On the crisis in Afghanistan

August 22, 2021

Is the resurgence of Taliban a bailout for foreign troops?

A US Air Force plane leaves a ravaged Afghanistan.
A US Air Force plane leaves a ravaged Afghanistan.

The house of cards built somewhat painstakingly by the United States and its allies in the War on Terror in Afghanistan has collapsed much earlier than many would have imagined. Over 300,699 strong Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) either catapulted or surrendered in a matter of days to just 80,000 Taliban. Only a of couple of days after his last press conference on August 13, the Taliban captured Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani was forced to flee the country. Within hours of his last press conference, eight provinces had surrendered. These included key northern and western provinces. The Taliban took Kabul in the next couple of days.

It may have seemed imminent to many but for those like me who had been frequenting Kabul, the latest resurgence of Taliban had started much before it made the headlines around the globe in July. The question arises whether the scenario was scripted to ensure a bailout for the US and allied troops. Does the pull out represent a strategic shift by the US? There are no simple answers. All plausible explanations lead to even more questions. The US does not have an enviable track record of making a honourable exits. For their part, the Afghans do not have a history of sitting idle or in peace.

It took the Taliban almost 10 years after 2001 to get their bearings after having been thumped by technologically advanced NATO-led and US-commanded forces. They remained scattered across the countryside especially in Pashtun strongholds bordering Pakistan; but also along the borders with Iran and Tajikistan, to get enough oxygen to wait for the right time to resurface.

The first ray of hope was provided by none other than President Obama when the US administration bargained with the Taliban for the infamous 2014 swap of five members of the Talibanin for Army Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier held captive by the Haqqani network for five years. This was one of the tipping points where the Taliban realized that they were back in the Great Game of Gambles (GGG). It was also perhaps the starting point of a slide down the slope for the Americans’ war on terrorism. This led almost to legitimizing the operational and financial lifeline of Taliban and all other insurgents in the country as a visible hike (almost 35 percent on average) in kidnapping for ransom and poppy cultivation was seen after 2014.

These -five Taliban men released by the US were Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, 47, once the Taliban interior minister, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, a former chief of staff in the Taliban army in the 1990s, Mullah Norullah Noori, a provincial governor in several key areas during the Taliban regime, Abdul Haq Wasiq, 43, the deputy chief of intelligence for the Taliban and Mohammad Nabi Omari, 46, a member of a joint Al Qaeda-Taliban cell in the Khost province. They had been held in the Guantanamo prison for over a decade and were considered high risk by US military courts and intelligence fraternity. The Obama administration was almost set to lure the Taliban into a peace deal as part of their exit strategy but this swap ended Obama’s dream deal with Taliban because of heavy thumping from US Congress. Instead of pulling out, he eventually ended up increasing the US boots on the ground from 7,500 to over 10,000; thus, giving Trump a chance to pounce on the Democrats in the 2016 election campaign.

This was also the time when differences between President Ghani and US started seeing the sunlight. It is considered by many as the starting point of US distancing itself from Ghani and relying more on its trusted ally, Hamid Karzai, and its representative Zalmay Khalilzad. The period coincided with Trump’s foreign policy overtures whereby Pentagon and senior military officials were seen gasping for a breather as Trump first announced a sudden pull out of troops from Syria, and then overruled the Pentagon to ask Zalmay Khalilzad to prepare for wrapping up the two-decade-long war machine in Afghanistan without even consulting the NATO and/ or the Afghan government.

Amid these frustrations and knowledge of the fact that US diplomats and US representative to Afghanistan Khalilzad had started behind-the-doors negotiations with the Taliban leadership after releasing some key Taliban figures from Guantanamo Bay, President Ashraf Ghani, offered a truce to the Taliban in February 2018. The offer was turned down by a buoyant Taliban. This was followed by a one-sided three-day ceasefire on Eid in July 2018. The Taliban grouped openly and allowed people to take selfies with them during Eid gatherings.

The Taliban resurgence has not been much different from their rise in 1991. The key factors on both occasions were pretty much the same. There were pockets of support across borders with Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan.

Zalmay Khalilzad then became a target of the Ghani establishment who openly called him a ‘viceroy’ and ridiculed him on public TV debates, describing him as a power-hungry man and a rival to Ghani’s presidency. But then Americans had also made public the decision to hold formal talks with the Taliban in Doha. They soon agreed to sign a deal with the Taliban leadership for pulling out the troops by May 2021 with four key conditions, namely, no more hostilities, not letting Afghan soil to be used by a terrorist outfit like Al Qaeda, intra-Afghan talks to find a political solution and an interim government. None of these, except the US pull-out seems to have been acted upon. Many in Kabul believe that that’s what the US actually wanted. The rest of it was for optics.

