There is a reason Afghanistan is known as the “graveyard of empires.” The sobriquet is often cited due to the numerous historical examples of empires, nations, and foreign powers that have attempted to invade and occupy what is now known as the modern territory of Afghanistan, only to fail and suffer huge losses.
When the British Empire fought the Emirate of Kabul during the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1839, the main British-Indian force was almost wiped out as it withdrew from Kabul in 1842. Over the next 80 years, the British made two more failed attempts to gain control of this strategically important landlocked country known as the heart of Asia. After the Soviet Union was driven out by the Mujahideen in 1989 during the 10-year Soviet-Afghan war, you would think history would teach future military strategists an important lesson.
But no one listened.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the United States launched an invasion of Afghanistan in order to go after the mastermind, Osama bin Laden —given succour by the Taliban. The Taliban were defeated within 60 days, but it took another ten years to find bin Laden, finally killed in Pakistan in 2011.
It should have ended there. But for the next decade, a combination of US and British forces stayed in Afghanistan. The goal was always ambiguous. There was a concerted international effort to reinvent the country in a more western liberal democratic fashion, guaranteeing women equal access to education and employment. They even managed to set up their own national Afghan army.
Yet spring forward to 15 August, 2021. The Taliban have recaptured a vast swathe of the country. Afghans are fleeing for their lives. There is chaos at Kabul International Airport. Locals are clinging on to C-17 military planes as they hastily take off. Some are filmed falling to their death. Human remains were discovered in the wheel well of one plane that landed in Qatar.
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It has now been one year since the Taliban re-took Afghanistan. The national flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan flies over the country. The white flag, imprinted in black Arabic script, signifies the Islamic oath of faith—known as the Shahada. It can be seen everywhere in Kabul, from government buildings to one of the many military vehicles left behind by the US in the calamitous rush to leave the country.
What became known as the Forever War has become the forgotten war. Those unable to get out face an uncertain and potentially life-threatening future. According to the United Nations, 95 per cent of Afghans are hungry. The World Health Organisation warns that “more than half of a population of some 40 million people now live in what the World Food Programme calls “acute food insecurity.”
Christina Lamb’s excellent and often harrowing reports for The Sunday Times reveal people selling their organs and even their own children to provide enough oil and flour for a few months. With winter fast approaching, a humanitarian catastrophe is all but imminent.
International aid accounted for almost 75 per cent of the Afghan state budget, but it was stopped upon the Taliban regaining power. All assets were frozen, and international sanctions have destroyed the economy.
The Taliban allege they have been through some bizarre kind of post-Islamo-fascist PR training, emerging as the Taliban 2.0 – a different, less barbaric outfit than the group that ran the country in the 90s. Yet this is a commitment built on sand.
When it comes to equal access to education, Taliban “government” spokesman Zabiullah Mujadid told the BBC it is because of the issue of girls’ safety. This would be the Taliban that stones women for adultery and forces women who complain of sexual assault to marry their attacker? Right.
The international community faces a tough moral dilemma in order to avert an incoming humanitarian disaster. States would need to co-operate with a government not recognised in international law, knowing that the Taliban are irrevocably intertwined with terrorist groups. The Haqqani network, which provided cover for bin Laden in Abbottabad, is ingrained within the Taliban’s government. Khalil Haqqani is the Taliban’s minister for refugees, which leaves them potentially capable of giving cover to wanted and senior al-Qaeda fighters.
To further complicate the issue, when the CIA eliminated the al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, he was found in a villa in northern Kabul. The house was owned by the Minister of the Interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani. This makes the issue of lifting sanctions unlikely.
I am reminded of Madeleine Albright’s words when she was asked about the sanctions crippling Iraq in 1996. The former US Secretary of State told CBS 60 minutes, that in the pursuit of “democracy” the death of a half million Iraqi children was “worth it”.
A potent mix of excessive corruption, poor governance and Western hubris led to Afghanistan’s downfall. We need to find a way to help those we abandoned. Not just the interpreters who assisted us, but the millions left behind.