These are surreal times In Afghanistan. In a matter of hours, the old order had folded like nine pins and all that was left were the ruins of the last two decades. The new order is yet to emerge fully, but the contours of that order can be discerned based on the past experience of the Afghan nation and the region. Even as the Taliban advance entered its final lap, western intelligence was still predicting that Kabul could be taken in a matter of 30 days. But it took less than 30 hours for the Taliban fighters to reach the gates of the Presidential Palace in Kabul from where the incumbent, Ashraf Ghani, had already fled. The West was, in any case, cutting and running but the speed of Taliban advance meant that once again America had to live through the Saigon moment with diplomats being evicted by helicopters and sensitive documents being destroyed. Despite the optics, the US policymakers still continue to insist that the Afghan mission had been “successful”, and a defiant US President Joe Biden finds the chaos “gut wrenching” but stands by his decision to withdraw.
As late as last month, Biden was pushing back against suggestions that the Taliban could swiftly conquer Afghanistan by arguing that, “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” And in less than a month, western nations have been scrambling to evacuate their citizens and diplomatic staff even while acknowledging that there will be a new government in Afghanistan. The British government is underscoring the new ground realities when, in a matter of days, its discourse has shifted from asking the Taliban to protect “human rights” to asking the West to work together to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a breeding ground for terror.
After talking of freedom, democracy and human rights for the last two decades, there is little doubt that the West will be moving quickly towards accommodating the Taliban regime. As mostly happens in the rough and tumble of international politics, pragmatism will have the last laugh at the cost of the significant social, economic, and political gains of the past 20 years. Those Afghans who believed in these ideals and worked for them, often risking their lives, today stand vulnerable to complete abandonment by those who, at one time, seemed to be having their back. The hard-won rights for women and minorities as well as for democracy have already been sacrificed at the altar, reaching a modus vivendi with the Taliban.
The West will be trying to preserve some shreds of dignity from the mess unfolding by telling the world that political reconciliation of some sort in Afghanistan is still possible. But for an outfit that has won this victory against the mightiest military power on the earth through the use of force, any talk of moderation will only be temporary. And in the territories that the Taliban have already captured, they have gone back to their good old-fashioned regressive agenda against women and ethnic and religious minorities that had so shocked the global conscience during their horrific 1996-2001 rule. From young girls being forced to marry Taliban fighters to decreeing oppressive diktats against women, from summary executions of soldiers and political opponents to banning music and television, there is hardly anything ‘evolved’ in this Taliban 2.0.
But western governments will tell their people that some form of accommodation with the Taliban, whether evolved or not, is important for the larger good of the Afghan people as this would mean Afghans taking ownership of their own future. While the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan will be brushed aside, the strategic consequences of Taliban’s re-emergence will have to be reckoned with by the West for a long time. If, as is being suggested in some quarters, one of the reasons for the US withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is to focus attention squarely on the competition with China, then the credibility of western assurances as a security guarantor after the Afghan debacle are not worth the paper they are written on. The coalition of partners that the West is trying to construct to manage China’s rise is likely to face greater fissures as western allies look at the Afghanistan car crash with a degree of foreboding.
The limits of western power today are all too palpable and the embarrassment of Afghanistan is likely to constrain western strategic thinking for decades now. The West, perhaps, couldn’t have built a nation in Afghanistan but the manner in which the withdrawal has unfolded casts a long shadow on the Western ability to manage the emerging, highly volatile global order.
As the Taliban wait in glee to be embraced by the liberal West, those Afghans who decided to believe and stand by the values of democracy and human rights, only to be abandoned in the end, will always stand as a testament to the infirmities of the liberal global order. It’s nothing but a sham!