The Taliban initiate a new era of fear

Concern mounts over a return to tyranny in Afghanistan

Taliban fighters stand guard in a vehicle along the roadside in Kabul on August 16, 2021. AFP
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At the start of this month, Afghans lived in a very different country. The future was uncertain, but few thought it would be what it is now. The Taliban militant group has achieved 20 years’ worth of military objectives in a matter of days. It now holds every major city in the country, including the capital, Kabul, which it took on Sunday with little resistance.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who on Saturday vowed not to give up the “achievements” of the past two decades, has left the country for an undeclared destination.

The tide of the war had been shifting in the Taliban’s favour for years, but recent months have given the militants a decisive momentum. Since September, the Afghan government had attempted to negotiate with the Taliban during a series of US-sponsored talks in Doha, known as “intra-Afghan dialogue”, with little success. Kabul’s leaders frequently blasted the US, their ostensible ally, for undermining their negotiating position by reaching its own bilateral deal with the Taliban in February 2020.

That deal saw the Taliban agree to a ceasefire with US troops in exchange for a promise for the latter to withdraw sometime this year. Although the US-Taliban agreement was conditional upon intra-Afghan dialogue progressing, in April US President Joe Biden announced that the US would undertake a complete withdrawal by September 11, come what may – a move Kabul feared would take away any incentive the Taliban might have to negotiate in good faith.

The fear was justified. Instead of talking, the Taliban devoted its energy to laying the groundwork for this summer’s offensive. Now, the militants claim, the time for fear is over. After rolling through Kabul’s streets, raising their flag and sending women home, they marked this new era of supposed peace by flaunting assault rifles as they posed for photographs in the Presidential Palace.

In an extraordinary moment of broadcast journalism, BBC anchor Yalda Hakim, who was born in Afghanistan, received a phone call live on the air on Sunday at her London studio from Suhail Shaheen, the Doha-based spokesman for the Taliban.

Afghans, he told her, have nothing to worry about. “We need all Afghans to stay in the country and participate in the construction (of Afghanistan) and serve their people,” Mr Shaheen said.

But the next morning, the runway at Kabul’s airport was packed with Afghans – almost entirely men – trying desperately to flee. Footage taken at the airport shows hundreds attempting to storm a jet bridge via an emergency staircase in order to get onto an outbound plane, the staircase’s steel warping under their weight. Staff aboard one Istanbul-bound flight were overwhelmed as more than a thousand people tried to force their way onto one of the plane’s 300 seats. As of Monday, all commercial flights have been suspended.

It is unclear what follows. Some reports have said that Ali Ahmad Jalali, an Afghan-American war studies professor in the US, has been selected by the Taliban, presumably with US input, to lead an interim government. But in an interview with an Indian television channel, Zabihullah Mujahid, a senior Taliban spokesman, dismissed those claims as “propaganda”. The Taliban’s leadership, he said, has yet to decide.

It is also unclear whether the war is truly over. Amrullah Saleh, who is Mr Ghani’s Vice President and a former intelligence chief, is the only prominent politician from the fallen administration who has vowed to keep resisting. He is thought to be in the Panjshir Valley, one of the few areas of the country that remains unseized. Elsewhere, anti-Taliban militia groups may remain operational, if weakened.

Meanwhile, in Kabul, the only flights leaving are those carrying international diplomats, soldiers and the few Afghans lucky enough to be spirited away. Whatever happens next, it is likely that, at least for a time, anyone remaining behind to resist this new Taliban order in Afghanistan will have to do so on their own.

Published: August 16, 2021, 1:51 PM