Afghanistan’s Year Zero

James Denselow
James Denselow

The events of the last few days in Afghanistan have gone beyond the wildest imaginations of seasoned analysts and observers. Whilst the future of the country following the US decision to withdraw has always been in question, the speed of the collapse of the NATO-backed Government and its security apparatus was simply stunning.

Whilst it was often said in the last few months that Washington was keen to avoid a ‘helicopters from Saigon’ moment, something remarkably similar has taken place with a series of iconic events following each other in quick succession.

In July President Biden explained that “the Taliban is not the … North Vietnamese army. They’re not — they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of [an] embassy … from Afghanistan.” Precisely 38 days later helicopters dominated the skyline evacuating Western embassies and personnel, images that were quickly overtaken by the chaos and madness of Kabul airport and desperate people clinging to planes leaving the country. Inside the capital, a city of five millions people, billboards advertising women’s clothing were whitewashed and people flocked to queues for passports or to withdraw their savings from banks.

Around the world and at the UN Security Council, the majority of political leaders have appeared stunned. Whilst the Russians and the Chinese celebrated the largely peaceful final transfer of power, the Americans and their allies scrambled to agree a unified position. Meanwhile planned efforts to evacuate translators or allied Afghans have been rapidly overtaken by events and the wider picture for refugees is made all the more bleak by the closure of borders and safe routes as well as all of the Covid restrictions.

An almost twenty year effort, a cost estimated to be between $1-2 trillion dollars and tens of thousands killed and maimed have seen the Taliban return to power and a sense that the country’s politics and near history has come full circle. When the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 1975 it was proclaimed a ‘Year Zero’ and a reset of the country’s history that would result in a radical purging of the population and exodus from cities eventually resulting in the ‘Killing Fields’ and the deaths of up to 2.5 million people.

This time there is a strange familiarity of course to the Taliban being in control in Kabul following the exit of a superpower from the country that is famously the ‘graveyard of empires’. When they first rose to prominence and power in the mid-1990s before the mass public had ever heard of al-Qaeda the group was seen a radical irrelevance in a country that had become strategically insignificant in the post-Cold War era.

Banning music and television, and enforcing strict and narrow roles on what women could do and wear were seen as bizarre and eccentric but any threat appeared confined to Afghanistan’s own borders before the events of 9/11 and its aftermath. So what will happen this time? Saudi Arabia on Monday urged Taliban insurgents who seized Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, completing a sweep across the country, to preserve lives, property and security as stipulated by “Islamic principles”.

Whilst the immediate focus is of course on how the new rulers of Afghanistan will act, particularly towards those affiliated with the previous Government, women and minorities, the ripples of what has happened will reverberate across the region and globally. Indeed the potential for destabilizing effects for Central Asia, South Asia, and the MENA is very real but by no means guaranteed.

In the global sphere Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson is pushing for a unified position towards recognition and engagement with the Taliban government with a focus on the condition around the group not harbouring terrorist groups. Meanwhile the Taliban themselves have pushed questions around their governance structure down the road to when ‘all foreigners have left the country’, to presumably give themselves some breathing space after the hyperventilation of the events of the past ten days.

Reporters in Kabul said that it was anyone’s guess what will happen in two hours let alone beyond that. Yet there are historical trends that we can look to for potential next steps. The need to consolidate the newly won authority is an obvious next step as the group moves from fighting to the harder task of governance. Running basic services in the 7th poorest country in the world will be a challenge and reports out of the earlier captured Kunduz suggest the Taliban are already struggling at it.

Managing the impact of any further exodus from the country is another immediate challenge. Let us not forget that this year 400,000 Afghans have already been forced from their homes. There are almost 2.5 million registered refugees from Afghanistan. They comprise the largest protracted refugee population in Asia, and the second largest refugee population in the world. The scenes from Kabul airport only hint at the larger numbers of Afghans who could now want to leave the country.

Controlling this exodus may ironically prove a facet in the group’s search for international legitimacy. The fear Western states have of uncontrolled flows of people across their seas and borders may give the Taliban leverage on their search for recognition beyond their borders, arguably the one trump card the international community has left. This may place Afghans in a double bind suffering directly under the Taliban and more nefariously through the restrictions of those who’d be happy for them to prevent them leaving the country as this new phase of its history begins.

by: James Denselow

James Denselow,