On August 15, 2021, the Taliban’s lightning offensive in the fall of Kabul culminated, marking the return of the medieval theocratic regime two decades after its disastrous defeat at the hands of American forces. A fortnight later, on the night of August 30, the viral image of Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commanding officer of the 82nd Airborne Division, boarding the C17 Globemaster signaled the United States’ rough retreat from Afghanistan, ending its longest military mission overseas. Incidentally, the United States was the third major power, after Britain and the Soviet Union, to suffer an ignominious defeat in the region.
In October 2001, President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan as part of the “World War on Terrorism”. US-led NATO forces defeated al Qaeda and the Taliban in less than a year, but these groups soon found a safe haven in Pakistan. The US simmered the Afghan cauldron and invaded Iraq, missing the opportunity to build up the Afghan army. This digression allowed the Talib and Jihadi elements to regroup. Subsequently, the US’s half-hearted nation-building ventures and exit efforts left its military in a “no-go” situation.
The die was cast for the jihadists’ return to rule Kabul when the Trump administration signed the Doha Accords with the Taliban in 2020, without the Afghan government on the table. The myth that Taliban 2.0 would be a moderate organization was soon shattered with the announcement of its interim cabinet, composed of 33 all-male old guard; Half of them are identified as terrorists, including Prime Minister Mohammad Akhund, Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani (son of Haqqani founder Jalaluddin Haqqani) and Defense Minister Mullah Yaqoob (eldest son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar). With the Haqqanis and the Kandahar-Taliban faction making up two-thirds of the interim cabinet, Pakistan’s stamp on the new regime was evident.
ONE YEAR LATER
The Taliban celebrated the first anniversary of the withdrawal of US-led troops from Afghanistan, declared August 31 a national holiday and lit up the capital with colorful lights. Afghanistan’s new rulers have imposed a strict version of Islamic law on impoverished citizens, seriously curtailing individual freedom of religion; Women were practically pushed out of public life.
Interestingly, the Taliban leadership has learned relevant lessons from their first term in office, prioritizing maintaining internal stability and gaining international legitimacy. To this end, the warlords were wiped out and the remaining resistance in Panjshir was crushed with a heavy hand, albeit with covert support from the Pakistani army. To shape the external environment, the Taliban brought in a number of educated individuals as front faces, as evidenced by the make-up of the “Doha Team”, media spokesmen and representatives dealing with political-diplomatic issues.
Despite the UN’s refusal to recognize the new regime, the whole world is gradually stepping out to collude unofficially with the Taliban government and reconcile with realities on the ground. In fact, Russia and China have never left Kabul, while the US maintains its influence through various NGOs. In addition to Pakistan and Iran, Central Asian and EU countries also have their diplomatic missions in Kabul. Even India maintains a small diplomatic component in the form of a “technical mission” to alleviate the prevailing humanitarian crisis.
Afghanistan has depended on foreign aid for almost half of its $2 billion GDP over the past two decades; with drug trafficking accounting for a third. With the nation’s assets worth $9-10 billion frozen and donor funding suspended, the Taliban regime is in dire straits. Islamabad is taking advantage of the situation and has taken quick steps to control Kabul’s economy. China is also taking advantage of the situation and is trying to expand the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) to advance its strategic interests in the region.
The Taliban’s repressive and regressive policies, particularly with regard to human and women’s rights, have drawn global condemnation. Not only were women denied the right to work, but they were also forbidden to move about without a male escort. According to Martin Griffith, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General, there is an alarming rollback as girls’ schools have been closed for nearly a year. This has resulted in millions of girls being denied access to secondary education.
Revenge unlawful killings and kidnappings of people suspected of collaborating with US Afghan forces are widespread. Most of the Taliban cadres are Pashtuns, formed in madrassas and have little ties to the ideologues of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. Armed groups linked to Islamic State (IS) target Shia, Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek communities; looting and killing, creating a fear psychosis among the minorities.
The recent killing of Ayman al Zawahiri in Kabul by a US drone strike confirms the Taliban’s connection to global terrorist groups; including Pak-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT). The Taliban rent out rooms to high-profile terrorists. Afghanistan’s frozen assets, if released, are likely to be used to fund terrorists. The situation in Afghanistan today is highly chaotic, marked by political, social and economic turbulence. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 97% of the population could slide into the poverty line. The mass exodus from Afghanistan continues, with almost a million having already fled the country and nearly a quarter of a million are seeking asylum. The media is under state control and journalists are arrested and eliminated. Even the peaceful protests are being dealt with with a heavy hand. Recently, a group of women demonstrating against the oppressive regime were dispersed by security personnel who resorted to live fire from above.
India has continued to provide humanitarian aid to alleviate hunger and malnutrition through the World Food Program after the Taliban took power. The Taliban government is keen for India to end its old projects and start new ones. Delhi moves cautiously to unfreeze ties; a move welcomed by Afghan society.
With a series of global crises unfolding, the Afghanistan issue has slipped out of focus in the international arena. Regional actors have different interests in making a meaningful contribution to Afghan Imbroglio. The Taliban are firmly in the saddle and face no serious challenge that requires them to change. The people of Afghanistan were thrown over the abyss; knowing full well that things will only get worse before they get better. Given the fait accompli in which Afghanistan finds itself, even the most optimistic betrays hope.
Major General (Dr) GG Dwivedi (Retd) is a war veteran, former Deputy Chief and currently Professor of Strategic IR.