CIPHER BRIEF EXPERT PERSPECTIVE
Cipher Brief Expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey served in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office for over 27 years. He is now visiting professor of war studies at King’s College, London.
Older Americans have burned Saigon 1975 and the helicopters from the roof of the embassy in their memory. A previous generation of Britons was haunted by the image of General Percival who surrendered large numbers of troops and equipment in Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. How 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, in addition to 600 British troops to arrange the evacuation of its civilians and the Afghans who have provided aid, is a remarkably late response to a rapidly deteriorating situation. Unless performed in the next 48 hours, it is also risky. Taliban infiltrators are already in Kabul and the troops that captured Ghazni and Kandahar at 12e Augustus heads to the capital on their Honda 125cc bikes.
The US must have received commitments from the Taliban negotiators in Qatar not to launch their full-scale attack on Kabul until the evacuations are complete, but elements of doubt remain. Previous Taliban assurances have proved futile, and it is questionable whether individual Taliban commanders would hold back while some Ashraf Ghani ministers, senior military officers, judges and officials are being taken away to life in exile.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the speed and momentum of the Taliban’s recent successes; Occupy 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 regional capitals in nearly as many days. It is reminiscent of the extraordinary progress the Japanese made on the Malay Peninsula in 1942 with Singapore as the ultimate prize.
The success of the Taliban did not come about by chance. It is clearly the fruit of preparation and planning. Above all, they learned from the experiences from 1994 to 1996, when they finally took Kabul but failed to conquer the north, giving the Northern Alliance parties the space to survive and then resettle after the 9/9 terrorist attacks. 11.
This time, the Taliban have targeted border posts with neighboring countries (denying the government vital supply routes and customs revenues) before taking the remote regional capitals and leaving Kabul (which is never easy to capture) until last. They have concentrated mainly on the north, where many rural Afghans are dissatisfied with the Kabul government and regional warlords. The North is no longer the solid bastion of anti-Taliban sentiment it was in the 1990s.
The Taliban’s advances in the north have extinguished any chance that the old Northern Alliance could be reborn from the eventual collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s government. While Ahmed Shah Massoud, his brilliant military leader, was able to leave Kabul in 1996 and retreat tactically to the Panjshir Valley, that option hardly exists today. Not only is Massoud dead, but his former supporters are no longer guerrillas, but members of a stratified Afghan army struggling to perform without US air support.
The Taliban have also relentlessly exploited the weak bargaining power of the United States and its chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad. While some members of the Taliban team in Doha, such as Mullah Barader, were indeed “moderate,” there was never any doubt that the Taliban movement wanted to see the total defeat of the Kabul government and the expulsion of Western troops. Pakistan, too, may have considered some form of negotiated deal at times, but ultimately the only surefire way to keep Indian influence out of Afghanistan is (she thinks) a Taliban government.
The Afghan army (and in particular its impressive Special Forces) will now gather in Kabul and must be able to repel the first attempts to overrun the city. Certainly, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was unable to take Kabul in 1992 and 1993, not even with help from Pakistan, which, out of frustration, handed over support to the newly established Taliban movement in late 1994.
But from 1992 to 1996, there were regular deliveries of goods to Massoud and his Northern Alliance defenders from Russia, Iran and India. In 2021 the situation will be very different. Russia has already decided to “support the winner” and believes it has received promises from the Taliban not to export Islamism north to the Central Asian Republics (CARs). Iran also has channels to the Taliban and will watch carefully for a return to the persecution of the Shia Hazaras by the Taliban. And India has already made contact with the Taliban in Doha in hopes that the Taliban in power will prevent Kashmiri militant groups from setting up bases there.
There is therefore a good chance that Kabul will soon fall into the hands of the Taliban. If the Americans and British manage to deploy their evacuation forces quickly, they should be able to successfully complete the operation, although there will likely be heartbreaking scenes at the airport as crowds of refugees are turned away at gunpoint from departing planes. Regional powers, especially Pakistan, will try to stop the Taliban from intervening, aware that a massacre in Kabul would be a disastrous start to the Taliban’s second reign. Ironically, however, the evacuation would almost certainly lead to the collapse of Kabul’s government, as senior officials are forced to decide whether to take out the last plane or whether they will almost certainly be tortured and killed by the victors. It is doubtful whether Western countries will choose to keep their embassies in Kabul. For President Biden, the memory of Benghazi 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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