It is literally down to counting the day of the last foreign boots in Afghanistan and with this come all kinds of nightmarish scenarios of what may unfold in that country that has been under the watchful eyes of the United States for the last twenty years.
In spite of all the tall boasts from the government in Kabul, the Taliban is chipping away at the territories with its own claim that nearly 85 per cent of the country is now under the control of a group that is all set to stage a violent comeback. The swath of territories under the control of the Taliban as claimed might be a little exaggerated but to go by Kabul’s official version that all is honky dory and that American intelligence estimates are flat out wrong suggests that its leaders are living in a world of their own.
The Taliban has always been attributed to a saying that is now frequently surfacing in media reports:
“You have the watches, we have the time”, meaning that the group is just playing out the waiting game or something that they have been doing for the last 20 years, within Afghanistan or with their friends from across the border in Pakistan. From the time they were driven out in October 2001 after 9/11 through a massive air assault involving horrendous fire powers involving an assortment of fighters and bombers using fuel-air bombs, it has always been about rebuilding but without a time frame.
“We never have calendars, watches or calculators like the Americans do. From the Taliban point of view, time has not even started”, a former Minister of the Taliban had been quoted.
But for all those who had been clamouring for an American and NATO pullout, the final days of the end game seems to have brought back dark images of the impending return of the Taliban and what it means. Russia has slammed the abrupt withdrawal of the United States, China has expressed apprehensions, South Asia, especially India, is watching apprehensively and many in the Western world is looking at a faint re-run of 9/11 in the near future.
Adding to the nervousness is the statement of the President of Afghanistan that as many as 10,000 jihadists may have entered his country from Pakistan in recent days prompting Prime Minister Imran Khan to lament that only his country has suffered to the extent it has from the goings-on in his neighbourhood.
The fear syndrome of the return of jihadists to Afghanistan is not about to force the Biden administration to delay its September deadline. In fact, the calculation is that the last of the Americans would have left by August 31 with no word of any possible return under any circumstances. Officially, Washington has maintained that it would not recognize any government in power in Kabul that did not come in a political way; but this does not mean that the Taliban would be losing any sleep if the United States did not recognize its preeminence should it come to that.
The Biden administration has been saying that it is already committed to a US$ 3.3-billion assistance package that includes economic, military and humanitarian. But if there is one thing that is being repeated in good intervals in the recent past, it is that the United States is not in the business of nation-building; and that national reconciliation is the business of the people of Afghanistan. That said it begs the question if Washington realized after 20 years and US$ 2 trillion that political stability cannot be muzzled through groups by a show of firefights and drones.
At the height of the Afghan involvement in 2011, the United States had 100,000 troops in that country and in the last ten years, it has vacillated between getting out and staying with conservative politicians even now arguing that President Joseph Biden has done a big mistake of pulling out, forgetting for a minute that it was President Donald Trump’s idea to bring home all the boys from supposedly useless foreign interventions in the name of Making America Great Again.
Thus the term ‘Forever War’ had to be given a closure. It is something about the Taliban that bothers every well-meaning individual especially those who are closely following stages of human and societal development in that country for the last two decades.
After a brief throwback to the dark ages women and children, especially little girls could see the light at the end of the tunnel by way of a chance to see portals of a school. Now, all that seems to be on the verge of a distant dream should the Taliban force its way to the top. Others still are worried about the fate of all those Afghans who worked with the American and coalition forces and now facing the prospect of labelled traitors along with their families. The pictures of desperate South Vietnamese clinging on to the undercarriages of helicopters in the last days of Americans in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) may not be there today in Afghanistan, but anxiety is writ large on the faces of people from images seen in the media.
Starting with President Harry Truman and Korea, American domestic politics has always been haunted with the words ‘Who Lost?’ as no President wanted to go down in history books as the person to have lost a country! Four American Presidents — Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon — signed on to Vietnam and stayed as none of them wanted to go down in history books as the person ‘Who Lost Vietnam’; and the fifth Gerald Ford presided over the last days of the conflict in 1975.
The U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was for a little over 18 years and in Afghanistan for two decades and hopefully, the person sitting in the Oval Office today would not be carried away with the ‘Lost Syndrome’ — in both cases, President Biden knows that America “had” neither country in the first place to lose it!
A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations, the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology.
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