CIPHER BRIEF EXPERT PERSPECTIVE
Cipher in Brief Tim Willasey-Wilsey served for over 27 years at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is now visiting professor of war studies at King’s College London.
Older Americans have Saigon 1975 and the embassy rooftop helicopters etched in their memories. A previous generation of Britons was haunted by the image of General Percival handing over large numbers of troops and equipment in Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. The way Kabul fell to the Taliban could have important practical and symbolic significance.
The announcement that the United States is sending 3,000 troops to Kabul alongside 600 British troops to manage the evacuation of their civilians and the Afghans who have provided assistance, is a remarkably late response to a rapidly deteriorating situation. If it is not carried out in the next 48 hours, it will also be risky. Infiltrated Taliban are already inside Kabul and the forces that captured Ghazni and Kandahar on the 12th.e August will be heading to the capital on their Honda 125cc motorcycles.
The United States had to wrest from the Taliban negotiators in Qatar the commitment not to launch their full assault on Kabul until the evacuations are complete, but there are elements of doubt. Previous assurances from the Taliban have proven to be of no value, and it is unlikely that individual Taliban commanders will wish to hold back while some ministers, senior army officers, judges and Ashraf Ghani officials are dragged into a life of exile.
It is hard not to be impressed by the speed and momentum of the Taliban’s recent successes; take 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 regional capitals in almost as many days. It is reminiscent of the extraordinary progress the Japanese made in Peninsula Malaysia in 1942 with Singapore as the ultimate prize.
The success of the Taliban is no accident. It is clearly the fruit of preparation and planning. Importantly, they drew lessons from the experience of 1994-1996 when they finally took Kabul but failed to capture the north, thus allowing parts of the Northern Alliance to survive and reaffirm themselves afterwards. the terrorist attacks of September 11.
This time, the Taliban initially focused on border posts with neighboring countries (thus denying vital supply routes and government customs revenue) before taking outlying regional capitals and leaving Kabul (which did not). is never easy to capture) for last. Mostly, they focused on the north where many rural Afghans are disillusioned with the Kabul government and regional warlords. The north is no longer the strong bastion of anti-Taliban sentiment it was in the 1990s.
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The Taliban’s progress in the north has stifled any chance that the old Northern Alliance could be reborn from the eventual collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s government. While in 1996, Ahmed Shah Massoud, his brilliant military leader, was able to abandon Kabul and retreat tactically into the Panjshir Valley, that option barely exists today. Not only is Massoud dead, but his former supporters are no longer guerrilla fighters but members of a layered Afghan army that has struggled to function without American air support.
The Taliban have also ruthlessly exploited the weak negotiating position of the United States and its chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad. While some members of the Taliban team in Doha, like Mullah Barader, could indeed be “moderate,” there was no doubt that the Taliban movement wanted to see the total defeat of the government in Kabul and the expulsion of Western forces. . Pakistan, too, may at times have considered some form of negotiated deal, but in the end the only sure way to keep Indian influence out of Afghanistan (it says) is through a Taliban government.
The Afghan army (and in particular its impressive special forces) will now assemble in Kabul and should be able to repel the first attempts to invade the city. True, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar found it impossible to take Kabul in 1992 and 1993 even with the help of Pakistan, which in frustration changed support for the newly formed Taliban movement in late 1994.
But from 1992 to 1996, there were frequent deliveries of supplies to Massoud and his Northern Alliance defenders from Russia, Iran and India. In 2021, the situation is very different. Russia has already decided to “support the winner” and thinks it has extracted promises from the Taliban not to export Islamism north into the Central Asian Republics (CAR). Iran also has channels to the Taliban and will closely monitor any return of Taliban persecution against the Hazara Shiites. And India has already made contact with the Taliban in Doha in hopes that the ruling Taliban will prevent Kashmiri militant groups from setting up bases there.
Kabul is therefore likely to fall into the hands of the Taliban fairly quickly. If the Americans and British manage to insert their evacuation forces soon, they should be able to complete the operation, although there are likely heartbreaking scenes at the airport as crowds of refugees are driven back at gunpoint from departing planes. Regional powers, especially Pakistan, will try to persuade the Taliban to refrain from intervening, aware that a bloodbath in Kabul would be a disastrous start to the Taliban’s second stint in government. Ironically, however, the evacuation would almost certainly lead to the collapse of the government in Kabul, as senior officials are forced to decide whether to withdraw the last plane or face torture and almost certain death at the hands of the winners. It is doubtful that Western countries will choose to keep their embassies in Kabul. For President Biden, Benghazi’s memory will be too raw.
What is certain is that there will be new iconic images to rival those of Saigon and Singapore.
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