There are so many unknowns following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Firstly, can the Taliban be believed about wanting peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan? Will the Taliban honor its commitment to allow safe passage to the thousands of Afghans who assisted US and NATO forces during the last 20 years, to leave the country?
No one has come up with an accurate accounting of how many Afghans helped the coalition forces, although the former US Ambassador to the UN, and former National. Security Advisor to the Trump Presidency, John Bolton, estimated this figure at between 60-70,000 during a recent interview on Al Jazeera.
The prospects for forgiveness and tolerance by the Taliban appear uncertain, especially after the Taliban enforced a security ring around the Kabul airport during the recent evacuation, and then allowed only foreign passport holders through to board exit flights.
There are many first hand accounts of summary executions. The following video is about the execution of Afghan Army commandos after they surrendered to the Taliban:
But back to the west's failure to extract Afghans who supported coalition forces during the last 4 decades. In an editorial headline, The Washington Post, traditionally a liberal-leaning newspaper, described America's failure to evacuate thousands of vulnerable Afghan nationals as a 'moral disaster'.
The Post blames this disaster on 'mistakes, strategic and tactical, by Mr Biden and his administration'.
Neighboring and nearby countries have been scrambling to try and cope with the flood of refugees who want to escape Afghanistan. Those wanting to escape include journalists, translators, female leaders and government officials who now fear for their lives. There are many such desperate pleas for assistance on Youtube.
There are also countless others unable to afford the cost of escape, and who are now in hiding while the Taliban hunt them.
Another big question concerns the ability of the Taliban to suddenly change from what was essentially a military/religious insurgency to become a more structured organization capable of managing the complexities of day-to-day governing.
Perhaps the easy part was winning the war. Bloomberg points out that the Taliban not only needs to implement a functioning government, but needs to 'figure out how to get the airport running, stem rising prices of essential goods, stave off an economic crisis after the U.S. cut off aid and avoid a civil war with both ethnic-based armies and a local branch of the Islamic State'. (1)
It won't help that Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Last year, the former President Ashrf Ghani estimated that 90 per cent of the population was living on less than $2 a day. (2)
In the recent past, the Taliban exploited the opium and heroin trade for income, and used extortion for funding. These criminal activities aren't a qualification for running a stable government and economy. The following analysis from the South China Morning Post:
Also, despite its attempts to appear as a united front, the Taliban are not a group that represents all of Afghanistan. The Taliban are largely Pashtun, which is one of the largest ethnic groups, although they comprise only between 38-42 per cent of the population. (3)
The Tajiks in Panjshir Valley are the second-largest ethnic group, but the Tajiks are opposed to the Taliban. The Taliban claim to have taken over the Panjshir Valley, but this is disputed by the Tajiks. This report from the Hindustan Times:
Other terrorist groups, also opposed to the Taliban, operate within Afghanistan. The recent suicide bombing outside Kabul Airport was carried out by an ISIS affiliate, called ISIS-K. This analysis by NBC News:
And finally, perhaps the biggest question of all is how America's rapid exit from Afghanistan will affect the rest of the world's perception of the US in terms of its commitments and assurances. Can the US now be trusted by other allies not to cut and run when pragmatics overrule principle? Will the failure by America to foster democracy in Afghanistan over the last 20 years result in a seismic shift in geopolitics?
Allies in Europe are now questioning future support of US military ventures, although overall, the Wall Street Journal agrees with the Biden doctrine that following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, America will be able to better concentrate on attending to its strategic rivalry with China and Russia.
Also, will the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban change how future wars are fought? The greatest military power in the world was unable to defeat the Taliban after its longest-ever war, and the expenditure of over 2 trillion dollars. Can the USA, and the world, afford such excess again?
The most informed analysis of war costs in Afghanistan is from the Cost of War project. Using figures from this site, Al Jazeera reports 'The war in Afghanistan is estimated to have cost the US $2.26 trillion'. This figure does 'not include the care for veterans nor future interest payments, which means even after the US leaves Afghanistan, it will continue to pay for the war'.
The US has just spent at least $13 billion building its latest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R Ford. (4) Its second Ford class carrier, the USS Kennedy is due for completion in 2022, and a third is on the drawing board. Does such massive expenditure still make sense, considering the result of America's wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam?
Of course, it's too early to answer these questions.
But then, maybe it's not too early to ask these questions, either.
(1) Najafizada, Eltaf, ‘Taliban Seek Friendly U.S. Ties as Challenges Mount After War, Bloomberg, 31 August, 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/asia Retrieved 31 August, 2021.