Afghanistan’s Collapse: The Inevitable Arrives Early

by William Milam     22 August 2021

We awakened Sunday morning in California to headlines screaming of the Afghanistan “collapse;” President Ghani had fled earlier in the morning and the Taliban had entered Kabul and now controlled  entire country. Nothing except the speed of this latest event surprised us, but everything in Afghanistan in the past month has occurred with blinding speed. It was clear that the Taliban have been planning this since at least since the agreement of February 2020 with the US which established firm departure dates for American forces. That agreement left an impossible choice for the Biden administration, and by foolishly excluding the other important parties, made the foregone conclusion of Taliban success arrive even sooner than expected.

Failure was long expected by those of us who have ever had to deal with the Taliban. The agreement only made the success of the Taliban fully discernable. In exchange for US agreement on dates certain for US departure, the Taliban committed to engage in negotiations with the Afghan government for a political solution of a power sharing arrangement, which it made no effort to fulfill, and not to attack US troops, which of course it did fulfill. The Trump administration made no real effort to keep the Taliban to their commitment to negotiate a political solution.

Whether Joe Biden will get credit for ending America’s “longest war”is yet to be seen, however, because of the unforeseen circumstances of how it ended. The conventional wisdom had it that the US would drag its feet on departure, perhaps even extend the timing of it, trying to get the Taliban to the negotiating table and then leave it up to those negotiations and to the Afghan military which outnumbers the Taliban by a factor of at least two and has been well armed as well as trained by Americans to slow down the Taliban from their single-minded strategy, winning the civil war militarily. But the Taliban had obviously been using the time between February 2020 and Biden’s decision to pull out American troops to undermine this defensive strategy, so as to leave no time for the Afghan government or its woeful military arm to gear up for battle. It had also been quietly talking to regional warlords and other possible civil society holdouts, making promises it may not keep, and arguing that the choice was joining them or civil war, and to elements of the military, using the usual Afghan lubricant for changing sides, money. To paraphrase a friend of mine, Afghans are not famous for fighting to the last man. So the entire, supposedly anti-Taliban defensive front, crumbled like a stale cookie.

As he approached the decision to pull out, Biden clearly banked on the knowledge that the great majority of Americans think, like he does, that we should have departed Afghanistan many years ago. So instead of delaying the decision hoping to slow the Taliban march to victory he doubled down by accelerating the pace and date of the US withdrawal. Biden appears to see the issue in binary terms, of which there are two primary incontrovertible facts. First, we have failed again, as usual, in nation building and if we remained in Afghanistan for 20 more years, we could not nurture into being a functional government, let alone a working democracy. Second, in what is an Afghan civil war, the Taliban are set on a military victory, and therefore no political solution is possible. So the choice is between involvement in an unending civil war that will only be decided by military conflict, and only be won if by picking sides and joining the war, or withdrawing from involvement in that war.

But the Taliban, who may have feared that Biden would pick the first option of delay and push for the negotiations, beat us to the punch. They used the February 2020 agreement as the vehicle to a military victory. Ironically, the option Biden chose—complete withdrawal—also gives them military victory. In addition, Biden chose the option that binds the Taliban not to attack Americans, which may be helpful in the near future.

So why all the concern?   Well, history tells us that countries in which victorious insurgencies have seized power–Chinese Communists, the Bolshevik Russians, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, the Communist Vietnamese, the Rwandan Tutsis, the Cuban Communists, and others not so well known–exhibit three varieties of behavior as the victorious insurgency tries to establish its authority after it has taken power. The emphasis, intensity, and brutality of these three varieties differs according to many ideological, cultural, political, economic local factors. First, we generally see insurgencies which have seized power undertake purges which run the gamut from horrendous to not so horrendous, but always designed to eliminate persons of groups considered dangerous to the stability and viability of the state, or to its ability to deliver necessary services. This can lead to the murder of entire classes of people, i.e. Mao Zedong’s elimination of maybe up to two million rural landowners. An even worse case was the Cambodian Communists expelling millions to rural areas and murdering entire groups that were thought loyal to the previous government. A less brutal example was the Communist Vietnamese jailing thousands of people accused of helping the Americans. There will no doubt be purges in Afghanistan under the Taliban. In fact, they started before its victory as the Taliban has been conducting an assassination campaign against perceived opponents for some months now—more evidence of its bad faith and intention to proceed with the war when it seemed propitious. The many Afghans who aided the Americans are much in danger.

A second variety of behavior in countries in which insurgencies have seized power is that the insurgency’s victory causes a mass emigration as people fear the worst kind of purges or reprisals, or simply the restructuring of society which somehow would downgrade their status or reduce their well-being. This was a main feature in Vietnam after the South fell to the North, the Cuban revolution and Rwanda civil war. . This will certainly be a main feature of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and it has already become a major factor that will roil Afghan politics  as the Taliban assumes power. It is believed that at least 400,000 refugees have already fled their homes and many are in Kabul seeking to emigrate. Humanitarian organizations estimate that as many as a million Afghan refugees could eventually be on the move.

The third variety of behavior is one I expect to see to be the emphasis of the Taliban in Afghanistan; it is a search for legitimacy. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s that was a major concern. Only three countries in the world recognized the Taliban rule in Afghanistan—Pakistan, their chief sponsor (and some would say their creator), Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Their brutal and retrogressive brand of Islam turned all other countries away, and their treatment of women made it impossible for any Western country to use recognition as leverage. I understand that the Taliban have been taking lessons in diplomacy and have tried to become on friendly terms with some of the region’s big players, especially China, but I expect that it will have to prove its statements about modernizing its policies, especially toward women, are true before most countries will be willing to recognize the regime. This need and concern for recognition could also temper the Taliban leaders’ desire for deep purges and retrogressive policies that drive Afghans to relocate.

I suspect that Biden and his advisors (including his military ones) vastly underestimated the Taliban’s preparedness, as the understandings it had reached as well as the allies it had recruited among the anti-Taliban front, and because of the latter vastly overestimated the ability of the Afghan army (and its willingness to stand and fight), and of civil society, to hold off the inevitable collapse until the US had actually departed and also had evacuated the many Afghans who had helped the US during those 20 years of war. Most importantly, he and his advisors failed to foresee that they would need to have in place the logistics for, and possibly already have accomplished, the massive evacuations necessary to avoid a human rights catastrophe that would result from a early and complete withdrawal. As a result, Biden now has had to send back to Kabul thousands of US troops to provide security for the thousands of Americans and Afghans allied to the Americans that are now in mortal danger. This is a tragedy just waiting to happen. How likely is it that the Taliban can resist shooting at the Americans and not trying to exact vengeance on Afghans it considers traitors? How likely is it that the American troops can stick to their announced narrow mission of providing security to evacuees without shooting back if they are attacked?

Biden will own this collapse, in all of its wide range of ramifications. Whether it will be so bad as to become a campaign issue in 2022 depends whether it spins out of control or is relatively peaceful and non-violent. However, he could have avoided this entire flap by kicking the ball down the road while his team organized the logistics for evacuating the endangered Americans and the endangered 20 thousand or so Afghans to whom we owe an escape from Taliban vengeance. I am not implying that this kind of delay would be motivated by hope of ultimately stopping the Taliban victory.  It would have been a delay of a few months, no longer, while we organized the departure of thousands and avoided the looming humanitarian disaster.  While I recognize that Biden does not like being seen to avoid tough decisions, sometimes patient diplomacy really is the best way.

The article appeared in the Friday Times