By Yvonne Ridley
Most Western media outlets are carrying headlines and hype about the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan after the fighting force swept through the country at a blistering pace which has left military strategists gasping. Within 24 hours of making his “I am staying” speech, President Ashraf Ghani fled from Kabul when the Taliban entered the city. Apparently, he has gone to Tajikstan while an interim government headed by Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar takes over.
Ghani didn’t want to stay and fight. Happily, the Afghan National Army agreed, probably because he and his corrupt government weren’t worth defending; the troops gave little or no resistance when Baradar arrived.
In less than a week, the Taliban has seized ten provincial capitals, including the movement’s spiritual home of Kandahar. On Saturday morning, its forces surrounded the capital.
Return to the Dark Ages
Since Western governments and media have spent three decades demonising the Taliban, the headlines over recent days were entirely predictable. “Return to the Dark Ages”, screamed one alongside the face of an Afghan girl looking incredibly frightened and bewildered. I felt frightened for her, even though most of the emerging descriptions and scare stories lack real substance. Not only are Western media outlets selling the public short they’re managing to scare the hell out of everyone else with stories of rape, forced marriage, and schools being closed, as well as the usual tropes such as kite flying being banned.
What is absent in all of the hysteria is any meaningful analysis, insight, or even simple facts about how the Taliban forces have managed to sweep through Afghanistan taking strategic cities such as Herat, Kandahar, and Pul-e-Alam, the capital of Logar province, in just a few days.
Yes, there is carnage on the ground; and, yes, there have been atrocities, but they are happening on all sides. That is what war looks like. The bodies of the children pulled out of the rubble in Kabul when the US and Britain fired cruise missiles against the Afghans in the city at the start of this conflict in 2001 look no different to the bodies of innocents caught up in last week’s crossfire. The only difference is that no one bothered to count the dead and wounded back then if they weren’t American, British or other NATO soldiers.
How has the Taliban managed to seize control of Afghanistan? For a start, it’s worth reminding ourselves that, despite what we read in the media, the movement is not a small band of insurrectionists who have recently re-emerged like some pop-up army after the US announced the surprise pull out of its troops. The Taliban is made up of Afghans with popular support in many parts of the country; it never really went away. These are people fighting in and for their own country, not interlopers.
Although some of the original Taliban are still in its ranks, the movement is quite different from that which fled from Kabul in 2001. The key strategists and decision-makers have not ditched or compromised their Islamic beliefs. They have, though, matured and developed and embraced a more pragmatic outlook on global politics.
Just as the then would-be president Hamid Karzai spent much of 2001 sneaking in and out of Afghanistan making strategic alliances with regional power holders and tribal leaders, ever since 9/11 the Taliban leaders have done exactly the same. However, instead of relying solely on support from within the country, the Taliban negotiating team has also realised that alliances with neighbours and regional powers are equally important, especially when it comes to trade and creating jobs and wealth.
According to my sources — and they’ve not let me down so far — top-level meetings have already taken place with China, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, and other neighbouring states. I’m told that the meetings have all been productive and positive.
There could be very practical reasons for this. Tehran, for example, does not need any more problems to deal with, especially along its rugged 950km border with Afghanistan. Given the tough geographical conditions in the region, it’s nigh on impossible to secure. Iran already has plenty to contend with further afield, as Israel keeps threatening to attack and is goading the US into action against the government in Tehran. The Israelis are already embroiled in a so-called shadow war with Iran in the Gulf.
Similarly, Pakistan has a massive job policing its 2,640km border with Afghanistan while keeping an eye on its potentially hostile nuclear-armed neighbour India in occupied Kashmir. China has much bigger problems to contend with as an emerging superpower, so it too will not want to be distracted by events in the Wakhan Corridor, a sliver of land 350km long but less than 15km wide, ending in Afghanistan’s shortest border of just 75km.
