The Taliban has re-emerged in Afghanistan after 20 years and on Sunday, it took over the capital city of Kabul. They captured the Presidential Palace just hours after President Ashraf Ghani fled, reportedly to Tajikistan.
Ghani explained his reason for departure in a post on his official Facebook page saying, “The Taliban have made it to remove me, they are here to attack all Kabul and the people of Kabul. In order to avoid the bleeding flood, I thought it was best to get out.”
Meanwhile, chaos reigned in the capital with ATMs running dry and people making a beeline for the airport causing traffic jams. There were also reports of gunfire at the airport.
The situation had been escalating in Afghanistan with Taliban conquering different province. Some of the areas now under Taliban control include Mahmud Raqi (capital of Kapisa province), Bamyan, Bagram Airfield, Khost, Jalalbad, Maidan Shahr, Torkham town (near the Pakistan border), and many others. The militia reportedly left rivers of blood in their wake. Perhaps the most shocking display of Taliban brutality came last week when they executed comedian Nazar Mohammed, who was better known by his TikTok handle name Khasha Zwan. He was executed by two Taliban members. A video of the execution went viral on social media.
Afghan actor Sahra Karimi wrote an emotional letter to the international film community a few days ago showcasing the extent of Taliban brutality. “They have massacred our people, they have kidnapped many children, they sold girls as child brides to their men, they murdered a woman for her attire, they gauges the eyes of a woman, they tortured and murdered one of our beloved comedians, they murdered one of our historian poets, they murdered the head of culture and media for the government, they have been assassinating people affiliated with the government, they hung some of our men publicly, they have displaced hundreds of thousands of families,” wrote Karimi urging the international community to stop being silent.
Earlier this year, the impact of the Taliban’s actions was felt in India as well when Pulitzer prize winning Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui was killed while covering clashes between Afghan forces and Taliban in Kandahar in July.
The Taliban emerged as a militia comprising students of hardline Islamic preacher Mullah Omar who shot into prominence after Russia withdrew from Afghanistan in 1990-91. The US at that time is said to have armed the Taliban, using them as a defence against the Russians in a proxy war. However, the equation changed with 9/11.
Omar was believed to be a close associate of 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden. When it emerged that Omar was providing safe haven to Bin Laden and his men, the US invaded Afghanistan in what was dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom. Large swathes of the country were carpet bombed to “smoke them (terrorists) out” as then President George Bush Jr. described. The Taliban itself had been made largely irrelevant by December 2001 itself, after which a new government was formed in Afghanistan. While many top Taliban commanders were killed in attacks by the US, Omar and Osama remained elusive.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s infrastructure was in shambles and democracy was in peril from a resurgence of Taliban should US troops withdraw. US troops would often exchange fire with residual Taliban forces in sporadic skirmishes. Upholding and defending human rights erased by the Taliban became a priority. Images of women forced to don full length burkhas and beaten with sticks even if their ankles showed are still fresh in the minds of people. Hardliners are also opposed to education of girls.
US troops have been in the country for 20 years. They had to stay after the new government was established, as it would have been irresponsible to imperil a nation and then leave when one’s purpose was served. But the American people were growing restless with the constant state of war, the illogical invasion of Iraq adding to their frustration. Many successive presidents promised to withdraw troops from the oil-rich Middle East and then reneged on their word, purportedly to serve their own political agendas. Bin Laden was eventually killed in Pakistan in May 2011, while Mullah Omar died in April 2013.
But given previous political turmoil in the region, specifically its virtual abuse by two super powers, the Afghan government could not be expected to hold its own. The US needed to stay put, mainly to clean up its mess. Progress was slow, and often rather unsteady. Afghanistan took its tentative steps towards operating as a democracy and strengthening human rights. This included doing away with harsh rules against the education and employment of women. Steps were also taken by the Afghan government to restore the rights of those tribes and ethnic minorities that do not practice Islam. Keeping hardliners in check was a task in itself. But all the progress made in strengthening democracy, now appears to have come to a grinding halt with fears of regression, especially when it comes to rights of women and minorities.
After the Taliban takeover of Kabul, US President Joe Biden authorised additional troops to help with evacuation of embassy and allied personnel. Nearly 5,000 US troops are part of the mammoth evacuation process which includes maintaining peace at the Kabul international airport, so that flights can take off. The move to evacuate the embassy though has drawn sharp criticism from various quarters, many asking how he could leave the Afghan people at the mercy of the Taliban. But Biden remains firm on his stand that he would not pass this war to the next President of the United States. Here’s an excerpt from his official statement:
“America went to Afghanistan 20 years ago to defeat the forces that attacked this country on September 11th. That mission resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden over a decade ago and the degradation of al Qaeda. And yet, 10 years later, when I became President, a small number of U.S. troops still remained on the ground, in harm’s way, with a looming deadline to withdraw them or go back to open combat.
Over our country’s 20 years at war in Afghanistan, America has sent its finest young men and women, invested nearly $1 trillion dollars, trained over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, equipped them with state-of-the-art military equipment, and maintained their air force as part of the longest war in U.S. history. One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country. And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.
When I came to office, I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor—which he invited the Taliban to discuss at Camp David on the eve of 9/11 of 2019—that left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001 and imposed a May 1, 2021 deadline on U.S. Forces. Shortly before he left office, he also drew U.S. Forces down to a bare minimum of 2,500. Therefore, when I became President, I faced a choice—follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our Forces and our allies’ Forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict. I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan—two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”
While Joe Biden’s rationale vis a vis the American public may be justified, history will judge America by its aggressive, militarised and ill-thought out decision to invade Afghanistan in 2001 in the first place, going after an entire country rather than the criminal masterminds responsible for 9/11.