Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban as the entire world has seen with tragic images and stories of fear, despair, and horror unfolding before us. On TV, we saw Afghans clinging to planes as they desperately tried to escape the victorious Taliban. Women have virtually disappeared from Kabul’s streets as they hide in their homes fearful of what the Taliban may do to them. There is serious concern that a horrendous humanitarian disaster is in the making.
So what happened? How did things come to this?
There is no simple, easy answer.
Afghanistan is not like many other countries around the world. It’s still a very tribal society with powerful warlords and chieftains who hold great power over their own territories. It has never been a strongly united nation. It has also been a very male dominated society for ages, especially in the rural areas. Men run the villages and have the power. For many generations, severe limitations have been placed on women in terms of education, jobs they are allowed to do, clothing they must wear (particularly in public), and so on.
When the Taliban were in power before, they enforced an extremist, draconian form of Sharia law where men were in control. TV, movies, and most music were banned as was media, photography, or art that showed people or other living things. Girls were not supposed to go to school over the age of 10, and women were not allowed to hold almost any job outside of health care (the only reason they were allowed in this area is because male doctors were not supposed to directly treat women). People who committed adultery could be publicly executed, and individuals who stole might have a hand cut off. Men were required to have beards, and women had to wear a burka (that covered their head and most of their body) when in public.
The United States got directly involved in the Afghanistan conflict after 9/11 (the Taliban had harbored Al-Qaeda terrorists including Osama Bin Laden). With US involvement, the Taliban were swept from power pretty quickly, but the war did not end. The Taliban retreated to the countryside and continued fighting. The US attempted to establish a democracy in Afghanistan in the hopes of creating a more stable ally in the war on terrorism. Efforts were made to try to improve women’s rights and opportunities in life. But the conflict dragged on.
Thing is: it’s very difficult to establish a stable democracy in a society that has no real history of it. And when you consider the tribal nature of Afghanistan, warlords, much of the population lacking the opportunity for education, poverty, and so on, the chances of establishing a strong democracy get even worse. It’s a safe bet that many of the warlords and other tribal leaders had no desire for true democracy since it could decrease their power. The Taliban certainly didn’t want democracy with their extreme version of Sharia law. And many of the everyday people were just trying to survive. There has been conflict and war in Afghanistan for decades. As a result, many people will switch sides quite readily depending on who has the most power in their area because folks are trying to survive. A consequence of all this is that the elected Afghan government was weak and many people were hesitant to fully commit to it. There was also a significant amount of corruption going on. Whereas the Taliban combined politics with a twisted, extremist, often barbaric version of religion so that many of their soldiers thought they were fighting a holy war and were more willing to die for their cause.
The United States (with NATO involvement at times) spent 20 years trying to train and build up a strong Afghan security force to help keep the Taliban in check and uphold the Afghan government. But due to the situation I just described, Afghan security soldiers were not as committed to their cause as Taliban troops were committed to theirs. So with the US pullout, the morale of the Afghan forces disintegrated.
The Trump Administration had talks with the Taliban and signed an agreement with them that committed the US to pull out of Afghanistan by May 1st, 2021. The Taliban agreed to stop attacking American forces and promised to separate from Al-Qaeda. While they seemed to uphold the first provision, they likely did not honor the second. Once Biden came into office, he decided to go along with the agreement, though he did extend American presence beyond May 1st.
Then we all saw how quickly things unraveled. The Taliban had clearly been planning for this. As a result, once enough American forces were out, the Taliban launched large scale attacks on Afghan security forces, and the latter fell apart. The Taliban seized control in less than 2 weeks.
As to the blame game, there is plenty of blame to go around. Trump is the one who set this final American withdrawal in motion by signing an agreement directly with the Taliban in February of 2020. The Afghan government was left out which seriously weakened it and led to further plummeting of security force morale since they felt abandoned by the United States. Biden inherited this situation and then decided to go along with the agreement. The Biden Administration also seemed to seriously underestimate how quickly the Taliban would overrun the country. This likely played a role in why thousands of people (many of whom are Afghan allies who had helped the United States and NATO) are currently trapped in Afghanistan with unknown futures. Another factor in why so many Afghan allies didn’t get out in time is that the special visa program used to get them to the United States was mired in bureaucracy and staff shortages. It appears the Trump Administration made no effort to fix the issues so that almost a year was wasted. This had to have strongly contributed to why far too few of our Afghan allies got out. Biden did try to improve the program’s quagmire so that the number of approved visas rose from 100 per week in March of 2021 to 813 a week more recently. Plus, don’t forget that this war involved 2 other American presidents as well. There are also the factors of Afghanistan itself (that I’ve already described) which played major roles in the tragedy that is unfolding before us.
So, what will the future hold? We’ll have to see. Will America be able to get our Afghan allies out of the country? Will the lot of women and LGBTQ people become as bad as last time? Will Afghanistan become a training site for terrorists like before?
Time will tell.