The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan is looking unstoppable as they capture the big provincial cities of Kandahar, Herat and Ghazni without meeting effective resistance from Afghan government forces. Afghan soldiers and security forces are fleeing, surrendering or changing sides as they see no point in dying for a lost cause.
The speed of the Taliban success has caught the world by surprise – as no doubt it was intended to do. There has been no “decent interval” between the US departure and the Taliban attack, as there was in South Vietnam between the final US withdrawal in 1972 and the defeat of the South Vietnamese government by the North Vietnamese army in 1975.
The fact that everything the US and Britain fought for in Afghanistan over two decades is collapsing at such a pace underlines the extent of the Western defeat and will reinforce the belief that the era of the US as the sole super power is coming to an end. As with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, failure in Afghanistan has global implications far beyond the country where the war is being waged. In fact the defeat is more complete than that suffered by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but after Soviet withdrawal the Communist government in Kabul survived for several years, in sharp contrast to the present debacle.
President Joe Biden may have expected the Kabul government ultimately to lose the war against the Taliban, when he announced the full US pull-out on 14 April, but not so swiftly or decisively. It was President Donald Trump who put in motion the final stages of the US pull-out, but it will be Biden who will pay the political price for the American failure.
Western generals have the gall to say the US retreat was too precipitate and they needed more time to train and prepare the Afghan armed forces. But after 20 years and the expenditure by the US of of $2.3tn in Afghanistan, the claim that the military lacked time or resources is an absurd evasion of responsibility.
Kabul, with a population of 4.5 million, has yet to fall but the lack of resistance elsewhere in the country suggests that it will not hold out for long. The overall failure of the Western-supported regime in Kabul is not difficult to explain. The Taliban defeat back in 2001 was not as decisive as reported at the time because their forces simply went home to their villages or crossed the border into Pakistan where they and their leadership were safe.
The role of Pakistan is a key factor in the US and the Afghan government defeat and follows America’s failure over 20 years to confront the Pakistani authorities. This was understandable since Pakistan has a powerful army, a population of 216 million, and a common border with Afghanistan stretching for 1,616 miles. The Pakistani ISI intelligence service not only supported the insurgents, but directed them strategically and tactically. This was the case when the Taliban first captured Kabul in 1996 and it is likely to be still true as they prepare to take the capital again in the coming days.
Yet there is far more to the Taliban victory than a strong foreign backer. Their commanders could recruit fighters willing to withstand devastating US air strikes in support of American ground forces which numbered 100,000 soldiers at their peak strength. The Afghan armed forces never had a similar core of fighters willing to die for a cause.
In visits to Afghanistan over the years, I have been impressed less by Taliban strength than by the government’s weakness and unpopularity. Friends and casual acquaintances would denounce it as no better than a gang of racketeers gorging themselves on US aid money or on juicy supply and construction contracts.
Western governments were in a state of denial over this. When Peter Galbraith, a senior UN official in Kabul, said that the US and its allies had no credible local partner – referring to the Afghan government of the day – he was promptly sacked. The blindness was wilful, with Western diplomats visiting Western and Afghan military strongpoints in rural areas politely averting their eyes from the Taliban flags flying from trees and poles in nearby villages.
At one time in Kabul, I spotted a notice board beside a police post reading in English capital letters “RING OF STEEL”, but the post was entirely empty. I wondered if the sign could be an Afghan joke, but decided that the slogan, and the absent security forces told one a lot about the capabilities of the Afghan regime.
Trillions of dollars were spent by the US in Afghanistan, but Afghan soldiers were often short of food, ammunition, fuel and could not even get defective weapons replaced. These failings were blamed by Westerners on the corruption of the Afghan state and society, but much of the American aid money never made it past the sticky fingers of US consultants and security companies. Wherever this largesse was going, it was not into the pockets of the 54 per cent of Afghans living below the poverty line of $1.90 a day.
Deeply cynical though I have been about the strength of the Afghan army and government, I am still surprised by the sheer speed with which they have disintegrated in the last few weeks. Weaker than even their critics supposed, their final implosion was brought about by a well-planned Taliban military offensive, which focused from an early stage on the north of the country. The dominant ethnic groups here are the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara – in contrast to the largely Pashtun Taliban – who were the core of anti-Taliban resistance before 2001.
By striking in these northern areas first, the Taliban presumably hope to prevent opposition to them coming together to recreate the Northern Alliance, the old anti-Taliban coalition of warlords, which held northeast Afghanistan before 2001.
War in Afghanistan is often not what it seems to the outside world. More than in most civil conflicts, leaders, tribes, militias, cities, villages and individuals change sides to join the likely victor. An old saying declares that Afghans never lose a war – because they always join the winner before it comes to an end. Thus Ismail Khan, a powerful warlord in Herat is reported by the Taliban to have joined their forces, though the government sources say that he was captured.
Such switches of allegiance explain the momentum of the Taliban advance. Twenty years ago, I saw the Taliban likewise abandon Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and Ghazni without a fight. But consolidating these successes may prove difficult because the Taliban are either hated or disliked in much of the country, particularly in the cities, where they will only be able to rule by the use or threat of violence.