Scott Kelly is the author of an article, written before the fall of Kabul on August 15, in Quadrant’s upcoming September 2021 edition. This article in Quadrant Online is an update of the situation since then the city fell. Kelly, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, is the editor of atthewatersedge.org, a commentary on US foreign policy and international relations.
Kabul has fallen to the Taliban in spectacular fashion, with the group’s fighters streaming across the country seemingly unopposed and walking into the capital city to declare victory. The speed of their advance shocked all but the most cynical analysts. President Biden has stubbornly stuck to his decision to end America’s participation in the Afghan conflict as one former national security official after another has come out in opposition, saying America needs to stick it out as long as it takes. Whether some of them are more interested in helping the Afghans or protecting their own legacies is an open question.
With President Ghani fleeing the country moments before Kabul fell, hordes of civilians swamping Karzai International Airport to try and get on the last flight out of town, and China, Russia, and Pakistan moving in to claim their share of the spoils, it might seem like Afghanistan’s more than four decades of perpetual war are finally over. Coverage in Western media widely paints the picture that the Taliban have won, all of America’s and her allies’ efforts were in vain, and all that is left to do is point fingers while we watch the Taliban reassert their brutal form of theocratic tyranny on a powerless population.
But having possession of Kabul, and ruling Afghanistan are not the same thing, as history has shown invaders and would-be kings, from Alexander the Great to the British and the Iron Amir alike.
The Military Victory that Wasn’t
The most surprising part of the Taliban’s takeover was how little fighting it took to accomplish. Even traditional strongholds of anti-Taliban sentiment, such as Mazar-i Sharif, and famed warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum’s home province of Jowzjan, fell almost without a shot being fired, with local officials either fleeing or publicly handing control over their districts to the Taliban. The Afghan military was well trained and equipped, with modern weapons and an effective, if fledging, air force that could have coordinated to stop the Taliban’s advance at numerous points but failed to do so. Even if only half of the 350,000 soldiers America was paying to train and employ on paper actually existed in practice, it was a force still more than enough to keep 75,000 Taliban fighters at bay. Afghanistan’s traditional militias, after openly reforming and rearming in anticipation of America’s withdrawal also chose not to fight. In the final telling, the Taliban’s successful conquest of Afghanistan and seizure of the capital was not a great military victory. It was a political one.
Afghanistan is made up of over a dozen distinct ethic and tribal groups spread over some of the most rugged and isolating geography on earth. Creating and maintaining unity among them has always been challenging, and the government America put in place in 2001 to replace the Taliban has been stabilised more by the threat of withholding aid dollars than a credible domestic political process. The 2014 election was so mired in corruption that the international community had to force the two top contenders, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to form a unity government to prevent state collapse. In the 2019 election only five percent of the population participated and both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah declared victory after massive irregularities were discovered.
To overthrow such a divided government the Taliban did not need to win any battles. They needed to convince each isolated city, tribal faction and strongman that chaos would ensue as soon as foreign troops left, and that they were the only ones with the internal cohesion and competence to provide stability. They successfully shaped the narrative surrounding the withdrawal of foreign troops to create the belief that the Ghani administration could not survive on its own due to its internal divisions and perceived incompetence. They then promulgated this belief over social media and engaged in a series of short, violent offences designed not to seize and hold terrain but to generate exorbitant casualties among the Afghan National Army and destroy its morale and cohesion as a fighting force.
By the time the Taliban had publicly made their move and launched their final offensive in May, many regional leaders had resigned themselves to accept what they already perceived to be the inevitable outcome of the conflict and focused their efforts on surviving the transition, either by fleeing or negotiating a peaceful turnover of power as the Taliban advanced. It may seem incomprehensible that so many Afghans decided to accept a likely return to theocratic tyranny without a fight, but to many that prospect was better than anarchy, especially to those far from the capital who may be hedging on being able to maintain some level of autonomy from Kabul. Afghans have been working through their own tribal conflicts since time immemorial, and are notoriously brilliant in their own form of negotiation, reconciliation and survival, which often defies comprehensive understanding by outsiders.
