How Does Kabul End?


Cipher Concise Expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey has served for more than 27 years in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is now a Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London.

Older Americans have Saigon 1975 and the Embassy roof’s helicopters burned in their memories. A previous generation of British was plagued by the image of General Percival surrendering large numbers of troops and equipment in Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. How Kabul falls to the Taliban could have important practical and symbolic significance.

The announcement that the United States is sending 3,000 troops to Kabul along with 600 British troops to manage the evacuation of its civilians and those Afghans who have delivered aid is a remarkably late response to a rapidly deteriorating situation. Unless implemented in the next 48 hours, it will also be risky. Taliban infiltrators are already inside Kabul and the forces that captured Ghazni and Kandahar on the 12thth August will go to the capital with his Honda 125cc motorcycles.

The United States has certainly pulled companies from the Taliban negotiators in Qatar so as not to launch its full-scale attack on Kabul until the evacuations are complete, but elements of doubt remain. Previous Taliban assurances have proved worthless, and it is doubtful that individual Taliban commanders would wish to detain while some of Ashraf Ghani’s ministers, senior army officers, judges and officials are removed to life from exile.

It is hard not to be impressed by the speed and vigor of the Taliban’s recent successes; taking 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 regional capitals in almost as many days. It is reminiscent of the extraordinary progress the Japanese made along the Malay Peninsula in 1942 with Singapore as the ultimate prize.

The success of the Taliban did not happen by chance. It is clearly the fruit of preparation and planning. First of all, they learned from the experience from 1994 to 1996 when they finally took Kabul but failed to capture the north, thus allowing space for the Northern Allied parties to survive and then reassert themselves after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This time, the Taliban concentrated first on border posts with neighboring countries (thus denying the government essential supply routes and customs revenues) before taking foreign capitals and leaving Kabul (which is never easy to capture) until the last. Above all, they have concentrated to the north, where many rural Afghans are disillusioned by the Kabul government and regional warlords. The north is no longer the solid bastion of anti-Taliban sentiment it was in the 1990s.

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Taliban progress in the north has turned off any chance that the old Northern Alliance could be reborn from the eventual collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s government. While in 1996, Ahmed Shah Massoud, its brilliant military leader, was able to leave Kabul and beat a tactical retreat up the Panjshir Valley, that option barely exists today. Not only has Massoud died, but his former followers are no longer guerrillas but members of a stratified Afghan army that struggled to perform without U.S. air support.

The Taliban also ruthlessly exploited the weak negotiating stance of the United States and its main negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad. While some of the Taliban team in Doha, such as Mullah Barader, may indeed have been “moderates,” there was never any doubt that the Taliban movement wanted to see the total defeat of the Kabul government and the expulsion of Western forces. Pakistan may also have occasionally considered some form of negotiating agreement but ultimately the only sure way to maintain Indian influence outside of Afghanistan (it is believed) is a Taliban government.

The Afghan army (and especially its impressive Special Forces) will now assemble in Kabul and should be able to repel initial attempts to overrun the city. Certainly, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar found it impossible to take Kabul in 1992 and 1993 even with the help of Pakistan, which, in frustration, shifted support to the newly formed Taliban movement in late 1994.

But from 1992 to 1996 there were frequent deliveries of supplies to Massoud and his Northern Alliance defenders from Russia, Iran, and India. In 2021, the position is very different. Russia has already decided to “support the winner” and believes it has extracted promises from the Taliban not to export Islamism north to the Central Asian Republics (CARS). Iran also has channels to the Taliban and will carefully take care of any return to the Taliban’s persecution against the Shia Hazaras. And India has already made contact with the Taliban in Doha in the hope that the Taliban in power will prevent Kashmiri militant groups from setting up bases there.

The likelihood, then, is that Kabul will fall to the Taliban fairly quickly. If the Americans and British manage to deploy their evacuation forces soon, they should be able to complete the operation successfully, although there will likely be heartbreaking scenes at the airport when crowds of refugees are repulsed by armed force from departing aircraft. Regional powers, particularly Pakistan, will try to persuade the Taliban to refrain from intervention, realizing that a bloodbath in Kabul would be a disastrous start to the Taliban’s second term in government. Ironically, however, the evacuation would almost certainly cause the collapse of the Kabul government as senior officials are forced to decide whether to take out the last plane or face almost certain torture and death at the hands of the victors. It is doubtful whether some Western countries will choose to keep their embassies in Kabul. For President Biden, the memory of Benghazi will be too raw.

What is certain is that there will be new iconic images to rival those of Saigon and Singapore.

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