CIPHER BRIEF EXPERT PERSPECTIVE
Cipher Brief Expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey served for over 27 years in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is now Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London.
Older Americans have Saigon 1975 and the helicopters from the Embassy roof seared into their memories. A previous generation of Britons was haunted by the image of General Percival surrendering vast numbers of troops and equipment in Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. How Kabul falls to the Taliban could have important practical and symbolic significance.
The announcement that the United States is sending 3,000 troops to Kabul alongside 600 British troops to manage the evacuation of their civilians and those Afghans who provided assistance, is a remarkably late response to a rapidly deteriorating situation. Unless carried out in the next 48 hours, it will also be risky. Taliban infiltrators are already inside Kabul and the forces which captured Ghazni and Kandahar on 12th August will be heading towards the capital on their Honda 125cc motorbikes.
The US must have extracted undertakings from the Taliban negotiators in Qatar not to launch their full assault on Kabul until the evacuations are complete, but elements of doubt remain. Previous Taliban assurances have proved worthless, and it is doubtful that individual Taliban commanders would wish to hold back while some of Ashraf Ghani’s ministers, senior army officers, judges and officials are spirited away to a life of exile.
It is hard not to be impressed by the speed and élan of the Taliban’s recent successes; taking 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 regional capitals in almost as many days. It is reminiscent of the extraordinary progress which the Japanese made down the Malaya Peninsula in 1942 with Singapore as the ultimate prize.
The Taliban’s success has not happened by chance. It is clearly the fruit of preparation and planning. Above all, they have learnt from the experience of 1994 to 1996 when they eventually took Kabul but failed to capture the north, thereby allowing space for the Northern Alliance parties to survive and then reassert themselves following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
This time, the Taliban have focussed first on border posts with neighbouring countries (thereby denying the government vital supply routes and customs revenues) before taking outlying regional capitals and leaving Kabul (which is never easy to capture) until last. Above all, they have concentrated on the north where many rural Afghans are disenchanted with the Kabul government and regional warlords. The north is no longer the solid bastion of anti-Taliban sentiment it was in the 1990s.
Taliban progress in the north has snuffed out any chance that the old Northern Alliance could be reborn out of the eventual collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government. Whereas in 1996, Ahmed Shah Massoud, its brilliant military leader, was able to abandon Kabul and beat a tactical retreat up the Panjshir Valley, that option barely exists today. Not only is Massoud dead but his former adherents are no longer guerrilla fighters but members of a stratified Afghan army which has struggled to perform without US air support.
The Taliban have also ruthlessly exploited the weak negotiating stance of the United States and its chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad. Whereas some of the Taliban team in Doha, such as Mullah Barader, may indeed have been ‘moderates’ there was never any doubt that the Taliban movement wanted to see the total defeat of the Kabul government and the expulsion of Western forces. Pakistan too, may have occasionally considered some form of negotiated deal but ultimately the only sure way of keeping Indian influence out of Afghanistan (it believes) is a Taliban government.
The Afghan army (and in particular its impressive Special Forces) will now be assembling in Kabul and should be able to repel initial attempts to overrun the city. Certainly, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar found it impossible to take Kabul in 1992 and 1993 even with help from Pakistan, which, in frustration, switched support to the newly-created Taliban movement in late 1994.
But from 1992 to 1996 there were frequent deliveries of supplies to Massoud and his Northern Alliance defenders from Russia, Iran, and India. In 2021, the position is very different. Russia has already decided to “back the winner” and believes it has extracted promises from the Taliban not to export Islamism northwards into the Central Asian Republics (CARs). Iran too has channels to the Taliban and will be watching carefully for any return to the Taliban’s persecution of the Shia Hazaras. And India has already made contact with the Taliban in Doha in the hope that the Taliban in power will prevent Kashmiri militant groups from setting up bases there.
The likelihood therefore is that Kabul will fall to the Taliban quite quickly. If the Americans and British do manage to insert their evacuation forces soon, they should be able to complete the operation successfully, although there are likely to be heart-rending scenes at the airport as crowds of refugees are turned away at gunpoint from departing aircraft. Regional powers, particularly Pakistan, will try and persuade the Taliban to hold back from intervening, conscious that a bloodbath in Kabul would be a disastrous start to the Taliban’s second spell in government. Ironically, however, the evacuation would almost certainly lead to the collapse of the Kabul government as senior officials are forced to decide whether to take the last aircraft out or face almost certain torture and death at the hands of the victors. It is doubtful whether any Western countries will choose to retain their embassies in Kabul. For President Biden, the memory of Benghazi will be too raw.
What is certain is that there will be new iconic images to rival those of Saigon and Singapore.
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