The Taliban are Back (2)

August 16, 2021

The principal challenge in Afghanistan has always been Afghan groups forging a united front not only to fight tribalism, warlordism and corruption but also to achieve better governance. The country has remained divided on ethnic, sectarian, and regional lines. While the Afghans have demonstrated an exceptional capacity for resistance to foreign interference, they have failed time and again to show the ability to agree on common denominators. Even the formation of consecutive Kabul governments proved a challenge.

A presidential election was held in Afghanistan on 5 April 2014. Incumbent Hamid Karzai was not eligible to run due to term limits. The ensuing unity government was the result of a US-brokered agreement between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah after both claimed victory in the election. To defuse a political crisis that risked dividing Afghanistan along political and ethno-regional lines, Secretary of State John Kerry had to fly to Kabul, mediate an agreement signed by the two leaders on 21 September, with Ghani as president, Abdullah as Chief Executive Officer and both committing to a “genuine and meaningful partnership” to govern together. This was six months after  the election. Sadly, the two leaders were never able to bridge their differences over their respective roles and powers, leading to governmental dysfunction.

On September 28, 2019, Afghanistan again held presidential elections. According to preliminary results, which runner-up Abdullah Abdullah appealed against, Ashraf Ghani was re-elected with 50.64% of the vote. After delays over disputed votes, Ghani was declared the winner in the final results on 18 February 2020. Abdullah Abdullah rejected the results and moved to set up his own parallel government and separate inauguration. In February 2020, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad flew to Kabul to mediate the lingering dispute. Thus, Ghani was officially sworn in for a second term on 9 March 2020. Finally on May 16, 2020, Ghani and Abdullah signed a power-sharing deal in which Ghani would remain president and Abdullah would lead the peace talks with the Taliban. He became the “Head of High Council for National Reconciliation”. This was eight months after  the election.[i]

The 20% election turnout was the lowest since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. Nearly one million votes were discarded due to irregularities. Afghanistan’s total population stands at about 37 million, with 9.6 million registered voters. Afghans had scant confidence in either leader who kept quarrelling even as the Taliban toppled them.

In brief, failure in Afghanistan was a foregone conclusion. At some point withdrawal was inevitable. But now, not only the decision to  withdraw but also its botched management are likely to remain controversial topics both internationally and domestically in the US.

According to the Washington Post, “ ‘If Trump undermined the confidence of the world, Biden’s actions, pulling out and leaving a mess in Afghanistan, may simply be chapter two in undercutting fundamental assumptions about America,’ said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who serves as the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.”

Yesterday, Secretary Blinken was asked by the CNN why the withdrawal turned into a such blunder after President Biden’s reassuring remarks on July 8. This is what the President had said as on the “Drawdown of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan”:

“Q    Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?

“THE PRESIDENT:  No, it is not.

“Q    Why?

“THE PRESIDENT:  Because you — the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban.  It is not inevitable.

“Do I trust the Taliban?  No.  But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more re- — more competent in terms of conducting war.

“Q    Mr. President, some Vietnamese veterans see echoes of their experience in this withdrawal in Afghanistan.  Do you see any parallels between this withdrawal and what happened in Vietnam, with some people feeling —

“THE PRESIDENT:  None whatsoever.  Zero.  What you had is — you had entire brigades breaking through the gates of our embassy — six, if I’m not mistaken.

“The Taliban is not the south — the North Vietnamese army. They’re not — they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability.  There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan.  It is not at all comparable.”

Secretary Blinken was not able to come up with anything persuasive.

Indeed, why did the President spoke so confidently? Did he actually believe what he said? Was his intention to slow down the Taliban onslaught and pave the way for an orderly evacuation?

Whatever is the answer, many are now saying that Afghanistan will be seen as Joe Biden’s defeat, his biggest mistake, and it may come back to haunt him. Nonetheless, Mr. Biden appears totally convinced  that he did the right thing by ending America’s longest war regardless of what it would entail for the Afghan people. It seems that he wants the withdrawal to be part of his legacy since he is unlikely to run for office in 2024; and perhaps he believes that over time this would be appreciated as an unselfish act of courage serving America’s long-term interests.

Russia and China have watched the US entanglement in Afghanistan with satisfaction over the past two decades. Now, they must be delighted with the botched withdrawal, but also wary of the regional repercussions of the transformation of Afghanistan. In recent months, the Troika Plus, comprising the US, Russia and China, and Pakistan has held meetings to make a joint push to end  the war in Afghanistan. From now on, the principal actors would be Russia and China and eventually India. Pakistan is likely to come under increasing pressure from the three. And if Moscow and Peking were to conclude that the Taliban has become an exporter radicalism, violent extremism or terrorism, their punishment will be severe.

A Taliban spokesman has reportedly told the BBC that, “there will be no revenge” on the people of Afghanistan; the citizens of Kabul and their property are safe; all Afghans will participate in the Islamic government; the Taliban are the servants of the people of Afghanistan; and women will not be beaten for leaving their home alone. Turning a new page will not be so easy.

Lacking any official information on the project to leave Turkish troops at Kabul airport beyond “withdrawal”, I concluded my last post with the following: “It seems that the safest bet for the Kabul subcontract would be to wait another 22 days for the completion of the US withdrawal provided that the Taliban does not  force them to leave earlier.”

Now, the Taliban is back. US embassy in Kabul is evacuated. President Ghani has fled the country. We Turks are still in the dark regarding the Kabul subcontract.

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[i] https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/afghanistan/285-afghanistan-future-national-unity-government

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