A painful year of collapse for Afghanistan

The first 12 months of the Taliban's return to power is about to come to a close

A Taliban fighter keeping watch at an outpost in Panjshir Province, Afghanistan. AFP
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In many ways, Kabul's airport is a good symbol of the uncertain position Afghanistan finds itself in one year after the West's disastrous military withdrawal following two decades in the country.

Kabul today is calmer compared to the utter despair of last year as the Taliban entered the presidential palace on August 15. The chaos at the airport was perhaps the most desperate footage ever to have emerged from Afghanistan. Young men clung to departing planes as they took off. Crowds were crushed at the perimeter as western troops frantically tried to hold it. Some parents were photographed trying to hand departing troops their young children so that they could be saved.

Among the most resounding images was of US Maj Gen Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, stepping aboard a C-17 transport plane as the last American soldier to leave the country. The grainy night-vision image could not be more different to the bombastic entrance the US and its allies made in 2001.

He had been deployed to Afghanistan four times throughout his career. For the 13 US service personnel that died in a terrorist attack during the evacuation 20 years later, it was a different story. Some of them had not been born when the war started.

Alongside their coalition partners, around 66,000 Afghan national and military police were killed during the conflict, as well as more than 47,000 civilians. Those who remain continue to suffer. Many Afghans who worked for the US and its allies during the war are trapped in the country and are being targeted by the Taliban. Poverty levels are up and basic services under strain. A grim humanitarian situation threatens even more.

A 20 minute drive from airport takes you to the Kabul neighbourhood of Sherpur, where, last week, the US killed international terrorist Ayman Al Zawahiri. He was the leader of Al Qaeda, the organisation that provoked the war on terror in the first place.

It is moments such as these, alongside a humanitarian crisis and the potential rise of other terrorist groups, that go to heart of the great uncertainty Afghanistan faces today. Its international relations remain obscure. It is attempting to get international recognition but it is uncertain as to when that will happen. And the humanitarian aid it desperately needs is largely on hold.

Anniversaries might feel like neat ways to parcel complicated stories, but, as the first one approaches for the country's new government, little in the country is neat. Indeed for Afghans themselves, viewing the situation in yearly chunks might seem insulting. For them, the situation has been deteriorating every day. The Taliban might be strategically ambiguous abroad, but they are very clear cut at home. They wasted no time in banning girls secondary education, for example.

However awful and inconsequential the anniversary might understandably feel for Afghans, people outside the country still have a duty to reflect. The West is now heavily involved in newer geopolitical crises, notably the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But newer realities must not distract the West from the situation in Afghanistan. Without firm focus, the progress Afghanistan saw in the past two decades will continue to unravel. The past years may not have been a safer period, but they were freer ones, particularly for women.

There are ways to deal with the situation. One is engaging with the Taliban. It is partly through discourse that the situation for ordinary Afghans can be improved. It requires focus, accountability and dialogue, which for years international conversations with the group have lacked. If the next anniversary is to be any better, that has to change.

Published: August 12, 2022, 3:00 AM