On August 31, the United States must complete its military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Announcing the date (first September 11) in April this year, US President Joe Biden said the presence on Afghan soil had served its purpose: to ensure that the country would no longer be used as a base for the planning of terrorist actions. “We need to focus on the original reason for our departure to Afghanistan,” Biden said.
Indeed, it is the positive, but dubious, toll that can be attributed to a war that lasted two decades. During the negotiations for the military evacuation, the fundamentalist Islamic movement Taliban promised not to harbor any terrorist groups – and nothing more.
The idea that there might be some sort of Taliban accommodation with the US-backed government of Ashraf Ghani has completely collapsed in the past 20 days. One by one, the big Afghan cities were taken over by the mujahedin. It is estimated that the capital, Kabul, could fall within a month. It is not certain that an American embassy will be tolerated when this happens. The goal of permanently establishing a West-friendly regime in Afghanistan has failed.
Why is the Taliban ready to take back control of the country, easily sweeping aside a regime that over the years has held periodic elections, reopened schools, instituted free speech, and provided women with education and participation Politics ? This is the question that the American historian Carter Malkasian tries to answer in the recent “The American War in Afghanistan” (the American War in Afghanistan).
First to cover the whole cycle of the war, the book is excellent. More than an expert on the modern history of Afghanistan, Malkasian advised, between 2014 and 2019, the chief advisor of the US-led military coalition, General Joseph Dunford. This put him in contact with all kinds of characters, on both sides of the conflict, and gave him access to new information.
Melkasian carefully assesses American political and military decisions. He identifies crossroads that could have led history to different outcomes: the Bush administration’s decision not to call on the Taliban to negotiate, shortly after the occupation’s initial success in 2001; the reluctance of the Obama administration to use its most powerful resource, air strikes, in the midst of military build-up intended to annihilate the enemy; Donald Trump’s search for a resolution to the conflict before the 2020 elections, even without guaranteeing that there would be any coexistence between the Taliban and the Afghan government after the end of the US occupation.
The author agrees that corruption, tribalism and Pakistani influence were key factors in the Taliban’s resurgence. Seeing precious resources diverted and suffering violence from government-allied warlords has undermined the confidence of many Afghans in the “new times”. Pakistan, for its part, has never failed to provide resources to the Taliban and has sheltered its leaders whenever necessary.
According to Melkasian, however, no explanation will be complete by disregarding the influence of religion and culture. This is a controversial, but not unconvincing part of his argument. “The Taliban embrace Islam and the value of resistance to the foreign occupier, both of which have deep roots in Afghan history,” the author explains. Thus, his warriors would have solid reasons to continue fighting, killing and dying. Something secular government soldiers who flee or change sides in the face of insurgents, have never been able to have.