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'Taliban is on the march'

Last updated on: August 03, 2021 17:42 IST

'It's waging an offensive with no seeming precedent.'
'The fact that it's now entering cities, as opposed to remaining massed around their perimeters, is a game changer.'

IMAGE: An Afghan military helicopter prepares to land near the Afghan parliament in Kabul, which President Ashraf Ghani addressed on Monday, August 2, 2021. Photograph: Reuters

"Several factors work against the Taliban that weren't in place in the 1990s. First, say what you will about the Afghan military, but it's a much stronger and united force today than it was back then."

"The air force, in particular, is much stronger. The armed forces are in a much better position to hold off the Taliban today than in the 1990s," says Dr Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

The Wilson Center is a non-partisan American policy forum tackling global issues through independent research and dialogue.

Dr Kugelman, one of America's leading experts on Afghanistan, discusses the return of the Taliban with's Archana Masih in the first of a multi-part interview.


How soon will the Taliban overthrow the Ghani government and rule Kabul?

For now, it's a matter of if, not when. There's nothing inevitable about the government falling to the Taliban -- at least not anytime soon.

I don't agree with the recent US intelligence estimate predicting that the government will fall six months post-US withdrawal.

Yes, the Taliban is on the march and it's waging an offensive with no seeming precedent. The fact that it's now entering cities, as opposed to remaining massed around their perimeters, is a game changer.

The flagging morale within the Afghan security forces, the many cases of surrenders to the Taliban, the poor coordination between the civilian and military leadership -- this is all very bad news.

But let's remember some other realities, too. The US intends to keep funding the Afghan air force -- the one component of the Afghan military that is clearly superior to Taliban military power -- for at least another year or two.

Also, anti-Taliban militias are resurging. This doesn't bode well for stability, but it can deliver an immediate term kinetic boost to efforts to push back against the Taliban.

Also, Afghan forces have seized back some of the territory they've lost to the Taliban. And they will retake some more.

Will it be as easy for the Taliban to win power as they did in 1996 or will they encounter sustained resistance from the Afghan national army?

Unfortunately, the Taliban isn't that far off from taking power, given that it controls more than half of Afghanistan's districts and is starting to move into cities.

And it's pre-empting people's resistance movements by staging major offensives in the north, a traditional stronghold for armed movements against the Taliban.

But several factors work against the Taliban that weren't in place in the 1990s.

First, say what you will about the Afghan military, but it's a much stronger and united force today than it was back then.

The air force, in particular, is much stronger. The armed forces are in a much better position to hold off the Taliban today than in the 1990s.

The other factor is legitimacy. The Taliban appears to value the legitimacy it gained after signing its agreement with the US last year.

If it seizes power by force, it will lose that legitimacy. If such legitimacy and recognition are truly important for the Taliban, then it may hold back from trying to overthrow the government.

Back in the 1990s, such considerations about legitimacy were irrelevant. The Taliban was a global pariah, and that didn't bother it.

Also, keep in mind that the Taliban, by waging these offensives and taking over so much territory, may be aiming for an outcome other than a takeover by force.

It may be trying to put so much pressure on the Afghan State that Kabul agrees to enter negotiations and effectively surrenders to the Taliban by making huge concessions.

This would get the Taliban what it wants: A strong degree of power. But by getting this through negotiations, it would be less likely to lose legitimacy from the international community.

Of course, whether the Afghan government agrees to this is another matter. If anything, Kabul wants to keep fighting the Taliban in the hopes that it can regain some momentum, put the insurgents on the defensive, and strengthen its bargaining position in talks.

Sure, that's a tall order. But Kabul has no interest in raising the red flag.

IMAGE: Afghan special forces on a combat mission against the Taliban in Kandahar province.
One of the final photographs shot by the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Danish Siddiqui for Reuters before he was brutally murdered by the Taliban on July 15, 2021.

If the Taliban capture power, could we see the brutality that ensued after the mujahideen overthrew the Najibullah government?

