Omer Onhon

Afghanistan in Crisis, Again

Years of hope:

In the aftermath of September 11, Taliban’s refusal to act against Al-Qaeda and its leader, led to the military campaign of the United States and its allies, followed by the end of Taliban rule.

Later on, the victors engaged in mopping up operations and state building in Afghanistan. The aim was to establish a system with a civilian and military administration capable of efficient and effective governance. This administration would be close to the West and the friendly rest.

Despite a number of shortcomings and failures; a multi party system, free elections, emancipation of women, girls going to school, improvements in health system were important achievements. For a short while, one may have thought that Afghanistan was safe and on its way to an exemplary success story.

Taliban did not evaporate:

Well, that was not the case. Taliban did not evaporate, they simply melted into the terrain, healed their wounds, began striking here and there and waited for the right time for a full come back. They also adopted a new political strategy and even found a seat at the negotiating table with the USA.

The ever populist President Trump initiated the withdrawal idea and was followed by President Biden. All this was done in a hasty and sloppy manner. Afgans were not consulted. Neither were the NATO allies. Everyone was cought by surprise, except Taliban.

NATO leaders declared in Brussels on14 June 2021 that “terrorists have been denied a safe haven, Afghanistan has been given help to build its security institutions, Afghan National Defence and Security Forces have been trained and ready to take on full responsibility for security”. NATO leaders also stated that despite the end of NATO's military operations in Afghanistan, withdrawing troops does not mean ending relationship and that their commitment to stand with Afghanistan continues.

President Biden assured that Afghanistan would not be comprimised and that well trained Afghans were able to resist and stop any possible Taliban military operation. Later on, Biden argued that as foreign forces have withdrawn, Taliban no longer had a reason to fight. Evidently, there has been a serious lack of understanding on the dynamics of Afghanistan, its culture and way of thinking.

Taliban, for different reasons as it may be, has a base of support in the country. Ease in shifting alliances is also an element to be kept in mind. Local commanders are known to change sides with the right motivation, usually expressed or supported with US dollars. Then there are the big profits of poppy fields and narco trafficking.

Taliban does not plan to share power but assume full power. It is not there to make a deal and rule jointly, but to rule by itself and dictate its way of life. A multi billion dollar system missed the level of readiness and vigour of Taliban.

No one seems to stand against Taliban advance:

The US State Department announced “Refugee Admissions Program”, which covers Afghans and their immediate family members who worked with the United States and may be at risk due to their affiliation. This programme strongly indicates that the USA expects a Taliban takeover and is trying to protect its Afghans.

UN institutions based in Kabul are planning to relocate to outside of Afghanistan. All Embassies are reducing in size and some are closing all together.

Leadership and government of Afghanistan are not inspiring. In some cases Afghan army is putting up a fight but it seems that they are thin in numbers and motivation is weak or even lost in most cases. Primary objective of everyone seems to find out the fastest and safest way to evacuate. War effort is secondary and only to support this primary objective.

Apparently, everyone is getting ready for a new era. In such an environment, why should the Afghan army fight for a seemingly lost cause?

In any case, Afghan government may be aiming to hold on to major urban centers, defend them fiercely and show to Taliban that it will be very costly for them to try to take these centers. In this way, they may be planning to force Taliban to seriously negotiate and come to terms to govern jointly. Maybe. But one important factor is that Taliban is already in big cities and Kabul with Taliban militias embedded there for some time now. They are waiting for orders to act. And Taliban feels that it is winning. Why should it comprimise?

How about the rest of the world:
UN, USA, Russia, neighbours, countries at a distance are all concerned with these developments.

At the beginning of August, leaders of five Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan’s northern neighbours, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, met and expressed concern about the impact of the developments in Afghanistan on the security of the Central Asian region. They also announced that they will face this challenge together.

Russia too is watching closely. Russians conducted joint military exercises with Taciks and Uzbeks near their borders with Afghanistan.

Despite all that, Taliban is talking to Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran, among others. It seems that no one especially in the neighbourhood wants to neglect the potential ruler of the country. And these countries are not unhappy with the fact that US is leaving in a hurry, with another failure.

Another refugee crisis?

After the Syrian one, the world may be facing a new refugee crisis stemming from Afghanistan. UNHCR figures indicate that even since the beginning of this year, around 400,000 Afghans have been internally displaced and thousands are fleeing the country.

One favorite route of those who flee, is through Iran, on to Turkey and if possible to Europe. Iran itself, hosts around 3 million registered and unregistered Afghans who have fled their country in successive wars and all kinds of crisis since the Soviet invasion in 1979. Iran, overwhelmed by sanctions and whose economy is in dire need, is only happy to push Afghans westward and keep the roads open for those coming from Afghanistan to go to West. Turkey and Europe are on high alert.

Realities are harsh but they are realities:

All the highest level assurances and statements were rendered meaningless with the surge of Taliban, which now controls more than two thirds of the country. Even the northern parts, including Mazar-i Sharif, are under Taliban control now. These were places where anti-Taliban warlords were in total control in the past. Now, Taliban is entering into Kabul from all sides, as reported by international media. We may witness very bloody events in Kabul or an agreement between Taliban and the Government to prevent bloodshed and facilitate safe-passage. In either case, Taliban is the winner.

Corruption, mismanagement, tribalism, coupled with internal US politics and international politics on the one hand, Taliban on the other, led to something in Afghanistan, which not many hoped for and expected.

All the efforts and achievements of the last 20 years, however modest or ample they may be, stand as if they will be fading away soon.

Al-Qaeda and ISIS, as well as other smaller terror organizations, continue their presence as stated in the report presented by Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team to the UNSC (Report no. S/2021/486).

Afghanistan is about to become another example of thousands of lives lost, billions of dollars spent, and yet, the situation on the day of exit, turns out to be worse than the situation on the day of entry.

Apperantly, much has been done, but not much has been achieved. The Afghan issue will continue to haunt and occupy international politics for the foreseeable future.

*Former Turkish Ambassador*