But the political nature of the Taliban’s success also leaves them vulnerable. The Afghan National Army has dissolved, but the soldiers remain. The militias have not fought, but they remain. Warlords such as Abdul Rashid Dostum fled the country to avoid being caught in the Taliban’s feverish advance, but they can return, as they have done before to lead powerful rebellions. If there is one thing that is more common in Afghanistan’s history than failed occupation by outsiders, it is rebellion against control by whoever controls Kabul, and the seeds of one such rebellion are already being sown in the north.
Warlords, the Third Rail of Afghan Politics
For the past several months, Ahmad Massoud, son of the famed Northern Alliance Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud who fought the Taliban to a standstill in the 1990’s has been traveling throughout Afghanistan’s northern provinces and raising his own militia. Called the Second Resistance in reference to the first which his father led; it boasted several thousand fighters before the Taliban advanced towards Kabul. He has gone to the Panjshir valley, an anti-Taliban stronghold less than 100 miles north of Kabul that has never been captured, to begin a resistance movement. He has been joined by Amrullah Saleh, the former vice-president who declared himself caretaker president after Ghani fled the country and has publicly vowed never to bow to the Taliban. Other former government officials, including Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, have begun to join them, and they have successfully retaken three local districts and repelled several Taliban assaults since the fall of Kabul.
Although small, the presence of this aspiring warlord and his militia is significant. Afghanistan’s warlords have been a decisive force in Afghan power politics since the collapse of the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1992. Once the mujahideen commanders who fought to overthrow the government seized Kabul, vicious infighting amongst former allies broke out as they vied for control over the capital and what remained of Afghanistan’s civil infrastructure. Others used their powerful militias to establish control over distant provinces, using informal networks of patronage to maintain ties to the capital. Weakened by infighting and lacking popular support due to poor governance, these mujahideen commanders-turned-warlords were unable to resist the Taliban, who expelled them from the capital in 1996 and seized control over much of the country. This led to the civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, a loose confederation of warlords based in Northern Afghanistan who successfully resisted Taliban control. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States decided to partner with these warlords to remove the Taliban. Backed by their newfound allies, who provided airpower, money and critical political clout, the warlords and their militias were able to expel the Taliban government and seize control of Kabul.
The new government headed by President Hamid Karzai lacked any standing army, and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force mission was initially limited to securing Kabul. To maintain control, the new administration paid homage to the men who drove out the Taliban by appointing them as governors of the various provinces they had previously controlled as warlords. This action legitimised their positions of power politically by allowing them to run the state institutions in their territories and build their patronage networks via control of the foreign aid money that was flowing freely into the country.
Despite the outward transition from warlords to politicians and the public dismantling of their militias to support the centralisation of military power in Kabul, these former commanders have retained a robust, if often subtle, ability to independently direct violence and influence the security situation across the country. The most infamous Northern Alliance Commander, Abdul Rashid Dostum, while serving as vice-president of Afghanistan, twice turned his palace in Jowzjan into an independent command center, taking control of all security forces in the north of Afghanistan and augmenting them with his own militia to successfully beat back Taliban advances. Later promoted to the rank of marshal, which has only been held by two other people in Afghanistan’s history, he has pledged to lead the fight against the Taliban, though he is currently hiding in Uzbekistan and his militia did not mount a significant fight when the Taliban entered his home territory. His absence during the Taliban takeover should not be immediately interpreted as acquiescence to their rule, as he has a history of leaving Afghanistan during times of turmoil, only to return to use his power and influence to shape events to suit his own interests.
Marshal Dostum has successfully navigated the chaos of Afghan politics for decades, deftly switching sides and forming new alliances as situations changed, showing a knack for always ending up on the winning side. Dostum and his deputies held out against the Taliban for years on their own, and have used the years since 2001 to consolidate more power for themselves. Although he has survived by cutting deals and switching sides, offering his services to other warlords, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, America, or the Russians at various times, the one group he has never aligned with is the Taliban, even when doing so may have been expedient. His past atrocities against the group rogether with his fondness for vodka and women in Western clothing, traits shared by many of Afghanistan’s traditional cadre of strongmen, makes cooperation with the Taliban infeasible.
