Two weeks ago, there was still a belief that the Taliban might take months to take control of Afghanistan and that they might even agree to a peace deal, perhaps viewing one as a useful step on their way to power.
That has now changed dramatically. Last week, the US called a desperate, last-ditch meeting with Taliban negotiators in Doha, the Qatari capital, involving countries in the region, as well as Russia and China. The aim was to convince the Taliban that they would be treated as a pariah state if they seized power by force. In parallel, the Afghan government offered a share of power in return for a ceasefire. Negotiations have since ended with both endeavours failing.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, most significant urban areas outside of Kabul, including the majority of provincial capitals, are now under Taliban control. The Pentagon is sending 3,000 troops to the country to help evacuate US citizens and Afghans who have been granted visas after working with the US, with the UK also deploying 600 soldiers. In addition, the US will move another thousand troops to Qatar and has put an entire brigade of 4,000 troops in Kuwait, ready to be deployed to Afghanistan if required. That 8,000 troops have been made available gives some indication of the fears in the Pentagon that things could go badly wrong.
It is now highly likely that the Taliban will take control of the whole country within weeks, and possibly days. On this, there are four key questions we must ask. Where did all the Taliban paramilitaries come from? Which countries have most to gain from a Taliban takeover? What will US policy be now? And how does the change of power affect the likes of al-Qaida and ISIS?
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
The answer to the first is that the Taliban never went away and have been steadily increasing their power for more than 15 years. Back in 2001-2, some members did go across to northern Pakistan, and there has been much travel between the two countries since, but it is within Afghanistan that the Taliban's power has slowly but surely been consolidated.
The movement is not without resources and equipment, having reaped years of rewards from having control of the key opium-growing areas, especially Helmand Province. Moreover, the large-scale collapse of the Afghan army and the hasty withdrawal of Western forces have left a cornucopia of weapons, munitions and other military material, and the recent Taliban takeover of key borders has brought in added financial resources.
What’s more, while the Taliban movement is primarily homegrown, it has been boosted by paramilitaries from elsewhere, including Kashmir, Chechnya, Uighur areas in China, Gulf States, North Africa and even western Europe. This has led to the Taliban’s numbers increasing in recent months.
The parallels with the immediate post-9/11 years are chilling
As to who gains, Russia will appreciate and enjoy the failures by the US and other Western states, but will say little in public given the Soviet experience in the 1980s. Pakistani politicians will declare that the last thing they want is a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, but the senior ranks of the Pakistani army will take a different view, seeing the Taliban as a way to ensure India has a minimal role under the new regime.
China, though, has the most to gain – if it can persuade the Taliban to curb the power of Uighur paramilitaries in their ranks. The Wakhan corridor, and Afghanistan's border with China, is likely to become an important geopolitical feature in the years to come – and could offer China new links through Afghanistan to western Asia and the Middle East. There is also Afghanistan’s copious mineral wealth to be developed. The possibilities have clearly been recognised in Beijing, with a senior Taliban delegation invited to visit China three weeks ago.
As for the US, it is abundantly clear that the country will not get tied up in a ground war while Joe Biden is in the White House, but every effort will be made to curtail any expansion of al-Qaida, ISIS or other radical Islamists within Afghanistan that might be seen as a threat to US interests. Control may be sought by various means, including the use of special forces and proxy militias, but much of the emphasis will be on the use of armed drones and long-range, fixed-wing aircraft, such as the B-52 bombers.
These have recently been used by the US Air Force and can be backed up by Navy strike aircraft from Indian Ocean-based carriers. There is also the Air Force’s AC-130U gunship, with its devastating anti-personnel capabilities, which has already been in use in Afghanistan in recent weeks. Yet for all the AC-130U’s undoubted power, there is little evidence that it (or drones and other aircraft) will do much to contain al-Qaida and ISIS if the Taliban allow them to grow and thrive.
This brings us to the final question, which scarcely seems to rate in current security analysis. In the past five years, al-Qaida and ISIS-linked groups have expanded across northern and eastern Africa, and with links to more independent local groups as far from Africa as the Philippines and Indonesia.
Now, with the likely success of the Taliban in Afghanistan, these groups will get a huge boost, many more will flock to the cause, and all will treat the success of the Taliban as proof that the war on terror is still there to be won. The parallels with the immediate post-9/11 years are chilling.
From 2002 to 2006, there were attacks on Western targets and Western interests throughout the world, including France, the UK, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Kenya, the United States, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and many more. Western-owned banks, hotels, restaurants, consulates and embassies were the most common targets, but very few of the attackers had any direct connection with what was termed ‘Al-Qaida Central’ in Pakistan, which was supposedly in charge of the attacks. Instead, most stemmed from local groups, boosted in their beliefs by 9/11 itself.
Many extreme Islamist paramilitary movements will have few if any connections with what is happening in Afghanistan, but the symbolic impact of the defeat of the West and the establishment of a Caliphate will be inspiration enough. That has implications not just for North America and western Europe, but right across the world, quite possibly making it the most important political development of 2021. The response will undoubtedly be yet more remote warfare as we move into the third decade of a 30-year war.
Get our weekly email