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America’s 20-year effort to remake Afghanistan in its own image has given way to a humanitarian and political crisis.   © EPA/Jiji
The Big Story

Taliban triumph: anatomy of a disaster in Afghanistan

Washington's humiliation will be felt throughout Asia

ANDREW NORTH, Contributing writer | South Asia

Instead of a ladder to the last helicopter out of Saigon, a new image of desperation and collapse seared itself into the world's mind this week. A crowd of Afghans swarming a whale-like U.S. Air Force transport, grasping at its oblivious sides as it took off from Kabul airport.

A few managed to get a hold on the plane's landing gear bays as it climbed, only to plunge to their deaths onto the capital below -- bookending America's war on terror in a sickening symmetry of horror. Nearly 20 years ago, the world watched people jump from the burning Twin Towers on 9/11. Now no one can forget the images of Afghans falling from the sky.

Many say the defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan in 1989 helped bring about the end of the Soviet Union. With the disastrous finale of America's 20 year-effort to remake the country in its own image, some feared this could be a similar watershed moment for the West: not its collapse but a demoralizing and self-inflicted loss of power, leaving a humanitarian crisis in its wake.

There would be no "hasty rush to the exit," vowed U.S. President Joe Biden when he ordered American troops home in April, dismissing comparisons with Vietnam. But now Afghanistan may become a new benchmark of defeat. "People talk about the Saigon moment," said Saad Mohseni, founder of the popular Tolo TV network. "From now on, it will be the Kabul moment."

In a matter of weeks, two decades-worth of blood, treasure and assumptions evaporated in the face of a Taliban guerrilla army that American generals and politicians, and not a few Western journalists too, had so often dismissed as "ragtag."

"Kabul and its people are in complete shock and trauma," wrote lawmaker Shukria Barakzai on social media, her job now effectively canceled by the Taliban takeover. "Never knew this game would be repeated and played again that soon."

Shaista, who works for a small loan provider in the capital, had the same fearful sense of deja vu. "This looks like 20 years ago when we couldn't go to our jobs -- or even the market -- without a burqa and without a man," she said, speaking to Nikkei Asia as she watched a sight she last saw as a 10-year-old -- Taliban fighters in the streets of Kabul.

A worker at a Kabul beauty salon tries to make a mural of a woman disappear on Aug. 15 as the Taliban sweeps into the Afghan capital.    © Kyodo

Except that now they were cruising past in American Humvees and pickups, sporting high-tech U.S. weapons captured from retreating Afghan troops.

Then there was the Taliban commander, an ex-Guantanamo Bay prisoner, giving a live interview on Al-Jazeera Arabic -- the favored outlet for al-Qaida and Taliban statements in 2001. He was behind the desk of former President Ashraf Ghani, just hours after he had fled. On social media, some compared the scene to more recent memories: those of America's own insurgents storming the US Capitol this January on behalf of former President Donald Trump.

Other Afghans were preparing for history to repeat itself even before the Taliban swept into the capital. Workers were painting over the windows of Kabul beauty salons, making pictures of women disappear. They feared a return of the movement's infamous morality police, who previously used whips to enforce bans on human images, music and television.

A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft carries some 640 Afghans to Qatar from Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 15.   © Defense One/Reuters

The full narrative of what has just happened in Afghanistan is still emerging -- with the blame-slinging just starting -- in Kabul as well as Washington. Afghan military commanders now in hiding have said they were betrayed.

What is clear is that the Taliban have just pulled off the most successful guerrilla campaign of modern times. Military strategists will be studying this one for decades. But with a stroke of his pen, Biden had also handed the Taliban a critical advantage: removing most of the airpower backup on which the Afghan security forces depended.

With the skies clear, a well-laid plan and reinforcements from Pakistan, the Taliban steadily advanced across the north and west from May until early August. And then the wave turned into a tsunami. Just nine days separated the Taliban's capture of Zaranj, the first of Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals to fall, and their takeover of Kabul, on Sunday.

A U.S. soldier trying to control Afghan crowds at Kabul airport Aug. 16.   © AFP/Jiji

When he announced the U.S. pullout, Biden said American objectives of degrading al-Qaida had been "achieved." Those who once prosecuted the war say the opposite, that the Taliban's triumph will make Afghanistan a haven for extremist groups once more. "You've actually enabled your adversary to go right back to where he was 20 years ago," said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The difference is that the Taliban brand now has global prestige among insurgent groups everywhere. "They can boast they won against the superpower," says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S.-turned-dissident academic. The government he once served -- which has pulled off the feat of being both the Taliban's main sponsor and a U.S. ally -- was no longer trying to be coy about where its real allegiances lay. Officials were openly celebrating the fall of Kabul on social media, with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan declaring that Afghans had "broken the shackles of slavery."

