There was nothing inevitable about the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan, but the seeds of its survival were sown from the start of the Nato operation two decades ago.
The Taliban defeat in late 2001 in the north of Afghanistan, around the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, was on the surface a swift and comprehensive rout. It illustrated the strategic spoils to be won in the area while triggering local relief and joy. Hours after the arrival of the ethnic Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum at the city's 19th-century fortress called Qala-i-Jangi, he sat down with a handful of reporters to survey the scene.
The fortress courtyard floor was littered with bodies, slabs of bomb damage and spent ordnance. A prisoner revolt in its dungeons had cost the life of the first American of the war, CIA’s Mike Spann, just two months after Al Qaeda mounted terror attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.
The speed of success, the leading role of CIA operatives, the importance of aerial bombing and the emergence of allies such as Mr Dostum were all part of what drove events in Mazar-i-Sharif and the rest of Afghanistan. But even then there was not much savouring of the victory. His thoughts were about the pressures to come.
At the huddle he turned his anger on Al Jazeera television channel and what he regarded as the pro-Taliban propaganda it was broadcasting. Mr Dostum spotted that the divisive coverage on the airwaves would nurture and propagate the grievances that the Taliban have so skillfully exploited in the two decades since.
With the Taliban taking and holding many of Afghanistan’s border posts in recent months, it is hard to avoid a sense of its restoration.
Ports matter beyond the immediate flow of funds from taxing trade. Gaining access to Afghanistan in mid-November 2001 entailed taking a very slow four-hour barge trip along a short stretch of the Amu Darya river. We stuck carefully to Uzbek side of the river, snaking alongside the port of Termez, until there was an opportunity to push forward into the Afghan port of Hairatan in Balkh. Even as the porters lined up on the dock, no one was quite sure that the Taliban had given up all their positions.
Mr Dostum eventually served as vice president of Afghanistan and remains a power to be reckoned with, particularly in northern Afghanistan. So, too, is the local commander Atta Mohammad Noor, who was then just as instrumental in taking the city, as he is now in holding it.
History is not symmetrical, and it is highly unlikely the Taliban will take the country back to the status quo ante. Yet, there is no doubt they are following the playbook of their opponents back in 2001. For instance, the visit of a Taliban representative to Beijing last week is a mirror to another event I covered in the autumn of 2001: the arrival of the Northern Alliance representative Abdullah Abdullah, which preceded his return to the Chinese capital after the turn of the year as Afghanistan’s foreign minister.
The US and Nato launched their operation in Afghanistan as a response to the 9/11 attacks. Ryan Crocker, the distinguished US ambassador, recalls that a piece of rubble from the World Trade Centre was buried under the flagstaff at the embassy in Kabul on March 11, 2002, six months after the attack. The problem was if the counterterrorism mission was clear, much else was not.
Even now similar impulses seem to be at work.
Last week's announcement by the Biden administration to restart air strikes came after the Taliban took more than half Afghanistan’s estimated 400 contested districts. According to the UN, civilian casualties were up 47 per cent in the first six months of 2021. Yet, only 650 US troops are to remain to defend the US embassy and the Kabul airport.
One thing to emerge intact is Afghanistan’s reputation as the graveyard of empires.
It is true that the storied patriotic zeal of Afghans could not be divorced from the need to root out Al Qaeda and its extremist allies. But it is also a fact that the lessons of imperial error did not inform the rebuilding efforts that followed the 2001 invasion. More than a decade ago, I sat with a military team that cut the individual wage bill for locals living in the Helmand province from 8,000 Afghanis to 5,000 Afghanis (about $100 to $60 in today's money). It was an exact ratio of a cut made to the stipend for the Ghazi tribe in 1841 that helped trigger the First Anglo-Afghan War.
George Robertson, the former Nato secretary general, wrote a lament for the mission last week. That effort came at cost, with the sacrifice of 3,500 Nato coalition troops from the 130,000 deployed. Thousands more were wounded and, decades later, suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Countless civilians also died.
Of course, the achievements of the era were significant. “Twenty years without malign Taliban influence,” Mr Robertson wrote. “Twenty years allowing the Afghan people to taste elections and women and girls in education. Twenty years to build businesses, re-open markets, listen to music, play sports."
However, these gains came alongside real mistakes that were largely self-inflicted within Nato itself. “If you are to successfully fight a war, psychology matters as much as armour – and an opponent needs to know that your resolve is firm."
Sadly, from the first days to the last, Nato never fully resolved the issues at play when it entered Afghanistan.