The people of Afghanistan have seen turmoil for the past many decades, either at the hands of foreign powers or because of internal division and civil war. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the late 1970s, which started the war in which Afghans of all creeds and cultures united to fight against the ’infidels’. The Afghans were supported by the USA and KSA and Pakistan; with the former providing material support and the latter, moral. The Soviets left within a decade, humiliated and financially bankrupt, one of the reasons for the break-up of the USSR.
Civil war ensued afterward amongst the mujahedeen. Kabul saw more destruction because of this civil war than it endured because of invasion by the Soviets. The unrest and constant fighting was the main cause for the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s that provided the Afghans with much-needed normalcy in their lives. Most of the country became peaceful and disarmed and, with it, the trade routes to Central Asian states prospered, the value of the currency increased, and agriculture improved. The Taliban rule might not have shown the world the best of Islam, like public executions on camera, lashing of women, or disallowing women from getting education and medical treatment, but it was a period of relative peace and stability for Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, world powers did not accept the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan and covertly supported the Northern Alliance under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Masood, causing unrest in the northern Panjsheer valley. And then 9/11 occurred; Americans blamed Osama bin Laden for the attacks on the Twin Towers and decided to invade Afghanistan as the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden to Americans unless concrete proof of his involvement was provided to them. That was quite a logical demand by any sovereign nation but the Americans to restore their pride and satisfy public opinion decided to attack anyway. Anything associated with the Taliban (good or bad) now began to be considered as evil and odious.
The US declared that its aims for this war were the toppling of the Taliban government and routing of Al Qaeda, along with promises of nation-building of Afghanistan and ensuring women empowerment. 20 years on and spending trillions of dollars and losing thousands of men, US troops are still there in Afghanistan trying to achieve their mission impossible. Finally, US president Biden has promised that the mission would end on 31 August 2021 and US troops would finally vacate Afghanistan. The irony is that not even one aim has been achieved and Americans, following the fate of earlier superpowers, are leaving Afghanistan with humiliation.
All the initiatives aimed at bringing peace and stability including elections seem to have borne zero results. Taliban as a powerful entity is a reality and they are already in control of the majority of Afghanistan districts. Newspapers reports of the presence of Al Qaeda in parts of Afghanistan are also emerging and the Afghan National Army, which was expected to act as life support for the puppet government in Afghanistan, is capitulating in hordes or escaping to neighbouring countries.
The Taliban’s sole aim was to free Afghanistan from foreign occupation. The same aim for which their forefathers fought the British and the Russians. The British and Russians failed in this region not because they were weak but because they failed to understand the Afghan culture, their resilience, and their love for freedom. Americans were bound to fail as they did not learn from history and the old saying that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it proved right once again. The description of Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires once again rang true.
The US signed an agreement with the Taliban in Doha acknowledging them as a legitimate power in Afghanistan. The US caved in to their main demand of withdrawal of American troops, in return for the assurance that Afghanistan would not attack the US or its allies. We are back to square one after 20 years. The writing on the wall is clear: the Taliban are on the ascendance and already in control of at least four entry points to Afghanistan as well as the majority of the rural areas. They have yet not attacked any major civilian areas but it seems only a matter of time that the puppet government in Kabul would fall.
Will it mean victory for the Taliban, though? No, not until they avert the fate that befell Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviets. The unceremonious withdrawal of the US is leaving behind enormous weaponry, a recipe for a civil war that can continue to simmer for a long time to come. Warlords like Rashid Dostum and Abdullah Abdullah are already warning of the looming dangers.
Where are we heading, then? Is there any hope of Afghanistan’s peace and stability? Will the Taliban behave the same way as they did in their first innings? I reckon that past performances are not a guide to the future. The only hope for peace and stability for Afghanistan is that the Taliban have learned from their past mistakes. The statements of their spokesman and the op-ed in The New York Times gave hope that the Taliban would not repeat the mistakes of the past and will try to share power amongst the various groups and become a modern Islamic state where people from diverse backgrounds can live with harmony. Signs of a changed Taliban thinking are visible as per media reports; the governance shown by the Taliban in the 200 odd districts that are under Taliban control is positive. The Taliban must also realise that a new generation has come to Afghanistan that has not seen the previous Taliban government and the civil war that brought the Taliban to power in the first place. Therefore, they will be receptive to their rule if it conforms to Islamic values that are acceptable to the majority of people.
It is also to the benefit of regional powers like Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan to work together to ensure that a peaceful power-sharing arrangement can be achieved in Afghanistan, to ensure stability in the region. With it, regional cooperation and prosperity will follow automatically.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Manchester, UK. [email protected]