Scenes of panic in Kabul. Wind of panic all over the world. The Taliban caught the world by surprise by seizing power quickly: a United States’ intelligence report one month ago estimated that the “Taliban could take the Afghan capital within 90 days”, but it took much less. In recent weeks, the American withdrawal had been advancing rapidly after the American president Joe Biden ordered the Pentagon to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by the end of August, with the Taliban advancing even faster since May. One city after another fell, all like a house of cards, with the ultimate downfall of the Afghan capital Kabul, on August 15. One might think that the American military long-awaited withdrawal is behind the Taliban regaining power in Afghanistan, but from a closer lens, it appears that other local Afghan factors might explain the rapid unexpected seizure of power by the Taliban.
One should note that the American military withdrawal played a major role in strengthening the power and authority of the Taliban on the ground and allowed them to grasp more territory as their nearly sole credible threatening force, incarnated in the American army, left the battle ground. As president Joe Biden said defending the decision of withdrawal on August 16, “there was never a good time to withdraw US forces.” In other words, the Taliban encroaching on territory controlled by the American army was expected but what was unexpected is how fast the Taliban made it to Kabul and ended seizing power. This could firstly be explained by the weaknesses of the Afghan army.
The Afghan Army:
The United States spent nearly $83 billion on Afghanistan’s defence sector since the deployment of its troops after September 11, 2001 and in the span of 20 years, the Afghan army was still not ready to fight alone and depended on the United States. In other words, the decision of an American withdrawal sent the Afghan army into a panic frenzy as they feared facing the Taliban alone. In addition to their fears from the Taliban, the Afghan army was weak as an institution, fragilized by more than 40 years of war, low salaries, fragmented cohesion, years of corruption, and an absence of national leadership in the presence of American troops. As a result, Afghan military members preferred deserting rather than fighting for their land. For instance,the Afghan security forces which “on paper numbered around 300,000 people, have totaled around just one-sixth of that in recent days”, according to U.S. officials. Put differently, the Afghan security forces’ affiliation to their country was too weak for them to risk their lives for the Taliban.
The Afghan government:
Furthermore, the lack of authority by the Afghan government and its dependence on the United States made the state lose its power over the army institution but also over its own people. In other words, the Afghan people did not trust state institutions to protect them from Taliban attacks and therefore made the ultimate decision to escape or bow down to the Taliban in fear of being murdered. In addition, some joined the Taliban militias for a living and to escape poverty as the government and some of its corrupt members were not providing for their people. Besides, the departure of the president, Ashraf Ghani, and other members of the government from Afghanistan on August 15 confirmed the lack of power and authority of Ghani’s government and took away any hope in their capacity to protect their people.
Collective memory and civic spirit of Afghan:
Moreover, the collective memory of Afghan people is shaped by decades of war, fear, poverty, and trauma. As a result, they surrendered, knowing that the Taliban would block their fundamental rights. For instance, rights in education, safety, and political rights will probably be stripped away as they were under the past rule of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, thus enforcing a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law.
It should be noted that the tribal and ethnic differences in Afghanistan played a considerable role in fragilizing the unity of Afghan people and their capacity to stand as one to defend their nation and their territory from the Taliban with the latter instrumentalizing those divisions by recruiting ethnic marginalized minorities. In other words, the absence of a civic consciousness and the lack of cohesiveness added to the fear of the Afghan people and diminished any desire to resist the Taliban.
Impact on the international community:
Now that Taliban has seized power in Afghanistan, the international community fears a proliferation of terrorism. “The international community must unite to ensure that Afghanistan will never be used again as a platform or a refuge for terrorist organizations” declared the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, during an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Monday August 16. Indeed, this environment is fertile ground for the proliferation of terrorist groups, especially since many entities will try to take advantage of the situation in Afghanistan. As for individuals who have a jihadist Islamist ideology, they will more likely join the Taliban. It is therefore entirely possible that we might witness an increase in terrorist acts around the world. For instance, the Taliban seizing power fueled anger from the Islamic State which conducted a suicide bombing at one of Kabul’s airport gates. It “[killed] at least 92 people, including 13 American service members” on August 27, according to U.S. forces. In addition, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the United States believes there are still “specific, credible” terrorist threats to come.
Added to the political upheaval in Afghanistan is the humanitarian risk. Put differently, the world is currently experiencing a migration crisis as “2.2 million Afghan refugees are already in neighboring countries and 3.5 million people are forced to flee their homes within Afghanistan’s borders.”
In the end, what will the future of Afghanistan be? Doubts persist, instability is likely to drag on. After four decades of conflict with 20 years of American military presence, Afghanistan seems to be back to the status quo.
Edited by Mathieu Lavault
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.