The Taliban have claimed victory in Afghanistan. On Sunday 15 August, the insurgents triumphantly marched into Kabul, ending a week of lightning advances across the country. President Ashraf Ghani has fled abroad, reportedly to neighbouring Uzbekistan. His government is defeated. The 20 years of Western presence in Afghanistan collapsed in a single day.
Many countries sped up the evacuation of their embassies and nationals as Kabul fell. Helicopters landing on the roof of the US embassy prompted inevitable comparisons with the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces in 1975. Most commercial flights into and over Afghanistan have been cancelled. Passport offices were reportedly packed as desperate Afghans sought to leave the country by any means possible. Hundreds streamed onto the tarmac at the US-secured Hamid Karzai International Airport, though few found a seat on the last planes out of Kabul.
The speed at which events unfolded over the past week stunned the world. Many grimly predicted that the Taliban, despite its inferiority in numbers (80,000 militants as opposed to nominally 300,000 US-trained personnel from the Afghan Security Forces) would eventually take much of the country, but few expected that the fight would be over before the US withdrawal had even completed on 31 August.
As late as last month, US President Joe Biden – whose withdrawal of all remaining troops in Afghanistan emboldened the Taliban to begin its successful advance across the country – was confidently rejecting gloomy predictions that the insurgents might take the entire country.
What happens now? The millions of Afghans now living under Taliban rule, in the soon to be declared Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, will have to adapt to the group’s hardline interpretation of Islamic law. The militants have pledged to avoid reprisals against former government officials and soldiers, but reports of summary executions of those the Taliban suspects of being traitors are manifold.
The prospects are especially bleak for women, many of whom had used the years of US presence in Afghanistan to go to school and university. Although some of the slicker elements of Taliban propaganda claim that the group is no longer opposed to women’s education, the militants are reported to have stopped women and girls in at least some of the areas it captured recently from going to school and university. Taliban leaders also told unmarried women between the ages of 15 and 40 in some areas that they should be married to the fighters.
[See also: Witnessing the last days of Ashraf Ghani’s Afghanistan]
The new Taliban government might not receive wide international recognition, though some countries could choose to open official or unofficial channels with the authorities. (The last Taliban government, toppled by a US-led invasion in 2001, was recognised only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.) However, Russia has said that it will not evacuate its embassy and is ready to work with the new authorities. That kind of pragmatism might be emulated by others.
A refugee crisis is now almost inevitable, as Afghans flee their new masters, to neighbouring countries and further abroad. Leaders from several Western countries which sent troops to support the US-led invasion, such as the UK and Germany, have said they have a moral duty to offer asylum to Afghans who assisted their militaries, including translators. Yet these number 44,000 outside Kabul, according to Matthew Zeller, the founder of a group helping translators get visas. Many will face reprisals. Some will likely be missed by the limited number of evacuation flights now being planned amid the chaos.
The refugee crisis is also likely to go far beyond just those who assisted Western states. Afghans who did not assist foreign militaries, former government officials and those who simply have no desire to live under the Taliban’s brutal rule might attempt to leave the country. They could number in the hundreds of thousands.
The debacle is Biden’s defining foreign policy episode so far. The repercussions of the fall of the Afghan state will be felt for years to come. The “graveyard of empires” has claimed another victim.
[See also: Why American power failed in Afghanistan]