Understandably there has been rather a lot of comment on the triumphant entry of the Taliban into Kabul. The shots of desperate men clinging to the wheel bay of a C-17A military plane as it took off are destined to go down in history as a defining image of the end of the Afghan war. The opinions as to who is to blame for this debacle are divided, but almost everyone agrees that it was an unprecedented disaster and confirmation of the decline of US military power.
Along with Joe Biden, many have of course claimed the disaster was not foreseeable. They obviously didn’t read my article in these pages back on 4 May, entitled ‘The next Vietnam: gentlemen, start your helicopter engines…’. As I wrote then, ‘Middle-class Afghani parents cashed up due to the trillions of dollars injected by the West will be trying to escape. Those whose daughters have, for the first time, been able to receive an education will not want them to be cast back into the sort of medieval oppression that the Taliban intends to impose upon them’.
Eventually the world will come to see the fall of Kabul not as the final act of an ‘endless war’, but more of a preliminary skirmish. The real war is yet to come and it will be ugly.
In 2014 the Indian author Brahma Chellaney wrote, ‘The post-Ottoman order, created by the British (and French), is disintegrating with no viable alternative in sight’ (‘The Sunni Arc of instability’ published in November 2014). Chellaney’s brief article is a succinct and convincing explanation of why the Islamic world is constantly beset by conflict.
At the heart of the wars and revolutions and famines throughout the Islamic world is the inability of the various ethnic, linguistic and tribal groups to find political solutions to what are often ‘religious’ divisions. In the same way the Catholic/Protestant divide in Northern Ireland evolved from doctrinal differences into historical hatred, so the Sunni/Shia divide is essentially a betrayal of genuine Islam.
The triumph of the Taliban in Afghanistan far from bringing about peace in the region will exacerbate the instability that has existed since before Pakistan was created in 1947. It is now widely accepted that the Taliban could not have fought in Afghanistan for twenty years without considerable support from Pakistan. That shameless mendicant nation which, during the war received billions of dollars in military and financial aid from the United States, Saudi Arabia and Europe, provided considerable material and manpower to the Taliban who were able to go back and forth across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border with impunity. It is now also widely recognised that much of the aid given to Pakistan by the US was directly forwarded to the Taliban.
Without this assistance, Pakistan would have collapsed and the question then is, why did America provide considerable support to Pakistan when it knew that much of that aid was being channelled to the Taliban?
The answers to that one are complex but the main reason is that the US believes that Pakistan cannot be allowed to fail. The collapse of the Pakistan government would result in the largest civil war in recent times and may well release control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to Islamic fundamentalists. The Pakistan Taliban has long been involved in domestic terrorism and may form an alliance with the new Afghan government in an attempt to redraw the boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Durand Line which was established as the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1893 has never been accepted by the Afghans as it bisects the traditional homelands of the Pashtuns and millions of Pashtuns living on the Pakistan side of the border support a movement for the establishment of a ‘greater Afghanistan’ incorporating more than 50 per cent of Pakistan.
If the Taliban can defeat the ‘great Satan’ then it may conclude that, thanks to weaponry kindly donated by the US, the Pakistan army would be a pushover. A war between the two states would start with the weapon of choice for the Taliban. Car bombs in markets spread chaos and invite retaliation. Taliban terrorists know that this practice is low-cost and highly effective. The Pakistan army would then have to identify the source of the car bombs and make punitive strikes. And so it begins.
If the subsequent war isn’t going well for the Pakistan army then it may be tempted to use its atomic bombs to concentrate the minds of the Taliban leadership. To avoid this the Taliban may well attempt to get control of some of Pakistan’s nuclear weaponry. Whoever ends up controlling the nuclear weapons will not hesitate to use them for the greater glory of Allah.
If Pakistan and Afghanistan do end up in a full-scale war then the question of who China, America and the rest of the Islamic world will support is unpredictable. What can be said with certainty is that the fanatics that populate groups such as Boko Haram and Lashkar-e-Taiba will support the Taliban.
In an ideal world, if such a war does emerge, the USA, China and the UN would establish an arms embargo on both nations. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in one where dangerous, violent men, indifferent to human suffering, control large and powerful armies and arsenals and use those resources to serve their own interests.
Pakistan has created the circumstances which may lead to its own disintegration. But there is no sign that it is prepared to alter its current anti-Western thought. In the scramble to get airplanes into Kabul, the West has had to use Qatar and the UAE rather than Islamabad as the staging base. The flight from Kabul to Islamabad takes one hour. Kabul to Qatar and the UAE takes three hours. We have not been told whether the nations trying to rescue their citizens sought permission from Pakistan to use its airports. The mere fact that the West is forced to use airports so much further away than those in Pakistan tells us that we owe the leaders of the country nothing.
But the West and Saudi Arabia will keep on providing aid to Pakistan. China is now also offering to provide additional billions of development assistance and perhaps Pakistan will be able to continue limping along its present path to nowhere. The millions of refugees that will come out of Afghanistan are nothing compared to the tens of millions that would be produced if Pakistan descends into a war with Afghanistan and the 25 million Pashtuns living on the eastern side of the Durand Line.
The one real lesson in the fall of Afghanistan is that the West’s ability to influence the emergence of Islamic feudal states into the modern world is extremely limited. We have to recognise that the loss of Afghanistan is not the end of a tragedy. It may only be the beginning.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10