Last month, the Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School in west Kabul was attacked. 85 people were killed, most of them female students between the ages of 12 and 20.
It was planned meticulously. A suicide bomber had approached the school in a Toyota sedan, and timed his explosion to coincide with the end of Saturday afternoon classes, hoping to catch the female students as they left for home. The car bomb was followed by two IEDs, set off at staggered intervals. They were designed to finish the wounded and kill any first-responders brave enough to run towards the carnage.
Photos from just outside the school show what’s left of the bomber’s sedan. It’s a heap of blackened axle and sticky, melted upholstery. Twisted and charred, it looks more like a squashed insect than a car. The sturdy school gates, painted white, have been buckled inwards by the force of the blast. There are piles of exercise books by the side of the road. Some of them have their pages splayed open. Handwriting is visible, perhaps a few ticks from a teacher. Everything is covered in brown grime. Some of the books have ragged punctures in their covers and pages – shrapnel tears.
The attack on Ul-Shuhuda, carried out on the 8th of May, deliberately targeted the Hazara ethnic minority who inhabit the Dasht-e-Barchi district of western Kabul. The Hazara are Shia Muslims, and in the eyes of the Sunni extremists who constitute the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other terrorist networks, they are infidels.
The school was targeted almost exactly a year after a maternity ward run by Médecins Sans Frontières was attacked in the same neighbourhood. 24 women and babies were murdered.
The United States has decided that its war – and the war of its allies – is over in Afghanistan. Trump and now Biden have all but admitted defeat. The Doha Peace Agreement, signed at the end of February 2020, includes the line: ‘The United States and the (…) Taliban seek positive relations with each other’. Far from being party to a balanced settlement, the Taliban know that they have achieved total victory – the US is leaving.
A commitment to abandoning Afghanistan appears to be an area of rare bi-partisan agreement in the US. The Doha deal was negotiated by Trump’s administration, and Biden has simply trailed in his predecessor’s wake. His only change has been to announce that the last US troops will leave the country on September 11th; an tasteless attempt to derive some pleasing circularity from a humiliating withdrawal.
It has been clear for months that the peace agreement – upon which the US has justified its exit – is worthless. Even before Biden took office, military experts were warning that the Taliban would not abide by their commitment to reduce violence, or to cut ties with al-Qaeda. Back in November, I reported the comments of former US National Security Advisor H.R McMaster, who called the deal ‘disastrous’. The agreement was negotiated without the elected Afghan government at the table. Given that the Afghan National Army (ANA) has done the vast majority of the fighting and dying for the coalition forces in the war, this was a betrayal.
Escalating violence in the country as the US draws down its troop presence has proved McMaster right. In May, at least 247 pro-government personnel and 170 Afghan civilians were killed. When Biden announced that US troops would be leaving the country before the end of the year the response from military commanders was distinctly uneasy. They know that the ANA is not yet capable of holding back the Taliban without US support. General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the UK defence staff, expressed himself as strongly as he dared by remarking that the commitment to withdraw was ‘not a decision we hoped for’. The Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib has made it clear that his country needs more time to develop its defences, particularly its air force. Even Hilary Clinton has warned of ‘huge consequences’. It is an open secret that the Afghans will not be able to successfully resist the Taliban without US support, and this underscores how negligent the withdrawal really is.
Amid a nauseous cocktail of apathy and defeatism, America’s leaders have lost their nerve. Many in the West – a majority even – no longer have any time or attention for the incessant brutality of the war. Our political class has decided that distant Afghanistan is simply too difficult a problem to solve. If the Taliban do take the country, it will also be a victory for selfish cynicism. The kind that assumes to intervene and aid the Afghan people would just be too much bother, too much hassle.
28,000 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed in battle with Islamist extremists since 2015. Since then, the Afghan army has taken the lead in fighting the Taliban, and the US, UK and other coalition forces have assumed a training and advisory role. British troops ceased combat operations in 2014 and have not lost any personnel in Afghanistan since 2015. In 2020, more US troops died in training accidents in the US than in Afghanistan.
