US withdrawal from Afghanistan is nearing its final days. By early August, 95 percent of US presence in the country had been terminated. Two decades have gone by since the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hit on 9/11, in one of the greatest tragedies of modern US history. Since its decision to enter into war and occupy Afghanistan -- first on its own, then with the help of its NATO allies -- the US has changed its strategy more than once. The first round was raiding Kabul and ridding it of the Taliban. The second was eradicating terrorism, predominantly al-Qaeda, and capturing Osama bin Laden dead or alive. Third came the construction of the Afghani state on modern foundations in hopes that it becomes a model of democracy and prosperity in a region that has long lacked both. The fourth round was preparing the Afghani state to stand on its feet and shoulder its responsibilities after the costs became too great for even the US to afford.
Now, all that is left for the US to do is to arrange for those Afghanis who cooperated with its troops to have a better fate than their likes in Vietnam and Iraq, who were doomed to an inescapable fate of treason accusations and death. Many of those Afghanis were experts and pro-US persons who thought that cooperation with Washington could save their country from poverty and underdevelopment. Though President Biden’s unconditional withdrawal decision faced harsh criticism from Republicans, both Democratic and Republican legislators agreed on the need to protect those Afghans who were indispensable to US troops, such as translators and interpreters. The US was not ready to make the same mistake this time. Still, reports in US media, like Politico, indicated that there was quite some confusion in this regard.
This is an issue for another time, though, because at the moment, Afghanistan may be on the cusp of a major battle which, along with the latest developments in Tunisia, could become the Middle East’s major headlines in the coming period. While “Islamic radicalism” is headed toward its demise in Tunisia, things in Afghanistan are headed toward their pre-US arrival state, when Taliban ruled the state with an iron fist and turned it into a training, armament, and conspiracy playground for all kinds of terrorist organizations, while competing radical groups lurked in the corner.
In the last few months, even before Biden’s arrival to the White House, the Doha negotiations between the US and Taliban provided a legitimate cover for Taliban to start expanding inside Afghanistan at the expense of the central government. Since Biden announced the withdrawal decision without any considerations related to Taliban’s negotiations with the legitimate government, the movement’s geographical expansion accelerated, as cities fell into its hands, sometimes without a fight. In the northeast, Taliban’s advance pushed over 1,000 Afghani soldiers to flee to Tajikistan. The rebels controlled key regions of Badakhshan Province, leading local officials to hurriedly take the next flight to flee the besieged region, in a way that is strikingly reminiscent of the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the phantom of US failure in Vietnam. Videos published recently by Taliban show the surrender of government forces and the movement’s capture of weapons and vehicles that Washington was hoping would enable the Kabul government to maintain its power after the US withdrawal. In the meantime, desperate queues formed in front of Kabul’s passport authorities, in a disturbing omen of the country’s future.
Despite all these scenes, other US papers like The Washington Post do not see the resemblance between the road Afghanistan is headed toward on the one hand, and the Vietnamese scenario or even the Afghani post-Soviet withdrawal scenario, on the other hand. The rationale is that the present situation is completely different from past experiences. The Afghani society has changed. It is now equipped with enough pluralism and infrastructure to hope for a different future. In 1994, Taliban entered the fight with promises of organization and justice based on a tight understanding of Islam and penalties that had rarely been applied in Afghanistan’s history. In 1996, they announced their emirate in Kabul. Still, their grip on the reins of power proved loose, which paved the way for the big turning point: the US intervention and expulsion of Taliban. Additionally, the UN and US mobilized international donors to invest billions in development and state building efforts in Afghanistan. This not only allowed many Afghans to reimagine their society; it also helped rebuild it. After 9/11, around 70 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP consisted of international development assistance, with the US being the biggest donor. The Afghani people used this assistance to help build a different society with clear civil characteristics, a booming media scene and growing publishing industry, in a striking departure from life under Taliban, which banned all independent media and tried to impose a monopoly over the media scene with their Voice of Sharia radio.
Moreover, Afghanistan has witnessed a generational shift. Millennials and Generation Z in Afghanistan grew up with different expectations. Thanks to their exposure to media and large-scale education, the Afghani youth sought to have a voice on the political scene, despite their discordant opinions on the country’s future. In fact, while many of these youth are inclined toward secular democracy, others demand different forms of Islamic government. Still, regardless of their visions for the country, many youths worked to diversify and expand the Afghani political scene. Through art, music, protests, demonstrations, and marches across the country, Afghani men and women of various backgrounds gathered to protest violence, corruption, and racial and gender discrimination.
Are the changes that took place in Afghanistan under the US occupation, which range from basic structural changes to deep changes in the foundations of power and society, capable of preventing Afghanistan’s return to the Middle Ages? Once again, the US vision will be put to the test… except this time, the US itself won’t be there to watch.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm.