At time of writing, the fighters of the Taliban Islamist movement in Afghanistan are less than ten miles from the Afghan capital city of Kabul.
**** in the few hours between writing and publishing, the Taliban have taken all major cities in the country and are reported to be entering Kabul ****
The western media and military establishments are in a state of shock at the Taliban’s scorchingly fast ‘re-emergence’ in Afghanistan in the wake of the withdrawal of western forces. Within weeks of the US military leaving, Taliban forces have retaken roughly a third of the country and fully half of the regional capitals.
The Taliban first came to prominence in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1970’s and 80’s. Very broadly, a coalition of anti-soviet Islamist groups came together to form the Taliban and took over the majority of the country as the soviet Red Army retreated. They became the de-facto government in 1996 until they were removed by a US-led invasion in 2001. Twenty years of military occupation later, and the Taliban are on the rise again.
The question on the lips of most commentators – from Afghan ‘moderates’ to western war veterans – is how has this happened? Twenty years is a monumental amount of time for a country to be occupied by foreign military forces. Post-WWII Germany was occupied for ten years. For perspective, WWII killed almost 75,000,000 people, as opposed to the estimated 200,000 deaths of the latest war in Afghanistan.
It is now inconceivable that the occupation of Afghanistan is anything other than a failure. For much of the western ‘war on terror’, emphasis has been given to the “hearts and minds” strategy of winning Afghans away from radical Islamism and towards democracy. Given that the Taliban has almost doubled in size – from 45,000 in 2001 to an estimated 85,000 today – this has clearly not gone well. But even we ignore the Taliban’s growth it is still obvious that the people of Afghanistan have no interest in defending their newfound western democracy. The Afghan security forces and it’s affiliated militias number almost 300,000 men, more than triple that of the Taliban. More importantly, the Afghan government can call on the material support of the western powers, as well as that of it’s own small air force (something the Taliban sorely lack). The security forces of the Afghan government are well equipped, well funded and trained by the US and European armed forces. The forces of the Taliban are largely composed of irregular militia fighters using Cold War era weaponry, with little artillery and no air support whatsoever. And yet the Afghan government forces are dissolving in the face of the Taliban’s re-conquering of Afghanistan.
The western news networks are focussing on the humanitarian disaster unfolding as the Taliban advance, and it is quite right to prioritise the suffering of civilians as one of the main issues. But the point that the west is purposefully, forcefully, furiously ignoring is that Afghan ‘democracy’ was only ever as stable as the US soldiers propping it up.
US interference in Afghanistan is the cornerstone of the current crisis. It is not an overstatement to say that the Taliban would never have come into existence without the meddling of the Americans and their allies.
In 1979, Afghanistan was a progressive socialist country. Led by a revolutionary communist government, the country had begun to roll back the regressive social practices and misogynist laws that had previously been the norm. The Americans’ cold war crusade against communism could not allow another socialist nation, and so the US, it’s European allies and Pakistan began to pour weapons and funding into the small ‘Mujahideen’ Islamist groups that were fighting against Afghan socialism.
Before long American money and weapons had turned the tiny guerilla movement into a serious threat, and so the Afghan government requested aid from the Soviet Union. This is what would be come known as the Soviet ‘invasion’ of Afghanistan, although no invasion actually occurred. The US then stepped up it’s funding of the Mujahideen, including one group led by the then unknown Saudi Islamist Osama bin Laden. It is popular opinion that the American’s probably regret arming him now, although those who have profited from the war on terror likely view it as a stroke of luck.
The American’s and their Islamist proxies would eventually crush Afghan socialism in 1989, and from the instability that followed several different Islamist groups would join together to form the Taliban, taking over the country in 1996.
So when the American’s ask themselves “How have we failed this badly?”, there is really only one answer; they didn’t. The Taliban is doing what it was created to do, namely to oppose the liberalisation of Afghan society and to impose hard-line Islamist rule. It is easy for westerners watching the unfolding scenes in Afghanistan to be puzzled and even amazed that so many people could support the Taliban, or at least not oppose their rule. But the sad truth is that it is our tax money (or at least that of our parents) that bought the rifles currently being carried towards Kabul.