As soon as the Taliban occupy another region, those accused of “collaboration” with the West or with the “puppet” Afghan Government are summarily executed. Thousands will already be dead; many more will follow. Girls and women deemed suitable can expect to be forced into marriage to Taliban fighters; the rest will return to the helpless subordination they endured before 2001. For female Afghans, the prospect is of a life little better than slavery. Writes Daniel Johnson
The defeat of the Afghan National Army at the hands of the Taliban has turned into a rout. After the loss of the two strategically crucial cities of Herat and Kandahar, the fall of Kabul is only a matter of time. This has been implicitly acknowledged by the British, who are sending 750 troops to guard the evacuation of the embassy, its staff and our remaining civilians. A limited number of Afghans who have worked for us will also be airlifted out. Other Western governments are also speeding up their departure. Most Afghans, contemplating this undignified, if necessary, spectacle, will doubtless see their erstwhile allies as rats deserting a sinking ship.
After 20 years of counter-insurgency and nation-building, after vast expense of blood and treasure, the forces of Western civilization are scuttling, leaving 38 million Afghans to their fate. We should be in no doubt about what that will mean. As soon as the Taliban occupy another region, those accused of “collaboration” with the West or with the “puppet” Afghan Government are summarily executed. Thousands will already be dead; many more will follow. Girls and women deemed suitable can expect to be forced into marriage to Taliban fighters; the rest will return to the helpless subordination they endured before 2001. For female Afghans, the prospect is of a life little better than slavery.
How did it come to this? The collapse of morale among the Afghan forces, despite superior numbers, training and equipment, is attributable above all to a lack of confidence in their officers and politicians. Under American leadership, these soldiers have fought bravely and well; without it, they fear that their commanders will take to the hills at the first whiff of grapeshot. The Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan Government, but they have struck deals with local governors, sparing their lives in return for swift surrender. Whether their word can be trusted is moot, but the crumbling administration has clearly decided that it has no choice. There may be a last stand at Kabul, which is now only about a hundred miles away from the advance guards of the Taliban. Holding the capital for a few weeks would buy enough time to complete the evacuation. But President Ghani is unlikely to fight to the death: he is bound to be conscious of the grisly end of his Soviet-backed predecessor Mohammad Najibullah, who was tortured, hanged and mutilated by the Taliban just quarter of a century ago.
Does the fall of Afghanistan matter to the British people? It should. Not only are many of the illegal drugs sold on our streets — now including “crystal meth” as well as heroin and other opiates — produced in Afghanistan, but we can expect refugees from this human catastrophe to wash up on our beaches too. We have a legal obligation to those who put their lives at risk to help our forces, but there is also a moral debt to a nation that has placed itself under our protection for so long.
President Biden has, in effect, defaulted on that debt of honor and his NATO allies have meekly acquiesced in his decision. If the Taliban once again provide a safe haven for terrorist organizations, as is possible and even likely, we shall have only ourselves to blame. The US forces that have been withdrawn this year were not much more than a tripwire, but history teaches that tripwires matter. By signaling that the US would leave no matter what the consequences, Biden sealed the fate of freedom, democracy and the rule of law in a strategically important country, nearly three times the size of our own, which will now become a pawn in the great game of Asian geopolitics. China is hoping to profit from this humiliating blow to its main rival, the US; Russia, India and the Islamic powers may also be drawn in.
The longer-term consequences of this débacle for the West are profound. Other nations will be wary of placing their trust in our political, military and cultural superiority. Many have compared the flight from Afghanistan to the end of the Vietnam War. It took a long time for the memory of that shameful episode to fade; it has never been forgotten. American influence in south-east Asia has not fully recovered to this day.
It is almost certainly too late to save the Afghans now. The best way to salvage something from the wreckage of Western prestige is to resolve never again to take on the task of rescuing a people in need without the means and the determination to see it through to the end. We do not know what the future will bring, but there are threats that simply cannot be ignored. It would be a grave mistake to conclude that intervention is always wrong. Our threats and our promises, though, must be credible. It will take a long time to restore our credibility after the scenes we are now witnessing in Afghanistan. These scenes are likely to get worse — and those that we are not seeing are the worst of all.
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