Tuesday, July 16, 2024
 
 

A monster miracle from a cave

A Taliban militant carries a Soviet-made rocket propelled grenade (RPG) outside of Kabul International Airport shortly after the radical Islamist group took control of the Afghan capital on August 16, 2021.

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In the history of sport, there have been many unforgettable victories. True testaments of teams achieving the unthinkable. The 1980 Winter Olympics men’s hockey tournament was one of those episodes. Although a total mismatch, the United States’ amateur team beat the Soviet Union’s national team, which had won Olympic gold since 1960 and had recently defeated the NHL’s best in a series of exhibition games. The Americans eventually captured the gold medal, with the announcer, Al Michaels, declaring “Do you believe in miracles!?” at the final buzzer.

That same elation is echoing across Taliban sympathizing villages and caves that will carry the same historical weight, albeit geopolitical, well into the future.  As experts reflect on this calamity, it is essential to take stock of what has transpired and recognize the implications of this monster miracle. 

Like the 1980 U.S. hockey team’s meticulous two-year preparation efforts to be ready to face the Soviets, the Taliban’s alchemy for success was derived from a host of reasons.

Starting with their American rivals, the Taliban was gifted with some luck by their formidable opponent. Mired in a combat stalemate after almost a decade of fighting, one which showed no signs of resoundingly turning the tide for the Afghan government, doubt about a credible military strategy for victory began to metastasize in the decision making back in Washington. Sensing the increasing frustration with the state of affairs abroad, the Taliban successfully weaponized the growing sense of doubt that began to spread in the American body politic.

There were many in Washington, however, who were more than willing to continue with the status quo and who were willing to force the US into haemorrhaging ever-increasing financial, human, and material resources into the Afghanistan nation-building project. 

In tandem with the Taliban’s commitment to strategic patience, a deteriorating global security landscape that included Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for pro-Kremlin separatists in a bloody war in eastern Ukraine, to the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, to the rise of a far more aggressive China under the hardline leadership of Xi Jinping heaped new pressures on the US that reordered policy priorities.

Moreover, frequent injections of Pakistani support allowed the Taliban to stay alive and remain a potent force in Afghanistan, which ultimately deepened the military quagmire that the US quickly found itself in once the initial phase of the Afghan mission played itself out in 2002 and the George W. Bush administration shifted its focus to invading Iraq.

Consequently, while Afghanistan stayed out of the headlines, the Taliban chipped away at the prospect of military victory, forcing the Americans to pivot to a negotiated approached. 

The 2013 opening of an official Taliban representative office in Doha, Qatar was another arrow in their strategic quiver. It allowed them to simultaneously inflict diplomatic and battlefield losses. Not to be overlooked throughout this escapade, was the gradual sense of self-confidence and belief that the Taliban would eventually return as their ranks, once again, began to fill. From the slow-rolling negotiations to raising the costs of military engagement, the Taliban leadership understood that if they kept up an agonizingly drawn-out pace of success, eventually American exasperation would trump their resolve. 

More luck arrived for the Taliban with the transactional and often incoherent policies of the Trump Administration and the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the former utterly exhausting even the staunchest American allies, while COVID drained valuable resources and pushed the Afghan issue further down the list of national priorities.

When taken together, these two variables were akin to the Taliban going on a man advantage in the latter stages of a hockey game. And like the tried and tested gameplan of playing with pressure and grit, the Taliban finally secured the breakthrough goal they needed. With the February 2020 announcement by the Trump Administration that the US and its NATO allies would be choreographing their exit from Afghanistan, the Taliban’s fantasy became a reality.

Forty years to the month from the “Miracle on Ice”, when the US beat the Soviets in the most improbable of sports victories, the Taliban’s “Miracle from a Cave” saw them ultimately defeat the West’s project for Afghanistan.

The United States’ strategic calculation, as well as its ultimate decision to leave, would not have been possible without the absolutely dismal performance of the Afghan government over the last two decades.

Political, financial and military support does not come better than what a nation will get from the United States. Multiple governments in Kabul were given an opportunity to remake their country and shed the legacy of the Taliban brutal 1990s rule. No expense was spared as the US poured near limitless amounts of money into Afghanistan to promote governance, rule-of-law, and security programs, as well as infrastructure projects, with the hope of stabilizing the country. 

What occurred, instead, was that the Afghan officials who were charged with remaking the country fed into a deeply corrupt culture that showcased both the true colors and priorities of nearly all of Afghanistan’s elected leaders and bureaucrats. To be clear, it is unfair to apply this blanket categorization to many of the relentless government officials who strove to improve the country, but who simply couldn’t compete with the army of kleptocrats who were at the highest levels of power.

The 1980 Lake Placid Olympic win by the US’ amateur hockey team against the four-time gold medal champion Soviet Union was a touchstone moment in the history of the Cold War.

Despite having overlapped with the efforts of four American presidential administrations, the endemic graft of the Afghan government never waned, which provided a powerful propaganda tool for the Taliban to capitalize on widespread national dissatisfaction with the Afghan government.

What must be noted by the outside world is that the Taliban have never promised to change their brutal, radical Islamist ways, particularly towards women, but they have promised to be free of corruption.

As the walls began closing in on the government of Ashraf Ghani over the last several weeks, the general assumption in the West was that while they were corrupt, they would never so easily allow the Taliban to regain control of the country. In the US, UK, and EU, the belief was that Afghans would stubbornly fight to preserve their national integrity and protect the freedom of the press and women’s rights.

Everyone was wrong.

The Taliban’s near bloodless takeover of the country was swift and carried out with relative ease. What was most depressing was the abysmal performance of the NATO-trained Afghan military and the security forces, the overwhelming majority of which gave up and surrendered city after city, including Kabul, without ever firing a shot. They failed to even pretend to make a stand against the Taliban, something that may have persuaded the Biden Administration to reconsider a rapid withdrawal.  

Although the limited return of an American military intervention isn’t impossible, the damage is already done. Footage of the Taliban entering the Presidential Palace in Kabul was like old players from a sports team returning to familiar confines. With this “Monster Miracle”, the Taliban have cemented themselves in the jihadist hall of fame. Their success will be remembered in the annals of Islamic extremist folklore, who with a few resources and patience, vanquished “The Great Satan” from a holy Muslim land.

Afghan girls attend classes in Herat, Afghanistan. With the Taliban now back in control of the country, the international community and human rights organizations worry that the new Islamist government will once again ban women and girls from public life and reimplement their practice of committing gross abuses against Afghan women. EPA-EFE/JALIL REZAYEE

The Taliban’s success will serve both as an essential chapter in the hardline Islamist playbook for future generations to consult, as well as act as a super-spreader for even more extremist ideology, one that will create newer and more radical jihadist groups and reassure others to stay the course.

Undoubtedly, the Taliban have emerged from the wilderness of their post-9/11 defeat as a  stronger and far more dangerous group. The Taliban are now basking in the light of being actively courted as a potential ally by the equally anti-Western governments of Russia, Turkey, and China. They are also deploying their new savvy media skills to a rightfully skeptical international press corps in order to project a veneer of civility. This farce will surely dissipate once international attention has faded.

Outside of Afghanistan, the failure of the last 20 years to build a stable state, coupled with the Taliban’s swift takeover of the country, has severaly tarnished the credibility of the United States, and the West, as greasy operators vis-à-vis allies who can longer be trusted.

Chasing a miracle only requires faith and dedication. Let us hope the next big one isn’t a monster.

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