In 2001, as the United States reeled from the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush demanded that Afghan fighters hand over the terrorist mastermind behind them, Osama Bin Laden.
Al Qaeda, he said, was the ideological heart of the Taliban regime controlling much of the country. “In Afghanistan we see Al Qaeda’s vision for the world,” he said. “It’s people have been brutalised, many are starving and many have fled.” Just months later, Washington put boots on the ground after the request was ignored, beginning a two decades-long search for insurgents who disappear into the sand.
Now, with Joe Biden having announced earlier this year that all American troops would leave by the 20-year anniversary of the attack on the twin towers in September, little seems to have changed. Afghanistan’s people are still brutalised, NGOs are warning much of the population is on the brink of famine, and 2.7 million refugees have left the country, despite US taxpayers spending billions on bullets, bombs and foreign aid.
The militant Islamic vision for Afghanistan, far from being in retreat, seems to have won out. The fundamentalist group now controls about half of the country, although its strongholds are mainly in mountainous rural regions where its fighters have been able to hide from US and allied strikes. Travel beyond the capital and a scattering of other cities has become virtually impossible for government officials, with the nation effectively split between two controlling powers.
On Wednesday, however, the Taliban made a breakthrough when it conquered Qala-e-Naw, the capital of the north-western Badghis region. This represents the first time the fundamentalist group has captured a major urban centre, and whether they can hold it against government forces will be a key test of their ability to maintain control over parts of Afghanistan. That job is made easier by the diminished presence of American forces in the country.
Without Western support, the government in Kabul is effectively unable to govern vast swathes of the country, and its fate seems sealed. Over the past week, hundreds of troops from the Afghan army have sought temporary refuge in neighbouring Tajikistan after bloody skirmishes with Taliban fighters. Border troops from the former Soviet republic have waved them in, saying they believe in the principle of neighbourliness and humanitarian assistance.
The growing crisis has sucked in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who offered his support to his Tajik counterpart in a call earlier this week. The Central Asian nation is part of a mutual defence pact with Moscow, and a key ally for the Kremlin. As a result, Russia is unlikely to be keen to see instability and conflict on its front doorstep, and will look to do its utmost to cement its role as a guarantor of security in the region, potentially even offering military support to deter the Taliban from pushing fighters across the frontier as they have in the past.
With morale at an all-time low, American transport planes airlifting supporting troops out of Bagram air force base, and Kabul losing more and more ground every day, the situation is dire for Afghanistan’s government. Collapse and wholesale desertion are far from unimaginable in a country where allegiances rapidly shift and the central administration appears to command little real legitimacy.
The US and its allies, including the UK, have been eager to sell the idea that they are not abandoning Afghanistan, and that they will support its fragile administration from afar. Western states have said that they will consider warplane fly-overs and bombing runs if militants start to close in on the capital, while Washington has opened a discussion into whether the Pentagon should be able to authorise drone strikes against Taliban targets without sign-off from the White House.
Yet given a massive deployment of troops into the country did little but cost lives and cause destruction over the past 20 years, it is difficult to see how a bombing campaign run from abroad could turn the tide. Instead, the region, and the whole world, will soon have to come to terms with the idea of the Taliban controlling most, if not all, of Afghanistan. One commander told the BBC earlier this week that “we have won the war and America has lost.” It is hard to argue that he is wrong.
Likewise, the US has quite clearly washed its hands of almost all aspects of the situation. Around 9,000 Afghans volunteered or worked for its forces in the country as drivers, translators and in other civilian roles. Now, defence officials fear, they could become targets for retribution if and when militants track them down. But instead of offering them asylum and a new life in the US, Washington has asked neighbouring countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to take them in instead. If the requests to rehouse this sizable contingent are denied, it is unclear whether they will be left to the mercies of advancing fighters.
Originally founded as a group of hyper-religious students, the Taliban has become one of the world’s most notorious and resilient militant groups. As well as having been accused of massacring civilians, the group is well-known for deploying brutality and violence in order to maintain control. Women living in areas under its control are relegated to almost sub-human status, forced to wear burkas that cover all but their eyes and be escorted by husbands or close relatives whenever they leave the house.
The prospect of living under that kind of rule is now a pressing reality for Afghans, even those in the capital. After two decades of being told that their future would be secular and prosperous, it seems little is left in Afghanistan apart from the sense of betrayal.
Gabriel Gavin is a Moscow-based journalist covering central and eastern Europe.