Deja vu for Afghanistan as Taliban flex muscles
For two decades, the people of Afghanistan have lived in a quasi-peace, made possible by a significant US and NATO military presence that tried to underpin stability in the country. But all this is likely to change dramatically, as Taliban forces have resumed their campaign to conquer and grab rural areas across the country even before the foreign forces have completed their withdrawal, which is due by the end of August.
It is not inconceivable that the world will wake up on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which is fewer than 50 days away, with the Afghan government fighting for survival, as its newly built army disbands across the country in the face of a resurgent Taliban. This movement remains unchecked by the so-far fruitless peace drive, which has been ongoing for years in Doha, Qatar, and by its softened rhetoric that states it will not undo years of institution building.
I was one of the few Arab reporters to cover the Afghan war in 2001 and its aftermath. For me, that story was very close to home as I was raised in Beirut in the 1970s and 1980s, prior to moving to the UK just as the “black wave” — or the rise of Islamist fundamentalism — was making strides across the Middle East and parts of Central Asia. From a young age, I followed the mujahideen’s fight against the Soviet invaders and later, at university, I drew parallels between Lebanon and Afghanistan’s pluralism and the challenges in shaping a national identity that were constantly outdone by religion, sectarianism and foreign influence in Lebanon, added to ethnicity and tribalism in Afghanistan.
I recall writing academic papers on “Moscow’s Afghan paradox” and its failure to shape an Afghan state and society, with ideologies, religions, cultures and ethnicities checking all efforts to unify the country and cement its national identity. Such adversities are gathering pace again in Afghanistan, as that wave of fundamentalism has not receded, nor is it likely to waiver soon.
Across the ages, Afghanistan has defied invaders, but it has also defied peaceful coexistence between its people.
With the number of casualties mounting, international organizations and regional neighbors are bracing themselves for new waves of displacement. The outgoing US generals remain confident that the 300,000-strong Afghan military will be able to hold on to provincial capitals, despite their dwindling supplies and air cover and the Taliban’s “strategic momentum.” Their advice is for the central government to defend the cities and withdraw from less strategic rural regions, but that would mean a protracted struggle that I am not sure the current Afghan government has the stomach for, or is capable of winning.
History has shown Afghans to be intuitively political. It has been said they have never lost a war, as they seemingly manage to strike a deal at the eleventh hour and shift their allegiance.
The Afghans seem to be sensing imminent change and all those capable of acquiring visas are leaving the country before it is too late.
Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen recently contended that the movement’s latest battlefield gains were made through negotiations, insisting that they did not have the means to militarily capture 200 provincial districts in eight weeks. However, Shaheen does not shy away from saying that the Taliban have the capacity to gain control over the rest of the country by means of the weapons acquired from surrendering Afghan troops if they were forced to.
I want to believe all the Taliban’s talk of their readiness to respect Afghans’ freedoms, including the right of girls to education, and that they will not re-implement the intolerant and extreme form of religion we saw during their rule between 1996 and 2001. I doubt they will dangle mobile phones and electronic tablets from lampposts, along with their political opponents, this time around, but I also doubt they will be ready to share power with the current leadership after calling for the president to resign.
I am not sure who the Taliban would see as a natural partner in their — or indeed any — so-called unity government that normal Afghans would support. Though they are trying to spin a toned-down version of their future rule, all the indications are that they remain inspired and governed by their extreme interpretation of religion. This will no doubt lead to more terrorism and instability in Afghanistan and beyond, which was what caused the US intervention in the first place.
The Afghans seem to be sensing imminent change and all those capable of acquiring visas are leaving the country before it is too late. Some of them believe the US is leaving them to their fate, and they might be right. Others believe America has been defeated after 20 years in the country, and they might be right too. But to all of those people I would say that at least the US and its Western allies have tried for years to help rebuild Afghanistan, despite all the shortcomings that have plagued the process.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China, Pakistan and Iran all have an opportunity in the post-US era to help Afghanistan stay peaceful. They could demonstrate that, where America failed, the likes of Russia and China, for example, can broker a stable state that is able to tame the region’s terrorism beast and prevent Afghanistan once again becoming a regional magnet for dark forces from far and wide.
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.