How does Kabul end?

CIPHER brief expert opinion

Password Briefing Expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey Served in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office for more than 27 years. He is now a visiting professor of war studies at King’s College London.

Older Americans own Saigon in 1975, and the helicopter on the roof of the embassy is imprinted in their memory. The image of General Percival handing over a large number of troops and equipment to the Japanese in Singapore in 1942 has always plagued the previous generation of British people. How Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban may have important practical and symbolic significance.

The United States announced that it will send 3,000 soldiers and 600 British soldiers to Kabul to manage the evacuation of its civilians and aid Afghans. This is a very late response to the rapidly deteriorating situation. Unless it is done within the next 48 hours, there will also be risks.Taliban infiltrators have entered Kabul and the forces that captured Ghazni and Kandahar on the 12thday In August they will drive their Honda 125cc motorcycle to the capital.

The United States must have received assurances from the Taliban negotiators in Qatar that it will not launch a full-scale attack on Kabul before the evacuation is complete, but it still has doubts. The previous Taliban guarantees have proved to be worthless. When some of Ashraf Ghani’s ministers, senior military officers, judges and officials were put into exile, it is questionable whether individual Taliban commanders are willing to stop them.

It is hard not to be impressed by the speed and enthusiasm of the Taliban’s recent success. Occupied 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 regional capitals in almost the same number of days. This is reminiscent of the extraordinary progress the Japanese made in Malaya in 1942, with Singapore as the final trophy.

The success of the Taliban is not accidental. This is obviously the result of preparation and planning. Most importantly, they learned a lesson from the experience from 1994 to 1996, when they finally occupied Kabul but failed to occupy the north, thus providing living space for all parties in the Northern Alliance, and then after the 9/11 terrorist attacks Re-establish one’s own position.

This time, the Taliban first focused on border posts with neighboring countries (thus depriving the government of important supply routes and customs revenue), and then occupied the capital of remote areas and left Kabul (which was never easy to occupy) until the end. Most importantly, they are concentrated in the north, where many rural Afghan people no longer have illusions about the Kabul government and regional warlords. The North is no longer a strong bastion of anti-Taliban sentiment in the 1990s.


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The Taliban’s progress in the north has stifled any chance of a rebirth of the old Northern Alliance after the final fall of the Ashraf Ghani government. In 1996, its outstanding military leader, Ahmed Shah Masood, was able to abandon Kabul and conduct a tactical retreat in the Panjshir Valley, but today this option hardly exists. Not only is Masood dead, but his former followers are no longer guerrillas, but members of the stratified Afghan army that are difficult to perform without American air support.

The Taliban also relentlessly exploited the weak negotiating position of the United States and its chief negotiator Khalilzad. Some Taliban teams in Doha, such as Mullah Baladel, may indeed be “moderates,” but the Taliban movement undoubtedly hopes to see the Kabul government fail completely and expel Western forces. Pakistan may also occasionally consider some form of negotiated agreement, but the only reliable way (it believes) to exclude Indian influence from Afghanistan is the Taliban government.

The Afghan army (especially its impressive special forces) will now be assembled in Kabul and should be able to repel the initial attempt to take the city. Of course, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar found that even with the help of Pakistan, it was impossible to occupy Kabul in 1992 and 1993, who turned to support the newly formed Taliban movement in frustration at the end of 1994.

But from 1992 to 1996, Russia, Iran, and India regularly delivered supplies to Masood and his Northern Alliance defenders. In 2021, the situation is very different. Russia has decided to “support the victor” and believes that it has received a promise from the Taliban not to export Islamism north to the Central Asian Republics (CARs). Iran also has channels to communicate with the Taliban and will pay close attention to the Taliban’s persecution of Shiite Hazaras. India has already contacted the Taliban in Doha, hoping that the Taliban in power can prevent the Kashmir militant group from establishing a base there.

Therefore, Kabul is likely to fall into the hands of the Taliban soon. If the Americans and British did manage to insert the evacuation force as quickly as possible, they should be able to successfully complete the operation, although there may be heartbreaking scenes at the airport as large numbers of refugees were turned away at gunpoint when they left the plane. Regional powers, especially Pakistan, will try to persuade the Taliban to stop the intervention because they realize that the massacre in Kabul will be the disastrous start of the Taliban’s second rule. Ironically, however, the withdrawal will almost certainly lead to the downfall of the Kabul government, as senior officials are forced to decide whether to withdraw the last plane or face almost certain torture and death at the hands of the victor. Whether Western countries will choose to keep their embassies in Kabul is questionable. For President Biden, Benghazi’s memory is too primitive.

To be sure, there will be new iconic images that rival those of Saigon and Singapore.


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