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Aug 16, 2021
We all saw this coming, and when it happened it was breathtaking. Watching footage of heavily armed Taliban fighters walking through Afghanistan’s presidential palace last night, calmly removing and folding away the country’s national flag, was shocking — and entirely expected.
Despite protestations of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the similarities between the capture of Kabul by Taliban extremists and the 1975 fall of Saigon to communist North Vietnamese forces are too great to ignore. Does this mark the end of America’s disastrous Afghan adventure? Or will the U.S. get sucked in again? What now for a country riven by decades of war? What does the future hold for Afghanistan’s women? Read on for our Daily Dose special dispatch, where we’ll give you the inside track on one of the most momentous international events in years.
As recently as last week, U.S. officials were suggesting that the elected Afghan government could last 90 days against the Taliban. The militant group took just five days to roll into Kabul, leaving U.S. and other foreign diplomatic staff, civilians and international aid workers scampering to exit the country from the capital’s international airport. There, at least seven people were killed as utter chaos descended, while flights were canceled. The country’s de jure President, Ashraf Ghani, fled to neighboring Tajikistan yesterday, claiming he did so to avoid bloodshed, even as Reuters reports he left with a helicopter full of cash. With him also went any semblance of confidence Afghans had in the now-defunct, U.S.-backed Afghan government. Taliban leaders woke up this morning to find themselves in control of over 200 aircraft and vast caches of weapons, tanks and military vehicles. What will they do next?
2 - Stunning Speed
The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 but never truly defeated, retaining control of large swathes of rural Afghanistan. Using that base, their military advances hit warp speed with the pullout of U.S. troops that accelerated earlier this year. They began with a wave of attacks on government forces in Helmand province in May. The militants then escalated their offensive, culminating in lightning strikes that saw them take 26 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces in just 10 days. And as night fell yesterday, Taliban fighters had retaken control of Kabul and effectively the entire country.
3 - An Expected Ending?
Yet if one looks beyond the immediate shock, it’s clear that uniting a complex and disparate country was always going to be difficult without the military heft of U.S.-led forces propping up the government in Kabul. In 2001, Hamid Karzai, the once-well-regarded Western-backed politician who went on to become president, was wounded while attempting to unite tribal leaders against the Taliban. And even as NATO military might dominated the country’s streets between then and now, the battle for Afghan hearts and minds never got very far. Why? Support for a corrupt government, abusive police and iron-fisted anti-Taliban warlords was an extremely hard sell.
The scenes you’re seeing from Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan — of clashes, bombed-out buildings, fluttering Taliban flags and militants racing through towns — could be from the 1990s. But there’s one big difference. The U.S., Russia, China, Iran and India — major powers that treated the group as a pariah when it was last in power — now want to do business with it. That’s the Taliban’s biggest diplomatic strength. But the world must not let the group get away with atrocities, says renowned Afghan American author Khaled Hosseini. “The U.S. and the international community at large must take steps to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan,” Hosseini says in a statement to OZY. “They must exert pressure on the Taliban to respect the essential human rights of Afghans, particularly women and girls, and to refrain from using violence against Afghan citizens.”
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Taliban officials claim to want a peaceful, inclusive Afghanistan and have suggested that women will still be allowed to work and go to school. The question is whether they can be taken at their word. And even if its top, more urbane leaders — who have been hobnobbing with foreign diplomats in Doha for years — are making all the right noises, will its army on the ground listen? Tellingly, the group’s spokesman has not ruled out the return of brutal punishments, such as amputations and stonings. The Biden administration is maintaining an “over-the-horizon capacity” to keep watch for terrorist threats. But Republican politicians and some analysts have aired their own fears in the wake of the U.S. pullout of Iraq, namely the rise of the Islamic State group. Meanwhile, the U.S. is sending troops to Afghanistan to secure the exit of its remaining nationals, Afghan translators and other staff.
