Three things emerge from accounts of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan: It was largely bloodless in recent months, being executed mainly through skilled negotiations and deal-making with different elders of different tribes. Second, most Afghans, including their security forces, do not seem to have felt that the Afghan government and system of the past 20 years was worth fighting for. Third, a large part of the shock and horror being expressed from western capitals is about the “humiliation of the West”.
All of these points are as troubling as they are telling.
First, one has to wonder why the Afghan government—staunchly backed until very recently by the United States with money and military support—was unable to cut the very deals that the Taliban managed and to negotiate strategically with tribal elders. Unlike successive US-backed governments in Kabul, the Taliban were not in power and therefore, had little patronage to confer. And while the Taliban had some money (from drug deals and other sources that stand in the shadows), the government in Kabul was so much better funded. The inescapable conclusion is dismal: that the government in Kabul came across to disparate tribal elders across the country as inept and insincere and that it was considered neither charming nor convincing. Ultimately, of course, the multiple accounts of Afghan military and police who weren’t paid for months underlines how little the government in Kabul was doing for its own staffers, let alone its people.
The second point follows right along from that last fact. To fail to pay your soldiers and policemen; to neglect to send them food and other provisions; to allow greed to consume the entire contents of the country’s coffers is dishonest, of course. But more than that, it is inept and strategically inchoate. In fact, it rather appears that the government in Kabul had no strategy. Unsurprisingly, the US decided it could not continue to throw good money after bad and it pulled the plug on its support for the government in Kabul.
Third, the alleged humiliation of the West is really about the length of time it needlessly stayed in Afghanistan. The 2001 invasion was warranted because the country’s Taliban rulers were refusing to hand over the conspiracists behind the horrific 9/11 attacks. A few years of rebuilding damaged buildings and so on would have been quite enough to set Afghanistan on its feet, having turned its face in the right direction. Generous aid could have been provided. The US could’ve swallowed its pride and spoken to Iran, as well as to China, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan—all of them Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours—to work out a way to ensure the country was not reduced to a terrorists’ lair. The US would have had to shell out as well to make concessions to Iran. But that might have been better than staying on until 2021.
(Incidentally, I wrote a novel, ‘The Pomegranate Peace‘ on the absurdity of US attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan. Published by Arcadia, London, in 2013, it was from what I observed in the year I spent at the US embassy in Kabul. I can’t honestly say it’s the greatest novel ever—I would do better now—but it is well-observed, at times funny and always true. Wish it weren’t.)