The war in Afghanistan has been called the most pointless conflict of all time. It is probably the most disastrous military venture launched by the US, Britain and their allies in the past 100 years. The Taliban, though, will be celebrating what they see as a historic victory when NATO forces quit Afghanistan in September. We have to remember that not everyone views the 20-year conflict through a western lens.
Ousted from Kabul towards the end of 2001, the ruling Taliban refused to surrender and turned to asymmetric warfare against the most powerful military in the world. I expect to see them return triumphantly to the capital on the 20th anniversary; it will be a sharp contrast to their chaotic and hasty exit.
No matter how much spin or gloss you put on those 20 years, NATO’s intervention led by the US has been a disaster. As with most conflicts, the exact number of civilian deaths is unknown and is likely to remain so, not least because nobody started counting until 2009. Estimates put the figure at around 200,000, to which we must add the thousands of Afghan, American, British, and other NATO soldiers who were killed. And we mustn’t forget the many who have been maimed for life.
I take no pleasure in being right about the endgame in Afghanistan but… Any student of history worthy of the name could have offered the same advice back on 13 November 2001 after the Taliban had fled the Afghan capital for Kandahar and the coalition forces led by the Americans marched into Kabul with the Northern Alliance. What was that advice? “Get the hell out while you can.”
Historians cite as evidence for the apparent impossibility of quelling the Afghans the mixed fortunes of Alexander the Great; the failure of Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes; several armies defeated at the height of the British Empire; and an equally disastrous Soviet Union occupation towards the end of the 20th century. Future historians will be able to include the US and its NATO allies in that roll call of infamy.
I didn’t have that much knowledge of Afghanistan history back in 2001 but quickly discovered the obvious when I was captured by the Taliban while working as chief reporter for Britain’s Sunday Express. It was a history lesson-cum-baptism of fire. During the 11 terrifying days I was held by the regime, I realised very quickly that they would never surrender, and told anyone and everyone as much when I was released.
Had anyone bothered to listen to me, perhaps thousands of deaths could have been avoided and trillions of dollars saved, for the simple reason that there was a much better solution. But no. The then US President George W Bush and his poodle Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, were apparently hell bent on revenge for the horrific events of 9/11. They could have chosen to work with the Taliban, provided much-needed humanitarian aid, and maybe, even maybe, through peaceful dialogue reached some form of compromise and mutual understanding. Bush had, after all, given the Taliban $43 million in May 2001 for its anti-drug programme which had by then had a major impact on opium growing in Afghanistan.
During my brief captivity, I realised very quickly that there was no great love between the Taliban and Al-Qaida. “They arrived as our guests and tried to become our masters,” one Taliban official told me when I asked about the connection. There was no special relationship; that came when America went to war in Afghanistan and inadvertently forced the two groups to work together against a common foe.
To US President Joe Biden’s credit, he’s obviously accepted that the war is unwinnable. This is something that Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump were probably advised as well, but they chose to leave the problem for the next president to sort out.
I’ve returned to Afghanistan many times since that little episode, and during my last visit the Taliban were in control of around 70 per cent of the country; that is still the position today. When foreign forces leave, the government of President Ashraf Ghani will struggle to hold onto power with the 300,000 Afghan troops trained and armed by the US and NATO over the past 20 years. There is a general feeling that once they do go, either Ghani will also leave quietly or there will be yet another bloody civil war.
With a negotiated deal in Qatar last year the Taliban promised to uphold human rights, especially the established rights of women. My former captors even asked me along to witness the occasion, but sadly the pandemic put paid to my plans to fly to Doha. Now there is another opportunity for the Taliban to continue to engage in the peace process, with a summit on Saturday in Turkey.
Pakistan is playing a supporting role and is urging the Taliban to focus on the peace process after the group threatened to withdraw from the conference. The threat was made after Biden made his September withdrawal announcement, which contradicted the earlier 1 May deadline set by the Trump administration.
The peace process might be in disarray but that will not concern the Taliban. They have waited two decades to get their country back and now, it seems, they are dictating the terms for a political settlement between themselves and the Afghan government.
It is encouraging to see the Muslim countries of Qatar, Pakistan, and Turkey helping to facilitate and encourage a peaceful outcome in war-torn Afghanistan. The realisation that the West is often the problem and not the solution is slowly beginning to dawn on the world. The fact that the mighty US military has been humbled by the Taliban should speed up that process.
If peace can be achieved in Afghanistan by positive intervention from Muslim countries then maybe these same strategic influences in Doha, Islamabad and Ankara can work on solutions in other conflict regions. Kashmir and Palestine spring to mind for obvious reasons; the people of both continue to resist brutal military occupations after more than 70 years with great courage. Like the Taliban, the Kashmiris and Palestinians have refused to surrender, despite being confronted on a daily basis by far superior firepower and the opprobrium of international bodies swayed by distorted Indian and Israeli narratives. There is a lesson in this for those who believe that might is always right. It isn’t.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.