The return of the Islamic Emirate
The US did not fight a 20-year war. It fought a one-year war, 20 times over. But in this period, Afghanistan has changed too
There is an old saying – Be careful what you wish for. China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan were the most vociferous in demanding the exit of the United States (US) from Afghanistan. Now that images of people hanging on to a C-17 Globemaster, as it taxis for take-off, evoking parallels with the fall of Saigon in April 1975, have been seen with smug satisfaction in Islamabad, Tehran, Beijing and Moscow, a grim reality is seeping in. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi has already expressed his unhappiness at the US’s “hasty” exit.
The key question now is if there really is a Taliban 2.0 or just a more media-savvy repackaged Taliban 1.0 that will create more regional instability. But to unravel that, let us return to how Afghanistan got here.
The demise of the Islamic Republic and return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan became inevitable when in February, 2020, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, signed an agreement with the Taliban deputy leader Mullah Baradar in Doha, committing to US withdrawal. While Khalilzad delivered the agreement for the Donald Trump administration, President Joe Biden’s announcement on April 14, 2021 that the US would be out before the 9/11 anniversary reaffirmed the unconditional withdrawal.
The US was hoping for a “decent interval” between its exit and the eventual collapse of the Kabul regime, but once the Taliban sensed victory, it moved in with an “indecent haste”. Despite a domestic backlash against the messy withdrawal, Biden has maintained that his decision was the right one.
The reality is that a cumulative set of mistakes made the US’s continued presence a lightning rod for the insurgency. In 2001, the US went into Afghanistan on a counter-terrorism mission, deluded itself that the Taliban had been defeated when it had merely escaped across the border into Pakistan, got distracted with Iraq in 2003, and then got drawn into an increasingly vicious counter-insurgency mounted by the re-energised Taliban.
Meanwhile, the narrative about “forever wars” gained traction. The reality is that, as Gen Douglas Lute said, the US did not fight a 20-year war; it fought a one-year war, 20 times over. In any case, the US had ended its combat operations in 2014 replacing it with a limited “train, advise and assist” mission. While 2,352 US soldiers were killed between 2001 and 2014, the number of deaths in the following six years was 96. The annual expenditure with its reduced presence was about $45 billion, a small fraction of its $700-billion defence budget.
The real problem was that without removing the sanctuaries in Pakistan, the US was caught in a stalemate that made its continued presence unpopular. Its association with a local government that lacked legitimacy and was seen as corrupt and incompetent by the people, added to it.
Pakistan’s strategy paid off when the Doha office opened in 2013, beginning the process of the Taliban’s legitimisation, something it had lacked in the 1990s. Changing power equations made Russia and China more wary and critical about the US presence in their backyard. Biden is right that delaying the departure would not have changed anything and no astrologer could have found a propitious moment.
Like other countries, India too supported “an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace and reconciliation process. But while other countries did not let this prevent their contacts with the Taliban in Doha and elsewhere, India followed it in letter and spirit. Indian officials did participate in meetings where the Taliban was present but refrained from exploring any direct engagement with it. With the US out and Ashraf Ghani gone, there was no option except to withdraw all diplomatic presence, closing the embassy for all practical purposes.
While no one knows if Taliban have changed, it will find that Afghanistan has changed in the last 20 years. It is a young nation with a median age of 18-and-a-half years. More than two-thirds of the population is below 30, and this cohort has grown up in a conservative but open society; 60% of the population enjoys internet access. They, along with women and minorities, will resist a return to the Islamic Emirate of the 1990s.
The Taliban today is also not a unified entity. Mullah Baradar is a co-founder of the Taliban and Mullah Omar was his brother-in-law. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) took him into custody in 2010 to punish him for being in direct contact with President Hamid Karzai. Eight years in ISI custody is unlikely to have left him with happy memories. The Doha negotiators constitute the public face but the fighting has been done by local commanders on the ground. The Quetta shura is headed by a cleric, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada and two deputies, Mullah Yaqub, son of Mullah Omar who has been overseeing military operations in the south, and Sirajuddin Haqqani who heads the Haqqani network, operating in the east.
There are other groups too – al-Qaeda, IS-Khorasan, Uighurs (ETIM), Uzbeks (IMU), Tajiks (Khatiba Imam al Bukhari) and Pakistani groups such as the TTP, LeT, JeM, Jamaat ul Ahraar, Lashkar-e-Islam and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. All of them have linkages with Taliban fighters on the ground but power-sharing negotiations may end up pitching them on opposite sides.
Another chapter in Afghanistan’s political transition, which began with the coup in 1973, has ended and at present, India has little choice except to wait and watch because unlike the West, we remain part of the region.
Rakesh Sood is a retired diplomat who has served as India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, and is currently Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation
The views expressed are personal