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Capturing Kabul… By Kashif Mirza

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  • Capturing Kabul… By Kashif Mirza
The writer is an
 economist, anchor,
 analyst and the
 President of all
  Pakistan Private
 Schools’ Federation

Taliban forces have swept across much of Afghanistan. One after the other, provincial centres across the country’s north and west are being captured by the Taliban as government resistance melts away. The Taliban has captured Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, and has begun encircling the capital Kabul, prompting Nato allies to convene a meeting in the wake of the US troop withdrawal. Biden’s administration officials are clinging to calls for peace negotiations and threatening the Taliban with international isolation if it takes the country by force. Now, with Kabul in its crosshairs, the Taliban finds itself in arguably its most powerful position since 2001, before it was ousted from power by the US-led invasion. US officials relocating their embassy closer to the airport and urged American citizens in the country to leave immediately. Thousands of additional US troops will be temporarily dispatched to secure staff for a potential evacuation.

The Biden administration is desperately trying to rally disparate regional actors, from Afghanistan’s neighbours to the European Union to Russia and China, to present a united diplomatic front amid talks with Taliban envoys

The Biden administration is desperately trying to rally disparate regional actors, from Afghanistan’s neighbours to the European Union to Russia and China, to present a united diplomatic front amid talks with Taliban envoys in Qatar. Along with the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops, thousands of contractors who supported coalition and Afghan forces also left, they were effectively the logistical backbone of a functioning Afghan military. Without them, all the things that keep a military functioning—supply chain management, training, equipment maintenance—are significantly hindered.

Over the past few days, the Taliban has taken 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. The armed group now controls an estimated 65 per cent of the country’s territory, as the US-led foreign forces are about to complete the pullout from the country after 20 years of war. At least 244,000 people have been internally displaced since the beginning of May when the Taliban group began multiple advances against the Western-backed Afghan government. The Taliban has captured 20 provincial capitals in the past week, including the cities of Sar-e-Pul, Sheberghan, Aybak, Kunduz, Taluqan, Pul-e-Khumri, Farah, Zaranj, Faizabad, Ghazni, Herat, Kandahar, Lashkar Gah, Feruz Koh and Qala-e Naw. At lightning speed, the armed group has progressed in various parts of the country, taking up important border posts and provincial capitals.

Afghanistan has a population of 38 million. About 4.5 million people live in the capital Kabul, which is located in the east of the country. Other major provinces include Herat, Nangarhar, Balkh and Kandahar. The South Asian country is among the top 40 most populated countries in the world. At 652,860sq km. Landlocked Afghanistan relies on its neighbours for trade and supply routes. Afghanistan has relied on Pakistan’s seaports for international trade and ground supply and logistics for NATO and US forces. The two South Asian countries share a nearly 2,600km border and two operational border crossings. One of them, Spin Boldak, is under the Taliban control since late July.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, at least 54.5 percent of the country lived below the poverty line with current estimates reaching up to 72 percent. Following decades of devastating wars, literacy rates in Afghanistan are among the lowest in the world at 43 percent. Just over half of all males above the age of 15 can read and write, while the ratio is much lower among females – less than one-third. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 389,645 people, of which 59 percent are children, were displaced within Afghanistan from January 1 to July 24, 2021. In June alone, 109,000 people were internally displaced within the country. According to the latest report from UNHCR, the total number of Afghan refugees globally in 2020 reached 2.6 million. Almost 86 percent of those registered refugees are in three of the neighbouring countries, with an additional 12 percent living in Europe.

The success of the Taliban has coincided with the withdrawal of the last remaining detachments of U.S. and NATO troops in the country, announced by President Biden this year. US officials are stunned by the rapid Taliban advance and are now predicting that Kabul could fall in 90 days. Eighteen of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals have fallen to the Taliban. The US Embassy in Kabul is planning to reduce its footprint in the coming weeks—coupled with a brief troop surge to facilitate—and is considering a full evacuation if the situation deteriorates further.

The administrations of former Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump hid the truth from the world for two decades, that they were slowly losing a war that Americans once overwhelmingly supported. Instead, political and military leaders chose to bury their mistakes and let the war drift. Less than half a decade after the invasion, Bush administration officials were invoking analogies to the Vietnam War, as it became clear that the Taliban was still a real power. At the end of 2014, Obama attempted to hail the end of the American military mission in the country, declaring in a statement that “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.” But US officials knew that there was a little end in sight and the Obama administration. Then came Trump, who loudly called for an end to costly US military entanglements abroad. Biden, a veteran of the Obama years, now owns his own moment in Afghanistan’s tumultuous history, a tragedy many years in the making.

The widespread ineptitude, lack of leadership, and self-interest are the basic reasons for the rapid collapse of Afghan security forces. Some Afghan police haven’t been paid for months, while sorely-needed ammunition and food deliveries are pilfered before they reach soldiers. Afghan Air Force and special forces are holding the line. Even as regular Afghan defence forces seem to melt away in the face of the Taliban. There are other retaliatory measures the United States and its allies can take to punish the Taliban for its use of force and human rights abuses, such as revoking international travel waivers, cutting US aid to Afghanistan, and sanctions. But, not even the heaviest sanctions will convince and stop the Taliban to halt their advance, especially when they have the momentum.

The latest threat the Biden administration is waiving over the Taliban’s head is one of international isolation if it takes power by force. Still, while weak, it’s not an entirely useless threat; the Taliban has been courting regional powers and trying to portray itself as a legitimate international actor.  The picture makes Vietnam comparisons—especially the dreaded “last chopper out of Saigon” moment—uncomfortably close. Like 20 years and $2 trillion of war and nation-building seem to be going up in smoke in the course of weeks, the situation has become all the more hopeless.

A more realistic view might be that the Afghan war was always likely to drift toward something to be endured over the long haul. America could not win and America could not get out. With the failures of the American war-making and nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, successive US administrations recognized that the Taliban were not going to be easily vanquished, that the Afghan state was weak and riddled with corruption, and that muddling through without a coherent strategy was still preferable to admitting defeat. It’s not surprising that the US is leaning very heavily on this talking point, because that’s what it has left to lean on.