For much of the last week, the world has watched aghast as security forces in Afghanistan collapsed and the Taliban army recaptured swathes of territory, finally retaking Kabul on 16 August. On Monday night, with President’s Biden 31 August deadline for the complete withdrawal of US troops nearing expiration, the last US troops departed, officially bringing an end to the United States’ longest war.
With the Taliban takeover now complete, the US evacuation and perhaps even the whole as a whole can only be viewed as a calamitous defeat. The conflict spanned two decades, led to the deaths of an estimate 75,000 Afghan military and police officers, 71,334 civilians and 2,422 US soldiers, whilst $1tn was spent by the US since the invasion that followed the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. When the US and its allies commenced the initial invasion of Afghanistan, Taliban strongholds fell swiftly and Kabul was seized in November. An interim government, headed by Hamid Karzai, was established in Kabul whilst al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters retreated to remote areas as the war morphed into a counterinsurgency that looked increasingly unwinnable.
A key turning point in the conflict was the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Despite a troop surge at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, bin Laden’s death began the first serious calls for a drawdown of troops within American policy circles. An initial reduction began under the Obama administration, however, serious peace talks between the US and the Taliban did not begin until 2019 with a deal finally struck in Doha in February 2020, which laid the path for a complete withdrawal of the US troops. Despite representing a break from the Trump administration in nearly every other way, President Biden decided to stick to the terms of the Doha agreement, and the US began the withdrawal process in April 2021.
The major reason for the withdrawal is the apparent return of great power politics – the United States’ hasty exit demonstrates that their primary foreign policy interest has shifted towards containing the growing influence of China. Mr Biden also promised during the 2020 campaign to end “forever wars”. However, the unilateral nature decision has irked many of America’s Nato allies, many of whom thought a Biden presidency would signal a restoration of the US’ role on the global stage and a commitment to traditional alliances.
Once President Biden’s deadline for US troop withdrawal was confirmed, the Taliban were emboldened to take over district after district across the country. Attacks intensified in the months following Mr Biden’s announcement in April, through a combination of bomb attacks, targeted political killings, and strategic land seizures. Not only did the Taliban use force to pave the way for their takeover; the Washington Post reports on the ‘illicit deals’ brokered over the last year and a half that ensured Afghan military resistance was minimal.
Some commentators have noticed a particular pattern emerging in the various skirmishes that allowed the Taliban to sweep large amounts of territory. Once vital US air support was lost, it allowed the Taliban to surround defending garrisons in the districts and provinces. Before the fighting could start the Taliban would send in a political negotiator who would provide the garrisoned soldiers with a choice – lay down their arms or face certain death. Whilst some chose to fight, unsurprisingly most chose the latter. Whilst this may have been the case in the province, many soldiers remained committed to fight than allow the Taliban to take Kabul. However, once it emerged that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had abandoned his post and fled to neighbouring Iran, and his government was negotiating a settlement with the Taliban that would allow them to seize power, any remaining resistance dissipated.
Ultimately, the loss of confidence engendered by the US withdrawal caused the collapse of the Afghan army, which was already faced with corruption, incompetence and lack of motivation due to stronger ethnic and tribal ties outweighing a sense of patriotism. Furthermore, Afghanistan’s security focus were too reliant on US contractors and capabilities such as air support, maintenance, logistics and intelligence.
There is a widespread fear that the imposition of sharia law is almost certain to have a negative impact on women’s rights. The Taliban have made vague reassurances about women’s rights, claiming women and girls will not be denied their right to an education. The Taliban’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid was vocal during a news interview about the position of women and girls in Afghanistan, claiming that the Taliban would honour women’s rights within the norms of Islamic law. Despite this, many women have already been barred from their places of work. However many fear that the Taliban’s promises will be abandoned once the withdrawal is over and the attention of international media has moved on. Afghans and the wider global community are unlikely to believe the Taliban’s overtures until they are translated into legal or constitutional commitments.
Another question is how the Taliban will revive an extremely fragile economy that has been dependent on development aid for the last 20 years, and faces multiple issues including a plummeting currency and soaring inflation. The refugee crisis precipitated by the group could also cause a deeply damaging brain drain as the brightest men and women seek a future elsewhere. Reports that Taliban fighters killed a relative of a Deutsche Welle reporter after conducting a house-to-house search have compounded fears that there will likely be significant curbs against investigative journalism and articles critical of the new regime.
These fears accompanying the Taliban takeover and a deteriorating internal situation worsened by the US exit led to chaotic scenes at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, as huge crowds gathered with many Afghans hoping to board an evacuation flight. The circumstances further worsened on Friday when a suicide bomber affiliated with ISIS-K detonated an explosive device, killing 169 Afghan civilians and 13 US personnel.
The attack was a stark warning sign to those in the international community that Taliban takeover could Afghanistan once again become a hotbed for jihadism. Despite this, some countries including Russia, China and Pakistan have signalled an intent to restore relations with the Taliban. On the other hand, the US has imposed economic sanctions on the Taliban by freezing Afghan gold and foreign exchange reserves, the majority of which is held in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Despite the issues this may pose, with the final departure of the remaining US troops taking place on Monday night the Taliban will be busy celebrating their victory. Many Afghans, however, will be afraid for what lies ahead.