Lessons from the 20-year war: shifting Afghan alliances will make it hard even for the Taliban to hold power

·6-min read
A US soldier from a protection squad for a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) walks along a road under construction near Bagram, about 60 km from Kabul in 2010 (AFP via Getty Images)
A US soldier from a protection squad for a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) walks along a road under construction near Bagram, about 60 km from Kabul in 2010 (AFP via Getty Images)

I was a correspondent in Moscow when al-Qaeda crashed planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001. It swiftly became obvious that the US would retaliate by overthrowing the Taliban, who had hosted Osama bin Laden and allowed al-Qaeda to establish its headquarters in Afghanistan.

I flew to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, in the hope of crossing the Amu Darya River into northeast Afghanistan, which was held by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. The Tajikistan authorities vetoed this and I was making romantic but not very practical plans to cross the river illicitly and, trek through the Hindu Kush mountains to the Panjshir valley north of Kabul.

Fortunately, the Northern Alliance suddenly got permission to use one of their ageing Soviet-built helicopters to fly a number of journalists, including myself, to the Panjshir, where I spent the next 10 weeks.

The Panjshir is one of the world’s great natural fortresses, dominated by hard-to-capture mountains on either side of its lush green fields. Situated 90 miles north of Kabul, it is of great strategic value to whoever holds it since it points like an arrow at the capital. As a result, it has been the scene of frequent battles since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in support of the Communist government in 1979.

Nobody cleared up the debris of war left by the fighting then or in the following years. As a result, the valley and the area around it at the time I arrived was a sort of open-air museum illustrating some of the main events in recent Afghan history.

On flying in, I saw the carcasses of abandoned Soviet tanks dotted along the valley floor that were casualties of failed Soviet offensives in the 1980s. In some places, old tank treads had been used to fill in cavernous potholes in the road, which was like a rocky river bed to drive on. I saw one armoured vehicle with its cupola removed operating as a sort of taxi since it was capable of crossing the rough terrain.

In terms of day-to-day living, Afghans had returned to the Middle Ages. There was no electricity aside from that provided by small generators and the blown bridges had only occasionally been replaced by rickety wooden structures.

Panjshir River in the Panjshir valley, Afghanistan. The scene of frequent battles since the Soviet invasion in 1979 (Getty Images)
Panjshir River in the Panjshir valley, Afghanistan. The scene of frequent battles since the Soviet invasion in 1979 (Getty Images)

The Northern Alliance had a headquarters in the village of Jabal Saraj at the mouth of the Panjshir that the Taliban had vainly tried to capture as they fought the warlords. These were former leaders of the anti-Communist resistance but otherwise were little different from bandits.

The Taliban had almost succeeded in seizing Jabal Saraj before being beaten back. At the entrance to the village, there was an extraordinary monument to their defeat in the shape of a dozen captured Taliban armoured cars crushed one on top of another to form a crossing point over a deep ravine.

The front line with the Taliban ran through Bagram airport, which was soon to become the US military headquarters and logistical hub, and was only finally evacuated last week. As in much of the rest of Afghanistan, there was a de facto truce when I was there. Fighters had often planted geraniums near their trenches, a sign that nothing much was happening and a tribute to the Afghan love of flowers.

The Northern Alliance commanders did not intend to do much fighting if American airpower could clear the way for them. This was in keeping with the nature of warfare in Afghanistan, which foreigners find perplexing. Fierce fighting is followed by long periods of calm. Rapid advances and retreats are often less the fruit of military action and more a consequence of protagonists changing sides or reaching an accommodation with their enemies.

A cynical Afghan proverb says that “Afghans never lose wars because they always change sides [to that of the likely victor] before the war ends”.

Such unexpected switches of allegiance can have bloody consequences.

Just north of the Panjshir was the Salang Tunnel, then the only all-weather road through the Hindu Kush linking the north and south of the country. In the late 1990s, a warlord guarding it pretended to have joined the Taliban and, when thousands of their fighters rushed through it, blew the tunnel behind them leading to the slaughter of the trapped Taliban forces.

The American air bombardment was impressive when it started in October 2001. I watched plumes of fire on the horizon as bombs and missiles exploded in the Taliban front lines and a few thin streaks of ineffective anti-aircraft fire rising up from around Kabul. American-backed Northern Alliance captured the capital without resistance some weeks later.

The impression given was of overwhelming American might and feeble Afghan opposition, but this was highly misleading. The Taliban certainly lost this war, but they had scarcely fought, most going home to their villages or crossing the border into Pakistan, which continued to give them full, though covert, support.

Former Northern Alliance soldiers ride a vehicle towards the town of Gardez, in Afghanistan, on 8 March 2002 (Getty Images)
Former Northern Alliance soldiers ride a vehicle towards the town of Gardez, in Afghanistan, on 8 March 2002 (Getty Images)

I followed the Taliban south from Kabul to Kandahar, at one point accidentally driving through their evaporating front line. In Kandahar, a local man kept asking me to employ him as a guide and, largely to get rid of him, I said that I wanted to meet local Taliban leaders and talk to farmers growing opium poppies. I thought this would at best take a few days to arrange, but the guide said we could go immediately to his village.

We met the opium farmers first, who said that they had rooted up the vegetables that the Taliban had insisted they grow instead of opium poppies. Only opium, they said, could make them enough money on which to live.

Soon afterwards, local Taliban leaders – some of whom had held important mid-level commands in Kabul such as district police chief – trooped into the building that served as a village hall. Looking and sounding very undefeated, they made clear that if the new regime in Afghanistan did not treat them right, they would go back to war.

Much of what has gone wrong in Afghanistan over the past two decades could have been predicted in 2001/2. The US-backed regime brought back the warlords, who acted like racketeers whose purpose was to extract money from the Americans. As for the Americans themselves, their aid was less selfless than it looked since much of it never left the US or went straight back there in the form of the giant fees paid to consultants and security teams.

Health and education improved, but rural poverty remained dire. The legitimacy of the Afghan government was compromised by its reliance on foreigners. Pakistan never faltered in its support for the Taliban. Ten years later, in 2011, I was struck when talking to people in Kabul by their loathing for the government even when they also expressed intense dislike for the Taliban and all their works.

Afghanistan was and is a mosaic of ethnicities, languages, cultures and tribes. It is this that has always made the country so difficult to conquer permanently.

Diplomats now speak glibly of a Taliban government once again installing itself in Kabul, but I doubt if it is going to be that easy. For much the same reasons that the US-backed government failed after 2001, a new Taliban regime may now find it equally difficult to stabilise its rule.

Read More

U.S. Black Hawk helicopter forced to land in Bucharest

British troops leave Afghanistan: The Independent’s defence editor Kim Sengupta to host ‘Ask Me Anything’

Afghanistan's neighbors wary as US seeks nearby staging area

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting