Afghanistan faces a "Saigon moment" of comprehensive defeat with the Taliban taking over Kabul after the withdrawal of US and Nato troops, leading politicians and academics have warned.
As 10,000 allied troops prepare to leave the country after 20 years combating the insurgency, there are growing fears the extremists will regain control of the country, a London-based think tank heard.
Despite two decades of attempting to rebuild after ousting the Taliban in 2001, the departing armies will leave Afghanistan “in a worse state than they found it”, the senior Conservative politician Tobias Ellwood told the Royal United Services Institute webinar.
Afghanistan will now face a key moment in its troubled history – all foreign troops will be gone by September 11 leaving the Afghan government and its armed forces to fight the Taliban largely on their own.
That the Taliban remains a dominant force is down to the “schoolboy error that you cannot defeat an insurgency by military means alone”, said Mr Ellwood, chairman of the UK House of Commons Defence Committee. He said the Taliban would have been more malleable had it been engaged in the political process post-2001.
But experts believe the extremists are growing in strength, especially in the countryside, with the Taliban waiting to stage a decisive attack after the drawdown is complete.
Large numbers of Afghan police had already surrendered and young men were volunteering to join the Taliban, said Dr Antonio Giustozzi, a Rusi associate fellow.
“They're preparing for the major offensive but they’ve not initiated it yet,” he said.
“Young villagers have been mobilised on to the Taliban side because there's a perception in the country that they are about to take power. They are simply joining up even without being recruited by the Taliban.”
He expressed concerns that no forward air controllers would be able to co-ordinate strikes from the US aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean after the withdrawal, allowing for the insurgent to mass in cities before conducting synchronised attacks.
While US and British special forces might be able to hold Kabul, the rest of Afghanistan could fall to the Taliban, said William Byrd, of the United States Institute of Peace.
But there was also a strong possibility that Kabul itself could fall, much as the capital of South Vietnam did when the North Vietnamese Army’s tanks rolled through in 1975, Mr Ellwood said. “I'm afraid the more likely scenario is that as the withdrawal becomes more evident the Taliban will get more aggressive, far bolder, and we're going to see more attacks, which will usher in an expedited retreat, even leading to scenes that we saw in Saigon a few decades ago.”
While western countries pledge to continue funding the government and humanitarian projects, the nagging fear is that the Taliban's autocratic rule of strict Sharia will return, as it did in 1996 after Russia’s abrupt end to funding the Afghan rulers.
But he said any sharp cut in aid could result in "state collapse".US President Joe Biden has promised to keeping funding the Afghan government but it was "very naive" to think that aid "can be a substitute for troops," Mr Byrd said. "The risk is really the slow motion, administrative deterioration in the Afghan government and whether aid can do something to at least modify and reverse that," he told the webinar 'Afghanistan: What Prospects After US/NATO Withdrawal?'
Asked what the best scenario might be for Afghanistan, Mr Byrd suggested a military stalemate leading to “more suffering and violence and tragedies” could within two years “lead both sides eventually to the negotiating table”.
The insurgents would also want to promote the notion that they defeated the world's major superpower, Dr Giustozzi said, and therefore would “want a major share of power”.
Mr Ellwood said it was almost certain that UK and US special forces would be left behind to ensure that Al Qaeda and ISIS leaders did not return to regain a stranglehold.
Other experts fear such forces would only be able to keep Kabul safe, with the rest of the country facing Taliban rule or civil war.
There was anger in Britain, which lost 450 troops mostly in Helmand, that the US withdrawal was “not the exit strategy that we had envisaged”, said Mr Ellwood, a former defence minister. “I'm really concerned that we have not learnt any lessons,” he said. “I'm very sad and disappointed as to where we are today.”