At a wider level, it is a moment that signals the start of a new era of great-power competition between the U.S., Russia and China, which is one of the reasons Biden insisted on withdrawing to focus on bigger geopolitical threats. But his critics say the way he has pulled out of Afghanistan has left American leadership, competence and credibility in serious question, with even close allies calling Biden's actions "shameful" and "an unforced strategic error." Britain's defense minister struggled to choke back tears in a television interview, as he admitted that some Afghans who had helped U.K. forces "won't get back."

Taliban fighters along a street at Massoud Square in Kabul on Aug. 16. Afghans now face the return to the strictures of Taliban rule.   © AFP/Jiji

Moscow and Beijing were clearly enjoying Washington's troubles. While U.S. Marines were evacuating the last diplomats from America's fortified embassy complex in central Kabul, the Russian mission put out a statement saying it was still open, with most of their diplomats staying put. And China's foreign ministry said it was ready for "friendly relations" with the Taliban.

For some in the region watching America's humiliation, there is also the knowledge that warnings went unheeded. "We told the Americans you are going to lose if you keep doing it this way," said a former senior Indian government official involved in high-level meetings with the U.S. government in the early stages of its Afghan war. "We told them they had to focus on Pakistan. And they just said: 'It's the Indians whining again.'"

Hundreds of thousands of Afghans are now paying the price in a ballooning humanitarian catastrophe, pushed out of their homes by fighting and fearing a return to the strictures of Taliban rule. However much the Taliban say they are different now, many Afghans are not staying around to find out. A new refugee exodus is underway. Most want to go West -- to the countries that have just left them behind. But with Turkey putting up barriers to Europe, most will get no further than Afghanistan's neighborhood. Sheltering them will primarily be Asia's challenge -- and some say it is time the region stepped up more.

Playing nice

Beyond the chaos at Kabul airport, the city was largely calm in the days after the Taliban took over, as its fighters spread out to entrench their self-declared "Islamic Emirate." Similar reports came in from other parts of the country.

The streets were quieter than usual. People were staying indoors, watching to see which way things would go, staying in touch on mobile phone networks that were still working. Schools were reopening, with girls being allowed to attend too.

The Taliban were apparently trying to project an image of restraint and tolerance. "We are going to allow women to work and study, women are going to be very active in society," said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, at the movement's first news conference in Kabul after taking over. "We guarantee all their rights within the limits of Islam," he added. That caveat has been heard from the Taliban before, and those with memories of the past doubt it means change.

As Kabul residents watched from their homes, quiet fury surfaced over what had happened. "I am so angry. How could the Americans do this?" raged Hamid, a 30-year-old civil servant.

"We really hate them [the Taliban]," said another Kabul resident, who asked not to be quoted by name. "They killed our family members, relatives, and ordinary Afghan people for the last 20 years."

But after the Taliban's decisive takeover, there seems little appetite for fighting on. Fears of a new round of civil war have, for the moment at least, receded.

One place was holding out though: the mountainous valley of Panjshir, north of Kabul, homeland of the late anti-Soviet mujahedeen leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by al-Qaida agents two days before 9/11. The single, narrow entrance to the valley at its southern end has always provided a natural defense. Neither the Soviet Army nor the Taliban ever managed to subdue Panjshir. And that is where Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan Vice President, has now taken refuge -- declaring himself the "legitimate caretaker President" in a Twitter message. He was reported to be working with Massoud's son in creating a new movement to resist Taliban rule. For Afghans, that too feels like the past repeating.

A "pyrrhic victory"

So where did it all go so wrong for America?

"Maybe the root of it is that no one really knew what the war was for," said Louis Fernandez, who now helps businesses reduce their costs from his home in the U.S. state of Arizona. In 2005, I met him when he was a platoon commander in the 82nd Airborne Division, serving in an isolated American outpost called Camp Tillman on the border with Pakistan.

I traveled there by helicopter, the pilots barely clearing the treetops as they tried to make themselves harder to fire on from below. On the other side of a scrubby hill next to the base was South Waziristan, known as a haven for the Taliban and other militants.

I called Fernandez again recently to ask how he saw the situation unfolding in Afghanistan now. But first we talked about how it all began, and the mood after the attacks on New York and Washington. "Everyone wanted revenge after 9/11. To watch those towers falling left us feeling very exposed. We felt at risk in a very real way. We needed to give Americans back our sense of security. And I felt like I had to do something."

U.S. Army mechanics repair a humvee tire at Camp Tillman in Afghanistan's Paktika Province, near the Pakistan border, in 2006.   © Getty Images

Under the banner of Operation Enduring Freedom, revenge was always what the war was about: getting revenge for 9/11 and finding Osama bin Laden, the Saudi mastermind of the attacks on New York and Washington. 

But although America's B-52s and its special forces working with Afghan militia on the ground soon broke the Taliban, they could not catch bin Laden. As the world later discovered, he escaped to Pakistan. And so the titles and the reasons for the war changed.

