A little less than two years ago the Taliban was a fragmented — albeit lethal — collection of competing interests, a group at war with itself as often as it was at war with the Afghan government.
It had been beaten down by nearly two decades of war and stumbled along following the death of its infamous leader Mullah Omar.
That was then, this is now.
Today’s Taliban — the juggernaut which has swept across much of northern, western and southern Afghanistan this summer — is a cohesive, well-organized insurgency that in the opinion of some experts could only have had its fractured parts bolted back together with outside help.
The breathless collapse in recent days of provincial capitals — including the southern city of Kandahar where so much Canadian blood and treasure was spilled — may have come as a shock to many Western nations.
In many ways, it does not surprise those who are steeped in the shifting politics and alliances of Afghan tribal culture.
‘The New Taliban’
Sean Maloney, a professor of history at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., has taken to calling them “The New Taliban” — a sophisticated, vicious force with 40 per cent of its ranks filled with foreign fighters, he estimates.
Many of the Afghan troops who’ve encountered the Taliban 2.0 have noticed that they are not the traditional Pashtuns who filled the original militant ranks, but include many Urdu speakers among the insurgents. Urdu is a language more common to Pakistan and northern India.
Farnaz, age 7, stands inside a tent at a makeshift camp in Kabul. Afghans from rural areas have been seeking refuge in the city as the Taliban sweeps across the country. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
“There’s no way, I believe, the disparate elements inside Afghanistan worked together to create this coalition we’re confronted with right now,” said Maloney, who served as an expert adviser on Afghanistan to the commander of the Canadian Army. “There had to be external support for that.”
Perhaps more significantly, the melting away of NATO-trained Afghan National Army units, especially in Kandahar, is likely being driven by the complex web of tribal politics and allegiances – something Western military commanders struggled to understand and appreciate through nearly two decades, said Maloney.
Some of the more important tribes who could have stood in the way of the Taliban have declared themselves neutral and that could have only been achieved through negotiation and perhaps even buying them off ahead of time.
“They had to do months of preparation to get some of that,” said Maloney. “This isn’t like some Nazi blitzkrieg in the same way, with tanks overrunning everything. There had to be significant preparations for this.”
Pashtun tribes always back a winner — someone that looks like a winner, he said.
Dwindling number of options
One tribe apparently sitting on the sidelines is the Popalzai, which counts former Afghan president Hamid Karzai among its luminaries.
Maloney said he’s mystified as to how the current Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, did not see this coming nor attempted to counter it.
Maloney said he does not see a military option for Ghani to turn the crisis around, especially since the Taliban has captured vast swathes in the north, which remained unconquered when the militant group ran the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
That region acted as a springboard for the U.S-led invasion of 2001 and eventual ouster of the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.
Retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, who served as NATO commander in Afghanistan and as the head of the Canadian Army over a decade ago, said the withdrawal of U.S. forces, particularly the loss of air support, was also a contributing factor in the swift decline of the Afghan army.
Afghan troops being mentored by Canadian soldiers study map reading in the field during an operation to clear the Taliban from Adamzai, a village south of Kandahar City in the spring of 2010. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)
“If you take away the final element of international support from soldiers and air power, then the Afghan soldiers might well lose hope,” said Leslie. “And I suspect and submit that’s exactly what’s happened, which destroyed their will to resist.”
The departure of U.S. troops was the centrepiece of a deal reached between former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and the Taliban, which has from the outset demanded the withdrawal of all foreign forces before it would talk to the Afghan government.
Peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Ghani government have puttered along with no substantial progress for a year.
U.S. leaving without a ‘credible peace plan’
The new U.S. administration under President Joe Biden promised to live up to the terms, guaranteeing the last remaining American and NATO troops would be gone by Sept. 11, 2021 — the 20th anniversary of the attacks that drew the U.S. into Afghanistan in the first place.
Anthony Cordesman, one of the world’s leading experts on Afghanistan at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said both administrations had access to the classified intelligence about the Afghan government’s weakness and the reconstitution of the Taliban.
In a report published last week, he argued they had to know this was coming.
“Both the Trump and Biden administrations seem to have used peace negotiations as a political cover for withdrawal, and they did so without ever advancing any credible peace plan and with no real peace negotiations taking place,” Cordesman wrote.
“Both administrations should clearly have seen the probable consequences and the likelihood of a ‘worst case’ contingency. One can argue the wisdom of their choices to withdraw, but scarcely on a partisan basis.”