Corruption, Incompetence, Drug Trade: Taliban’s Rise Had Its Warning Signs
The biggest mistake the US and NATO allies made was to downplay the Taliban’s strength
In an article published in the Foreign Policy magazine, aptly entitled “The Taliban are winning”, I predicted in 2015 that the taking of Kunduz was a dry run for the ultimate taking of Kabul. The lightning advances of the Taliban in the past several weeks stunned many Afghan observers, US and international policymakers, and intelligence analysts — I wasn’t one of them. The Taliban came roaring back to Kabul, 20 years after they were dethroned by the US forces in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Ironically, the Taliban flag would be hoisted on Kabul on the 20th anniversary of the most horrific attacks on US soil.
US-backed President Ashraf Ghani fled to the UAE, Rashid Dostum and Atta Noor fled to Uzbekistan, and millions would be fleeing to neighbouring countries in the coming weeks and months. Worried Afghans have seen this movie several times in the past four decades. Afghanistan has been pushed back to darkness, yet again.
Images of shocked Kabul residents hanging on to the fuselage of a US C-17 military plane taxing on the Hamid Karzai International Airport are being watched in disbelief. The plane, with a capacity of 300 people, carried 800 people on board. The utter chaos at the Kabul Airport would be haunting the US and western policymakers for a long time to come, as terrorised residents try to flee the country.
Taliban’s Dubious Assurances
After the 2020 Doha deal, it was clear that the US and its NATO allies would be exiting the Afghan theatre, but few thought that the Afghan government and military would collapse like a house of cards, and even fewer predicted the Taliban entering the presidential palace even before the last US troops leave the country by the end of August. The Taliban leaders are assuring Kabul residents that their safety would be ensured, but no one is truly buying it.
On paper, the number of Afghan security forces, armed with American weapons, is about 300,000. However, most of them are ghost soldiers, and that’s why there was absolutely no resistance offered to the Taliban advances. On the other hand, the number of Taliban fighters is around 60,000 to 70,000. They do not put on fancy uniforms; most of the fighters do not even have shoes on their feet. Most western military analysts now believe that the Taliban are now the strongest in 20 years. Billions of dollars were poured in to build a sizeable Afghan military, but it turned out to be a futile exercise.
The Taliban knew that America would one day leave Afghanistan. They were just waiting for the right time; the Taliban had both the watch and the time at their hands. A Taliban prisoner told the Americans in 2010, “Your watch’s battery will run down, and its hands will stop. But our time in the struggle will never end. We will win.” After all, he was right.
How Did the US Lose Its Way?
American policymakers stumbled from “counterinsurgency” to “rebuilding the country” to “bringing democracy to the country” to “building a military”. None of that materialised. The American strategy was to capture major cities in Afghanistan — a strategy called population-centric counterinsurgency. But rural areas, outside the district centres, remained under the de facto Taliban control.
Then, at a time when the United States was shifting responsibility for security to the Afghan forces, the Taliban were slowly targeting cities. The Taliban has been moving slowly with this strategy for the past 10 years. Former US President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to leave Afghanistan by 2021 was politically motivated, without any benchmarks for success, and without holding the Taliban accountable. An exit timetable without extracting sufficient guarantees from the Taliban should never have been announced in the first place.
Armed with political and military support from neighbouring countries, the Taliban have been very tactful. Instead of the ethnic Pashtun-dominated south and east, they have deployed forces in the northern and northwestern provinces, where government forces and government-backed militias were more powerful. The Taliban knew that they can easily repel government troops from the south and east at any time.
For the past two months, thousands of Afghan soldiers have been laying down their arms and taking off their uniforms. I have seen Afghan forces from a very close distance. They have absolutely no will to put up a fight, though they have the full capacity. As the Afghan military’s resistance continues to crumble, the strength, training, and future of this multi-billion-dollar force are in question.
Why Are the Taliban Winning?
The Taliban, originally a group of ethnic Pashtuns and hardline Sunni Wahhabi ideologues, have been trying to draw to its fold other ethnic groups in Afghanistan over the past several years. The Taliban’s attempt to seize the Tajik-dominated province of Badakhshan is bearing fruit.
Many frustrated Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek leaders are coordinating with the Taliban. As a result, the Taliban were able to impose control beyond their traditional sphere of influence. The Taliban have also been building alliances in the past several months and its leaders held meetings with top Chinese and Russian leaders. It will not be a surprise if the regional countries jump to recognise the Taliban government. The Taliban is a very powerful organisation with the right strategy, planning and coordination. The biggest mistake the US and NATO allies made was to downplay the Taliban’s strength.
The level of corruption in the Afghan government had reached astronomical limits. Billions of dollars came into the Kabul Bank and then were safely funnelled to bank accounts in the Gulf region.
Corruption, mismanagement and incompetence of the Afghan government, coupled with a lack of security and a lack of access to justice, are major contributing factors to the Taliban’s swift ascendence to power.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan with brute force for four years, from 1996 to 2001. They can do it again, even if no one recognises them at the international level. The Taliban do not need money from the outside world; the illicit drug trade is enough to keep them afloat. As much as 90 per cent of the heroin market in the United States and Europe is from Afghanistan. In the south of the country, the Taliban have taken control of everything, from opium cultivation to heroin and methamphetamine production and smuggling. On top of that, the Taliban now have access to all the military equipment of the Afghan army and air force. The Taliban also control mineral deposits, including some rare earth elements worth at least $1 trillion in the Khanashin district of Helmand province.
Why didn’t the Afghan leaders come together and develop a viable military? Because the powerful elites in Kabul were hoping that the US would probably never leave, and their perks and privileges would continue indefinitely. It is time for Afghans to come together and take back their country.
Al-Qaeda, Taliban and Pakistan
The Taliban promised in the Doha agreement that they will not allow foreign groups to use the Afghan soil for planning attacks against the US and European allies. However, it is wise not to trust a terrorist organisation. The Taliban’s relationship with Al Qaeda is still intact and the Al Qaeda is also fighting with the Taliban to fight Afghan forces. If the Taliban can reassure neighbouring countries that their economic interests and security will not be harmed, then perhaps these countries will ignore whether or not the Taliban have relations with anyone else. Besides, they have no choice. Pakistan has traditionally supplied Taliban fighters from its soil and the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan is a victory for Pakistan, too.
How adversely the Taliban’s victory impacts Pakistan or other regional countries is yet to be seen. The Taliban’s main goal of the revival of their Islamic Emirate has come to fruition. Consequently, the world needs to be prepared to deal with two Islamic Emirates — one in Kabul and one in Tehran.
(Dr Asim Yousafzai is a Washington, DC-based geo-science professional and regularly writes on technical and geo-strategic issues. He is the author of the book “Afghanistan: From Cold War to Gold War” and can be followed @asimusafzai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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