2 - Biden’s Saigon Moment
As the world watched in shock yesterday and today, with viral photos of a helicopter rescuing Americans from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul drawing comparisons to Vietnam, it didn’t take long for the blame game to start. Now questions are being raised over whether the intelligence services got it wrong, or whether the Biden administration failed to act. Either way, President Biden is taking a “cold-eyed approach” to events. He argues the swift collapse of the Afghan forces shows that an extended U.S. military stay in the country would ultimately have made no difference. “Many commentators have expressed astonishment that years of training by U.S. and allied forces, along with the provision of advanced and costly military equipment, did not create a force able to resist the Taliban resurgence,” former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin tells OZY. “This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of war,” he adds. Still, many on Capitol Hill are worried America has never looked so weak. In extraordinary scenes from the presidential palace in Kabul, one Taliban commander even said he’d spent eight years in Guantanamo Bay.
Perhaps the biggest losers in the return of Afghanistan to Taliban control are the country’s 14.2 million women. A generation of women has grown up in a society unencumbered by the militants’ strict interpretation of Islam. Some 3.5 million girls among roughly 9 million students are now enrolled in school, but that could be about to change. Already there have been reports of female students being turned away from universities, women sent home from work and even forced marriages. Recently, influential female politician Fawzia Koofi told OZY “a lot of women actually feel betrayal” about the U.S. withdrawal. Then there are the millions of Hazara Afghans, Shiite Muslims who make up about 9% of the country’s population and have been persecuted by the Taliban, a Sunni Islam movement, for decades. The killings show no sign of abating as several recent deadly attacks have targeted Hazaras. The theocratic militants view Shiites as heretics, and anxious Hazaras began forming a militia in the mountains of Wardak province after the U.S. announced its withdrawal, saying they have no choice but to take up arms. Ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, who fought against the Taliban previously, could also face retribution. “I am deeply disappointed and gravely concerned for the country,” Khaled Hosseini says. “The last 20 years have been challenging, but the painstaking progresses made are now threatened.”
4 - An Afghan Photographer’s Escape
Even if you don’t know his name, you’ll know his most famous photograph. Massoud Hossaini won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography in 2012 for his searing image of a girl in a blood-soaked green shalwar kameez caught in a suicide bombing in Kabul. On Sunday, Hossaini fled to the airport and managed to get through the scrum and onto a plane that departed just before the city fell. “Inside the airport it was too many people, mostly foreigners [who] were trying to leave. There was not even a single empty seat on the plane,” he told OZY. The prize-winning journalist said he has been so critical of the Taliban that he believes he would have been killed had he stayed. “I had a lot of threats. . . . With this chaos, it’s not possible for me to go back.” He’s now in the Netherlands, though his Dutch visa expires in 10 days. “I’m so worried, to be honest, I never had this feeling, even when I was going to the front line,” he said by phone from Amsterdam. “I thought we had really powerful and friendly allies and this would never happen.”
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1 - Key Taliban Players
Let’s take three: Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is seen as a front-runner to become Afghanistan’s next president. Removing his glasses and addressing the fighters to whom he owes the takeover of Kabul and Afghans across the country, Baradar said yesterday: “We have reached a victory that wasn’t expected. . . . We should show humility in front of Allah.” Expect to see much more of him in the coming days and weeks. But the Taliban’s clout also rests on its strength in the battlefield. And with a huge new cache of weapons at his disposal, the group’s military chief, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of the Taliban’s deceased former leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, is set to wield even greater influence than he has until now. Finally, there’s Abdul Hakim Haqqani, a leading negotiator during peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government who is believed to head the Taliban’s panel of religious scholars. Could he be the key to peace?
