Afghanistan – What Will Happen Now?

    By Rahul Singh | 18 August 2021
    Church and State

    (Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

    As I write this, India has just celebrated the 75th anniversary of its independence from British rule (Pakistan celebrated it a day earlier). But there is little cause for celebration. A dark shadow looms over both countries, indeed over much of the world as well. I am referring to the astonishingly swift takeover of Afghanistan by the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban. For the past two decades, the Taliban had confronted the 14,000 troops of the USA and its NATO allies. These troops and their advisers had been trying to arm and train 300,000 soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA) which, it was hoped, would eventually be able to hold its own against the Taliban, and continue Afghanistan on its democratic path. That hope was cruelly shattered with the announcement by US President Joe Biden that all American troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of this month. Even then, it was expected that the ANA would be able to resist the Taliban. That expectation has also been belied.

    First, the rural military outposts held by the ANA surrendered without a fight. Then, the main districts, including towns and cities like Herat, Mazhar-e-Sharif, and Kandahar, fell, with hardly a shot being fired. The Capital, Kabul (population: six million), which was surrounded by what had been described as a “ring of steel”, was expected to repel the Taliban, and perhaps even take the initiative against them. However, the resistance simply melted away and, incredibly, within a day, Taliban fighters were roaming the city and even reached the airport, stopping all commercial flights out of the country. Images of helicopters ferrying Americans from the embassy to the Kabul airport were eerily reminiscent of a similar evacuation in Saigon in 1975. The desperation of Afghans to leave their country, clearly because they fear reprisals from the vindictive Taliban, was evident from TV footage of hundreds on the runway of the Kabul international airport, trying to get on to departing planes. Incredibly and tragically, two of them were shown falling to their death after the plane had taken off.

    How will the Taliban treat the thousands of Afghans who were, in some way or the other, partnering the Americans and their allies in trying to rebuild the country? Will they be seen as collaborators of the “enemy”, against whom punitive action needs to be taken, or will they be left alone? That is the troubling question many Afghans must be asking themselves. Then, there is the issue of refugees. Quite a few scared Afghans are bound to try and flee to surrounding countries, like Iran in the West and Pakistan in the south, across porous borders. Afghanistan has no land border with India, but hundreds of Afghans have been thronging the Indian Embassy, trying to get visas to enter India. Will they be permitted to leave Afghanistan? And will India, as well as Pakistan and Iran, accept them? India and Pakistan have had close ties with Afghanistan. In fact, Afghanistan was part of the Sikh Emperor, Ranjit Singh’s kingdom in the early 19th century. Thousands of Afghan students have been to Indian colleges.

    Hundreds of diplomats from many countries, personnel of the United Nations, of other international organisations, and those who had been working in non-governmental organisations (NGOs), helping to re-build the shattered nation, also find themselves stranded and abandoned, not knowing when and if they will be able to leave Afghanistan. Perhaps most tragic of all, Afghan girls and women who had been able to go to schools and colleges, and to work, during the past two decades, don’t know if they will be able to do so now. Reports from Herat say that when girls turned up at schools, they were turned away and told to stay at home. If that is a sign of things to come, all the gains that women had made in the country since 2001 may be nullified. Some of the worst aspects of Islamic Shariah law, such as the barbaric stoning to death of women found guilty of adultery, and the amputation of hands and feet of those guilty of theft, which was prevailing when the Taliban were in power from 1996 to 2001, might now be reimposed.

    How has Afghanistan come to such a perilously sorry situation?

    For an answer, we need to go back into Afghan history. The region first came to world attention at the time of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, three centuries before Christ. He married a princess of Bactria, an area which is now part of Afghanistan. In his attempt to expand his empire, his all-conquering army went from present-day Greece eastwards, through what is now Turkey and Iran, then Afghanistan and Pakistan, right up to north-west India. His exhausted troops, threatening to mutiny, refused to go further. But while returning, he left commanders of his army behind, to rule over and govern some of the regions he had conquered. Hence, even after his death, the Greek influence on Afghanistan survived for several centuries, in art and culture. This is still known as “Gandhara” art, named after the Afghan city of Kandhara.

