The failure of US-led forces to address grassroots issues and the absence of a strong Afghan government has led to the resurgence of the Taliban, experts say.
Afghanistan’s troublesome Taliban movement continues to take over provincial capitals as the Kabul government scrambles to come up with a coherent strategy to prevent the armed group from capturing the entire country.
Should the Taliban take the reins of the Central Asian nation as it did two decades ago prior to the US-orchestrated occupation of Afghanistan in 2001, everything from the NATO-led invasion to the military, political and financial investments made in strengthening the Kabul government will effectively come to naught.
But how did an ill-equipped force like the Taliban withstand the worst military onslaughts of modern warfare carried out by a superpower? Not only surviving, how did they manage to re-emerge as a much stronger force that the US-backed Kabul government is unable to reckon with?
The Taliban has remained “a viable power” partly due to “the failure of occupying forces to offer solutions over social and economic problems in Afghanistan, allowing for groups like the Taliban to gain prominence and maintain their position in the country,” Majid Ansari, President of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies, tells TRT World.
It's become common knowledge amongst regional experts that the failed policies of the US-led coalition led to the creation of a weak and corrupt central government in Kabul and eventually empowered warlords at the expense of ordinary people across the country.
“In order to truly establish peace-building and change society, you have to address structural root causes of the conflict. The problem with Afghanistan was that even after the US came to power and sort of installed conditions for Afghan democratic regime, the root causes of initial fighting were never addressed,” says Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer of Transitional Justice at the American University in Kabul.
“Initially, the Taliban movement had been oppressed for two to three years after which it started resurfacing. As long as the narrative or the myth for why the Taliban are fighting that kept persisting (referring to the existence of foreign troops), there was always a cause and there were always possible recruits within rural areas,” Baheer tells TRT World.
The Taliban claimed that they fought against occupying forces to liberate Afghanistan. But the group contradictorily intensified its fighting against the central government even after the announcement of the US withdrawal.
The Taliban has long garnered strong support from rural Afghanistan, which has become poorer during the last 20 years of the US presence, while the central government has held urban areas, which have received more aid from Kabul compared to rural regions located in unhospitable mountainous terrains. “All of that contributed to the possibility of extremism,” Baheer says.
Most recently the Taliban also began penetrating into urban areas like Kunduz, laying sieges around cities like Kandahar, a predominantly Pashtun city and the former capital of the Afghan Empire, whose fall in 2001 heralded the collapse of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
Despite its religious ideology, the Taliban has received much of its support from the country’s majority ethnic group, the Pashtuns.
“There have been a lot of changing dynamics in the past 20 years. While the Taliban has entrenched in the Pashtun group, they are also making gains in northern Afghanistan and areas located in the south,” Ansari says.
The Taliban march across northern Afghanistan might also indicate that the group extends its powerbase to areas dominated by non-Pashtun ethnic groups.
“I am fearing that the US-led invasion of Afghanistan was not able to install a consistent sustainable government that is able to reflect the needs and demands of Afghani people,” Ansari views.
He predicts that with the disorganised US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which will be completed on September 11, the country will “fall under the authority of the Taliban and other militant groups.” As a result, other local forces will see an urgent need to ally themselves with the Taliban in order to survive, according to the analyst.
There have reportedly been various low-level defections to the Taliban since the group began its lightning campaign against the central government. But most recently, some high-level personalities like Asif Azimi, a leading Tajik warlord in northern Afghanistan, also switched sides in favour of the Taliban.
“There is no motivation for the army to fight for the corrupt government and corrupt politicians here,” said Ahmad Wali Massoud, the brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a legendary Tajik commander. “Why should they fight? For what? They are better off with the Taliban, which is why they are switching sides like that.”
Who can stand against the Taliban?
Kamal Alam, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, who is currently in Panjshir in northern Afghanistan with Massoud’s son, Ahmad Massoud, a prominent military and political figure of Afghan history, echoes Ansari regarding the weak nature of the central government.
