The Observer view on the resurgence of the Taliban

Afghanistan has humbled the US and empowered its enemies. Now the west must engage with its new rulers to avert an even bigger threat

Afghanistan has humbled the US and empowered its enemies. Now the west must engage with its new rulers to avert an even bigger threat

Afghanistan is a tragedy, a parable and a cautionary tale for our age. As the last, desperate evacuees scramble aboard planes in Kabul, as suicide bombers threaten to kill yet more blameless people, as a vast tide of refugees inundates the border with Pakistan and as the remaining population cowers, trapped and in fear before a resurgent Taliban, all those in the west who fought for 20 long and bloody years to shape this country’s future must pause, stand back and ask themselves: what have we done?

Since the al-Qaida attacks on US cities on 11 September 2001, which triggered a global convulsion, remote, impoverished Afghanistan has touched, influenced and tested every great question, every big idea and movement – ideological, religious, geo-strategic – of our times. Many, for example, will view this staggering defeat, which is how history will surely judge it, as primarily a defeat for the problematic western concepts of humanitarian intervention and a rules-based world order.

It’s undeniable that significant, even inspirational advances were made as the Nato allies acted out their theories of nation-building. Generations of young Afghans gained an education. Careers opened up to girls and women. Healthcare was available to rural villages where none previously existed. Free media and free speech flourished. A crude, vital democracy took shape. These are proud achievements.

But welcome measures of apparent progress obscured fatal flaws. The Taliban recast themselves as an anti-colonial liberation movement of holy warriors. Withstanding repeated troop surges, defying America’s most fearsome weapons, ruthless in their methods and heedless of the terrible cost in civilian lives, they refused to submit. Western politicians wavered. The Iraq war diverted resources. Corruption and venality in Kabul discredited the project. Pakistan covertly nurtured the insurgency.

Afghan resistance to western-directed rule became a rallying point for radical new forms of Islamist thinking that had spread from Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. As in other Muslim and Arab countries, secular traditions and religious tolerance came under withering fire. The violent creed espoused by al-Qaida and Islamic State in Syria and Iraq spawned ever more extreme fanatics, notably Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP), the group that bombed Kabul airport last week and was attacked on Saturday by vengeful US forces.

While the west struggled to remake Afghanistan in its own image, Afghanistan began to remake the west. Thwarted at every turn, George W Bush and then Barack Obama backed away. Nato solidarity creaked. Governments balked at the extraordinary financial cost. The toll of lost military and civilian lives, and egregious human rights abuses, became unsustainable. The gradual haemorrhaging of political will grew into a crisis of self-belief.

All the while, China, like a bird of prey, circled the corpse of western policy

The losing battle in Afghanistan became a global metaphor, in the hands of Russia’s hostile rulers, Iran’s mullahs and authoritarians everywhere, for the supposed weakness and decadence of the west. It was a narrative, political and moral, that many in the west itself began to accept. As democracy’s advance faltered in the Afghan cauldron, xenophobic, nationalist-populist thinking flourished on the right in Europe and the US. And all the while, China, like a bird of prey, circled the corpse of western policy.

As Kipling might have warned us, today’s Afghanistan has again proved a great destroyer of illusions, imperial or otherwise. The US, a superpower without equal, is humbled. Britain, narcissistically redefining its global role, finds to its surprise that it barely has one. Nato, the world’s strongest military alliance, is vanquished. Blindsided spies find their “intelligence” is terribly wrong – or came too late. European allies, ignored by a self-absorbed America, just discovered they don’t count for very much.

Shattered, too, and perhaps permanently, is another grand illusion – that of the wise, all-seeing, empathetic Joe Biden. A reassuringly familiar figure and old foreign policy hand, Biden surfed into the White House in January on a wave of anti-Trump emotion. For the first few months, he enjoyed an easy ride. Now his calamitous Afghan miscalculations, and hard-faced responses, have slashed his approval ratings, harmed US global leadership and weakened his ability to pursue domestic reform. Hubris always has a price.

The historic damage the western powers have inflicted on themselves aside, the mess they leave behind in Afghanistan is daunting. A host of immediate, practical questions arise. Most pressing is the fate of thousands of Afghans, vilified by the Taliban as collaborators, whom the evacuation was unable to scoop up. Britain admits it has failed to rescue more than 1,100 eligible people. The total is probably far higher. This amounts to a shocking betrayal. Everything possible must be done to assist their escape overland in a “second phase”.

It’s plain, meanwhile, that linked humanitarian and refugee crises are building rapidly. The UN warns of half-a-million people fleeing the country amid rising food and medicine shortages. Depending on how the Taliban behave, and whether civil war erupts with northern warlords opposed to their rule, this number could swell further. Many British people and councils have already responded generously to refugee cries for help, but it behoves the government to devise a properly resourced, nationwide resettlement programme.

Taliban co-operation is needed to prevent the ISKP and foreign terrorists from using Afghanistan as a base for jihad

It’s also urgent that ways be found to talk to a nascent Taliban regime that was good at running an insurgency but has no idea how to run a country. Some form of diplomatic relationship is required, if only to ensure future aid is delivered to those most in need. Taliban co-operation is also needed to suppress the ISKP and to prevent them and foreign terrorists from using Afghanistan as a base for waging international jihad. It’s unpalatable but unavoidable.

When the dust settles, a public inquiry into Boris Johnson’s inept handling of the Afghan withdrawal, which was completed last night, the conduct of the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, and his department’s loss of confidential papers from its hastily abandoned embassy is essential. But that’s for the weeks ahead. Right now, all eyes are on the the final hours of this latest stage of the tragedy. Our thoughts are with the tormented people of Afghanistan. In our hearts, we also remember the 457 UK armed forces personnel who gave their lives there and the thousands more who were injured.

Whatever else was done in this valiant, confounding, distressing, still unfinished fight for human freedom, they did their duty. Failure is no fault of theirs.

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