“I am afraid, darker days lie ahead.” – William Dalrymple, historian and author.
A day after the Taliban seized Kabul and entered the Presidential palace on Aug 15, President Joe Biden commented, “Our mission to degrade the terrorist threat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and kill Osama bin Laden was a success.”
That statement, however, contradicts what the former U.S. President George W. Bush had said about building a new Afghanistan “that is free from this evil and is a better place to live in” on April 17, 2002, while speaking at the Virginia Military Institute. Achieving this ambitious vision was only possible by not just eliminating Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan but also the Taliban that the U.S. had accused of sheltering the terror forces.
Forget “nation-building”, even the military missions of the world’s superpower were doomed to failure after the terror group hijacked the entire nation in mere 10 days.
And while President Biden might be translating Afghanistan’s fiasco as U.S.’s victory, a large section of commentators and experts on Afghanistan affairs vehemently disagree.
One of them is accomplished writer and historian, William Dalrymple, who has lived in Afghanistan, written about its history and the complex nature of the country in his book “Return of King- Battle for Afghanistan”. Here, he explains what went wrong with the American mission in Afghanistan and why President Biden cannot claim that the war has been won.
He also gives his view of the wider consequences of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan for the people there and for the world in general.
“Has the US Actually Won any War?“
As chaotic and upland as the exit of the U.S. from Afghanistan appears, the 20-year long war experiment has left the nation as weak as it was when the war began. America’s efforts to build up a strong and self-reliant Afghan military and security forces have gone up in smoke. Worse, the torchbearer of human rights, U.S. has now left the helpless Afghan men, women, and children at the mercy of the radical jihadist group.
So, can Biden call this a successful mission?
“It would be plain wishful thinking for the Biden administration to think that they have won the war. I can’t see any way that the U.S. can claim a victory in this war– it’s clearly a defeat. Biden says that only for domestic political consumption,” said William Dalrymple in an interview with the Founder of Uncut Globe, Arudhi Verma.
Over the last 50 years there have been a number of large defeats for the U.S., said Dalrymple, pointing out the debacle and the evacuation of the U.S. troops from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War – somewhat similar to what is being witnessed in Afghanistan. American exploits in Syria and Iraq also cannot be called an emphatic victory or success given the condition of the countries that the U.S. left them in after they exited them.
Referring to the current U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Dalrymple said, “And apart from providing encouragement to the likes of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the worst that will happen, diplomatically speaking, from this debacle is that no one will trust the NATO and the West. It is undoubtedly an embarrassing moment for the West and consequently a very good moment for China by default.”
“Why America’s 20-year Aghan Experiment failed so abruptly?”
According to Dalrymple, the Afghans are independent-minded people and they do not like governments imposed on them from outside. And there are many Afghans who felt that the last administration that fled from the country was actually an American puppet.
Dalrymple, who has spent some time in Afghanistan and has developed close ties with many in the country over the years, believes that neutral observers have also questioned the neutrality and validity of the elections that took place, particularly the last one in which Ashraf Ghani won.
“There are many that believe that Ghani had come third and there was ballot-rigging in the elections,” he said.
This questioning of the validity of the regime was actually more pronounced and the Ghani government was much less accepted by people in the rural hinterland of Afghanistan. That led to the Taliban gaining more popularity than was actually believed, Dalrymple, commented.
“It is true that the Taliban was formed, funded, armed guided and sheltered by Pakistan’s ISI, but it is also true that Taliban had the backing of the section of the people of Afghanistan, which primarily were the rural poor– the conservative, uneducated rural masses. There was a tribal element in all these,” he said.
He believes that the American project of planting a liberal democracy in Afghanistan was always going to be hard.
“Afghanistan we know reacts very violently to foreign invasion, they got rid of the British, they got rid of the Russians and now they have got rid of the Americans backed regime,” he said.
Dalrymple, however, believes that it was not completely impossible to create a new Afghanistan because a large section of Afghans wanted development and democracy while the women wanted to go to universities and to work, particularly in the cities.
