Displaced Afghan families head into Kabul from the northern provinces desperately leaving their homes behind on August 10, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo: Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

The fall of Afghanistan and what could come next

The Bulletin World Weekly is a newsletter by Peter Bale for Spinoff members covering and analysing the most important stories from around the globe. Today’s special edition looks at the ghastly inevitability of the Taliban takeover as the US flees.

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The fall of Kabul overnight didn’t just mark the return of Afghanistan to Taliban rule. It also rendered meaningless the sacrifice of Western blood and treasure, and dashed the dreams of women and anyone else not consumed with the Islamic fundamentalism of the new rulers or the graft of the old.

We dealt with the desertion of the people of Afghanistan by the United States in last week’s World Bulletin but the pace of the takeover and the immediate cascade of recriminations and historical revisionism suggests now is a moment to take stock of some must-reads to understand what has happened and how we got here.

A good first port of call is Steve Coll, a former security correspondent. He’s the author of two of the strongest takes on the failings of intelligence and diplomacy in Afghanistan – Ghost Wars, about how the CIA created the climate for and then fought against Al Qaeda, including the ultimate discovery of Osama Bin Laden living unmolested in Pakistan, and Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan 2001-2016.

In an discussion with his New Yorker colleague Isaac Chotiner, Coll considered the role of Pakistan in supporting the Taliban, and what Pakistan’s increasing reliance on China may mean for the geopolitical situation in Afghanistan. Said Coll:

“In the 1990s, there were only three governments in the world that recognized the Taliban: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. And this time around, too, Pakistan will be one of them, I expect. But things are different. The Saudis and the Emiratis have a new geopolitical outlook.

“But China is not the same country that it was in the 90s. How will China support Pakistan in trying to manage a second Taliban regime, especially one that may attract sanctions or other kinds of pressure from the United States and its allies?” Coll asked, adding later that all these elements “will blow back on Pakistan in one way or another, be that in the form of international pressure or instability.”

NZ troops board a C-130 Hercules in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Photo: NZDF

Coll, in my view rightly, is excoriating about the cynicism of the Biden administration in effectively blaming the Afghans for the rapid collapse of their own military forces, while also pointing out the appalling agreement that former president Donald Trump settled on with the Taliban.

“I think it is an outrageous critique…to suggest that the Afghan people haven’t done their bit is a kind of blame-shifting that I think is not only unjustifiable but outrageous. The Afghans now have suffered generation after generation of not just continuous warfare but humanitarian crises, one after the other, and Americans have to remember that this wasn’t a civil war that the Afghans started among themselves that the rest of the world got sucked into.

“This situation was triggered by an outside invasion, initially by the Soviet Union, during the Cold War, and since then the country has been a battleground for regional and global powers seeking their own security by trying to militarily intervene in Afghanistan, whether it be the United States after 2001, the C.I.A. in the 1980s, Pakistan through its support first for the mujahideen and later the Taliban, or Iran and its clients. To blame Afghans for not getting their act together in light of that history is just wrong.”

Elsewhere, there has been much analysis of whether the collapse of Afghan forces and the tail-between-the-legs withdrawal of the United States and remnant NATO forces were the inevitable consequence of a failed state-building strategy after 9/11.

“Joe Biden is right to get the United States out of Afghanistan,” former army officer and think tank analyst Rodger Shanahan wrote for The Lowy Institute on The Interpreter. “Even as Kabul has been taken over by the Taliban, the case remains strong that after 20 years, the United States has fought its war in the country.

“The speed with which the Afghan military and political class appear to have been overwhelmed by the Taliban surprised not only the White House but nearly all other coalition partners. But perhaps counter-intuitively it will also likely have confirmed to Biden that his decision was the correct one. If all there is to show after spending two decades building up the Afghan military is an institution that is unable or unwilling to defend its population against an enemy that it outnumbers and outguns, then it’s not going to get any better with another two decades’ worth of effort,” Shanahan wrote.

Others, however, see that as a self-justifying counsel of despair that allows the United States to turn its back on the millions of Afghans, particularly women, who don’t support the Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban but will be forced to live and die in its theocracy.

In a Twitter thread, US security analyst Paul D. Miller addressed what he called the “myths” that the US presence was unsustainable, chaos was inevitable, or that it was somehow a “forever mission” to sustain the commitment to Afghanistan and its people.

“That is a convenient ex post facto justification that washes our hands of responsibility by acting as if we had no real agency in the situation. We are making a choice to stop trying. Don’t pretend that was inevitable,” Miller wrote.

He expanded his argument in an analysis on The Dispatch: “On the surface, these explanations make a compelling case. It is also a comforting case, because it washes our hands of responsibility for what is about to happen. As a humanitarian catastrophe unfolds – as Afghan women fall back under the Taliban’s uniquely cruel tyranny, as the Hazara and Shiites flee the Taliban’s near-genocidal oppression of religious dissidents – we can tell ourselves, ‘There’s nothing we could have done.’

“These myths function as an ex post facto explanation that we – the most powerful nation in the world – were actually powerless all along.”

Amid all this retrospective justification and hand-wringing, and the powerful images of helicopters landing on the US embassy in Kabul bringing to mind the fall of Saigon at the close of the Vietnam War, I was struck by a post on my Facebook feed from a young Cambodian journalist I know and admire. The true comparison with the events in Kabul, he suggested, was not the end of the Vietnam War but the US bombing and then turning its back on Cambodia in 1975. That ushered in the rise of the merciless fanatics of the Khmer Rouge who wanted to take the nation back to a Year Zero, dismantling the once-prosperous society and replacing it with one built on agrarian principles. Sound familiar?

This is what my friend Rinith Taing, a journalist, researcher, and poet, wrote:

“Dear Mr Biden,

I am very disappointed in you for repeating another historical scrouge.

Fifty-one years ago, President Gerald Ford ordered for the withdrawal of American troop from Cambodia, leaving our country to the terrible Killing Field built by Khmer Rouge.

And today, you left Afghanistan and her people to the Taliban. I regret for having thought that you would bring real changes to the world. And now, I know, Mr President, that you are just another historical scumbag.”

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