Russia also has its own problems and doesn’t want to be sucked into sorting out Afghanistan’s. Moscow has already been down that route as we all know; the old USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979 until 1989, leading to a 10-year war and occupation, and the emergence of Al-Qaeda. Soviet involvement was as disastrous as the American and British military misadventure in the “graveyard of empires”.
The fact that the Sunni Taliban have been talking with Shia Iran is a sign that toxic sectarian issues could finally be resolved. Not everyone will be happy at this, not least Israel’s new best friends and strategic partners in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia. The two have a mutual loathing for Shia-dominated Iran, as does the kingdom’s influential Wahhabi religious establishment.
Turkey could prove to be a good ally since it is already making its weight felt in the Muslim world with its troops in Syria, Libya, and Qatar, where the Taliban’s negotiating team is based. The Qataris are already promoting themselves as partners for peace in other arenas; again, its rivals in Riyadh are not happy.
Taking all of this into consideration, it is highly unlikely that Afghanistan will become a playground for jihadists or a magnet for terrorists. Far from being isolated, Afghanistan could once again become a key trading route with significant business partners. The key thing, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, is that “The time has come for the West to take a giant step back and stop interfering in Afghanistan other than to provide no-strings humanitarian aid and support to make up for 20 years of devastation.” I stand by this claim.
I remember asking my Taliban interrogators during my well-documented captivity in Afghanistan in 2001 about the movement’s relationship with Al Qaeda. “They came in as our guests and now act as our masters,” they replied bluntly. If that was representative of the general feeling back then, I think that the Taliban leadership may be more selective over who it hosts in the future.
Bearing in mind that the Taliban has never exported terrorism or carried out military strikes beyond its own country, I think it’s highly unlikely it will tolerate those with plans to export terrorism to the West. It’s worth repeating that there were no Taliban fighters on board any of the hijacked aircraft on 9/11, something which many Americans forget; the terrorists were nearly all Saudis.
This will come as a surprise to some journalists who are incapable of viewing the Taliban as anything other than “terrorists”. They see the beards, turbans, and distinct clothing and lazy journalism results; Islamophobia and racism follow.
I suspect that the Taliban’s priorities will include expunging any traces of Daesh from its territory. If any politicians and journalists cannot — or will not — distinguish between the two groups, they need to consider if they are in the right job. As they give this some thought, let them also consider the fact that Western efforts to prop up one of the most corrupt governments in the world helped the Taliban considerably.
The US has thrown three trillion dollars at its failed military campaign in Afghanistan; billions more have been given as aid, much of which has been siphoned off by unsavoury elements within Ashraf Ghani’s regime. Now a lot of the American weapons and equipment supplied to the Afghan National Army and other forces are in the hands of the Taliban. Britain and the EU have also spent huge amounts of money in Afghanistan.
EU threatened to isolate Afghanistan
Astonishingly, Europe has threatened to isolate Afghanistan on the international stage if the Taliban takes power again. Why? It was a disaster the last time round and by isolating the Taliban, the EU created even more fertile conditions for Al-Qaeda and other groups to flourish. It has been said that the definition of madness is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. European racism is clouding its judgment.
Perhaps the most shocking reaction of all has come from US President Joe Biden, who dropped a bombshell before heading off to his Camp David retreat for the weekend. The Afghan people, he told journalists, have to “fight for themselves” and “fight for their nation.”
Let this be a lesson to all who look to America to police the world. The US message is clear: We bombed, invaded, and occupied your country and now we have quit, leaving someone else to sort out the mess that we made. What a propaganda tool for the Taliban. Is it any wonder that the movement has encountered little resistance on the road to Kabul?
I said many years ago that America and its allies were not the solutions for Afghanistan, but the problem. Post-captivity I’ve been back to Afghanistan many times and I can tell you that moving around the country in the all-enveloping blue burqa enabled me to observe America’s arrogant imperialism at close quarters. It was repugnant.
As we look at what is happening now, let’s remember this: It’s not the rapid withdrawal of the US forces that enabled the Taliban’s speedy power grab, it was their presence in Afghanistan in the first place.