By Max Malone
The fall of a state comes gradually, then all at once. After a war older than me that has cost trillions, the Taliban are back in control. Kabul fell on the 13th of August. Just 38 days earlier the Americans abandoned their largest base in the country, Bagram airbase. They now control the entire country, even the northern provinces which were resistant to them before the US-led coalition invaded.
While it might seem like an open and shut case; coalition leaves – Taliban take over, the reality is more complicated. The security situation in Afghanistan was a rotten structure from the beginning only propped up by direct foreign support. Expanding Taliban control over the country was a consistent trend over the past seven years following the reduction of coalition troop numbers. The mass of Western blood and treasure expended in the country only slowed their growth. The huge military success of the Taliban in the last month is simply the ultimate expression of this growth.
The coalition-aligned government and armed forces of Afghanistan were systemically corrupt. Many Afghans have no love for them, this is seen in the dismal turnouts in general elections. Russian sources claim deposed president Ghani fled Kabul by helicopter with luxury cars and millions in cash. The images of Taliban eating meals in the gilded mansions of provincial governors’ evidence that much of the Western financial support went straight to the government and their cronies rather than to galvanising public support by improving the lives of Afghans.
If the government is ineffective, the army is laughable. It is corrupt and ineffective. Ghost-soldiers, who exist only on paper, allow commanders to draw pay to enrich themselves. Many of the soldiers who turn up or exist are not much use. The trade and use of drugs are widespread. Opium use on duty is common. Most government soldiers tend to lack any motivation beyond money. It is not uncommon for numbers to swell at bases on pay day and for equipment to be sold at local markets shortly after being distributed.
As you would imagine being high, unarmed, and non-existent tends to undermine combat ability. Kidnapping for ransom and extortion of civilians is common practice. Even worse is the keeping of ‘Chai Boys’ by officers. ‘Chai Boy’ is the euphemism for a child who is, on paper, hired to serve tea but actually is repeatedly raped by the officer. This is illegal but was so common that coalition forces had been instructed to ignore this culture of paedophilia among their allies.
The Taliban could not have opposed a more feeble and less popular regime.
Taliban is a loan word from Arabic meaning students. They coalesced in the Madrasas (religious schools) and Afghan refugee camps of 1980s Pakistan. This combination of a hardscrabble upbringing and fundamentalist indoctrination bred a generation of hardy and disciplined fighters driven by Islamist zealotry. A lifetime of fighting coalition forces from the deserts and caves of Afghanistan’s most isolated regions has only sharpened the new generation of more educated Taliban to a cruel edge. If 20 years of American bombing could not break their fanatic commitment, what chance had an Afghan army motivated by the promise of pay?
Beyond their military edge over the government, the Taliban are popular among Afghans. As you will remember, the Kabul government is deeply corrupt and intrinsically linked to the coalition occupiers. Their militant piety seems like an answer to the central government’s corruption. The Taliban being Pashtun (Afghanistan’s largest ethnicity) also helps their popularity as compared to a central government dominated by Tajiks and other smaller groups. The average age in Afghanistan is a little under 18 years and five months: most Afghans will not remember the brutality of their last rule. They simply do not consider the Taliban to have the same baggage as the Kabul government.
The Taliban tore through a corrupt government and its inept army because they are dedicated militants with the tacit support of the Afghan people. The surrender of whole provinces and army divisions without a fight was no surprise. Nation-building efforts failed to create a state resilient enough to resist the onslaught from a brutal and unyielding foe. In short: it’s all over but the crying and all there is to do for Afghanistan is weep.
Image: Damien Surgeon via Flickr.