Since 15 August, the world has been watching the rapid fall of the Afghani capital, Kabul, with wonder. This wonder and shock are not only by the US, Europe, Russia, and China, but also the Taliban itself, who did not expect to reach their goal this fast. Following the rapid fall of the Afghani Army, the movement announced that it had to enter Kabul to maintain security.
While some parties in our region celebrated this victory, the world was shocked, particularly because women and girls in Afghanistan are the most affected by these developments. Accounts of the Taliban’s offensive treatment of women are already making the rounds. The Wall Street Journal said on Tuesday that a Canadian woman of Afghani origin who was staying in a hotel fled to the hotel garden once the Taliban entered the building, so they followed her, forced her to open the door to her room, and asked to see a marriage certificate upon seeing her husband in the room. The husband’s protests earned him a beating, but the couple was left alone after the Taliban was sure they were married. What WSJ missed, is that this incident could have happened in many Arab states, where the law allows the police to verify that hotel guests staying in the same room are married. The real concern does not lie in such incidents, but rather in the Taliban’s approach to the education of girls. There are several indicators that the movement will be more flexible than expected in this regard, but this will only become clear after understanding the circumstances that led to Afghanistan’s occupation after the US invaded the country in the days that followed the 9/11 attacks.
On 7 October 2001, the enraged Washington invaded Afghanistan after Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban at the time, refused to hand over al-Qaeda leaders. In fact, the true motive behind the invasion was more to avenge 9/11 than it was to capture the group’s leaders; but to make it more plausible to the American conscience and more acceptable to the international community, the US raised the banner of bringing down the Taliban state and establishing a modern Afghani state.
However, just like in Iraq, Washington committed its usual mistake of yielding to the temptation of invading countries and toppling regimes without properly estimating the efforts required to build a modern state. For all their high combat skills, Americans get disillusioned with protracted wars and lose discipline and commitment as years go by. Moreover, they are sensitive, perhaps even anxious, about human losses. After losing 50,000 soldiers in Vietnam, public opinion in the US became dreadful of high death tolls. Over the course of two decades, the US lost some 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan and about double that number in Iraq. That no one pays mind to the Afghani and Iraqi human lives that were lost since the US invasions of the two countries is another matter.
In an article he wrote for Foreign Policy on 16 August, Michael McKinley, who served as US Ambassador to Afghanistan in 2015 and 2016, says the US delegated 99 percent of anti-Taliban combat missions to the Afghani Army since 2014, given this sensitivity to the death of US soldiers in faraway lands. As such, the burden of the fight against the Taliban and the bulk of human losses was borne by the Afghani Army, which lost 66,000 of its soldiers -- a figure you would never hear on US media, which nonetheless seem to constantly mention the death toll of the US Army. In other words, the Afghani Army has incurred 27-fold the losses of the US Army, not to mention the tens of thousands of civilian casualties. McKinley cites Donald Trump-era National Security Adviser General Herbert McMaster as declaring that the war in Afghanistan is a “humanity problem on a modern-day frontier between barbarism and civilization.” I wish the Ambassador had reminded Gen. McMaster that both the Taliban and al-Qaeda emerged as a result of US policy and strategies in fighting the communist regime that reached power in Kabul following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which entailed an intellectual invasion by a fundamental version of Islam, not to mention the incitement of Muslim youth to practice “jihad” in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Islamic world still suffers from the intellectual and political repercussions of this strategy to this very day.
Back to the fall of Kabul a few days ago, there are several indicators that the Taliban will change, and that Taliban 1.0 that took over in 1996 is not Taliban 2.0 that entered Kabul on the morning of 15 August. Perhaps the most prominent of these indicators is that despite the flight of President Ashraf Ghani, two prominent figures have stood their ground in Kabul: Hamid Karzai, the first post-US invasion Afghani President; and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, who lost the 2019 presidential election to Ghani. Both are strong candidates for negotiations with Taliban on the formation of a government. Karzai has personal ties with the Taliban’s most prominent leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, given their common Pashto tribal affiliation. When Pakistani forces arrested Mullah Abdul Ghani in 2010, Karzai mediated for his release in 2018, after which Baradar headed the Taliban delegation to the Doha talks. As for Dr. Abdullah, he served as head of the Reconciliation Council in Afghanistan.
After 20 years of absence from Kabul, the Taliban will not be capable of running the state without the technocratic class who received training and education for two decades. For Afghanistan to remain stable, it will need the help of major states (like the US) who will impose key conditions such as granting relative freedom to women, especially the freedom to pursue their education.
Life after 15 August will not be easy for Afghani women; but it will not be as bad as it was for their oppressed mothers and grandmothers in 2001.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Kuwaiti newspaper al-Qabas.