Twenty years after a US-led invasion toppled Taliban rule, the militant group is once again in control of Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani appears on the brink of resigning and ceding power to a Taliban-led interim government as talks between the government and the group get underway. The collapse of the Afghan government follows days of stunning Taliban advances across the country, as city after city fell to the group, often facing little or no resistance from Afghanistan’s much larger US-trained army. Militants now encircle Kabul, though they have promised not to take the city by force.
The speed of the government’s collapse has exceeded all expectations. On 12 August, the US media cited an intelligence assessment that Kabul might fall within 90 days. In the event, it was closer to 90 hours.
On 8 July, US President Joe Biden, defending his policy of withdrawing all remaining troops from Afghanistan, said: “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
In the same remarks, Biden added: “The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”
Images of a Chinook dual-rotor helicopter landing on the roof of the US embassy in Kabul, certain to be splashed across the front pages of the world media on Monday, have put paid to that confidence.
The US, having not even completed its withdrawal, now faces questions about how its programme of arming and training the Afghan security forces of around 300,000 – which includes the Afghan army, Air Force and police – compared to just 80,000 Taliban fighters, resulted in resistance so weak that it defied even the most pessimistic intelligence assessments. The US has spent about $88bn training the Afghan security forces over two decades.
The Biden administration will also be asked whether the withdrawal of a historically low number of troops – only around 3,500, which is down from a peak of around 110,000 in 2011 – was worth the collapse of the Afghan state. US allies which had been in Afghanistan will question whether they were right to follow America’s lead and withdraw their troops too.
Millions of Afghans now find themselves living under Taliban rule. They now face the unenviable prospect of discovering for themselves whether the group’s recent propaganda, which asserts that it has changed on issues such as women’s rights, reflects reality.
Many will not wait to find out. They will flee, making a refugee crisis likely. A report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, released earlier this month, found that 900,000 Afghans had been displaced by the war in the country – a number which is likely to have grown significantly following the Taliban’s lightning advance. Many will require humanitarian aid within Afghanistan; some will flee abroad, to the neighbouring countries of Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian republics. Some may attempt to get to Europe.
Biden had long promised an end to America’s “forever war”. Few, even mere days ago, expected the US presence in Afghanistan to end quite so ignominiously.