Afghanistan: the unfolding tragedy

The rapid and mostly unexpected collapse of the country political and military order

Shahid Javed Burki August 23, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank


In these two back-to-back articles, I will discuss some of the more important aspects of the developing Afghan story. What happens in the next two to three weeks across Pakistan’s northwestern border would matter a great deal for Pakistan. Before discussing the rapid and mostly unexpected collapse of the country political and military order that was constructed with the close involvement of the United States, I will go a bit into the country’s post-1979 history. That is when Pakistan got entangled in Afghan affairs. I will conclude the discussion by making some suggestions about what the policymakers in Islamabad should watch and how they may wish to proceed in the near future.

In getting into the Afghan history, I will not go beyond 1979. That was when the Soviet Union sent in its troops to help the government it had installed in Kabul and provide it the needed support to keep it in power. When there was fear that the pro-Soviet government may be overthrown, Moscow sent in its troops to Afghanistan and thus got deeply involved in that country’s domestic affairs Afghanistan affairs. The deeply religious and conservative Afghan citizenry did not care much for the presence of what it viewed as “godless” people. It organised itself to push the Soviets out of their country. In this effort they received help from Pakistan, the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The end of the American experiment in Afghanistan came quickly after the United States had been involved for almost two decades. Such a quick end was not expected; it happened in only nine days when the Taliban, the insurgent group decided to expand their control of the countryside and, at the same time, move into major urban areas. Initially, the Taliban had concentrated their attention on gaining control of the countryside. This change was prompted by a clear signal from Washington that it was not prepared to meddle with Afghan affairs. It was up to the Afghans to decide where they wanted to be and where they wished to take their country in the near and distant future.

As the United States withdrawal proceeded in July with the aim of bringing almost all involvement to a close by the end of August, the insurgent group began to focus on the country’s cities. It also indicated that it was not pleased with what it saw as the breach of the agreement it had concluded with the United States on February 29, 2020. According to the agreement, the United States should have been out of the country by May 1. Taliban’s pressure increased on three cities that were close to the northeastern part of Pakistan’s province of Baluchistan. Zaranj, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar were all within easy driving distance from the Pakistani border. On August 6, the Taliban seized control of Zaranj, a city with a population of 160,000 and the capital of Nimruz province in the country’s southwest. It was the first provincial capital to fall to the insurgents. The Afghan security forces did not put up a fight and fled into Iran. The Taliban capture of Nimruz reflected its emphasis on controlling the country’s borders by undermining the government’s ability to collect revenue from import taxes. This was the Taliban territory in which the movement was born and took shape. They took control of the country after the groups of mujahideen who had succeeded in expelling the Soviets from their country failed to agree on the form of governance they would practise once they reached Kabul.

In this context I recall a conversation I had in late July with then President Ziaul Haq at his Islamabad office. This was three weeks before he was killed in an air crash. He was then trying to persuade me to return to Pakistan and become his finance minister. Talking about Pakistan’s political future he spoke about the reason he had used Article 58(2b) in the Constitution that gave him the authority to fire the prime minister and his cabinet and dissolve the national assembly. “I took that action because I did not approve of his Afghan policy. He had concluded the ‘Geneva Accord’ which had the Soviet Union withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. I opposed such a move since it would leave a political vacuum in Kabul which would be difficult to fill by the mujahedeen groups who had fought the Soviet Union. I foresee a civil war,” he said sadly.

The general had read the situation correctly since that is what happened from 1988 to 1991. In that three-year period, the warring groups destroyed a good part of Kabul, thus creating the ground on which a new group of insurgents emerged. Called the ‘Taliban’, this group quickly advanced from Kandahar, the city of its birth, to Kabul. Moving towards Kabul they negotiated deals with the warlords of the various areas they passed through or in some cases they bribed them. Once the Taliban had created a government structure in Kabul, they went about introducing the form of radical Islam which they believed in. This involved punishments such as lashing and cutting of hands of suspected criminals. It also meant sever restrictions on the rights of women. Girls were not to be educated and women if they went out of their homes had to accompanied by male relatives and be covered from head to toes.

This time around, the Taliban followed a different approach which cannot be called a strategy since that would mean a great deal of thought going into planning of the assault. They went from city to city, starting with one in the southwest. Zaranj is an important urban centre; it is a place where business interest and criminal networks govern the province of which it is the capital. According to Ashley Jackson of the Overseas Development Institute, ODI, the Taliban takeover of the city and the province that it serves would not have been possible without the collaboration of these interests. The Taliban began its current military campaign in May after the Americans did not implement their promise of the withdrawal of their troops that was to begin according to the deal signed with the insurgents on February 29. The city became an important staging area for the people who were fleeing the country. According to David Mansfield, a migration researcher at the ODI, in early July around 450 trucks carrying migrants snaked from Zaranj toward crossing points along the Iranian border each day — more than double the number of cars that made the trip in March.

Two days after the takeover of Zaranj, the Taliban captured a bigger price in the north, the city of Kunduz which had fallen earlier to the Taliban, but with the American air force playing an active part, it was taken back by the Afghan security forces. This time it proved difficult to dislodge the Taliban from the city with a population of 374,000 which sits on the border with Tajikistan. Two other capitals also fell to the Taliban. On Sunday, August 17, the Taliban entered Kabul.


Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2021.

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