“The Taliban is only strong because [Afghan President Ashraf] Ghani and the Afghan government are weak,” Alam tells TRT World. As a result, Alam thinks that people like Massoud could save Afghanistan from possible Taliban rule.
“This means leaders like Ahmad Massoud take the lead. The people of the valleys in Panjshir but also neighbouring Takhar and Badakhshan are coming to take his advice and assistance. Ghani has abandoned the North. Even in the West Ismail Khan complained that the central government didn't help,” Alam says.
Massoud’s powerbase is located in the Panjshir Valley. His father was known as the “Lion of Panjshir” for his famous resistance against the Soviet occupiers in the 1980s. “Panjshir has always defied the invaders from the Soviets to the Taliban and now again to the Taliban resurgence,” Alam says.
According to Alam, Massoud, like his father, has the people's support. “He doesn't spend time in Kabul like many others,” Alam says, criticising the central government leadership.
Some of the agenda items of the Ghani government during a press conference on Saturday appeared to justify Alam’s criticism as the president suggested that Kabul will reform the country’s largely corrupt justice system. But that might not be something people of Afghanistan want to hear just now as provincial capitals fall one after another to the Taliban. In another meeting on the same day, Ghani was discussing digitisation reforms in Afghanistan’s public sector.
The Afghan government denies Taliban gains and Ghani’s optimistic statements suggest that he might be out of step with reality as more than half of the country’s districts have recently fallen to Taliban rule.
“The Taliban are not strong but there's a political and military leadership decay on the Republic side,” says Enayat Najafizada, the founder and CEO of the Institute of War and Peace Studies, a Kabul-based think-tank.
“There's a dire need for an immediate unity and mobilisation among political and military leadership to navigate the difficult situation we are all in after a few provincial capitals fell to the Taliban back to back in a matter of days,” Najafizada tells TRT World.
Despite Taliban gains and the apparent lack of a unified war plan of Kabul accepted by local leaders against the Taliban march, Ansari thinks that the central government still has a chance to prove that it’s a viable choice for Afghans even after a US withdrawal.
US withdrawal empowers Taliban
Other analysts like Baheer see that the Taliban’s apparent power show has as much to do with the US withdrawal as it does with the group’s own strength.
“The unconditional nature of the withdrawal creates this idea amongst the Taliban that they had come out victorious against the US, so there is a lot of momentum for fighting against Afghan forces,” Baheer says.
On the other hand, the Afghan government, which appeared to trust Washington’s infamous talks with the Taliban, was “never ready for this extreme nature of the assault,” Baheer says. “They have never dealt with this much intensity,” the analyst adds.
In fragile states like Afghanistan, badly-designed foreign withdrawals like the current US pullout could make the situation worse, according to Baheer. The US withdrawal seems to be creating the perfect conditions for the Taliban, a loosely-affiliated non-homogenous group, which does not have a strict centrally-controlled military structure, to take over the whole country.
If the US revokes its peace deal with the Taliban, then, “the Taliban are stripped of its legitimacy” and required to negotiate with Kabul, Baheer adds. Otherwise, the Taliban will continue to march across Afghanistan, according to the analyst.
The Taliban, which means students, have long had strong local connections across Afghanistan. “The Taliban are locals and they are very much aware of local, social and political dynamics. They are also aware of the geographic and strategic importance of their areas,” says Obaid Ali, a political analyst at the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“They are from areas they operate. They have interactions with locals, so it’s easy for them to win locals’ trust,” Ali tells TRT World. Government failures, corruption and nepotism also help a lot the group gain local support, Ali adds.
As a result, the Taliban has established an alternative local political structure, “a shadow government system”, which claims to address local grievances, according to Ali. “It’s a better alternative for some people, for example, to go to the Taliban justice system instead of the government justice system,” he says.
“All these things have been here for a quite long time. The Taliban did a lot to work with locals to win their trust. That made the Taliban become stronger and also made locals to cooperate with the Taliban (if not directly helping the Taliban) and support Taliban’s goals in their areas,” the analyst observes.