As of today, it isn’t even clear if their leadership has effective control of the fighters on the ground
Fawaz Shaheen | Clarion India
IT was a day of confusion and increasing uncertainty, but as Sunday evening drew to a close on this 15 August 2021, Taliban fighters were seen comfortably lounging in the presidential palace in Kabul and had, for all practical purposes, taken control of Afghanistan.
The internationally recognised President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, had fled the country within hours of assuring that nothing was amiss. As government and law enforcement officials began to leave their posts and disappear, Taliban fighters surrounding Kabul walked into the city and assumed control of prisons, police stations and the presidential palace.
That the Taliban would be back in power had seemed inevitable for weeks, if not months at this point. But the speed at which the internationally recognised government in Kabul folded and then surrendered to the group that had been driven out of power by a US-led invasion two decades ago took the world by surprise. And it urgently raised many questions about why the invasion had taken place and if it had achieved anything at all.
According to a recent US government audit, the Americans alone spent a staggering $144 billion in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. Eight-eight billion dollars were spent on setting up, training and equipping the 300,000 strong Afghan military force that scattered within weeks of a Taliban offensive (estimated to comprise around 80,000 ill-equipped fighters) across the country.
As recently as two days ago, Pentagon officials were asserting that the Afghan forces trained by them could hold on for months, and that Kabul itself would not come under serious pressure for much longer, time enough to finalise a power sharing agreement between the Taliban and the US backed government.
As it happened, in the last few days as defeat seemed imminent, the professional army began deserting their posts and virtually handed over control of their bases and US-bought weapons, vehicles and other equipment to the Taliban. Some of this can be attributed to the psychological blow of an abrupt US military withdrawal, and much will be said in the coming weeks and months about what could have happened if the Biden administration hadn’t stuck to its hard deadline for a withdrawal. But if the presence of foreign military forces was all that was keeping the internationally recognised government in power, what more needs to be said about its legitimacy and the depth of its roots in Afghan society?
For better or for worse, the Taliban is back in control of Afghanistan, and with its victory comes the responsibility to govern. In the last decade or so, Taliban officials and spokespersons have taken a public stance that they are not the Taliban of old. Their public statements seem to indicate a realisation that they may have made mistakes in the past, that perhaps they were excessively brutal and unaccommodating.
Even as they have taken control of cities and provinces over the last few weeks, Taliban spokespersons and newly-appointed regional governors alike have made assurances that girls will not be prevented from going to schools, nor women stopped from going out to work, and that there will be no reprisals against Afghans who worked with foreign military forces, aid agencies and the Afghan government. It remains to be seen whether these statements were a mere public relations strategy or indicative of a genuine shift in Taliban policy.
As of today, it isn’t even clear if the Taliban leadership has effective control of the fighters on the ground. In two decades as an underground movement, the Taliban survived due to its decentralised structure. The movement is held together more through ties of local kinship and patronage than organisational hierarchy. Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, the official elected emir or leader of the Taliban and his diplomats in Doha will have to demonstrate that decisions and agreements made by them will be respected and implemented by the various factions and groups within the movement, as well as the boots (and Kalashnikovs) on the ground. Without this, it would be impossible to establish some semblance of a rule of law and basic stability in the war-torn country.
The Taliban leadership will also be keenly aware of the fact that just because the Ashraf Ghani government did not have any real legitimacy does not mean that the Taliban automatically have popular support. How they chose to deal with the different sections of Afghan society, including its many ethnic minorities and a large number of Afghans who do not subscribe to their interpretation of Islam, will set the tone of much that is to come.
The Taliban have already earned a place in history by contributing to the end of the unipolar world and demonstrating the limits of American hard power in what was supposed to be the ‘American Century’. But what it does now is much more important. They must choose whether they will be relegated to a footnote in the long chapter of American decline, or become the force that brought together a fractured society after decades of war and conflict. The Taliban now stand in the gaze of history.
Fawaz Shaheen is a researcher at Quill Foundation, an autonomous research and advocacy group. The views expressed are uthor’s personal. He may be reached at: [email protected]