Just 9,600 coalition troops remain. They perform a crucial support role for the Afghan government, and most importantly, they signal to the Taliban that the West is committed to ensuring that their brand of theocratic savagery does not take power again. The low level of coalition casualties only underlines the fact that Biden’s withdrawal is a political rather than a practical measure. The US is not leaving because the Taliban are inflicting terrible damage on its forces. It is leaving because Trump and Biden both judged it would be politically advantageous to be the President who ended ‘America’s longest war’.
And what coalition achievements will be thrown away when the US pulls out? Democracy for one. Presidential and parliamentary elections have been held regularly since 2004, in accordance with the Afghan constitution (another achievement). In addition, the number of children in primary education has risen radically as a consequence of the intervention – from 1.2 million to 9.2 million by some estimates – and those who’ve benefited most have been girls. This has only been made possible by the defeat of the Taliban in most of the country. In achieving this, Afghanistan ceased to be a terrorist safe-zone, an extremist paradise where atrocities could be freely planned.
It’s not just the US and Britain who have capitulated in Afghanistan, but the entire NATO alliance. The military bloc accounts for 57% of global military expenditure, and makes use of the world’s most sophisticated weaponry and intelligence services. It has been defeated by a foe equipped with AK-47s, improvised explosive devices, and suicidal fanaticism.
But what distinguishes the NATO alliance and its terrorist adversaries cannot be measured in military spending. It comes down to patience. At present, the Taliban are simply more committed to their cause, and they are willing to fight for as long as it takes to win. They have learnt that Western states are led by politicians with short-term re-election agendas and populations with even shorter attention spans. Countries like the US and UK find it impossible to maintain focus on a single issue amidst the turmoil of domestic politics.
The Taliban know that if they remain in the fight, eventually their Western enemy will give up and go home. If the US and its allies wish to defeat fanatical insurgencies, then they must be able to shift their strategic thinking from short to long-term.
Biden appears to believe that Afghanistan’s status as ‘America’s longest war’ is reason enough to end it. But It is no reason at all. If America fails to realise that patience is what it lacks against groups like the Taliban, then it will always lose eventually.
And what will an Afghanistan returned to Taliban control look like?
If they topple the government in Kabul, then they will be the arbiter of the lives of over 30 million people. The Religious Police – famous for administering street beatings to women who dared step outside their homes – will be reinstated to enforce an extremist interpretation of Sharia law. Leisure of all kinds will be prohibited, including kite-flying and music. For sporting too short a beard, men will be thrown in jail. And the threat of arbitrary execution will bring an all-pervasive fear.
The country will remain locked in a medieval rural economy with some of the lowest levels of development in the world. Afghanistan has a shocking infant mortality rate of 107 deaths/1,000 live births, but that is unlikely to be a priority of the Taliban.
For ethnic minorities like the Hazara – the community targeted in the school-bombing – Taliban control means the threat of genocide. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the community suffered pogroms and massacres at the hands of Taliban militants.
But most of all, the fall of the Kabul government and the installation of a Taliban regime will be a victory for vicious theocracy over reason. Taliban-run Afghanistan is a world where the security forces don’t try to bring psychopathic murderers to justice, but instead recruit them to their cause. It means that tens of millions would be subject to the whims of men who believe that blowing yourself up in a crowd of schoolgirls is not an atrocity, or a war-crime, but an act of worship.
Often, when people use the word evil, it can seem naïve or hyperbolic. The word has its place though. Surely men like this are worthy of the adjective.
Biden must recognise that these are the kind of men he is handing Afghanistan to.
The BBC has done an interview with the families of some of the victims of the Kabul high school bombing earlier this month. The mother of a 16 year old killed in the attack said that “You need to be brave to send them to school”, but if they do not go, “they will remain without a future”. If the Taliban gain control, Hazaras like her daughter will have no chance at any future.
The international response to the ruthless persistence of Afghanistan’s extremists has been to give up. To leave the country and the people to whatever fate awaits them. A future of death squads, torturers and rapists for hire. A future governed by the same organisation that killed Benazir Bhutto, and tried to kill Malala; both graduates of Oxford.
We will watch Afghanistan become that place. And the politicians will say that they did all they could. That the international community tried its best. But they will be lying. The Afghan people, in all their suffering, will know the truth.