Ahmed Rashid, the best-known writer on Afghanistan, thinks a full Taliban takeover of the country “unlikely” after the US and its allies withdraw most of their forces at the end of 2014.
The government can retreat to defending Kabul. Its army is surely more fragile than its large numbers would suggest (200,000), but not zero. Kabul’s population has increased from 0.5 million in 2001 to 4.5 million now (out of the country’s total population of 30 million).
A large proportion of the increase is refugees returning after the Taliban fell in 2001, so most of the city’s population would support resistance to the Taliban.
The Taliban never conquered the northern parts of the country even before 2001, and now the northern warlords who fended off the Taliban then are better-armed and richer.
Many bad things can happen, however, without the Taliban overrunning the whole country, and are likely to. The case for supporting US and NATO military withdrawal — and quicker, and complete — is that the foreign military do more harm than good, not that some national liberation will follow withdrawal.
On 19 December David Cameron announced that Britain will reduce its troop numbers from 9000 to 5200 over 2013. The US has 68,000 troops there, more than in 2008 before Obama took office, but 23,000 fewer than a year ago.
On 29 November the US Senate voted for an “end to all regular combat operations by US troops not later than 31 December 2014”. The US government is expected to produce a detailed plan later this month. Its current talk is of having about 9000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
The NATO force in Afghanistan includes soldiers from 50 countries. Most contingents are small. The big contingents are the USA’s, the UK’s, Germany’s (4,300, but stationed in the mostly Taliban-free north of the country), Italy’s (4,000, but stationed in the west, where the Taliban are weaker), Australia’s, and Romania’s.
The Pakistani authorities have recently released several Taliban prisoners and declared themselves keen to help arrange talks between the US and the Taliban, which the US has been seeking for some time.
The Taliban, however, responded (2 January) to news about withdrawal plans by declaring that Afghanistan repeats Vietnam in 1973, when the US withdrew claiming victory and then the Stalinists swept the country two years later.
Afghanistan, previously a slow-moving, poor, and fragmented society, had a coup by the local Stalinist party, PDPA, in April 1978.
The countryside quickly rose in Islamist-led rebellion. In December 1979 the USSR invaded to try to quell the rebellion and ensure a pro-USSR regime.
Eventually conceding defeat, the USSR withdrew between May 1988 and February 1989. The Stalinists in Kabul held on surprisingly long, until April 1992.
In 1996, the Taliban pushed out from a base in religious schools in Pakistan’s border regions, and conquered much of Afghanistan and Kabul (September 1996). After Al Qaeda, whose bases the Taliban sheltered, bombed the World Trade Centre in New York on 9 September 2001, the USA bombed Afghanistan (from 7 October 2001) and helped an alliance of the northern warlords to take Kabul (9 December 2001) and drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan’s cities.
At that point the Taliban seemed finished. The alienation of large parts of Afghanistan’s population from the corrupt new government in Kabul and the heavy US military presence, and the Taliban’s intact base in Pakistan, allowed the Taliban to revive. In politico-military terms the Taliban have continued to gain ground, or at least not lost ground, even during the USA’s “troop surge” since 2009.
The US intervention has created a lop-sided economy. The US spends about $7 billion a month — over $80 billion a year — on its Afghan intervention, while Afghanistan’s total economic output is only $29 billion.
Fortunes are made from the gravy spills of US intervention, while 80% of the population of Kabul lives in “informal” (shanty-town) housing.