17 Aug 2021 14:52 IST

The Taliban regain control of Afghanistan 20 years after 9/11

US soldiers stand guard along a perimeter at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, amid thousands of Afghans trapped by the sudden Taliban takeover.

A return to the Taliban’s brutal rule in Afghanistan is a stunning defeat of American liberalism.

If Rip Van Winkle had been alive today, he would understand. In the famous short story by the American author Washington Irving, first published in 1819, a Dutch-American villager gets inebriated downing several bottles of hard liquor and retires to the Catskill Mountains, falling asleep for a long 20 years. He wakes up to a different world, unaware that the American Revolution has passed him by.

It was twenty years ago that President George W Bush unleashed the US’s wrath and fury on the Afghan Taliban which had been shielding Osama Bin Laden. The band of fighters and terrorists, with ultra-radical views based on Sharia law, had ruled Afghanistan for years since defeating the Soviets. Skilled at guerilla warfare, they largely escaped into the hills and the border communities of Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

US involvement

For twenty years, the US, supported by an international coalition of western countries invested trillions of dollars, blood, and limbs to bring democracy and human rights to Afghanistan. The west rebuilt villages, towns, and cities across the rugged, mountainous terrain, establishing schools, hospitals, parks, roads, and basic infrastructure. But political infighting at the highest levels of Afghan government and corruption continued. Success was bound to be tenuous, and as western patience thinned, the lurking Taliban saw an opportunity.

They first struck a deal with the Trump administration in Qatar, arch enemies sitting across a conference table in a posh hotel. The US would withdraw its troops and in return, the Taliban would provide assurances that they would not attack US forces, a promise they largely kept. When President Biden continued the withdrawal effort, the Taliban quietly began mounting an offensive against Afghan security forces and continued to spare Americans so that politicians in the US did not have to deal with a daily dose of negative news. The mantra became, “Afghanistan is the Afghans’ problem now. 20 years is enough!”





With the west no longer operating any air bases in the country, the Taliban and the Afghan government forces fought street battles in province after province. In most cases, weary Afghan soldiers simply hung up their weapons and fled, unable to fight back, or simply switched sides to the Taliban. Ghazni, Kunduz, Herat, and Kandahar fell. On August 15, as India was celebrating Independence Day, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled. By the evening, Taliban fighters entered the presidential palace in Kabul and stood around Ghani’s ornate wooden desk posing for the cameras. The Taliban’s takeover was complete.

Taliban’s planned takeover

The insurgents’ offensive was remarkable, bringing to memory the rapid advances of ISIS as it romped through vast territory in Syria and northern Iraq eight years ago. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) reports on and analyses the Global War on Terror. Its multimedia maps, including weekly time-lapse videos, show how the Taliban regained full control of the nation’s districts and provincial capitals. On August 12, the New York Times said, “Only four major cities — including the capital, Kabul — remain under government control, and two of them are under siege by the Taliban.”

By August 15, only Kabul International Airport was under American control. Nearly 5,000 US soldiers freshly flown in were securing the last vestige of the American occupation. As C-130 planes left carrying Americans to safety in what was described as a “Saigon” moment, when helicopters rescued American personnel from the US embassy rooftops in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam war, painful images on social media showed Afghans clinging to planes’ undercarriages. A few fell to the ground after take-off.

All these extraordinary developments can have dire consequences in the entire region. China, basking under America’s protection to advance its One Belt One Road dream in Pakistan, has to now fend for itself. Pakistan, most of which is already radicalised, is under severe threat, with a coup engineered by intelligence and military officials friendly to radical Islam a real possibility.

Instilling fear

In Afghanistan, as some flee to the west seeking refuge, those that will remain will soon come under harsh Taliban rule. In their prior avatar under Mullah Omar, just before the Taliban fell to Bush’s air assault in 2001, they had banned kite flying and keeping birds as pets. They refused to speak to any international leader unless they were Muslim. Women could not go to school and were treated as second-class citizens. Human rights suffered enormously as religious, ethnic, and other minorities, including LGBTQ groups, were mercilessly punished as the Taliban practiced an extreme version of Sharia Muslim law.

A return of Afghanistan to such norms would mark a stunning defeat of American liberalism, which during the last 12 years has reinvented itself with incredible power by channelling institutions to do its bidding. In Kabul on Sunday, workers were found painting over posters of women models in a Kabul mall. The Taliban does not permit public displays of human or animal images.

Big Tech would find a return to Sharia rule in Afghanistan a horrifying prospect. Long before Big Tech can take enforcement actions against violators, the Taliban could outlaw Big Tech altogether, calling it a major moral victory. This would cut off social media and its reach for the millions of Afghans who have flocked to internet cafes and their mobiles to interact with the world. Already Germany has warned that Afghanistan would lose financial aid if the country were to return to Sharia law. The problem with such a threat is that the Taliban rulers will welcome the action. It is the Afghan people who will suffer.

The great British writer Frederick Forsyth said in his many spy novels, “The West may have the clock but the Arabs/Pashtuns/Persians have the time.” Having waited out the clock, the Taliban proved Forsyth right yet again as they assumed control of an entire country with consummate ease.