Twenty years have passed since the US invasion of Afghanistan, President George W Bush's response to the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, the responsibility for which was laid at the door of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. Bush accused the Taliban government in Kabul of harbouring Al-Qaeda and providing an environment conducive to terrorism; that was the pretext for the invasion and war that followed. "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make," said the then US president infamously. "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." Western countries and NATO rushed to back the US as Bush declared that the invasion of Afghanistan was a "crusade". He later apologised and called this a slip of the tongue.
After spending billions of dollars to bring Afghanistan to its knees, though, the US is now pulling its troops out. The Taliban movement, meanwhile, is gaining territory by the day. Moreover, in a statement agreed last year, Washington under then President Donald Trump implied recognition that an Islamic government might be established in Kabul.
The agreement was signed with the Taliban in Doha on 29 February, 2020: "The obligations of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognised by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban in this agreement apply in areas under their control until the formation of the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations." The agreement also stated that, "The United States, its allies, and the Coalition will complete withdrawal of all remaining forces from Afghanistan within the remaining nine and a half (9.5) months."
The arrogance of the US administration was laid bare by the assertion that it does not recognise the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" as a state; in short, it did not want to announce that it had failed in its objectives and was facing a military defeat. Instead, it wants to portray itself as merely signing a deal between the Taliban and the current President, Joe Biden. His administration is acting according to the agreement signed by his predecessor Donald Trump; it has, indeed, speeded up the withdrawal process, leaving behind its heavy weapons.
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Despite this effort to save face, the US has agreed to sit at the same table with the Taliban, which means the unequivocal acceptance that the movement is a major player in Afghanistan and has an Islamic orientation. This acceptance of the fait accompli did not come out of nowhere. The Taliban has inflicted heavy losses on the Americans in terms of casualties, equipment and money, resisting the US-led occupation for twenty years, with unparalleled determination and limited military and financial resources. According to the Taliban spokesman, the movement has taken control of about 85 per cent of the country.
The role of the Afghan government imposed by America has been reduced; it has basically been abandoned in line with Washington's pragmatic policies and practices. When the US realised that the puppet government was useless and unable to control Afghan territory or provide the necessary protection for its military presence, it was excluded from the talks in Doha, where Washington is negotiating with the movement that it has been fighting. The Taliban, it is obvious, is the real power on the ground in Afghanistan. America's bitter experience in the country over twenty years has led to this switch of interests.
The puppet Afghan government was humiliated publicly when US troops were withdrawn from the Bagram Air Base north of Kabul overnight, and it was the last to know about it, even though its own forces are stationed there. The US did not bother to notify its allies of the withdrawal. This is how occupiers have always shown their contempt for collaborators throughout history. According to Atta Muhammad, a senior army officer in the puppet government, "It [was] a quick, hasty and irresponsible withdrawal from the American side." He expressed the extent of the frustration and fear of the Afghan government which has been suddenly deprived of the US air cover under which it hid. Such cover also blocked the progress of the Taliban fighters, who are now free to advance. The situation is reminiscent of the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1972, when the Americans left their South Vietnamese allies to their fate.
The US now realises that the Taliban has strength on the ground and popular support, which will enable it to control the government. It looks as if Washington will accept a Taliban government in exchange for guarantees that neither individuals nor groups will be allowed to launch attacks on the US or otherwise threaten its security from Afghan soil.
"The United States did what we went to do in Afghanistan," claimed Joe Biden recently. "To get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden, and to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States. We achieved those objectives. That's why we went. We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it's the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country."
The return of the Taliban movement to the forefront of politics in Afghanistan is conclusive evidence of the failure of the American project in the region. It confirms that change imposed from outside cannot last long because nations are able to resist and throw the occupiers out; democratic transformation takes place internally and willingly, not by coercion from outside agencies.
Afghanistan is not called the "graveyard of empires" for nothing. Genghis Khan, the Mongols, Great Britain and the Soviet Union all tried to dominate the country and failed. They were defeated by tough, fighting people who do not bow before anyone but God. To that list of would-be conquerors we can add the United States of America, no matter what Biden claims. As the Iron Amir of Afghanistan Abdur Rahman Khan (ruled 1880-1901) once said, it is easy to occupy Afghanistan, but it is difficult to maintain such an occupation.
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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.