2 - Pakistan
If there’s one country whose leadership might actually be celebrating the Taliban’s blitzkrieg to power, it’s Pakistan. The country was America’s most important ally in propping up the mujahideen that defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It has armed, sheltered and supported the Taliban — often overtly — since the 1990s. With the group back in power, Pakistan’s hand is strengthened in its proxy war with India, which did not recognize the Taliban in the 1990s. “Historically, Pakistan has wanted to maintain influence in Afghanistan to secure its western flank while worrying about India to its east,” says McLaughlin. “This will continue and probably be easier under a Taliban regime.” But Pakistan, which already hosts 3 million Afghan refugees, will face fresh pressure to accept more, despite so far refusing to do so. And unlike in the past, the Taliban leadership this time knows that it’s not solely dependent on Pakistan to avoid geopolitical isolation. Other regional and global powers are also ready to do business with them. Will a super-confident Taliban look to distance itself from its former puppet master?
3 - China
As the Taliban swept across large areas of Afghanistan in recent weeks, Baradar, their top leader, visited China on July 28 to meet with Beijing’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. To some, the images of the suited Wang with a bevy of bearded Taliban leaders may have appeared surprising. In fact, China — which had refused to recognize the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s — has more recently been bolstering ties with the group. But the true significance for Beijing in this moment lies beyond the Taliban. Unlike the U.S. and Russia, China is the only global power with strong ties to all key stakeholders in Afghanistan. Beijing is also the top economic backer of Pakistan, which holds sway over the Taliban. All of this makes China the world’s best bet for bringing a measure of peace to Afghanistan — if it gives up its traditional reluctance to jump into global conflicts.
Forget Florence. The earliest known oil paintings were created in the caves of Bamiyan, a mountainous region in central Afghanistan, around 650 B.C. The paintings were discovered close to the site of the giant statues of Buddha that were blown up by the Taliban in 2001. “This is the earliest clear example of oil paintings in the world,” Yoko Taniguchi, the head of a team of scientists, told Reuters when the discovery was made in 2008.
2 - Afghan Food Goes Global
While Afghani eateries in cities such as Istanbul, New Delhi and Dubai have been popular with refugees and displaced Afghans for years, recently the cuisine has started to delight new audiences. From Vancouver in Canada to Melbourne in Australia, its unique combination of spices on traditional grilled meats, stews and kebabs is winning over new fans — while presenting a side of the country untinged by unrest.
3 - A Promise to Protect?
The Buddhas’ destruction was one of the first events many in the outside world associated with the Taliban, who also sent hammer-wielding members into museums to smash smaller artifacts. That’s largely because the region’s ancient heritage involved other religions besides Islam — thus forbidden by the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. On Sunday, the 80,000 artifacts in the National Museum of Afghanistan, some painstakingly reassembled, were again threatened. Taliban leaders seemed to have a change of heart in February when they ordered the protection of historic sites and prohibited artifact sales. But experts aren’t buying it, saying the Taliban “whitewashed their image” to speed the departure of foreign forces. As with so many other concerns, history will record where the truth lies.
4 - ‘Poetry of the Taliban'
German Felix Kuehn and British Dutch Alex Strick van Linschoten didn’t simply Google the verse contained in this highly controversial and critically acclaimed volume. They lived in Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace, where they compiled poetry from multiple sources, ranging from Pashto-language websites to the group’s policy statements. Having also edited My Life With the Taliban by former Taliban official Abdul Salam Zaeef, the two gained the kind of understanding that gets you invited to brief top-level officials. “For some people, it’s going to be offensive,” Kuehn conceded to the Los Angeles Times, but “it’s a way to see how they see the world.”
‘The Carlos Watson Show’ is back! We kick off our new episodes with a very special conversation with Oscar-winning writer, actor and producer Matt Damon. The Boston-native joins Carlos to discuss his new film Stillwater and shares why spending time with the Oklahoma roughnecks opened his eyes to opposing political views. Plus, hear him talk about aging with grace and share his Hollywood-worthy love story. What does he have to say about his BFF Ben Affleck being back in a relationship with Jennifer Lopez?
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