The white jihadist flag of the Taliban now flies over the Presidential Palace in Kabul after the sudden and total collapse of the Western-backed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. After a lightning run of victories against government forces, the Taliban now have full control over the capital, representing the culmination of a decades-long conflict and a foreign policy embarrassment for the US-led coalition of powers which supported the fledgling state financially and militarily for twenty years.
The exceptionally rapid fall of Kabul after the total capitulation of the Afghan National Army has come as a shock to many commentators and analysts, many of whom had expected stronger resistance from Afghan forces. It has also wrong-footed the United States and its allies, many of whom still had large diplomatic establishments in the capital. As Western countries mount evacuation efforts for their staff and nationals that remained in the country, desperation and panic have gripped those Afghans who fear reprisals from the Taliban. Having largely withdrawn their military presence in Afghanistan earlier this year, 3,000 American soldiers and 600 British paratroopers were rushed in to hold the airport and ensure the safe departure of evacuation flights. In tragic scenes several Afghans have been killed, some whilst clinging to departing flights, as US Apache helicopters were forced to fly low over the runway to clear crowds seeking a place on transport aircraft.
The chaotic evacuation has been seen as an indictment of the United States and its involvement in the country with many, including US President Joe Biden, making comparisons with the fall of Saigon in 1975. The defeat of the American-backed South Vietnamese government by the communist North has many parallels with the current situation, and both are now being viewed as embarrassing failures of US foreign policy and myopic military interventionism abroad. Despite trillions of dollars in equipment, training and pay supplied to the Afghan security forces by the Coalition, little serious fighting has occurred as government troops have dissipated in the face of a motivated and resilient Taliban enemy. Crippled by endemic corruption and abysmal morale and struggling without the practical backing of the withdrawn Coalition military structure, the Afghan National Army has surrendered en masse to the Taliban. Its soldiers have largely been allowed to disperse unmolested in exchange for their weapons and equipment, much of it provided by the American taxpayer. During the Coalition presence of the country, concerns were raised over the efficacy of Afghan forces and its shortcomings included desertion, suspected collaboration with the Taliban, unwillingness to fight and high drug use amongst Afghan soldiers. Many Afghan soldiers felt little loyalty to the Kabul government, and by the end of the Coalition mission British and American forces had been long directed to carry loaded weapons in all interactions with the ANA, after ‘green-on-blue’ incidents saw Afghan soldiers murder Coalition trainers in suicide attacks. And unlike in 2001, the Taliban have also successfully swept away tribal opposition to their regime, now maintaining a firm grip on areas once ruled by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. The stage is now set for a regime with far greater control over the country than was enjoyed by the Taliban in 2001.
Questions now remain as to what form of government the Taliban will establish, having ruled the country between 1996 and 2001 as an Islamic emirate. Concerns have been raised as to the fate of women under the new regime, many of whom had reaped the benefits of liberalisation under the former government and now risk being subjected to a strict interpretation of sharia law. Sales of chadaree, the form of burqa worn in Afghanistan, have reportedly soared in the capital as the country remembers the religious repression of the late 1990s, where brutal floggings and the banishment of women from all public spaces were all part of Taliban policy. Concerns have also been raised for the fate of former servants of the collapsed regime and those that served in auxiliary roles with Coalition armies after some of the latter were beheaded as collaborationists by Taliban fighters. The United States and Britain have both led schemes to resettle military interpreters in their own countries, as many including former soldiers and politicians accuse them of betraying their former employees.
The Western world, and particularly the United States, will now have to take stock and consider the lessons of the previous two decades of conflict and failed state-building. After thousands of Coalition military casualties and trillions of dollars spent, with 130,000 soldiers from dozens of nations deployed at the height of the mission in 2012, questions have been raised as to the futility of the military operation, including by military veterans themselves. It also remains to be seen if the new Taliban-led government will attain any diplomatic normalisation with the international community, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson explicitly ruling out British recognition of any new government. As the initial Coalition invasion in 2001 was intended to remove Afghanistan as a training ground for international jihadist groups in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack in the United States, it also remains to be seen if the principally insular Taliban return to harbouring specifically anti-Western groups in their territory. Now, with no casus belli over the presence of Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden in the country, the Taliban may be left to govern Afghanistan according to their own religious principles.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, the Western evacuation represents the last chapter in a catastrophic failure of two decades of foreign policy, and in the military and civil effort to build a new Afghan state. It was a disastrous war in Afghanistan that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in this apparent vindication of the Western model, a new golden dream of clinical military intervention seemed to promise a chance to export liberal values and democracy to troubled parts of the world, from Sierra Leone to Iraq, Bosnia to Libya. Now with their own bloody withdrawal from the country, the United States and its partners may finally turn their backs on military intervention abroad. But as the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport show, below the geopolitics, conflict and strategy, lies the enduring human tragedy of the last four decades for the Afghan people.