The historical vectors are moving with conviction and purpose; the weak and lacking in conviction are in retreat and the gun is doing the talking. The government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the security services and the Afghan National Army, seem to be either huddled in despair, capitulating or fleeing before the inexorable advance of the Taliban. They have the upper hand, the cards, the means, storming through and winning half of the country.
For months, it was assumed that the Taliban would not have the means to capture cities. The National Army would be able to garrison and lord in the cities, offering protection. In July, US President Joseph Biden claimed that, while he did not trust the Taliban, he did “trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more re- – more competent in terms of conducting war.”
Then, the cities started falling. Kandahar, Ghazni, Herat. On August 14, Taliban fighters captured Mazar-i-Sharif, finding itself ever closer to the capital. Members of the Afghan army and security personnel had reportedly made a highway dash north to Uzbekistan.
The US is hurriedly deploying 5,000 troops in an exercise of circularity, given that they were already leaving in numbers even prior to July 2. As Biden tried to explain on August 14, the troops would ensure “we can have an orderly and safe drawdown of US personnel and other allied personnel, and an orderly and safe evacuation of Afghans who helped our troops during our mission and those at special risk from the Taliban advance.”
His statement, for the most part, was a spiritless effort to justify some continued role of the US in Afghanistan even as it cuts the cord to their corrupt clients in Kabul. The Armed Forces and Intelligence Community had been “ordered” to keep an eye on “future terrorist threats from Afghanistan.” Secretary State Anthony Blinken had been “directed to support President Ghani and other Afghan leaders” in their efforts to avoid “further bloodshed and pursue a political settlement.” There was some finger wagging regarding the Taliban, warning that any military acts against US personnel or its mission would “be met with a swift and strong US military response.”
Within the crumbling layers of the Kabul government, there is much quaking, shifting and internal bloodletting. As has been pointed out by Candace Rondeaux, “the greater threat to Afghanistan’s stability has always been the fecklessness of so many in positions of power in the Afghan government.”
The defence minister Hayatullah Hayat has been given the heave-ho by Ghani, to be replaced by General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi on Wednesday. Khan is a testament that current events in Afghanistan are always reminders of history: he was a former member of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a body that was favoured by the now defunct Soviet Union.
US forces find themselves again being drawn into the maelstrom. There are the warnings, almost shrill, that forces must recommit, and decisions reversed. Former CIA director General David Petraeus wishes for a proper re-deployment of troops to prevent the consignment of a “country of 40 million people to a medieval, theocratic, ultra-conservative Islamist emirate.” The editors of the conservative National Review envisage the creation of a “launchpad of a global movement that had for years been kept at bay by the presence of US forces – most recently a small, relatively low-cost contingent”.
Such sentiments are also being echoed in Britain, which is also sending 600 troops. Conservative chairman of the Commons Foreign Select Committee Tom Tugendhat reminisced that, “We got to the point where the insurgent forces were outmatched and a standoff saw civic institutions grow.” The chair of the Defence Select Committee, Tobias Ellwood, told the BBC that the UK “should really be reconsidering what’s going on”, warning that the withdrawal would precipitate a “massive humanitarian disaster” and permit terrorism to “raise its ugly head again”.
This is charmless window dressing. When chaos is spoken of in tones of panic, it is often forgotten how significant Washington’s own disruptive role has been. The US continues its less than angelic streak in Afghanistan, funding cut throat militias – many co-opted by the Ghani government – for the simple vulgar purpose that they are against the Taliban. (This is unlikely to change in the long term.)
Characters such as the blood soaked Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious warlord who has had it all ways, promises to remain in the mix. Last year, he felt that loyalty to the Ghani government needed some recognition. His absurd promotion to the rank of marshal was considered fitting, and did nothing to hide a butcher’s record almost without peer. With a crude Falstaffian wisdom, Dostum is a character who knows that cowardice is useful to draw upon when facing a losing cause. As Taliban fighters made their way unopposed into Mazar-i-Sharif, he was fleeing to safety.
A blind eye has been given to other militias who threaten to cause mischief in due course, a point which only serves to strengthen the Taliban’s cause. One of them is Iran’s Shia Fatemiyoun militia. In February 2020, Rahmatullah Nabil, head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency through periods over the last decade, told Radio Free Europe that the Fatemiyoun did not pose an “immediate threat to Afghan national security”. Call it what you will: having such agents milling about in the landscape does every little bit to add to the chaos so lamented by the commentariat.
Any victory for the Taliban will be premised upon the fundamental failure of a rotten centre, the decay of which has been encouraged for years behind the mirage of development, the building of schools and women’s rights. The pantomime that is Afghan governance has always existed on borrowed time.
The Biden administration, short of reawakening a bloodlust to re-intervene, will let it be, subject to stints of interference from special forces, contractors and adventurers. The intelligence community generationally obsessed with being in Afghanistan will continue to have the president’s ear, and hope to haunt him during the course of his sedated premiership. But not even they could prevent a moment of candour from Biden on Saturday. “One more year, or five more years, of US military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country.”