The day has finally come, in a month that has felt like an age, the U.S. have finally withdrawn from Afghanistan by the set deadline of August 31st. It is not difficult to see why the U.S. did not want to push the deadline further back after a suicide bombing and multiple attempted rocket attacks sought to impede the withdrawal.
Ensuing the increased volatility of the situation, the overall desperation of foreign nationals and under-threat Afghans wanting to leave began to escalate as President Biden made his stance very clear that the U.S. was going and would not return.
Reports of people hanging, and falling off subsequent aircraft carriers, in a desperate bid to escape Taliban rule added to the intensity of the situation. Over 100,000 Afghans and personnel from dozens of partner nations were involved in a pull-out that could quite easily have gone on for weeks past the date.
Around 500,000 additional Afghans, according to the UNHCR, will attempt to leave the country by the end of the year creating difficulties externally on who will take them and where they will end up. Most government operations have been solely focused on the Afghans who have aided military or bureaucratic processes, such as interpreters or intelligence links, but the inevitability of over 4 million refugees must be discussed at some point.
A widespread fear of Taliban reprisals is driving the mass exodus – with many journalists, opposition politicians and educators, the likely first targets. However, the question remains if the Taliban are same ultra-conservative zealots, we saw prior to 2001 or a reformed modicum of the Islamic world.
Externally, the Taliban appear polished, media savvy and ready to negotiate – having set up a political office in Doha, Qatar, where former foe and ex-president of the republic, Ashraf Ghani, now resides.
Qatar have emerged from shadows as an international mediator in the convoluted fallout from Afghanistan and appear to have offered the Taliban a table at which the world is invited to join.
It can be comforting to see what many labelled as barbarous terrorism harbourers, as willing to engage with the international community but it paints a misleading picture of how the Taliban will rule inside the exhausted nation.
Sources from the associated press mention that on Friday, folk singer Fawad Andarabi was shot in the head in Baghlan province, 60 miles north of Kabul, despite assurances from Taliban spokesman on a modernised Islamic state.
It can be very easy to forget that the Taliban does not delegate law and order as a traditional bureaucracy might in the west. What happens in Kabul could differ completely from how Sharia is carried out in Kandahar.
Operating under a tribal system comes with its own internal delegation method and implementation of certain policies could be flat-out rejected in far flung regions of Afghanistan, which itself is home to 14 different tribes.
The urge to characterize the world as bureaucratically simple is a uniquely western idea and Afghanistan after nearly 40 years of nonstop conflict is arguably the most poignant example of this anti-democratic culture that pervades the governing system of the Taliban and much of the middle east.
Internationally, the consensus on what is going to happen next is largely unclear in this case because the Taliban government appears inconsistent internally, yet open to the external recognition and global support.
China have taken diplomatic aim at the U.S. urging them to take responsibility for their actions over the last 20 years; Russia followed a similar tone, but it is clear to see who is poised to take advantage of Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth, estimated to be around $1 trillion in value.
An American exit has been a media delight for the Chinese government who will claim this to be part of a wider decline in American power across the globe. Yet, you look at the $2.2 trillion spent and the number of civilians and military personnel dead, you begin to wonder if the U.S. may just be shedding their Achilles heel in an unwinnable war.
On paper, the Afghan army were far better equipped and trained than the Taliban with around 250,000 more soldiers but internal corruption, lack of ideological cohesion and frequently changing commanders allowed the Taliban to infiltrate the cracks in the military infrastructure.
The US, as they have many times before, were funding a facade which was arguably more than it was worth, but the complexity of Afghanistan has already begun to rear its ugly head because the opposition that sparked the invasion are still alive and well, if not thriving and likely to be sheltered by the Taliban as they had been prior to 9/11.
It has been said that Pakistan is ruling Afghanistan by proxy due to their Pashtun – tribal commonalities which is a key feature of Taliban rule and whether you believe that or not, the Afghanistan operation is back to day 1, only this time with the Chinese at the negotiating table.
New difficulties face President Biden and his successors but it would be wise to first tackle the ensuing mass migration from the region, expected to peak later this year. Then at least, the international community have time to understand the intentions of the new Taliban government, who appear willing to formally discuss the next steps.
Qatar is set to play a key role in those negotiations, so we should be watching how the situation in Doha plays out, because now, this may be the only card that the U.S. has in managing their influence in a country lost to old foes and ripened for their more contemporary Chinese ones.