Twenty years ago, Foreign Editor David Pratt was an eyewitness as the Taliban were routed by Northern Alliance fighters. Today though the tables have been turned and it’s now the Islamist insurgents that are overrunning Afghanistan with a speed that is shocking the world
They came streaming over the frontline eastwards from the city of Kunduz in a cloud of dust that day back in November 2001. Barely two months had passed since the Twin Towers had been attacked and collapsed in New York City and now it was the Taliban – who had given Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda sanctuary – that was collapsing.
There were twenty vehicles in all including two tanks carrying 200-300 Taliban fighters. As these hundreds of surrendering Taliban, led by a commander called Mullah Amidullah, rolled past, the Northern Alliance soldiers by the roadside cheered and clapped, some shook hands and even hugged and kissed the Taliban fighters who had been their sworn enemy up until that moment.
“We came to the side of the Northern Alliance because they are stronger than us,” said one Taliban tank driver.
“I am here now, and I will wait for orders from General Daoud Khan,” the driver told me, referring to the leader of the Alliance forces poised to launch an assault against the remaining Taliban fighters in Kunduz.
For days running up to that moment surrendering Taliban had been trickling over to the Northern Alliance side. But a combination of heavy US air strikes by giant B52 bombers and deals done by radio between rival Taliban and Alliance commanders had turned that trickle into a deluge.
Fast forward twenty years and the same is happening right now, only this time the roles are reversed as Afghan government forces, some of them the same men who made up the ranks of the Northern Alliance are surrendering to the Taliban.
The Americans for their part are still dropping bombs on the Taliban, but this time the militants are undaunted and if anything, these past days, increasingly emboldened.
“It will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing,” boasted George W Bush as he declared America’s so called “war on terror,” to be underway back in those dramatic days following September 11, 2001.
But how ironic and chilling it now is that almost twenty years to the day since the al-Qaeda strike on America, the Taliban are poised to retake the Afghan capital Kabul. What a nightmare scenario that prospect is for the US administration after the decades of blood and treasure the US-led coalition invested in Afghanistan.
What an even worse nightmare for those ordinary Afghans especially women and ethnic minorities like the Hazara community and others sure to bear the brunt of the Taliban’s extremist Islamic rule.
Then there is that other pressing question that if the Taliban gain overall control of the country, who is to say that once again they will not host their fellow jihadists from transnational Islamist terror organisations like the Islamic State group (IS) and al-Qaeda.
In short, after twenty years of enormous sacrifice, Afghanistan and the West would be back to square one and where all the bloodletting started.
This weekend that likelihood of a total Taliban takeover was given more impetus as the insurgents tightened their grip on the country, wresting control of the second- and third-biggest cities.
Staff of Western embassies meanwhile, are readying themselves to be evacuated from the capital Kabul after the arrival of the first US and UK troops tasked with getting them out.
Both the capture of Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west after days of clashes was another a devastating setback for the government as the Taliban advances turn into a rout.
“The city looks like a front line, a ghost town,” provincial council member Ghulam Habib Hashimi told Reuters news agency by telephone from Herat, a city of about 600,000 people near the border with Iran. “Families have either left or are hiding in their homes.”
Kandahar Afghanistan’s second largest city and the place where the Taliban regard as their movement’s birthplace was reported to be almost entirely under their control.
This string of rapid defeats for Afghan government forces have fuelled concern that the US-backed government could fall to the insurgents within weeks as international forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war.
For the moment Washington is pinning its hopes on a turnaround that would see Afghan security forces put up more resistance as the insurgents move closer to the capital in a scenario that some observers have likened to a replay of America’s humiliating withdrawal from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam conflict in 1975.
While it was US President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, that originally ushered in the US withdrawal, that did not stop US Republicans like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell from laying the blame entirely at the feet of Biden.
The US was “careening toward a massive, predictable, and preventable disaster,” warned McConnell last week, adding that, “President Biden is finding that the quickest way to end a war is to lose it.”
But even allowing for what many see as Washington’s catastrophically wrong decision to depart Afghanistan in the way it did, just why was it that things went from bad to worse so rapidly and the Afghan security forces so easily crumbled after years of Western training and support?
Right now, even the most updated US intelligence assessment predictions that Kabul could fall within 90 days are beginning to look optimistic despite recent previous ones giving the city six to 12 months before succumbing to the Taliban.
But as any veteran Afghanistan watcher will tell you, part of the explanation for the rapid success of the Taliban’s offensive has as much to do with failings through corruption on the Afghan government side as it has to do with the insurgents’ battlefield prowess.
Only as recently as March another US republican politician warned that corruption in the Afghan government was “as big a threat” as the Taliban.
Over the past twenty years, many senior Afghan officials, warlords and military personnel have stood to gain enormously from the vast sums of money and materiel outside donors have poured into the country. Much of this corruption has gone unchecked and seriously undermined Afghanistan’s key institutions including its security apparatus.
As a range of experts recently told Australian journalist and author Lynne O’Donnell a former bureau chief in Kabul, the Ministries of Defence and Interior are notoriously corrupt.
These sources say O’Donnell also cite “widespread ineptitude, lack of leadership, and self-interest,” as major reasons for the security forces being found so wanting after the coalition drawdown.
Writing recently in Foreign Policy magazine O’Donnell outlined how for example
the Afghan police -who are militarised and fight from front line bases – have not been paid for months by the Ministry of Interior.
Sources confirmed too that “the same is true for the Ministry of Defence, despite electronic payments systems meant to eliminate skimming.”
Food, water, ammunition or simply weapons are often in short supply for frontline units despite Afghanistan being awash with arms. A burgeoning black market, pilfering and shady deals being stuck by officials moving weapons to favoured militias or even into the hands of the Taliban are a stark reality.
Outwith a few highly trained Afghan Special Forces units who have been constantly overstretched during the recent fighting, there is little will to fight among some largely neglected sections of the security forces.
In a country where over the past years there has been a growing chasm between the haves and the have nots, some within the country’s wealthy ‘elite’ already see the writing on the wall after the US departure and have hurriedly made moves to save their own skins even if it means cutting deals with the Taliban.
There is nothing new in this. Such deal making has often been the Afghan way of manoeuvring during troubled times. It happened during the years of the Soviet occupation when rival mujahideen commanders struck up agreements between themselves or even on occasion the Communist regime and Russian forces.
It happened too during the civil war of the mid 1990s when rival warlords battled for territorial control of Kabul before the Taliban came to power. And since then, it has always gone on between some Afghan government officials and the Taliban.
Throughout its troubled history, individuals, families, tribes and even government officials have sometimes switched sides, often to ensure their own survival.
In the past week scenes of provincial government officials being allow unhindered passage out of towns and cities or even escorted out by the Taliban are often the result of deals struck sometime using tribal elders as go-betweens with the insurgents.
But not all of the Taliban’s battlefield gains can be explained away by the shortcoming of the government side. This 2021 version of the Taliban has all the characteristics of a different kind of beast with real evidence of a much more co-ordinated plan in their recent advance.
It has been bolstered too by the presence of foreign fighters, many of them from neighbouring Pakistan whose Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) has long wanted to see a sympathetic government ensconced in Kabul and supported the Taliban to that end.
Nevertheless, corrupt sections of Afghan society have handed the Taliban a gift.
Given the prevailing I’m alright Jack mentality among some of Afghanistan’s more privileged, is it any wonder that those who have never felt the benefit but have been asked to take on the Taliban are less that keen to make a sacrifice for others who have the opportunity to get out?
Right now, however, it is those civilians left behind to face the Taliban’s wrath that should concern us most. For whatever happens next on the frontlines a humanitarian crisis is already in full flow.
As widespread fighting intensifies, the UN refugee agency UNHCR, has said that it is particularly concerned about the impact of the conflict on women and girls as “80 per cent of nearly 250,0000 Afghans forced to flee since the end of May are women and children,” according to spokesperson Shabia Mantoo.
A report published only last month jointly by the UN human rights office (OHCHR) and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) found that more women and children were killed and wounded in the first half of 2021 than in the first six months of any year since records began in 2009. Food shortage too are beginning to take their toll.
“We fear the worst is yet to come and the larger tide of hunger is fast approaching… the situation has all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe,” the World Food Programme’s Thomson Phiri told a UN briefing on Friday.
With reports this weekend indicating that the Taliban are now within easy striking distance of Kabul, US airstrikes are again being used to try and hold them back.
It now seems a question of when not if the Taliban will seize control of the capital and country.
Among many in the city there is a real sense of foreboding and is always the case in such a chaotic scenario the rumour mill goes into overdrive.
Some sources have indicated that a peace deal might be in the offing between the Taliban and Afghan government that would see the militants become part of a transitional government, offer a ceasefire and desist from a military takeover of the city leaving government structures intact.
Should such a deal happen most likely Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would no longer remain in office along with many of his senior staff. This however is just one of many unverifiable reports coming from Kabul right now.
As for Washington and the West, the blame game for this calamitous foreign policy mistake is already underway with UK defence, military and intelligence officials insisting the US pull-out was a mistake and refuting President Biden’s claims that Afghanistan will not once again become a sanctuary for the likes of al-Qaeda.
The simple inescapable fact here is that what the Taliban say and what they do is often at odds. The same is true over differences of strategy that exist between the militants’ leaders and negotiators in Qatar like Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar, and their commanders on the ground.
As one expert summed it up last week: “It doesn’t seem to me that a motorcycle-riding Taliban leader with a Kalashnikov is very interested in what Baradar says.”
Ultimately all that really matters now is that the Taliban have returned. Twenty years after 9/11 the Taliban – to paraphrase the words of George W Bush – have ended the US presence in Afghanistan in a way and at an hour of their choosing.