In October 2001, the US military, with the support of the British, entered what would become A 20-year conflict in Afghanistan. The war itself resulted in almost 52,000 civilian casualties and 69,000 deaths in the Afghan military and police force. The early phase of the war, characterised by US air strikes and Afghan ground forces, was largely successful in toppling the Taliban and instating a new system of government. This article considers how the Taliban were able to retake the country some 20 years later and what could come next for Afghanistan.
Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons that the Taliban were able to retake Afghanistan was due to the failures of the US military. The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in their final report criticised successive US administrations for not having the “necessary mindset, expertise, and resources to develop and manage the strategy to rebuild Afghanistan”. After destroying the infrastructure of the Taliban, the US government failed to accurately assess the political, social, and cultural system of the country and help to establish a new system that incorporates the people. Moreover, what became clearer over the years was that the US lacked an intelligible strategy for both sustainable reconstruction and withdrawal. According to SIGAR:
The U.S. government also clumsily forced Western technocratic models onto Afghan economic institutions; trained security forces in advanced weapon systems they could not understand, much less maintain; imposed formal rule of law on a country that addressed 80 to 90 percent of its disputes through informal means; and often struggled to understand or mitigate the cultural and social barriers to supporting women and girls.
As the presence of the US forces dragged on, the new governing system got comfortable with the privileges afforded to them and relied upon the US to protect them from the Taliban and insurgent forces.
Since the Taliban were removed from power, the armed group's control over parts of the country has fluctuated widely. For the past few years leading up to US withdrawal, the Taliban gained vast swathes of territory throughout the country. Due to a mixture of corruption and lack of training, the Afghan forces lacked the manpower, infrastructure, and ability to prevent the Taliban from gaining further territory. On paper, the Afghan Security Forces were comprised of around 300,000 soldiers. In President Biden’s speech on Monday, he stated:
We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong. Incredibly well equipped. A force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies. We gave them every tool they could need.
However, this figure has been greatly obscured by “ghost soldiers” who did not exist but were listed as employees so that commanders could pocket the additional salaries. Furthermore, the tribal leaders, who the US relied upon for their army of “300,000”, were largely in touch with the Taliban as they were from the same community. Here, there was a complete lack of understanding on behalf the US concerning the tribal system of Afghanistan and the integration of the Taliban in the Pashto community. The Taliban are not an insurgent group, rather their claim is to represent the people against the occupying forces. It is the Taliban’s rallying call against occupying forces that have gained them support in the past. Where there is oppression and legitimate grievances, extremist forces claiming to represent the people are able to gain popularity. The US thus did not understand the social structure of Afghanistan and failed the plan accordingly.
Additionally, the opulence and corruption of Afghan government leaders has undoubtedly aided the Taliban in their efforts to present themselves as the legitimate representation of the people. Either the US seriously underestimated the extent of corruption among the Afghan government and forces or they wilfully ignored the fact that this corruption was one of the main grievances of the public. Certainly, the Taliban we able to use this to their advantage. One Taliban commander in Ghazni province stated that the reason the Afghan government forces collapsed so quickly after the US withdrew was that “they didn’t have any ideology except fleecing the Americans”.
The Withdrawal agreement.
The US withdrew from a country where, during its 20-year presence, it had failed to teach basic military lessons to the Afghan forces in order to maintain the status quo. This is due to a combination of corruption, short-term deployments, and attempting to create a military that is incompatible with the political and social situation on the group. Moreover, as highlighted by Dr Rachel Tecott, assistant professor at the Naval War College:
Leaders facing social upheaval, insurgency, and civil war often prioritize preventing coups, consolidating political power, personal enrichment or personal survival above the strength of their nation’s military.
After trying, and failing, to create and maintain and Afghan army in its own image, the US also aided the Taliban in the way in which they withdrew from the country. Up until two years ago, the Taliban was a very weak force. While the Taliban maintained some territory in Afghanistan, the organisation was in disarray. The Taliban was fractured and there was conflict between its leadership. However, within the space of two years, the Taliban were able to reorganise, retrain, and defeat the US, NATO, and Afghan forces. Thus, it is important to determine how this was able to happen.
In 2019, the US began negotiations with the Taliban, after over a decade of repeating the phrase “we do not negotiate with terrorists”. This change in policy showed the Taliban two things: that the US was finally considering withdrawing from the region and that the US was in a weakened position. The fact that the Trump administration ironed out a deal with the Taliban, whom they themselves designated as a terrorist organisation, implies that they now recognise the group to be a legitimate organisation. This legitimisation of the Taliban was furthered by the Doha deal in its assurances that the US would begin discussions with the UN to remove international sanctions from members of the group. This completely undermined the Afghan government who had been held as being the legitimate government in Afghanistan and yet were denied a presence at the negotiating table. The agreement itself also greatly benefitted the Taliban who achieved the release of 5,000 of their men without commensurate concessions in return. Additionally, while the Doha agreement ensured that the Taliban would stop all attacks on US forces, it did not make such assurances for the Afghan forces. This acted to lower the morale of the Afghan forces while simultaneously providing a much-needed boost to the Taliban.
What comes next?
At present, the Taliban control all but one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and have reinstated the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban leaders claim that their rule will be different from the Taliban rule that we saw over two decades ago. However, there have already been reports of bloodshed and oppression. It is difficult to know exactly what the Taliban is now because they are an amalgamation of different groups, tribes, and sects. Moreover, the Taliban have had to alter their methods and appearance over the years to garner support and set themselves apart from other regional actors such as ISIS. Because of this, it is difficult to predict what shape Taliban rule will take. However, it is plausible that a substantial amount of the freedoms and liberties that have been built over the past 20 years could well be eradicated. It is likely that this will greatly impact women, minorities, and those involved in the media and civil society. This is because such groups will likely not fall within the political system that the Taliban, as we know them, have in mind. According to the UN, Taliban members are presently searching for people who they believe worked with NATO and the US and have threatened to arrest or kill their family members if they cannot be found. This is of course after Taliban spokespersons offered an amnesty to Afghans who worked with the Afghan government. Furthermore, on the same day that the Taliban made assurances to honour women’s rights, a woman was killed by Taliban fighters in Takhar province for refusing to wear a burqa.
While the Taliban largely funds itself through the opium trade, outside forces certainly play a role in financing and training the organisation. Pakistan has a history of aiding the Taliban by providing shelter, funding, and diplomatic support to the group. Shortly after the Taliban took Kabul, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly stated that the people of Afghanistan had “broken the shackles of slavery”. While Pakistan’s political influence in Afghanistan will likely increase with the Taliban in charge, it is also plausible that Pakistan will be looking to take advantage of economic opportunities in the new Islamic Emirate. It is also likely that the Gulf states will show an interest in Afghanistan under the Taliban. This is particularly the case for Qatar who facilitated the Doha agreement. It is unclear whether Qatar was always interested in reigniting the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. However, what is apparent is that Afghanistan is of strategic importance to the Gulf states due to its location in conjunction with Iran. As Iranian influence extends deeper into Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, it is clear that the country cannot be defeated from the Iraqi border. Therefore, the Gulf states may be looking to use the new Taliban regime to put pressure on Iran.
Whether the British or US return to Afghanistan will depend upon the shape of the new Taliban state. Although the crisis will likely produce thousands of asylum seekers and refugees, “the West” will likely solve this issue by setting up refugee camps through UN agencies, as it has done for recent conflicts. However, if Afghanistan becomes a launching pad for insurgent groups against “the West”, it is possible that a return to Afghanistan may be on the cards.