Dalrymple recalled the popularity among Afghans of Hamid Karzai– the first democratically elected president of the country. In contrast, he said, his successor Ashraf Ghani was far less open-minded and despite being a brilliant academic, he was very short tempered and not good at “charming and lacked the ability to pull people into joining him.” That was reflected in the fact that no one in the military was willing to “die for his regime,” he said.
The “nation-building” of Afghanistan could have been possible with the right leadership, without corruption and with money flowing more freely throughout the society so that everyone was benefitted, Dalrymple believes.
“Is Taliban trying to win validation of the West on Human and Women’s Rights?“
Evaluating the promises of the Taliban on human and women’s rights, Dalrymple says it is not possible to pass a verdict on whether the Taliban has changed or not.
Reports emerging from Afghanistan of some events indicate the Taliban has not changed a bit in 20 years. “There are reports of revenge killings in Mazar-e-Sherif and Kandahar, women being stopped from going to universities and work in Herat and some bloodshed as a part of this campaign,” Dalrymple said.
There were also some slightly optimistic signs such as the big liberal television news network, Tolo News in Kabul being allowed to continue, and the likes of Abdullah Abdulla and Hamid Karzai are alive in Kabul with their families, he also said.
But he stressed that no one can be sure about the change in the Taliban.
He believes that the Taliban does have some obvious and good reasons to keep the West in favour, gaining access to Afghanistan’s central bank, the funds of which have been frozen by America, he noted.
“So there is a clear motive for the Taliban to make positive liberal noises at this stage while having a more hard-lined plan for the future. That can completely be a possibility,” Dalrymple said.
There are also concerns of whether the trampling of women’s rights in Afghanistan could spill onto some of the other Islamic nations that have similar ideological roots.
“I do not think that can be the case. I do not think, for example, suddenly Saudi Arabia will stop women from driving cars. I do not see a domino effect in that way,” Dalrymple said.
Dalrymple talked about two possibilities for the future of Afghanistan. The first is that Afghanistan again becomes a home and safe ground for Al-Qaeda – which is already happening and will continue. Secondly, the American weapon systems that have been captured by the Taliban will be used by the terrorist groups.
“What has been the role of China and Pakistan in the Taliban Success?“
Dalrymple believes that the roles of the two countries have been different. He believes that while Pakistan had a very direct and open role in arming, sheltering, encouraging and funding the Taliban, China has a very clever approach with its approach to other nations 0- including the Taliban.
“They see Afghanistan as a place where they can get access to various rare earth minerals needed for their tech industry. It also has the largest reserves of copper in Logar province. So China has put out an olive branch to the Taliban to keep economic ties running while they are also fearful off and strongly opposed to any support for the Uyghur separatist groups,” Dalrymple said.
Dalrymple however believes that the Taliban are not puppets of the Pakistan army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and it is likely that the ISI will lose its leverage over the radical Islamic group since the Taliban is in power.
WATCH THE FULL DISCUSSION HERE-
“Will China have a role to play in other Nations accepting the Taliban?“
China has increased its diplomatic influence through its financial and economic power and the Belt and Road initiative – even though it has put a number of poorer nations in a debt trap. The question is whether China would be able to convince the nations it has an influence upon to accept and recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government of Afghanistan.
Dalrymple said: “My view on this, which can be differed by others, is that the process of recognition and legitimizing of the Taliban started with its agreement with Trump in Doha. He recognized the Taliban embassy in Doha, allowed the flag to be raised and then started negotiations. It was at this point that Russia and China, and even India, started to have back-channelled talks with the Taliban – and more openly later. So china can argue if the US is dealing with the Taliban, what is wrong in them dealing with the group.”
It can suffice to say that the 20-year Afghan chapter in the history of the world could be the huge mobilizer and motivator in the change of world order. While the U.S. may not have had aims that may not have been sinister in its Afghanistan war and the war on terror, it did turn out to be a failure. On the other hand, the aims of China – either direct or indirect with respect to its role in Afghanistan in recent years, appear to have been successful. It can be said that the latest developments in Afghanistan could be another signal of the changing world order where the U.S. used to be at the focus point.