Brief expert opinion
coding brief expert Tim Willacy Willsey He served for more than 27 years in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is now a Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College London.
Older Americans have Saigon 1975 and helicopters from the embassy roof etch in their memories. The previous generation of Britons was haunted by the image of General Percival delivering large numbers of troops and equipment in Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. How Kabul fell to the Taliban can be of significant practical and symbolic significance.
The announcement that the US will send 3,000 troops to Kabul along with 600 British troops to manage the evacuation of civilians and Afghans who have provided assistance is a markedly belated response to the rapidly deteriorating situation. Unless it is implemented within the next 48 hours, it will also be risky. Taliban infiltrators are already inside Kabul and the forces that captured Ghazni and Kandahar on 12NS August will be heading towards the capital on their Honda 125cc motorcycles.
The United States should have extracted pledges from Taliban negotiators in Qatar not to launch their full assault on Kabul until evacuations are complete, but doubts remain. Previous Taliban assertions have proven futile, and it is doubtful that individual Taliban leaders will want to back down while some of Ashraf Ghani’s ministers, senior army officers, judges and officials are relegated to a life of exile.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the speed and rush of the Taliban’s recent successes. With the capture of 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals in about a few days. It reminds us of the extraordinary advances made by the Japanese on the Malay Peninsula in 1942 with Singapore as the final prize.
The Taliban’s success did not happen by chance. It is clearly the fruit of preparation and planning. Above all, they learned from the experience of 1994 to 1996 when they finally captured Kabul but failed to take the north, allowing the Northern Alliance parties to survive and then reassert themselves after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
This time, the Taliban first focused on border posts with neighboring countries (thus depriving vital government supply routes and customs revenue) before capturing distant provincial capitals and leaving Kabul (which is never easy to capture) to the end. Above all, they have focused on the north where many rural Afghans are disillusioned with the Kabul government and regional warlords. The north is no longer a stronghold of anti-Taliban sentiment as it was in the 1990s.
The Taliban’s advance in the north eliminated any chance of a resurgence of the old Northern Alliance after the eventual collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s government. Whereas in 1996 Ahmad Shah Massoud, its illustrious military commander, was able to abandon Kabul and overcome a tactical retreat in the Panjshir Valley, that option hardly exists today. Not only was Massoud killed, but his former followers were no longer guerrilla fighters, but members of the caste Afghan army that struggled to perform without American air support.
The Taliban also ruthlessly exploited the weak negotiating position of the United States and its chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad. While some members of the Taliban team in Doha, such as Mullah Baradar, may indeed have been “moderates”, there was no doubt that the Taliban wanted to see the complete defeat of the Kabul government and the expulsion of Western forces. Pakistan, too, may have at times considered some form of a negotiated agreement, but the only sure way in the end to keep Indian influence out of Afghanistan (you think) is the Taliban government.
The Afghan army (particularly its impressive special forces) would now mass in Kabul and should be able to fend off the initial attempts to overrun the city. Certainly, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar found it impossible to seize Kabul in 1992 and 1993 even with help from Pakistan, which switched its support to the fledgling Taliban movement in late 1994.
But from 1992 to 1996 there were frequent deliveries of supplies to Massoud and his defenders in the Northern Alliance from Russia, Iran, and India. In 2021 the situation is very different. Russia has already decided to “support the winner” and believes that it extracted promises from the Taliban not to export political Islam northward to the Central Asian republics. Iran, too, has channels with the Taliban and will carefully monitor any return to Taliban persecution of Hazara Shiites. India has already made contact with the Taliban in Doha in the hope that the Taliban in power will prevent the Kashmiri militant groups from establishing bases there.
So the possibility is that Kabul will fall into the hands of the Taliban very quickly. If the Americans and British manage to get their evacuation forces in soon, they should be able to complete the operation successfully, although there are likely to be heart-wrenching scenes at the airport as crowds of refugees are turned away at gunpoint from departing planes. Regional powers, notably Pakistan, would try to persuade the Taliban to refrain from intervening, realizing that the bloodbath in Kabul would be a disastrous start to the Taliban’s second period in government. Ironically, however, the evacuation will almost certainly lead to the collapse of the Kabul government as senior officials are forced to decide whether to take out the last plane or face torture and almost certain death at the hands of the victors. It is questionable whether any Western country would choose to keep its embassies in Kabul. For President Biden, the memory of Benghazi will be very cruel.
What is certain is that there will be new iconic images that rival those of Saigon and Singapore.
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