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The Financial Express

The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan

| Updated: August 29, 2021 16:48:13


Taliban fighters patrol a street in the city of Herat. —Reuters photo Taliban fighters patrol a street in the city of Herat. —Reuters photo

By any stretch of the imagination, it is an intriguing set of conditions that have cropped up in Afghanistan. The Taliban are back, the development a rare instance in modern history when a group or force ejected lock, stock and barrel from a country has made its way back to the land where it once ran riot.

The Nazis never came back and neither did the Japanese militarists. When the Khmer Rouge was pushed out of Cambodia by the Vietnamese in 1979, they went into the woods, paid a price for their atrocities and never returned. In April 1975, President Nguyen Van Thieu and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, unable to resist the onslaught of the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong, fled Saigon. Ho Chi Minh's political descendants then reunited the country, pushing it to peacetime prosperity.

Twenty years ago, American and Nato forces, in the aftermath of the 11 September tragedy in New York, sent the Taliban and their al-Qaeda friends packing. George W. Bush and his fellow hawks in Washington, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, decided in the infinity of their folly that they could do nation-building in Afghanistan. It did not occur to them that societies are largely rooted in their historical traditions, that they do not have to fall in line with political systems beyond their frontiers. Afghanistan was, and will always be, a tribal society. Talk of democracy in Kabul, of accountable government, has consistently been a fallacy.

And that truth has once more been reiterated through the Taliban, having taken all the provincial capitals piece by precious piece, entering Kabul. So did the Taliban push a democratically elected government out of power, to a point where President Ashraf Ghani has had to flee, probably to Tajikistan? [[The Taliban on Monday declared the war in Afghanistan was over after taking control of the presidential palace in Kabul]

The simplest of answers is that democracy, despite all the billions and trillions of dollars spent on constructing it, has never been a credible proposition in Afghanistan. Observe all those earlier moves to install other systems in the country. Sardar Mohammad Daoud attempted to set up a modern republic in the 1970s. The communists who came after him thought Afghanistan could rise to being a symbol of Marxism. The Mujahideen went into decimating one another. And the Taliban, between 1996 and 2001, were an image of absolute horror.

And now the Taliban, having seized the country once more and without much trouble, would like to reassure the world that their dominance of Afghanistan will be different this time around. The problem with such Taliban promises is that their leadership speaks in multiple tunes, for there is yet little sign of a single man or collective leadership at the top that can be regarded as the militants' sole voice.

With reports of atrocities already being committed in the towns and cities the Taliban have seized, it is hard to believe they will behave differently this time. A victorious army has little time for worries sounded by the outside world. It makes and amends and changes its own rules. There is no force in Afghanistan that can check the Taliban, for they have already informed the world that Afghanistan is today theirs to mould and shape to their will.

And that is when fears arise about the fate awaiting Afghan girls and women. In their earlier spell of rule, the Taliban dehumanised women, prescribed strict rules on personal appearances and behaviour for men, clamped a ban on music. The Bamiyan statues were turned into rubble. In simple terms, it was medievalism which underpinned Taliban rule between the mid 1990s and early 2000s. To expect them to change twenty years on would be wishful thinking. And speaking of wishes, where have the 300,000 soldiers of the Afghan army, so assiduously built by Washington and its allies, disappeared? It was an evaporation of a force the likes of which have been quite a few in our times. 

Think back on 2003, when for all Saddam Hussein's bravado, the Iraqi army offered absolutely no resistance to the Anglo-US invasion force. An army which had once cheerfully occupied Kuwait was nowhere to be seen in Baghdad or anywhere else. In Vietnam, the Saigon forces, expected to defend their people following an American drawdown, vanished into thin air. Lon Nol's soldiers in Cambodia, armed to the teeth by Washington, were no match for the guerrillas led by Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot. It has been a similar situation with the army of Afghanistan. The soldiers dropped their weapons, divested themselves of their uniforms and then either mingled with the crowds or crossed the border into neighbouring countries. So much for nation-building!

The return of the Taliban is once again a humiliating moment for Washington. There are the unforgettable images of helicopters on the roof of the US embassy in Saigon evacuating people even as communist troops rumbled into the city. On Sunday, history repeated itself in Kabul, with helicopters lifting American diplomats and their Afghan staff from the embassy compound and transporting them to the Hamid Karzai International Airport (that airport will now surely go for a change in name). It gave the lie to President Biden's confident assertion in early July that the roughly 75,000 Taliban did not stand a chance before the 300,000 soldiers of the Afghan army. It has now been proved that those 300,000 soldiers did not even think of standing before the Taliban. They simply ran. Is that the army the West helped build in the past two decades?

One cannot feel any pity for the Biden administration, much though one would like to, for the good reason that it did not have the wisdom to comprehend the disaster into which it was pushing Afghans by its precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Taliban's striding happily into Kabul was a reminder of how successive US administrations, in their attempts to reinvent history, have only repeated the old mistakes. An ageing Henry Kissinger would know, for he and President Gerald Ford once witnessed the chaos breaking out in a long-ago South Vietnam.

So what has been the point of all this exercise stretching across two decades? George W. Bush ought to have a response. Mike Pompeo says the Trump administration would have done things differently in Kabul. Differently, when Trump had promised to take American troops back home in May this year? One understands Biden when he avers that he does not want the Afghan conflict to be handed over to a fifth occupant of the White House. But one is quite at sea with his decision to pull out of Afghanistan the way he did, leaving the country in the exact same space where it was before the Taliban were evicted in 2001.

It is not just that Afghanistan is in the throes of a nightmare today. It is more. It is that when powerful nations take it upon themselves to refashion a country, with little comprehension of its social conditions and with little guarantee that they have eliminated its oppressive regime for good, it is folly masquerading as foreign policy, or any policy for that matter.

The truth today is stark. The Taliban have erased, with remarkable speed and agility, the past twenty years. For the West, which is now busy taking its various embassies out of Kabul, the lesson is an abject one: do not underestimate the power of local politics to reassert itself even if such politics is reprehensible.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist and writer.

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