In October 2001 I was standing on a hilltop 40 miles north of Kabul watching US aircraft bomb the Taliban front line. The night sky was lit up with the flash of explosions and the sparkle of ineffectual anti-aircraft fire. It was fairly obvious who was going to come out the winner.
A few weeks later the US-backed anti-Taliban forces advanced south and captured Kabul without the Taliban putting up any resistance. It looked as if they had suffered a decisive military defeat which had ended forever their rule over Afghanistan. As their armies broke up, I drove to the southern city of Kandahar past ragged groups of Taliban fighters on their way home.
Except that they had not really been defeated and, 19 years later, the Taliban are closer than ever to regaining power in Afghanistan as the US withdraws the last of its troops. Under an agreement between the Taliban and the US signed on 29 February this year, the number of US soldiers in the country, which once exceeded 100,000, dropped to 8,600 this week and the remainder should be out of the country before the middle of next year.
The final withdrawal of US troops may come even earlier than that because President Trump would like to declare that he has brought back all American troops in Afghanistan before the US presidential election on 3 November. He tweeted on Wednesday: “Bring our soldiers back home but closely watch what is going on and strike with a thunder like never before, if necessary.” The Pentagon is none too happy about this, but keeping US troops in the country for a few more months, after almost two decades of failure, is not going to make much difference.
The return of the Taliban should not have come as quite such a surprise. When I got to Kandahar on my journey south from Kabul in 2001, I asked a local man if I could meet some of the surviving Taliban commanders. He said this would be no problem. We drove to his village not far from the city where we met half a dozen tough, confident-looking Taliban who said that they would go back to war if they were marginalised and not treated right.
By 2006, they had done just that and three years later their motorcycle patrols had cut the road between Kabul and Kandahar. The US increased the number of its troops and deluged the country with bombs and missiles. The US generals were always claiming that victory was just over the horizon, if only they had more forces and more time. They got both, but were unable to do more than hold the line against the Taliban, despite losing 2,400 US servicemen dead and 21,000 wounded.
The Americans were not the only ones to miscalculate. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador in Kabul at the time, wrote in his memoirs that the worst mistake made by the Foreign Office in the previous 30 years was the invasion of Iraq, and the second worst was “its enthusiastic endorsement of Britain’s half-baked effort to occupy Helmand [in southern Afghanistan] in 2006”. Most of the 400 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan died in Helmand province in one of the most disastrous and ineffectual campaigns in British military history.
President Trump is trying to portray the US withdrawal as a peace agreement, but the peace he has agreed, such as it is, is between the US forces and the Taliban. Afghan government forces allied to the US have come under repeated attack. The crux of the peace agreement is the US withdrawal in return for Taliban assurances about their future actions.
There have been a few conciliatory signs such as an exchange of Taliban-government prisoners in the last few days. But elsewhere the war has gone on with the Taliban assaulting the northern city of Kunduz and making guerrilla attacks elsewhere. Earlier this month, Kabul witnessed one of the worst atrocities in decades of conflict when three gunmen, probably belonging to the local chapter of Isis, burst into the maternity ward of a hospital in the capital and shot to death at least 15 mothers, babies and medical staff. Most of the dead are reported to be Shia Muslims belonging to the Hazara ethnic minority who have long been a target of the fundamentalist Sunni Isis.
The Taliban denied involvement in the slaughter of the mothers and children, but they too have a history of anti-Shia bigotry and of persecuting the Hazara. In 2001, the Taliban famously blew up the 165-foot-tall 1,700-year-old Buddha statues in the Hazara heartlands in central Afghanistan.
There is a clue here to the future of Afghanistan and it is a grim one. Afghanistan is deeply divided by ethnicity, sect and tribe. Most Afghans I have spoken to over the years dislike the Taliban, though they may not like the spectacularly corrupt government and its forces any better. An attempt at a complete Taliban takeover will be resisted to the death by many, just as it was twenty years ago – which was why I was able to stay in an anti-Taliban enclave north of Kabul at the start of the bombing in 2001.
Could the outcome of the US-Taliban war, with Britain playing a bit part, have been any different? Militarily, the Taliban could never be put permanently out of business so long as they had the not-very covert support of Pakistan and could use Pakistani territory as their rear base and refuge. Trying to occupy Afghanistan has never proved a good idea for any foreign power. Reliance on a foreign sponsor like the US might prop up the central government, but this dependency robbed it of legitimacy and fuelled corruption. Billions of dollars in US aid and day-to-day expenditure meant that there was always plenty to steal.
Does anybody care about this in the US today when the 100,000 fatalities from coronavirus this year dwarfs the figure for American casualties in all its wars since Vietnam? Yet Trump’s gut political instincts are seldom wrong about what motivates the American voter; if he thinks that he will benefit from bringing back the troops, he is probably correct.
The American failure in Afghanistan is very real and it will be noticed in the rest of the world, preoccupied though people are by the pandemic. If the US is to retain the status of superpower, it needs to be seen as reasonably successful and competent in achieving its ends. On a much smaller scale the same is true of Britain. Nobody who witnessed the British state in action in the Iraq and Afghan wars will have been too surprised by its stumbling, poorly judged efforts to cope with the Covid-19 epidemic.