Earlier in the year, towards the beginning of his presidency, US president Joe Biden announced that the US would end its military mission in Afghanistan after 20 years of fighting the Taliban - and training and equipping Afghan security forces - on or before September 11, 2021.
The withdrawal of American troops ended up happening earlier than the September deadline - with a new deadline of August 31. With it, the Taliban has advanced on the country, occupying vital cities and provinces over the course of the past week. Now, the last seven days has seen one of the most dramatic periods in the entire two decades of war in Afghanistan. The military, no longer with the support of US troops, has swiftly collapsed, and vital cities have fallen to the Taliban, one after another. A sense of heartbreak and panic sweeps the nation. Now, the Taliban have taken Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and the fall of the Afghan government has begun as Biden deploys troops back to the scene to evacuate most of the embassy in Kabul, alongside citizens and visa applicants who have fled to the capital.
How did the Taliban take Kabul?
It's important to note that the Taliban are not a guerrilla organisation. This is a group with structure that now has representation in politics as well as guns in the street. The Taliban's return to power comes two decades after they were ousted with the help of the US Military, who spent hundreds of billions of dollars building up the government and its defence forces. In just seven days, the lightning offensive by the Taliban saw them reoccupy dozens of cities in mere days, leaving Kabul, the king pin of the nation, the last major city to take.
On Sunday evening August 15, former President Hamid Karzai announced on Twitter that he was forming a coordinating council together with Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the Afghan delegation to peace talks, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Hesb-i-Islami party, to discuss a peaceful transfer of power. Karzai put a call out to both the government and Taliban forces to act with restraint.
Unfortunately, the Taliban reportedly ignored his appeal, and took the city on its own terms, in a matter of hours. Now, Taliban insurgents have seized the presidential palace in Kabul, just hours after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, saying in a Facebook post he did not want to see bloodshed in Kabul.
The re-ignition of the Taliban's reign over Afghanistan was reportedly almost inevitable, once President Biden announced his plans to end its mission in the country, a prediction from the US intelligence assessment was released in June warning of a total Taliban victory within six to 12 months of the withdrawal of American troops (which was then revised sharply downward: first to one to three months, then to as little as 72 hours), leaving Afghan citizens, journalists, US, UK, and Australian Afghan allies, and anyone else who has assisted the mission in the past two decades in life-threatening danger.
What will happen now?
In the provinces that the Taliban captured over the week, there is already strong evidence that the Taliban will employ the same draconian regimes they did 20 years ago, NPR reports. Past Taliban regimes include denying education to women and enforcing the wearing of burquas, carrying out public executions of their opponents, persecuting minorities, such as the Shiite Hazaras, and more recently, no smartphones.
Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, told NPR that there is no reason to doubt that the Taliban's new regime won't swiftly become a humanitarian crisis more than it already has, reporting that in the areas they have already occupied, the Taliban "have been executing people summarily, they have been lashing women, they have been shutting down schools. They have been blowing up hospitals and infrastructure," he warns.
Hundreds of thousands of Afghan's who believed in the US's mission as well as the current government are also suddenly finding themselves the subject of Taliban reprisals, with the US, UK and Australia moving to evacuate thousands of at-risk people from Afghanistan within the coming days. According to the ABC, RAAF planes are expected to arrive in Kabul as early as this week to begin the evacuation, which will be coordinated with the arrival of US and British security forces.
The rescue mission will involve Australian customs and immigration personnel, consular and foreign service officers, Afghan interpreters and contractors who served alongside Australian Defence Force troops, Australians working for Afghan and international charities and non-government organisations and journalists and some dual citizens. However, as the Guardian has pointed out, many who have showed allyship to the US mission over the past two decades are at risk of being left behind, especially if they are stuck in cities south of Kabul, and becoming targets of the Taliban if they aren't already. Now, without the protection of the US Military, anyone left behind is at risk of execution.