From a war for revenge, it became the war on terror, then the long war, and for a while the "good war," in former President Barack Obama's phrasing, as opposed to the "dumb war" of Iraq. But as Americans got bored of listening to their leaders come up with new ways of claiming fragile progress, it simply became the "forever war."

The World Trade Center south tower bursts into flames after being struck by a hijacked jetliner in 2001.   © Reuters

There were elections, a new parliament and a new constitution. And from almost no Afghan girls in school in 2001 when the Taliban were ousted, there were at least 2 million by this year, according to UNICEF. But for soldiers like Fernandez, "there was never a defined victory, a defined end state we were working for."

There was another way in which America had hobbled itself, and you could see it even back in 2005 on the Afghan-Pakistani frontier. It was a time when Afghanistan was regarded as being relatively peaceful, certainly compared to later on. But the Taliban were already coming back to life after their defeat four years earlier, their leaders plotting in Pakistani cities like Quetta under the protection of the country's military intelligence service, the ISI.

An isolated American base made an obvious target. Taliban fighters coming in from Pakistan were regularly launching attacks on Fernandez and his men. But the soldiers complained their rules of engagement -- barring them from crossing far into Pakistan -- made it difficult to fight back. "It's easy for the enemy to shoot at us here in Afghanistan and then they just run a couple of hundred meters into Pakistan and we can't do anything," said the unit's frustrated radio operator, Juan Carlos Coca. "They're untouchable."

The crack of flying rounds on the border was the sound of political opportunities missed.

President Joe Biden speaks about the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House on Aug. 16.   © AFP/Jiji

Pakistani attempts to have Taliban representatives included in negotiations for a new interim administration in Afghanistan (following the 2001 war) had been rebuffed by Washington. After a quick victory over bin Laden's hosts, sitting down and talking to them was a non-starter for a gung-ho administration of President George W. Bush already training its sights on Iraq.         

After 9/11, President Bush had famously declared: "You are either with us, or the terrorists," forcing Pakistan's then leader, General Pervez Musharraf, to cut the country's long-standing ties with the Taliban. But with its proxy out of power and in the cold after 2001, old Pakistani priorities came back into play. The ISI saw a revived Taliban as an essential hedge against its old rival India, which by then was closely aligned with the new U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.

Even as it was shoring up support for the Taliban who were shooting at American soldiers, Pakistan had made itself indispensable to the U.S. and other NATO forces as a supply route to landlocked Afghanistan, and for intelligence on some, though not all, of the militants sheltering within its borders.

The gloating being seen now from some Pakistani officials is not only at the triumph of their proxy but at their success in gaming the U.S. Hamid Gul, one of the best-known former chiefs of the ISI is reported to have joked that "the ISI defeated America in Afghanistan, with America's help."

But Haqqani, the exiled former Pakistani diplomat, predicts this will be a "pyrrhic victory" for the country's military -- with Pakistan's own Taliban movement emboldened and already escalating attacks.

Fernandez admits he had a narrow view of the war from his border redoubt. But even then, he said, the fact that the U.S. was battling insurgents with an untouchable supply base in Pakistan made no sense. "We were fighting an unwinnable war. We called it back then," he said.

The former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, David Barno, agrees. "The U.S. never defeated the insurgency in large part because it had an external sanctuary to withdraw to when things got too hot."

"A badly executed bad decision"

"America is back," promised Biden this past February, as he sought to rebuild bridges with allies shaken by his predecessor, Donald Trump. But with the debacle in Afghanistan, those alliances have taken a much greater hit.

"This was a bad decision and it was a badly executed bad decision," said Barno. "This is my personal view, but as allies look at this, they are going to wonder not just about America's credibility, but I think America's will to lead."

The comparison between the way America's wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam ended is telling, Barno argues, because the U.S. is now in a weaker position. "There's no question the United States was the leader of the free world in 1975, even withdrawing from South Vietnam. That is not true today. That position is up for grabs. And I think that this will reinforce those that say that American power is waning in the world, that the U.S. is pulling away from its leadership responsibilities. And it will certainly provide a lot of ammunition for the propagandists in the Chinese Communist Party and in Russia."

Facing an avalanche of criticism at home and abroad, Biden would concede only that the end had been "hard and messy." And in a defiant address, he provoked more fury when he sought to shift the blame for the outcome onto Afghan forces, whom he said were "by and large not willing to fight and die themselves."

The facts speak otherwise. At least 70,000 Afghan police and soldiers have been reported to have been killed in the conflict over the past 20 years -- compared with some 2,300 Americans.

Back in Kabul, at the Taliban's first news conference, its spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid was trying to adopt a tone of peace and denying it would carry out revenge attacks. "We have given amnesty to everybody," he told a room of wary journalists, before adding: "We want them to give us forgiveness." 

The coming weeks will tell if these are more than just words.

Andrew North has reported extensively from Afghanistan since 2001 and was previously based in Kabul as a resident correspondent for the BBC. With additional reporting by Barakzai in Kabul.

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