In early July a Taliban spokesperson made a startling claim: the insurgent movement controlled 85% percent of the country. While the Afghan Government disputed the figure, no one treated it with incredulity. Whether accurate or not, the suggestion wasn’t ludicrous. Rather, it’s quite possible to imagine such an outcome, or worse, the complete takeover of the country and the Taliban’s return to power.
But in just twenty years, how did we get from the Taliban’s rout in 2002, to their being poised at the gate?
The US and NATO intervention in Afghanistan began on October 7th, 2001, less than a month after 9/11. The US accused the Taliban of sheltering Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and of thus being complicit in the attack, and the rest is history. At the time the Taliban appeared to be defeated easily, a coalition of special forces and the Northern Alliance crushing their foes, though perhaps they thought discretion the better part of valour and opted to live to fight another day. Certainly, facing overwhelming odds, this was the wisest course.
What followed was two decades of conflict, America’s longest war by far, and a quagmire which dragged in countries from around the world, not least Britain. As the conflict continued, so too the motivations seemed to change, and at various points it was suggested to be counterterrorism, nation building, and even a drug interdiction mission. This drift reflected the changing nature of the Taliban’s fortunes, who from their nadir of 2001 grew into a formidable insurgency.
There are many reasons the Taliban could turn their situation around. In the immediate aftermath of their “defeat” they took to insurgency and the tactics of guerrilla warfare with gusto. And like any successful guerrilla war, the key was tapping into a measure of local support.
Afghanistan is comprised of a patchwork of ethnicities. The main ethnic groups are the Pashtuns (42% of the population), Tajiks (27%), Uzbek (9%), Hazara (8%), Turkmen (3%) and Balochi (2%), with other groups comprising the remaining 5%. The Pashtun are based in the country’s south, including the territories which border neighbouring Pakistan. The Taliban is a predominantly Pashtun movement and this is both a key strength and weakness. Being from the largest ethnic group means it has the largest pool of potential support in the country, while geographically their territory borders Pakistan, a neighbour which has historical and geo-political reasons for wanting to influence Afghan politics. Elements of Pakistan’s military, in particular its powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, has nurtured the Taliban from the beginning.
Taliban, which means “student” in Pashto, arose out of Saudi sponsored madrasas (religious seminaries) in the early 1990s. The madrasas were in the areas of Pakistan which bordered Afghanistan, and which refugees fleeing first the Soviet invasion of the 1980s, and later the civil war, settled in. The ISI and the Saudis funded the Mujahideen to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, but when Soviet forces pulled out in 1989, and the country descended into civil war, they saw the Taliban as a new force which could bring order.
Pakistan has always denied it supports the Taliban, but there are few doubts elements of the ISI do, and this is an open secret in the region, and amongst US diplomats. Indeed, when the Americans tracked Bin Laden down, he was hiding in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbotobad. While it’s never been proven the Pakistani military knew he was there, suspicions are such that the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Carlotta Gall, penned a book titled The Wrong Enemy. The title, perhaps hyperbolically, suggests the US and NATO should have invaded Pakistan rather than Afghanistan.
But there’s a weakness to the Taliban’s position. Quite simply, it’s so heavily reliant on the Pashtun ethnic group that it’s a deeply sectarian movement and has never been able to extend much beyond its Pashtun roots. Prior to 9/11, they had taken over much of the country but weren’t never conquer the north, precisely because they alienated other ethnicities.
But in an irony of ironies, this situation has now been replicated in reverse by NATO. Because despite quotas and recruitment drives, anecdotal reports suggest the Afghan National Army (ANA), in which the United States and NATO invested so much hope, training and funding, continues to draw much of its soldiers from the north. For example, in 2010, NBC reported that of the 40 Afghan Army soldiers based out of the US outpost situated in the Arghandab Valley, just 60 miles northwest of the Pakistani border, in southern Afghanistan, only two were Pashtun, and one of those was the cook. Just as those living in the north viewed the Taliban with suspicion and hostility, so those living in the south see the ANA. Is it any wonder that when US forces pulled out and air cover became non-existent, the ANA’s resolve collapsed?
It’s here we should take stock. Because what’s most extraordinary about this story is that throughout this whole period, the twenty years America and its NATO allies have been embroiled in the Afghan quagmire, their soldiers dying and their treasure spent, the US has been funding the very people who have armed its enemy. Indeed, while there have been dips post-9/11 and threats to turn the tap off when particularly egregious evidence of Pakistan’s support has come to light, such as when bin Laden was found in Abbottabad, the level of this support has ballooned throughout this period.
With this in mind, now the US has withdrawn, and the Afghan army’s will has collapsed, what chance of ultimate victory for the Taliban and a return to power?
The signs look good for the Taliban, at least at first glance. Regardless of the exaggerations made by Taliban representatives, districts have fallen and continue to fall under their control. And the army continues to crumble. Many propaganda videos circle online of Afghan soldiers surrendering their weapons and being embraced by Taliban soldiers. And where they are returning to power, there are reports of things going back to how they were the last time: girls forced to stop attending schools, music banned, and harsh Sharia punishments.
But that all said, there are also signs it isn’t going all their own way. Another propaganda video showed the execution of Afghan soldiers who surrendered. But these were special forces who had only gave up after running out of ammunition. While this shows a crippling flaw in the Afghan army – lack of air cover and support for those fighting on the ground – it also shows not all the Afghan army is willing to give up the fight, and the special forces in particular are determined to hold the line. Similarly, throughout the northern districts, local militia and warlords are mobilising once more. These areas, their citizens predominantly non-Pashtun, are as determined as ever not to fall under the yoke of the Taliban.
And the Taliban are aware of the dangers and so are offering negotiations.
So, what does the future promise?
Perhaps a return to a pre-9/11 situation, the south under the Taliban’s rule, the north ruled by various warlords and strongmen, each tapping into their own networks of ethnicity and tribal support. In short, it’s more than possible Afghanistan is tragically witnessing its own Groundhog Day, in which case people will be forgiven for wondering whether the US and its allies achieved anything at all.