In recent days we have seen many horrifying and distressing scenes of thousands of Afghans crowding into Kabul airport, in some cases being crushed in their rush to leave their country – a country where the supposedly democratic USA has for over 20 years unsuccessfully tried to impose its vision of order.
But for those who have been able to leave Afghanistan, which has been ravaged by four decades of civil war and where the Taliban (prohibited in the Russian Federation) have taken power following a rapid and shocking advance, there is at least hope. At least seven Afghans including a seven-year old girl were crushed to death outside the British embassy while attempting to submit the papers that would allow them a place on one of the British, US or NATO military aircraft. Jane Ferguson, one of the few Western correspondents in Kabul, was deeply shocked by what she saw, so she noted bitterly: “The scenes are apocalyptic. People are fainting and dying. Children are going missing.”
The complete lack of organization on the part of the Biden administration, coupled with its determination to withdraw troops as quickly as possible, has led to widespread chaos throughout Afghanistan, which has been made worse by the humiliating flight of Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, while the Taliban militants were just hours away from the presidential palace. The Afghan army and security forces, financed and equipped by the US and NATO for over 20 years, just evaporated without trace. The Taliban leadership has attempted to reassure the international community that it has not retaken power in order to reinstate the repressive -if short-lived – regime that was brought to an end by the US invasion in October 2001. Washington justified its invasion of a sovereign state by claiming that the Taliban were providing Al-Qaeda (prohibited in the Russian Federation), with a base for its operations, including, according to the US, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The current leaders of the Taliban claim that they recognize their past mistakes and have turned over a new leaf. They have promised to form an inclusive government with representatives from a range of different political and ethnic groups, and to respect the right of girls and women to education, and they have also stated that they will not reinstate their previous ban on women going outside their homes unaccompanied by a male guardian. And, most importantly, they have promised not to allow Afghanistan to become a refuge for foreign militants and terrorist organizations. It seems that it is not only women and girls who are suffering under the new regime. Cinemas, music and other entertainments are to be banned, persons convicted of authority will be executed, and those convicted of theft will have their hands cut off.
The USA’s main reason for invading Afghanistan was, as they claimed, to rid the world of extremists. But now the Taliban have claimed victory. By withdrawing its forces and allowing its international authority to be dented, the US has suffered a major humiliation. All over the world, commentators have come to the same conclusion: Washington and the Pentagon should have foreseen the collapse of Afghanistan’s government and done more to prevent the current tragedy. And if the country does become a base for terrorists, then many countries around the world will suffer as a result. It is easy to imagine Afghanistan becoming a source of support for all those who hate the West and its Arab allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, those who seek revenge for the West’s interventionism and its insolent military incursions into sovereign states, and those who, driven by their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, aim to cause suffering to others who do not share their views. As the extremists grow in confidence and gain support, it is very possible that we will see terrorist attacks in various locations around the world. And that outcome will largely be a result of the policies followed by successive US administrations since 2001.
Many Afghans remain skeptical about the Taliban’s recent promises, which they see as empty words aimed at winning international recognition and which are unlikely to be honored – a view shared by political observers around the world. In the light of Afghanistan’s experience over the past few decades of chaos and civil war, it is easier to imagine the situation in the country deteriorating than improving. The Taliban forces may appear to have taken Kabul with little actual violence, and their official rhetoric may stress their intention to establish a “moderate” regime, but many believe that these appearances are deceptive and provide little guarantee of peace. It is more likely that we will see a civil war break out as soon as the last US, British and other NATO forces leave the country.
However, it is possible that the recent incident in which suicide bombers killed some 200 people, including 13 Americans, may cause Joe Biden to make some changes to his policy – that is, if he really wants to calm down the situation in the country and is prepared to take measures to achieve this. But it seems unlikely that this will happen. Joe Biden and his team have been in so much of a hurry to get out of Afghanistan – where they were far from welcome – that they had little thought for any other considerations.
The US president now appears to be having some second thoughts and has offered support – mainly financial. As he said in a recent press conference: “The Taliban has to make a fundamental decision. Is the Taliban going to attempt to be able to unite and provide for the wellbeing of the people of Afghanistan, which no one group has ever done? And if it does, it’s going to need everything from additional help, in terms of economic assistance, trades and a whole range of things”. It is true that, for all Joe Biden’s indecisiveness, the most recent events have pushed him to take extreme measures to try and save something of the “great and democratic” USA’s faltering prestige. He ordered an air strike against militants from Islamic State Khorasan Province (prohibited in the Russian Federation) in the eastern province of Nangarhar, according to Associated Press reports killing either one or two leaders of that terrorist organization. Naturally the US media are keeping a shamefaced silence about the number of civilian casualties, but clearly the militants were not hiding out in an empty space, and Washington has little regard for the human rights of ordinary Afghans. For the US, they are second class people, and tens of thousands of them could be killed and their deaths justified by claiming they were members of terrorist organizations.
For the last 20 years the US has been unable to identify the whereabouts of terrorists in Afghanistan, and now, incredibly, the Pentagon is able to order a precision strike. Evidently it took the recent bombing in Kabul airport, in which (as a result of Washington’s and the Biden administration’s failings) US citizens lost their lives to make the US military finally see the light.
A Taliban spokesman criticized the US for failing to warn them about the planned drone strike. “It was a clear attack on Afghan territory, in which two people were killed and two women and a child were injured”.
All in all, it is very hard to imagine how the Taliban, with its extremist ideology and leaders can achieve what no group in the last hundred years has been to achieve. According to local sources, militants have already began conducting house searches for members of the previous government, who they accuse of collaborating with the USA and NATO. In a number of Afghan cities peaceful protests in which people have raised the national flag instead of the white Taliban banner have been violently dispersed by militants firing machine guns, killing a number of people. Ethnic Tajik leaders including the son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, have announced that they have already put together a small army to resist the new leaders of Afghanistan.
On the other hand, both Russia and China have stated that they are ready to support the new government formed by the Taliban. Even Iran, with its predominantly Shia population, which almost went to war with the Taliban at the beginning of the 1990s following the religiously-motivated assassination of some Iranian diplomats, has declared that it welcomes the Taliban victory and the humiliating withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. The same can be said for India, despite the fact that the Taliban takeover has threatened its interests in the country and has boosted the position of its historic rival Pakistan, where many of the Taliban leaders had been based for the last two decades.
In the worst case scenario, which is looking increasingly likely, the situation in Afghanistan may degenerate into civil war. Extremist groups like Islamic State and Al Qaeda (both prohibited in the Russian Federation), which the US left almost undisturbed during its 20-year occupation, are likely to step up their activities in Afghanistan, with nothing to fear except for the occasional US air raid – and that only if they threaten Washington’s interests. Afghanistan’s neighbors and other influential nations, only concerned to get what they can out of this huge but very poor country, will favor the side which they believe can best promote their interests. But it will almost certainly be the Afghan people, enduring yet another violent period in their long and bloody history, who will have to pay the highest price.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.