The window of hope is gradually closing on Afghanistan. With no fewer than sixty people, most of them schoolgirls, killed in a blast near a school in Kabul two weeks back and as many as a hundred and fifty left wounded, despair seems to be growing at an unremitting pace in the country. With President Joe Biden making it known that all remaining American soldiers, 2,500 in all, will be going back home from Afghanistan by 11 September this year, the old fears of the country slipping back to civil war and bad governance are, in simple terms, coming back to haunt Afghans as well as the rest of the world. Of course, things would be different had the US and Nato troops presence, altogether 9,600, ensured that Afghanistan was in safe hands, that its politics were in tune with that of the rest of the globe, that peace finally was a defining feature of the lives of its people.
The truth is different. In the twenty years since Washington and its allies intervened in Afghanistan to flush out al-Qaida and then push the Taliban from power, the country has not graduated to anything better than what it has been all these years or even before George W. Bush decided that he needed to do nation-building in Afghanistan. And now that the Biden administration has set its mind on leaving Afghanistan, there is a moral predicament which assails the world: it was perhaps wrong for the US to go into Afghanistan in the aftermath of the tragic events of 11 September 2001 and it is perhaps equally wrong now for America to abandon the country to forces the weak government in Kabul cannot push back once they begin to march once more toward the capital.
That the Taliban and with them elements such as al-Qaida and ISIL are mighty pleased that the Americans, along with Nato forces, are going home is not in doubt. Only last week, in Helmand province, fears of a Taliban advance led a thousand families into fleeing to safer places. Reports also came in, from Afghan government sources, of a hundred Taliban fighters having been killed along with twenty two al-Qaida infiltrators from Pakistan. It all raises the question, despite these reports, of whether the Afghan military, never a force strong or motivated enough to go after the Taliban, will in sheer urge for survival be able to guarantee that the rebels will not take power again in Kabul. As it is, the Taliban today control most chunks of the country. The government of President Ashraf Ghani is concentrated in the urban areas, but only just. That is not a pretty picture.
The tragedy of Afghanistan did not, of course, begin in 2001. That the Americans, after two decades of a futile presence in the country, would like to withdraw is perhaps understandable. The bigger truth, though, is that the US failed to accomplish its objectives in the country. It is a failure which goes parallel with the failure of the erstwhile Soviet Union to stay on in Afghanistan after December 1979, when Leonid Brezhnev presided over an invasion of the country and installed Babrak Karmal in power. The irony is that where in 1988-89 it was Mikhail Gorbachev's embarrassing task to recall all Soviet troops from Afghanistan, in 2021 it is Joe Biden's unenviable job to take his soldiers back home. The similarities cannot be missed. In neither instance did the invading forces succeed in planting their flags, in the sense of a deepening of ideas, in the country. The Soviet Union failed spectacularly to impose communism on Afghan citizens and in a similar manner the United States was unable to convince Afghans that democracy was what they needed.
So what happens now? There is little chance that the Taliban can be prevented from retaking power in Kabul. Already their leading figures are gloating over thoughts of a restoration. That can mean a return to life as it was for Afghans when the Taliban last held power from 1996 to 2001. Girls and women are once again an endangered species, despite the belief in many that over the past two decades the Taliban have gone through a psychological change. They have not, which is why Afghan women face the looming threat of being forced into the confines of their homes once again, of girls forced once more to abandon school, of literature and culture being proscribed again, of medievalism coming back with a vengeance.
The reality about fanatics is that they do not reform, despite all the reassurances they may come up with, despite the peace deals they may have reached with their adversaries. Not surprisingly, the peace negotiations that the Afghan government and the Taliban were to engage in --- in Turkey last month --- did not take place because the Taliban did not turn up.
The Turkish government now expects the talks to get underway after the Muslim holy season of Ramadan, at some point this month. There is little guarantee, though, that the Taliban will turn up. In the American withdrawal, they now have the chance to smell blood. And anyone remotely conversant with recent Afghan history knows how blood, and not only that of Afghans, has been spilt over the decades. In the ten years in which Soviet soldiers camped in the country, they lost 15,000 of their compatriots in the struggle against the Mujahideen, which was backed by the Reagan administration in Washington and the Pakistani military regime of General Ziaul Haq. It mattered little that the Mujahideen, with such figures as Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar and Ahmad Shah Masoud in the leadership structure, themselves lost 56,000 men in the war against the Soviets and their allies in Kabul. The Mujahideen did ascend to power, eventually. They then began shooting one another.
In the last twenty years, the US saw 2,312 of its soldiers lose their lives in Afghanistan. For their part, the Taliban too have lost men in the caves and the mountains. As for the government in Kabul, it has consistently demonstrated the art of failure through its sheer inability to convince itself, let alone the people of Afghanistan, that on its watch the Taliban, al-Qaida and ISIL will have absolutely little chance of taking power in the country. In many ways, it is other and earlier images which flash in the memory. Back in the late 1960s, President Nixon devised what he called a programme of Vietnamisation whereby the South Vietnamese army would take responsibility for the defence of South Vietnam against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces. When the moment of reckoning came in April 1975, the South Vietnamese army proved to be no match for the communists. It swiftly disintegrated. And that is a picture which is likely to be repeated in Afghanistan once Biden takes his boys home.
In diplomatic terms, the US is doing something more than withdrawing from Afghanistan. It is abandoning Afghanistan to a dangerous future. But there is then the philosophical side of the argument. It is not possible for a nation or an alliance of nations to prop up a country, enough for it to fend for itself, for an indefinite period of time. In the past two decades, there has been an additional difficulty with making Afghanistan secure from the Taliban. The rampant corruption which has undermined the country, under both Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, along with the influence of such warlords as Abdur Rashid Dostum, has defeated efforts for a stable Afghanistan that foreign troops could confidently walk away from.
Afghanistan's tragedy commenced in 1978 when, with the massacre of the family of President Sardar Mohammad Daoud, the so-called Saur Revolution brought the country's communists to power under Nur Mohammad Taraki. Internecine conflict among the communists soon led to Taraki's murder and replacement by Hafizullah Amin, who in turn lost his life when Soviet troops installed Babrak Karmal in power. In time, Karmal was replaced by Dr Najibullah, who in 1996 was brutally murdered by the Taliban once they seized the country.
The bloodletting has gone on. In the coming battle between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the casualty will be the people of Afghanistan. The ramifications will be felt, as before, beyond the country's frontiers. Bluntly stated, the Biden administration is making a mistake in drawing down in Afghanistan. The country's future belongs once more in its disastrous past.