Getting to grips with . . .

The return of the Taliban

The Taliban’s swift capture of Kabul has resulted in panicked scenes in the capital

The speed of events in Afghanistan has “stunned the world”, said Ido Vock in the New Statesman. Many had predicted that the Taliban, despite its inferiority in numbers (80,000 militants against 300,000 US-trained Afghan soldiers), would eventually take control of much of the country. But few expected it to happen before the US had even completed its troop withdrawal on 31 August. On Sunday, the Taliban ended a week of lightning advances across the country by claiming control of the capital, Kabul, hours after President Ashraf Ghani had fled abroad. The insurgents’ victory led to panicked scenes in the city, said Emma Graham-Harrison in The Guardian. Thousands of people descended on the airport, where several died while trying to cling to departing planes. Western embassies set about hastily evacuating staff and destroying documents. Many women, meanwhile, rushed to buy burqas or to go into hiding.

President Biden admitted that the Taliban victory had come much quicker than anticipated, but said he stood “squarely behind” the decision to pull out. He blamed the swift collapse of the Afghan government on the unwillingness of the country’s army to stand and fight in the face of the Taliban advance. For its part, the Taliban, in its first press conference this week, sought to reassure opponents that it would be a responsible government. “We don’t want any internal or external enemies,” said the group’s main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid. He insisted that no retribution would be sought against those who worked for the former government, and that women would enjoy full rights “within the framework of Islam”. Today’s Taliban, he said, was very different to the one of 20 years ago.

That’s not what people on the ground are reporting, said Borzou Daragahi in The Independent. Afghans who fled to Kabul from areas previously captured by the Taliban have reported “massacres of civilians, summary executions of captured soldiers, and demands that unmarried women be handed over to fighters as spoils of war”. The Taliban’s promise of a new “open, inclusive Islamic government” is hard to take seriously, agreed Suzanne Moore in The Daily Telegraph. When it last held power, between 1996 and 2001, it ran a brutal regime that treated women as “less than human”. The US invasion changed that. The share of girls attending secondary school rose from 6% in 2003 to 39% in 2017, by which time there were 100,000 female students at university. Between 2001 and 2017, women’s life expectancy increased from 56 to 66. About 20% of civil servants are women. All those gains are now at risk owing to the West’s abandonment of the Afghans.

Taliban fighters stand guard along a street in Kabul

Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

“The script for Afghanistan now is all too predictable,” said The Independent. Women’s rights will be erased and the country will once again become a base for terror groups, as it was in the 1990s (when an estimated 20,000 recruits from around the world passed through al-Qa’eda training camps there). The US is hoping the Taliban will be deterred from harbouring terrorists by the prospect of punitive bombing raids, but that didn’t work before. The Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden even after those huge “daisy cutter” bombs were dropped on the Tora Bora mountains in 2001. The terror threat has certainly increased, said Shabnam Nasimi in The Daily Telegraph. Thousands of extremists were set free from prison during the Taliban advance, including the 5,000 “highest value” Taliban, al-Qa’eda and Islamic State fighters held at Bagram air base. “They are vanishingly unlikely to be preparing to go back to their families.”

There’s little evidence that the Taliban has changed its hardline views over the past 20 years, said Raffaello Pantucci in The Telegraph, but it has become a little more pragmatic. It’s aware that it’s taking over a changed Afghanistan. When the group last took power in 1996, it was offering a sense of basic justice to a country racked by “rampant warlordism”. The nation is in a better state today, and the Taliban will be judged harshly if it lets things slip back. To continue rebuilding, it will also require more aid and support from the West. The Taliban does seem to be adopting more moderate policies in the hope of securing local and international legitimacy, agreed Aris Roussinos on UnHerd. The group has assured Shia Muslims that they’ll be allowed to worship openly, and has appointed an ethnic Hazara governor for the Shia ethnic Hazara Bamiyan region. Whether it sticks with this approach or reverts to “totalitarian excess”, the fate of Afghanistan is now out of the West’s hands. 

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