Many of the people of Afghanistan who welcomed Taliban rule in 1996 as an antidote to the chaos of the time now have painful memories of what it meant to live under their brutal fundamentalist regime. If given the option they are more inclined to choose a benevolent warlord as the de facto power broker in their region. Ethnic minorities such as the Hazara, whose ancestral home in Wardak province is next to the capital of Kabul and who suffered numerous atrocities under Taliban rule, have raised their own militias, and by not expending them in defence of Kabul and Ghani’s regime have retained these assets for future use. The Taliban was able to run roughshod over the country and seize Kabul, but new battle lines are already forming in Afghanistan’s constantly changing landscape of alliances and power structures.
Already there are signs of political unrest as the Taliban seeks to manage their image and relationship with the public, their own hardline supporters and the international community. Public protests against the Taliban have broken out in Afghanistan’s largest cities, including Kabul. The Taliban also face an economic crisis, as they lack the access to foreign aid dollars necessary to pay the salaries of the fifty percent of Afghans who work in public sector jobs. The Taliban have access to less than one percent of the Afghan central bank’s foreign currency reserves, as most of it is held overseas in countries that until recently were fighting the group. That cash is now frozen.
The one viable export Afghanistan has that does not require significant foreign aid is the opium crop. Although the Taliban have shown a willingness to tolerate and tax opium production for revenue to fund their insurgency, it is forbidden by the same shariah law they use to legitimize their rule. After negotiating their way into power based on a belief that they would be both brutal and competent, the Taliban may find themselves having to choose between prioritizing their legitimacy with the Afghan people or with their own hardline members. Sacrificing the first could cause enough broad resentment to drive the masses into the camp of rebellion, while sacrificing the second may create the same divisions within their own ranks that doomed previous administrations.
The Taliban are already aggressively trying to shape their image internationally, claiming that there will be no retribution against civil servants and former soldiers who stay at their jobs, women’s rights will be respected, and that their only interest is in effectively governing the country as a ‘Taliban 2.0’. Donor countries and organizations which have been critical in providing the money needed to keep the country’s economy and civil infrastructure functioning have publicly stated they would not support a Taliban regime that implemented sharia law and employed the same brutal methods of the 1990s. The Taliban’s claims of having changed from what they were the last time they seized power are likely their attempt to belay these concerns and get the foreign aid tap turned back on. However, in the era of social media the Taliban government in Kabul will struggle to control information about its actions coming out of the country. Despite their claims to have evolved into a more benevolent organization over the past twenty years, there have already been reports of women being brutalized for their clothing and former soldiers and government officials being executed after surrendering. After pledging to have a free and open media, the Taliban only days ago killed a family member of a Deutsche Welle reporter of whom they disapproved.
If the Taliban were sincere in their desire to form a more inclusive government and open society, they would need to prove it by demonstrating a capacity and willingness to halt their fighters’ brutal enforcement techniques. This is unlikely, as the promise of employing such techniques to enforce their interpretation of sharia law is what gives them credibility with their most ardent Islamic extremist members, who were critical to sustaining the organisation through twenty years of insurgency and returning them to power in Kabul. It is far more likely that the Taliban will govern as they always have, while doing their best to portray a softer image abroad in the hope of creating enough political cover for secondary donor countries such as China, Russia, and Pakistan to feel comfortable enough to buck the rest of the international community by stepping in and providing aid to prop up Afghanistan’s economy.
Living With Today
It has been disheartening to watch the dissolution of the military and state that America and her allies have invested so much blood and treasure over the past twenty years, seemingly without a whisper of a fight. But the Afghans have always fought their own wars their own ways and by their own rules. Just because they did not fight as an army to defend a nation state, or rally the tribal militias to protect their nominal capital, does not mean the country is completely lost, or that previous efforts of America and her allies were in vain. The Taliban have Kabul and with it troves of military equipment.
The West has decided to leave Afghanistan and its people largely to their fate. However the war is far from over for its most important participants, the Afghans themselves, and we will see in this next chapter of civil war how well the Taliban fare against those who are rallying to face them on their own terms.