    After the Greek impact, came Buddhism. The sixth century gigantic images of the Buddha carved into the mountainside in Bamiyan, are testimony of the Buddhist influence (they were blown up and destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001). Buddhism was replaced by Islam, which is when the Afghans became formidable fighters. They also formed a loose federation of various clans and tribes, ruled by warlords. When the British gained control over India, Afghanistan became a buffer zone between India and Russia. This was the era when “the great game” was played. It was also the time that Afghanistan became a fiercely independent country, resenting all foreigners. Nadir Shah was the last Iranian ruler who was able to take his army through Afghanistan, on his numerous raids to plunder the treasures of India, including the sacking of the rich Somnath temple in western India.

    A revolt against Iranian rule eventually culminated in the establishment of the Durrani Afghan Empire under Ahmed Shah Durrani in 1747. After the collapse of the Durrani Empire in 1823, Afghanistan became a kingdom. Its last King, Mohammed Zahir Shah was deposed in a 1973 coup, and the country became a Republic. Since 1978, however, it has been in constant political turmoil. The Russians occupied Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, when it felt its interests were being threatened. Big mistake. They should have learnt from the British. The occupation drained the resources of the Soviet Union to such an extent that it partly led to the Soviet collapse and break-up. Not without reason has Afghanistan been called “the graveyard of empires”. The British had tried to occupy it in the 19th century and suffered a catastrophic defeat.

    The withdrawal of the Russians in 1989 left Afghanistan under the control of the Mujahideen (freedom fighters), who had been armed and financed by the Americans. “Charlie Wilson’s War”, a Hollywood film starring Tom Hanks, graphically describes how the conflict between the Russians and the Mujahideen (who were aided by the Americans) resulted in the Soviet defeat. The Americans, their objective accomplished, withdrew from the scene. The ensuing vacuum was filled by a medley of battle-hardened fighters, many of them jihadists from other countries, armed to the teeth with American and Russian arms, with no enemy to fight against.

    They would soon transform into the Taliban (which ironically means “students”) and become radicalized, believing in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Islamic Shariah law. Quite a few of them crossed the porous border into Pakistan, creating a Pakistani Taliban. Not knowing how to cope with so many jihadist fighters, Islamabad sent them to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, to join the separatist movement there. Meanwhile, within Afghanistan, a churn was taking place within the Taliban and out of the churning emerged El Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Toiba, the world’s foremost terrorist outfits. This was the prelude to 9/11, the infamous 2001 attack on the New York World Trade Centre. The conspirators, led by Osama Bin Laden, may mostly have been of Saudi Arabian descent, but the conspiracy was hatched in Afghanistan, which is where they holed themselves up after the attack.

    The retaliation against the perpetrators of 9/11 and subsequent two-decade-long occupation of Afghanistan by American and NATO troops may have subdued El Qaeda and the Taliban, but they were never really defeated.

    Their opportunity to rise up again came with the announcement by Joe Biden that all American troops would be withdrawn by the end of this month. The withdrawal was unplanned and American intelligence failed to gauge the strength of the Taliban and the weakness of the Afghan army. It was a colossal miscalculation, the consequences of which are being felt now. A huge sum of one trillion dollars has been spent by the American tax-payer to rebuild Afghanistan, and to finance 14,000 combat troops for two decades, while training and arming 300,000 troops of the Afghan army. Much of that money has probably gone into the pockets of corrupt Afghan politicians and officials. The former President of Afghanistan is reported to have fled with a plane loaded with hard cash. As for the army which was meant to resist the Taliban, it simply handed over its arms, and either surrendered or disappeared into the shadows.

    As I write this, fear and foreboding fills the Afghan air. This is evident from what is being shown on all the news channels. Fear of what the Taliban, now clearly in control of the whole nation, will do, especially to the girls and women, who had enjoyed the right to education and to work, since 2001. And the foreboding is over the heavily armed Taliban, its main enemy, the US and NATO troops, no longer confronting them. Basically, the USA has been defeated, as it was in Vietnam, and it has left Afghanistan in a mess, as it did with Iraq. What will the triumphant Taliban do now? The situation parallels that of 1989, after the Russian defeat and the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan, leaving the Mujahideen in full control. The vacuum then had led to the creation of El Qaeda, 9/11, and world-wide terrorism. Will history repeat itself? The world is holding its breath.

    Rahul Singh is a writer and journalist. A former editor of Reader’s Digest, Sunday Observer, The Indian Express and Khaleej Times (Dubai), he has also contributed to the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, Newsweek and Forbes.

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