In just over a week, the Taliban have captured almost all of Afghanistan and are asking for Kabul's surrender.
The threat of the Taliban returning to power always had loomed over the withdrawal from Afghanistan. In truth, it was never really a question of “if” the Afghan government would be overrun, but “when”. Maybe the Afghan National Army could keep them at bay for a year or two before it all came crashing down. Another long and drawn-out conflict reminiscent of the 1990s, but with no outside help like the time before, had a guaranteed ending that would not be in the government’s favor. God forbid the possibility of the chances being even worse, but they still escape the fate of everything falling by the end of the year.
Nobody expected the possibility it would only take a week.
The renewed offensive by the forces of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name the Taliban had given to their government before its deposing in 2001 but that is still retained to this day, had been ongoing since May, but at the beginning of August, exploded exponentially in scale and swiftness. Provincial capitals began falling at a pace so quick that many fell within hours of the one before.
First, there was Zaranj on August 6 in the country’s southwest. Then came Sheberghan and Sare Pol. Kunduz, which had been taken for a short time before by the Taliban in 2015 in a battle that resulted in more than 200 killed and an airstrike on a hospital by U.S. forces, now had captured it again, this time with no Americans to expel them. Cities that had formerly been firm Northern Alliance territory in the early 2000s like Fayzabad, fell without much resistance. Major cities like Herat and Kandahar, containing hundreds of thousands and the latter being the site of the Taliban’s former de facto capital, fell under the group’s control for the first time in 20 years. The capitals taken by the Taliban became so innumerous and came so frequently that listing them all becomes not unlike a blur, with maps of the advances becoming outdated sometimes within minutes of their drawing.
At the time of this writing, Kabul is surrounded. All major urban areas outside the city are no longer under the control of the American-backed Islamic Republic. President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country, with rumors swirling that he is in Tajikistan. Only days earlier, as the offensive sped up, the Afghan government had asked for the Taliban to negotiate for a power-sharing agreement. Now, less than a week after that demand, Taliban representatives were instead asking the Afghan government to negotiate for something simpler: unconditional surrender.
It had been a rout unlike much else in modern history. The Taliban swept through Afghanistan with a might that baffled and stunned observers, even those who had reported on the country for years. The Afghan military, constructed, trained, and funded by the United States for decades to become what would have hoped to have been formidable against the Taliban and self-professed to have been a “brave” fighting force, crumbled in a way that defies description. Videos poured in of Afghan soldiers fleeing in American-supplied vehicles as fast as the wind would take them. Entire major cities fell without even a shot fired, their taking negotiated by the Taliban with few if any conditions.
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The Afghan National Army left behind almost everything you could imagine: machine guns, humvees, armored personnel carriers, even fully-functional helicopters. The Wall Street Journal reported the words of soldiers who said there had been no assistance from the central government, resupplies to positions having been halted, and that many were cutting their losses as the inevitable was approaching. Afghanistan’s government, despite having fought this war with American assistance and coordination at every step of way, appeared to have been stunned just as much as anyone, with seemingly no plan to counter any of it.
There had been hopes pinned by some on the warlords of the past. They had fought in the Afghan Civil War in the 1990s, experienced in attacking Taliban strongholds, holding out against its forces even when they had acquired Kabul, an air force, and a little foreign recognition, and well-versed in the art of insurgent warfare.
Maybe resistance could be found in Ismail Khan. A former commander in the Northern Alliance, a veteran from the earliest days of the war with the Soviets, and called by some the “Lion of Herat” for the province he was from.
As the offensive raged still outside Herat, Khan called for “courage” against the Taliban, echoing what he displayed in his own fight against them in the decades past. When the offensive entered Herat however, he surrendered. He was then seen in a video being promised good treatment by a leader within the Taliban.
Another possibility was Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum. He had been a military man for longer than many could remember, first a part of the Soviet-backed communists, then defecting, eventually allying with the Northern Alliance and becoming a figure in the US-backed government, seeming to change sides whenever he felt the tide was turning. He was renowned by some for his military ability, but this military ability was built however on a ruthlessness that has attracted the attention of the International Criminal Court, with accusations of atrocities committed by his forces including the massacre of scores of Taliban prisoners during the American invasion.
On August 12, Dostum flew into besieged Mazar-i-Sharif, his former base of operations, to foil any chance of a Taliban takeover. On August 13, photos were released of Dostum in military uniform, appearing to direct troops and ready to formulate an effective defense.
On August 14, he fled into Uzbekistan.
He took the same bridge out of the country as the Soviets did when they fled more than 30 years earlier.
Comparisons had been made by some to the grave situation that came about after the First Northern Iraq Offensive in 2014, when the forces of the Islamic State overran Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, along with vast swathes of its surrounding territory. Iraqi troops dropped their uniforms on the sides of highways and ran for their lives, with only 800 Islamic State militants defeating 30,000 Iraqi soldiers in only six days of fighting. But there are key differences between the campaign that was undertaken in the 2010s by the Islamic State in Iraq and the campaign being driven by the Taliban today.
