20 years of nothing

By Artchil B. Fernandez

Things are back to where they were before. Twenty years after the United States (US) and allies toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Islamic fundamentalist group returned to power, much stronger and wiser.

The stunning fall of Afghanistan to the hands of the Taliban this week caught the world by surprise. US intelligence projected that the Taliban will take Kabul in 90 days but the three months turned out to be two weeks.

With the Taliban once again at the center stage of global politics, the question is raised on what the two decades of Afghan war waged by the US, NATO and allies against the Taliban was all about. Given the recent developments, it appears the whole enterprise amounts to 20 years of nothing. It was a costly adventure in terms of human and material resources only for Afghanistan to be back to square one, the ousted Taliban triumphantly proclaiming great victory after two decades of absence in power.

The Afghan war was launched by the US in 2001 in retaliation to the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda. Osama bin Ladin, the then al Qaeda leader was under the protection of the Taliban who refused to hand him over to the US. The US and allies invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban regime in three months.

Taliban returned to insurgency war after their removal from power. In the last 20 years, they waged guerrilla warfare against the US-backed government. The US and allies on the other hand tried to build a stable state in Afghanistan, pouring billions of dollars to prop up their backed regime.

Judging from the lightning success of the Taliban recently and the instant crumbling of the US-backed government it seems the effort of Western powers to create a robust state aligned with them in Afghanistan is a dismal failure, a very costly failure.

In the last twenty years, the US spent $2.26 trillion to rebuild Afghanistan into its own image. On the Afghan armed forces alone, the US lavished it with $83 billion. The human cost to the US of its Afghan adventure is high with 2,442 troops killed along with 3,800 private security contractors. NATO’s 40-nation western coalition also lost 1,144 personnel.

These huge investments came to naught. In the final weeks of the conflict, most Afghan armed forces did not have the will to fight. They gave up and surrendered to the Taliban without resistance. The Taliban entered Kabul without firing a shot and the US-backed government simply evaporated and vanished.

In the end, the US adventure in Afghanistan concluded in an embarrassing and humiliating withdrawal. The enemy the US deposed returned to power, its expensive effort produced empty results, twenty years of nothing. US debacle in Afghanistan once again reinforced the country’s reputation as graveyard of empires since Alexander the Great invaded the area 2,300 years ago.

The blame game immediately ensued in the US following its latest military fiasco in Afghanistan. Former US President Donald Trump slammed his successor for the military disaster forgetting that it was him who gave the Taliban international legitimacy by entering into a deal with them. Trump with his isolationist policy considerably scaled-down US troops in Afghanistan to the minimal level and ordered that the last US troops should leave by May 2021.

Biden’s fault is not reversing his predecessor’s policy and come up with a better strategy.  The Taliban victory could have been avoided had Biden not implement Trump’s Afghan strategy and instead pursued a different path.

The return of Taliban to power has reconfigured the geopolitical map in central Asia. During their twenty years in the wilderness, the Taliban tried to repackage themselves to gain international acceptance. The first Taliban regime was an international pariah, recognized by only three countries – Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, due to their harsh and brutal rule. They created a 14th-century Islamic emirate banning anything modern including music, movie and painting.

Under Taliban 1.0, women were forbidden from going to school, had to wear the burqa and cannot leave home unaccompanied by a male relative. Ancient eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth rules – stoning to death for adultery, chopping-off of hand for theft, etc., were imposed by the Taliban.

Now back in power, the Taliban claim they learned from their past mistakes. They promised not to host terrorist groups, respect the rights of women to work and education within the shariah law, and will abide by international rules. It remains to be seen if the Taliban 2.0 will honor their word. So far, the much-feared mass arrest and retribution have not happened, and the Taliban instead proclaimed a blanket amnesty.

Governing and state-building are the biggest challenges facing the Taliban. Grabbing power by force is the easiest part. Governing – providing jobs, security, social services, education, rebuilding and growing the economy etc., is completely different from fighting and waging war and is the hardest part.

Winning the trust of the international community is another huge challenge to the Taliban considering their ideological ties with terrorist and jihadist groups. These groups fought with the Taliban in their resurrection. Will they turn their back on their ideological brethren for practicality? Can the international community trust them? It is interesting to see how the struggle between the purists and the pragmatists, between the hardliners and the moderate within their ranks plays out.

Two possible outcomes of the Taliban’s return to power:  either they honor their word, stabilizing the region as the re-branded Taliban or they become a hydra, a many-headed monster with Afghanistan again becomes a breeding ground of terrorism.  As for the US, it has another 1976 Saigon moment, the latest empire to fail in Afghanistan.