Some have argued today's Taliban is a 2.0 version that's more moderate and less brutal than the original Taliban.

I have no reason to believe that.

The Taliban has repeatedly refused to reduce violence, except for a few brief Eid truces. Every week seemingly brings a new atrocity, including reports that it executed Afghan soldiers that had surrendered, and that it is waging an assassination campaign against off-duty Afghan military pilots.

And it's an open secret -- and admitted by NATO officials -- that the Taliban is behind the majority of the target killings of Afghan civil society leaders.

The best way to gauge how brutal the Taliban would be if it seizes power is to look at what's happening in areas it already controls.

Based on what we know from researchers and journalists who have visited these areas, the Taliban has instituted some of the same draconian measures of punishments that it imposed in the 1990s.

If there's any evidence that the current Taliban is a rehabilitated and more responsible version of the 1990s Taliban, then I have yet to see it.

Do you see the West intervening militarily to prevent a Taliban takeover? American aircraft have already strafed Taliban positions in the last week.

NATO forces appear willing to support Afghan forces with air power so long as they are still in the country. But once the withdrawal is complete, that will be it.

I don't expect any NATO troops to return, if Washington and other key capitals fear a Taliban takeover is imminent.

And here's why. President Biden made very clear when announcing the withdrawal that US priorities lie elsewhere -- terrorism threats elsewhere in the world, competition with rivalry, and newer threats like climate change.

Additionally, Biden knows the war is unpopular in the US. He is concerned about public opinion. The main reason he opposed the surge years ago was concern that the American people wouldn't support it.

If US troops returned to Afghanistan, the Taliban -- which stopped attacking US forces once it inked its troop withdrawal deal with Washington last year -- would start shooting at them again.

There could be more US combat fatalities. This is why bringing US forces back to Afghanistan would pose a major domestic political risk for Biden.

The only scenario under which US forces would return to Afghanistan is if Washington believes that there is a growing terrorism risk to US interests and nationals beyond Afghanistan, and especially to the US homeland itself.

IMAGE: Afghan security forces keep watch at a checkpoint in Guzara district in Herat province. Photograph: Jalil Ahmad/Reuters

Was it weariness with the Afghan War, sheer exhaustion at the inability to change Afghanistan that compelled, first the Trump administration and then the Biden administration to want to pull out of Afghanistan?

It's a combination of all of that, as well as the fact that both Trump and Biden oppose extended US military presences abroad. These two men don't see eye to eye on much, but their views on Afghanistan are remarkably similar.

The main reason Biden decided to withdraw was his conclusion that terrorism threats to the US were not serious enough to warrant a continued US presence.

This is a critical point. Biden didn't decide to leave because of considerations about the Taliban, or the insurgency. He made it because of considerations about al-Qaeda and ISIS terror threats to the US.

This is why, despite the alarming gains of the Taliban insurgency in recent weeks, Biden isn't going to slow down the withdrawal.

The optics are dreadful: US forces are headed for the exits even as the Taliban mounts unprecedented offensives. But this is all consistent with US policy not to let the state of the insurgency impact US withdrawal plans.

Did this sense of exhaustion compel Zalmay Khalilzad and his team to be taken in by the Taliban assurances that they had changed and would not undermine civil life in Afghanistan?

Anyone who thought the Taliban would change, and would be receptive to participating in a peace process, had to take a huge leap of faith.

And that's because there was no precedent for the Taliban moderating its behaviour and participating in a peace process.

At any rate, when Khalilzad first went into negotiations with the Taliban, his core motivation wasn't to incentivise the Taliban to moderate its behaviour and to participate in a peace process.

The main objective was to get his boss, President Trump, political cover for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. And he got that: The Doha accord called for US troops to leave, and for the Taliban not to shoot at them as they left.

Certainly, one of the features of the deal was that it called on the Taliban to begin an intra-Afghan dialogue with the Afghan State. But I think that for the US government, that was a mere hope, not a strong expectation.

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