In Iraq, the nation’s forces regrouped, organizing coalitions of militias, gathering massive and overwhelming international support behind its cause, and with that help would undertake a long, years-long war to reclaim all of the territory that had been lost to the Islamic State, until victory was declared.
In Afghanistan, there is no chance to regroup. There is no territory from which to springboard a counter-offensive. There is no multinational coalition coming to save any of them. Almost all of the land that had been utilized by the Northern Alliance in the decades past had already been taken by the Taliban days before, much of it without a fight. New cities, towns, even villages that could take up the mantle of resistance will likely be under Taliban control within the next few days if they are not already by the time of this publication. Barely-hidden desperate pleas for negotiations and claims of a stable situation in Kabul that were seen right through by many have quickly unveiled the true situation of the war against the Taliban: that there is no tide to be turned any longer.
The Afghan military was long talked about by American government officials as one that would soon be able to take on the responsibilities necessary of any nation: to defend itself against enemies foreign and domestic. From the broken and battered remains of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, ousted from its capital in 1996 and fighting for its life in the country’s north for years, America had supposedly come to clean its wounds, to wrap around it a cast, and to mend its bones so that it may stand and move and fight on its own.
But the reality of the situation was far from this. Trillions of dollars of American government spending had yielded a military that could not feed its soldiers, that could not pay its soldiers, whose corruption and administrative inefficiency was so great that Afghanistan had more generals than the U.S. Army, an army almost 8 times its size.
The Afghan government had been one without faith in its institutions, yielding exceedingly high turnout in its first presidential election, but each one that came after it being ones rife with accusations of electoral irregularities, political crises, and turnout being driven down below even 20% of registered voters. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan had been in power long enough that a man born while bombs were being dropped by America in 2001 would now be able to vote in an Afghanistan that was still under American occupation, and that country would now arguably worse off in defending itself than when he was born into it. Those who had been eager to fight for it had been abandoned after they sacrificed for it, and now, 20 years later, it seemed that no one, from the lowest soldier in the ranks to the highest official in the land, wanted to defend it any longer.
Despite the anger and feelings of abandonment many feel in Kabul and elsewhere, to say nothing of the fears expressed by the thousands upon thousands of refugees having fled to escape the group’s advance, it seems that the Taliban coming to power is only a formality. President Ghani has fled the country, reportedly to Tajikistan. Marshal Dostum’s plans to return, if they exist, remain unclear. The former president, Hamid Karzai, has promised to stay in Kabul, as has Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s former Chief Executive. A transitional government will reportedly be put into place to ensure that the Taliban come to power without destruction coming to Kabul as it had done so in the decades past.
Herein lies the other crucial difference between this and the Islamic State. The apocalyptic vision of global domination the self-proclaimed Caliph al-Baghdadi saw for the group would be its own destruction, isolated on all sides, having antagonized almost the entire world, and they eventually paid the price with complete defeat.
The Taliban, on the other hand, intend to stay.
The Taliban are still conservative Islamists, their ideology having not shifted all that much since its last hold on governance before 2001, but their change in tone within Afghanistan and to the rest of the world, however small and subtle in the grand scheme of things, may ensure its survival, against the concerns of human rights advocates and the West’s almost inevitable diplomatic isolation efforts. It has already begun reintegrating former Afghan officials and military leaders under its command and has met with officials in China and elsewhere to establish relationships. The Taliban are on the cusp of total victory in Afghanistan and they mean to keep it that way.
Within Kabul, the U.S. evacuates. The American government has reiterated again and again to the Taliban to not interfere with the withdrawal from the city. Amidst photos swirling of Chinook helicopters flying over the roof of the American embassy, speculativ comparisons made for months about a repeat of Saigon now made almost comically real, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said emphatically in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, “This is not Saigon.”
As for non-American personnel, the fates of many Afghans remain unknown for the time being. More than 18,000, almost all of whom worked for the military as interpreters and other professions, remain in limbo, with the possibility of them being left behind growing greater and greater by the day as the Taliban enter parts of Kabul. While they are claiming to be peacefully entering the city to establish order, many inside the capital may feel that the walls are beginning to close in, and that even the increases in U.S. soldiers to facilitate the evacuation and the statements of officials in their favor will not avail them.
For all the claims American military officials made about who they were defending, what they were fighting for, be it freedom for the Afghan people, safety against a terrorist threat, it didn’t matter. It never mattered. They could only deny the gravity of the situation and hope you didn’t notice the helicopters leaving it all behind, without ceremony, without fervor.
There is a consignment in the air that reporters, officials, and observers alike all are enveloped in. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, after being unseated from power, after 20 years of constant fighting against one of the largest armies on Earth, has finally won against it with such swiftness as to have never been crippled at all. An unnamed U.S. official, upon the news of President Ghani fleeing the country without any announcement, bluntly told a Fox News reporter their thoughts.
“That’s it. It’s over.”