government and constitution, and to train new Afghan forces.
Recognition of rights, particularly of women, soared. Girls school enrollment increased from 9,000 in 1999 to 2.4 million in 2003. Currently, enrolment is around 3.5 million, and around a third of students at public and private universities are women.
In 2018, the group entered a peace deal with the U.S., and by February 2020, both sides struck an agreement in Doha that committed the U.S. to withdrawal and the Taliban to stop attacks on U.S. forces.
Backdoor funding apart, the group drew the majority of its funds from illegal drug sales. Ninety per cent of the world’s opium population is from Afghanistan. According to the UN security council, the Taliban make up to $1.5 billion a year from opium trade.
The years of peace negotiation with the U.S. offered them time to reorganise. More than at any other time since their ouster, the group gained numerical strength with up to 85,000 full time fighters, according to recent Nato estimates.
As allied forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the Taliban did not wait to see them out. They seized vast swathes of the Afghan territory, installed the government they lost two decades ago, forcing the Afghan government to flee.
Human and material costs
Since the war against the Taliban began in 2001, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and Brown University estimated that the U.S. and allied troops have lost 3,586 soldiers in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The same source estimated 75,971 Afghan security forces to have died or been injured. Civilian casualties which include workers, journalists and contractors were put at 78,314. Opposition fighters’ loss, including the Taliban, stood at 84,191.
According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), nearly 111,000 civilians have been killed or injured since it began systematically recording civilian casualties in 2009.
Last year, more than 400,000 people were displaced by the conflict. Around five million people have fled since 2012, making Afghanistan the third largest displaced population in the world, according to the UN’s human rights agency.
Reconstruction activities in Afghanistan have gulped nearly $143.27 billion. More than half of that ($88.32 billion) went to training the Afghan security forces, the army and police force.
Governance and development also gulped about $36 billion while smaller amounts were also allocated for anti-drug efforts and for humanitarian aid.
An October 2020 report submitted to the U.S. Congress estimated that about $19 billion was lost to fraud, abuse and waste between May 2009 and December 2019.
While Washington continues to double down on its costly withdrawal, uncertainty and fear pervade Afghanistan and the world’s political atmosphere, marking, as the Economist put it, yet another failure of America in military planning, intelligence and nation building.
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