According to Joe Biden, ‘Afghans are going to have to decide their own future’. There’s probably a phrase in Pashto, Dari, Uzbek, Balochi, or one of many other Afghan languages which translates as ‘Yeah, right’. The future will be decided by the minority of Afghans with the biggest guns – the Taliban – and by non-Afghans who support or oppose them.
Fast forward through Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the Arabs, the British, the Russians and then the Americans and we see that in troubled times Afghans rarely decide their own future without significant involvement by foreigners. The 28 countries of NATO are merely the most recent to have given up on the ‘Graveyard of Empires’. Their embarrassing retreat may deter outside forces from putting boots on the sand, but not from involving themselves in what comes next.
In early May, President Biden announced that US forces would leave Afghanistan by 11 September 2021 and in doing so triggered a rush for the door. German troops flew out of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on a transport plane ‘as swiftly as possible’. The Poles left, the Italians were just behind them, and by the time Bagram airport was closed in the first week of June the British had mostly gone.
Since Biden’s announcement, the Taliban have made considerable territorial gains in dozens of districts. In some, they negotiated the surrender of the demoralised Afghan security forces, in others they overran their defences – as in Faryab province in the north where 24 members of an elite commando unit were killed. Attacks on journalists, teachers, women and ethnic minorities are all increasing. This is the background to a leaked US intelligence report which suggested the Afghan government could fall by the end of the year. Even more optimistic projections foresee the Taliban controlling huge swathes of the country and besieging the gates of the capital.
Several factors mean the latter scenario is more likely than a complete short-term collapse. The American administration wants to keep up the pretence that it has, as Biden says, achieved its goals. It points to the fact that al-Qaeda has been greatly diminished, Osama bin Laden is dead and the Taliban has agreed with Washington not to harbour foreign terror groups. The fall of Kabul to the Taliban, which maintains ties to al-Qaeda, would further dent an already battered excuse for the American retreat. Therefore, the US will keep several hundred special forces troops in the country to guard the embassy and its diplomats and conduct occasional operations.
A priority for the Americans will be to keep Kabul international airport open. Without it, embassies and foreign aid organisations can’t function, nor would there be an evacuation route in case of an emergency. Washington is negotiating a deal with Ankara which would see the airport guarded by the Turkish military which has about 600 personnel in Afghanistan. The Talibs reacted to the news of the negotiations by saying: ‘The presence of foreign forces under whatever name or by whichever country in our homeland is unacceptable.’ The non-combat role of Turkish troops in Afghanistan could be tested.
Outside players, such as Turkey, are among the factors which mean a total victory for the Taliban is not inevitable. For example, China does not want to see Afghanistan run by Islamist fanatics. The two countries share a short border and are connected by the Wakhan Corridor which runs into Xinxiang province, home to China’s restive and persecuted Muslim Uighur population. Russia also fears that a Taliban victory would inspire the myriad Islamist extremist groups in the Central Asian states, such as Tajikistan which has a long frontier with Afghanistan. Moscow hopes to both prevent the spread of instability, and block the Americans in Central Asia.
Washington is looking for ‘over the horizon’ options for its air force, hence President Putin recently approved a joint Russian/Tajik air defence system, the message to America being: ‘Don’t even think of Tajikistan as your back-up plan.’ China and Russia could both offer support to the Afghan government and ethnic minorities such as the Tajiks and Hazaras who have always resisted the Taliban, which is dominated by Pashtuns.
They’re going to need help. Recent losses by government forces are partially down to the lack of US air support, a problem which is going to become more acute. The districts taken by the Taliban surround several provincial capitals which suggests an intention to take them. Morale among government troops is low. To the south of Kabul, the Taliban are closing in on the city of Ghazni which is on the highway linking the capital with the province of Kandahar. To the north it has captured the district of Doshi through which runs the only main road to northern regions.
They are also increasingly well- armed. Thousands of Afghan army vehicles and weapons are falling into their hands including armoured Humvees, heavy machine guns, and towed howitzers with a range of about nine miles. There will be fighting during what is left of the summer, followed by the withdrawal of the handful of NATO troops remaining in the autumn, and then a winter of discontent.
Tim Marshall is a journalist, broadcaster and author of Prisoners of Geography and Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls