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Taliban Triumphant

August 16, 2021

Summary: Stunning everyone (likely including the Taliban) with the speed of collapse, the Taliban have captured Kabul, President Ghani has fled and thousands of Afghans are trying to escape from the airport. To all intents and purposes the Taliban now control Afghanistan. All eyes on the Taliban’s next moves.

Well, this was me a month ago:

An aggressive and thus far successful military surge by the Taliban is creating a fear of an imminent Taliban return to power.  This is certainly one possibility, but a collapse of the government does not look likely at present. 

Taliban sweep into Afghan capital after government collapses

Inevitable.  Well, in the several hours of hindsight that we now have, it is easy to say that the Taliban’s takeover of the country was bound to happen.  I didn’t see it like that and it means I got it wrong.  The sheer speed of collapse took me by surprise even though I felt I had a reasonable understanding of how Afghan conflicts can work – much posturing, demonstration, followed by negotiations and then a rapid – often very rapid – changing of allegiance once it becomes clear the way the wind is blowing.

There were several “collapse models” from recent history that I was thinking about:

1989 – 1992 – The Najibullah regime: An Afghan government put in place by the Soviets when they left.  The conscript army and air force was propped up by the Soviets, trained, funded and equipped.    Its speedy demise was widely predicted and yet it held on against confident and powerful Mujahideen for over two years.  Rapid disintegration did occur, but only when the Soviet Union collapsed and it became clear that no more money, weapons and advisors would be forthcoming.  President Najibullah was tortured and hung from a lamp post when the Taliban finally caught up with him.

1994 – 1995 – The rise of the Taliban: The tide turned against a weak and divided coalition government as the Kandahar-based Taliban raced north-west up the ring road to Herat and north-east to Kabul.  Striking tribal deals as they went, many groups simply fell into line without resistance, recognising the Taliban as a powerful and growing force that had the momentum (and Pakistani support).

Late 2001 – collapse of the Taliban: I was an analyst watching from London as this happened.  Weeks of bombing and no shift in Taliban positions.  Then a fracturing of Taliban resolve around Mazar-e Sharif and further nudges from General Dostum, the CIA and US Special Forces.  The Taliban resistance crumbled and then shattered.  Then, as now, the speed of collapse was something to behold.  As analysts, watching the Taliban retreat pell-mell southwards, we kept expecting them to dig in for a last stand – would it be Kabul?  Would it be Kandahar?  Nothing like that.  Taliban groups – and groups notionally “Taliban” for a few months or years simply dispersed into the countryside, fled to Pakistan or joined the “boulder rolling downhill” momentum that was the Northern Alliance anti-Taliban coalition.

December 2014 – withdrawal of NATO:  A wild card example here.  While not strictly a collapse, it is worth remembering that NATO had “left” Afghanistan once before.  International troop levels peaked around 2011 at 140,000 or so.  By December 2014, NATO had officially withdrawn and the remaining force levels stayed at 10 – 12,000 for some years, until President Trump reduced them even further in 2020.  There was much analytical concern in 2014 – 2015 that this might trigger a collapse into civil war and a Taliban return.  It didn’t happen – but it served to trigger the debate about how few US troops could be left in order to prop up the government and gave hope (false hope as it turned out) that the Afghan government could survive another international downsizing.  I can see in my analysis that I was drawn more to this model and the Najibullah one, thinking that perhaps Ghani’s government would lurch downwards as the US left in 2021 but would recover to retain control of the key cities and communication networks and not entirely collapse.

Why did it happen so fast?  I think it was a combination of Taliban work striking behind the scenes deals with key players in the provinces, the brittle nature of much of the army and police (the relatively high quality of Afghan commandos and special forces notwithstanding, the regular army and police had high desertion rates, low morale and frequently were not paid or supplied).  But also it was this less tangible issue of momentum and survival instinct – judging which way the wind is blowing: ensuring that you are not going to go down fighting for a cause that looks lost.  Once this thinking takes hold, that battlefield empties rather quickly.   

The Taliban, the Afghan population and the international community appear all equally stunned by speed of the turnaround and the scenes in Kabul.  All eyes are on the Taliban’s next steps.  I will try and put down some thoughts shortly about the coming prospects.  I think the Taliban’s problems are probably only just beginning.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Osset permalink
    August 16, 2021 10:45 am

    Well written! Thumb up!

    > 16 aug. 2021 kl. 10:39 skrev afghanhindsight : > >

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