During the 18th and 19th centuries, countries in Western Europe began expanding their horizons and colonizing much of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Dozens of cultures and millions of people fell under European rule. One country in Southwest Asia, however, remained unconquered due to its inhospitable geography, vast isolation, brutal warfare tactics, and insurmountable internal division. That country was Afghanistan, and its people endured invasion by the British, the Sikhs, and much later the Soviets. Years later, the United States stands on the brink of a similar fate for the same reasons.
In 1999, the United Nations condemned the Taliban, a radical Islamic movement in Afghanistan, as terrorists and initiated sanctions against them. The Taliban responded in 2001 by assassinating anti-terrorist politicians in Kabul and funding the 9/11 attacks in the United States, which directly led to the Western invasion of the country. By May of 2003, a new government, with Western ideals, was established by the United States to disempower the Taliban. Osama Bin Laden, one of the primary leaders of the terrorists, fled to neighboring Pakistan a few months prior and would be hunted down and killed several years later.
2021 U.S. Military Withdrawal
The government established in 2003, despite billions of dollars of aid from NATO and nearly two decades to build its military, still struggles to hold the country together. Ever since the military withdrawal by the Biden administration several months ago, the Western-backed government has lost nearly 85% of the country to a resurgence of the Taliban. Most notably, the Afghan government has been forced out of the major cities Kandahar, Mazar e Sharif, and Bagram. The Taliban has also taken the Presidential Palace and controls part of Kabul, the nation’s capital.
Why the Taliban Is Gaining Ground So Easily
The reasons behind the sudden collapse are simple: the rugged, mountainous terrain favors the terrorists and a general lack of will and ability of government forces to fight back the terrorists.
First, the Taliban are much more competent at fighting a war in rugged terrain than the government is. Afghanistan has very poor infrastructure, which makes it difficult for government forces to move their soldiers around. Many mountains in Afghanistan are unscalable by government vehicles and miles away from the nearest government stronghold. Knowing this, the Taliban build their headquarters there, which are relatively safe from government forces. They also construct opium labs atop mountains, which they use to produce large quantities of drugs they sell globally to provide themselves with a steady income stream. In addition, remote villages often isolated and too far from the government are forced to support the Taliban.
Second, Afghanistan simply does not have a spirit of national unity like Western countries do. Afghans often feel more loyalty to their family, tribe, or religious group than they do to a centralized government. As a result, when underpaid Afghan soldiers are asked to risk losing their lives by a government they feel little obligation to in a war they are very quickly losing, they are hesitant to do so. This is compounded by the fact that many Afghan soldiers are disillusioned with their generals and politicians, especially if those leaders come from a different ethnic or religious group because of rampant corruption in the government.
While the average Afghan soldier is paid poorly, if they are getting paid at all, the upper echelons of the Afghan government have increasingly started lining their own pockets. In several interviews of United States military personnel responsible for liaising with the Afghan government, the Americans accused generals of stealing the paychecks of tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers. The lack of national unity creates a lack of cohesion inside both the Afghan government and the Afghan military, which significantly inhibits their ability to get things done. It also leads to different groups advocating for different policies or strategies and causes miscommunication and tension amongst people who are supposed to be allies. For example, several high-ranking generals in the Afghan Army were fired just because they didn’t get along with other officials.
The Present & Grim Future
Several months ago, the Afghan military was 300,000 soldiers strong, and the Taliban were about 200,000 strong. However, time and time again, the government forces routed and retreated. Tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers have abandoned their posts and fled the country, mostly to neighboring Tajikistan. Many government officials, including the President of Afghanistan, have fled the country, as well. In the midst of the chaotic retreat of Afghan forces, the Taliban has captured weapons and supplies left behind. Most notably, the Taliban are now in possession of several UH-60 Blackhawks, one Bell MD-530F, two Mi-17 Hips helicopters, several unmanned drones, a large amount of Humvees, and other armored vehicles, and a “motherload” of American rifles.
The United States is desperately sending air support and several thousand soldiers to aid in the panicked evacuation of the last of the Western diplomats and officials. The future looks bleak for the encircled and alone Afghan government. Should the Taliban completely take power, Afghans fear that oppressive Sharia Law will be put in place, which would suspend freedom of speech and religion, the ability for women to become educated, and may lead to many other oppressive laws too.
The U.S. War in Afghanistan [CFR]
The Taliban in Afghanistan [CFR]
Afghanistan War [Britannica]
As U.S. Leaves Afghanistan, History Suggests It May Struggle to Stay Out [NYT]
The Afghanistan Collapse: Americans died for this? [Technofog]
CLOSING IN Taliban seizes ‘motherload’ of US weapons and drones as jihadis tear towards Kabul after ripping through 10 cities [Sun]