What led the Americans to believe that they are heading nowhere and should have an exit strategy; the sooner the better. The factors include rampant corruption in the Afghan government, intolerance and infighting within Afghan ruling elite over ethnicity and control of revenues, heavy reliance on warlords instead of strengthening the governance structures or armed forces, heavy dependance on US and foreign assistance and the demand to cut down all sorts of monitoring on spending by Afghan government. Of course, there were other internal and external factors. Other regional and global powers were ensuring their presence in the country to safeguard their interests in the event of a US pullout. This included Pakistan, Iran, the Central Asian Republics representing Russia by proxy, China, India, the UAE and Turkey.

All these combined to lead the successive American administrations (Obama, Trump and Biden) to develop an exit strategy that led to creating enough doubts in the minds of the Afghan people about the sustainability of the Afghan government and eventually provided enough space for the Taliban to grow from strength to strength in the country’s suburbs. Imagine a government unable to govern, an army unable to stick to basic training norms and combat readiness manuals, a police force marred by corruption and a political leadership in which over 90 percent of the office holders have dual nationalities.

The Ghani-led coalition government, after the almost delegitimising elections in 2014 and later 2019, required intervention by US high command to forge a unity government to let Abdullah Abdullah share power with President Ghani, was failing miserably to provide a governance. Instead, they were accommodating the former warlords with questionable backgrounds as governors and police or local army command and control posts. This, ultimately, was leading to an increase in corruption at provincial and Kabul level with many believing that the governors of all bordering provinces were appointed for a one-time half a million to a million dollar ‘donation’ to the presidency. The president kept the appointment of even a director in a ministry to himself and approval of all major procurements anywhere in the country. Any efforts by donor countries, including reports from Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) — a watchdog arm of the US State Department established under National Defence Authorisation Act 2008 — were not taken by Ghani government in good faith because these reports saw the country ranked 4th on a global corruption index out of 180 countries in 2016 and then among top ten most corrupt in the subsequent years.

Amidst these ‘donations’, ‘accommodation’ and ‘exit strategy’ scenarios, President Trump’s foreign policy overtures, overriding and at times completely ridiculing the voices from Pentagon, the NATO allies and senior diplomats, helped the Taliban slowly but gradually manage to gather enough resources to take over the night-time government across key entrance and exit points of major cities including Kabul. By 2017, it was an open secret that despite NATO and US forces’ presence (mired in all sorts of uncertainty and cut down to a minimum for Operation Resolute Support), the Taliban were ruling almost 65 per cent of the country from dusk till dawn. By 2018, at least 26 out of 34 provinces were within the reach of Taliban and intermittent skirmishes were reported between Taliban fighters and forces loyal to local governors’- militias or Afghan National Army. The desertion rate among ANA soldiers and selling of their weapons and uniforms to the Taliban and returning to the base camps for issuance of new equipment with some concocted stories was rising since 2014. At times this was mentioned by the SIGAR in its quarterly evaluations that were brushed aside by both senior US military command and the Afghan government. Eventually, the Ghani government convinced US political leadership not make the SIGAR quarterly findings public because these were bringing a bad name to the country and denting the morale of the armed forces.

Warlords with and without Taliban were the other resurgent force. This included those who could not get accommodation within the dollar-hungry governments of first Karzai and then Ghani. The Afghan government in-fighting (between Abdullah Abdullah and Ghani) and skillful king-making advances of former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, proved just enough of an opportunity for both these warlords and the Taliban to gain enough ground to surround key provincial capitals and Kabul that a collapse of government soon after a US troops pull out became obvious.

The Taliban resurgence has not been much different from their rise in 1991. The key factors on both occasions were pretty much the same. There were pockets of support across borders with Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan and a flourishing business of kidnappings for ransom. There was a never-ending supply poppy. The role played by Turkey, China, Russian Federation and India was new. The Taliban have started playing with all sides to gain enough breathing space and momentum to return to the negotiating table to seek not only financial support but also legitimacy. Meanwhile, other players can come up with their plans. All those dreaming of strategic gains in Afghanistan must understand that in Afghanistan it’s either the Afghan way or the highway.

The author is a veteran journalist and can be reached atsminhas07@gmail.com

On the crisis in Afghanistan