Taliban fighters in Kabul

Taliban fighters in Kabul

Foto: Rahmat Gul / AP

A Trillion Dollar Illusion The Entirely Predictable Failure of the West's Mission in Afghanistan

In early July, I met with a leading Taliban military commander. I asked when his fighters would arrive in Kabul. His answer: "They are already there." How the Afghanistan mission failed and what happens next.

In early July, before the great storm broke over Afghanistan, Kabul was already surrounded by the Taliban. And nowhere were the Islamist fighters closer to the Afghan capital city than on the shores of the Qargha Reservoir, a popular getaway on the western edge of the city. People were saying that the Taliban had gathered in the villages behind the nearby hills. The last frontline, it was said, was on the shore of the reservoir at the amusement park.

During the day, families were still taking their children to the rides and the restaurants or going out on the water in swan-shaped paddle boats. A small, six-member special forces unit even enjoyed a picnic in a wooden pavilion on the shore. One of them had to stand guard at the gun turret of their armored Humvee as the rest smoked hookahs and drank colorful sodas.

The next day, I met one of the Taliban’s leading military commanders for Kabul, who received me in the middle of the city in an unremarkable office building. When asked how far the Taliban had to walk to get to the lakeshore, he responded: "Not far at all." He seemed perfectly calm, a clean-shaven emissary of fear. "They’re already there, after all. They are the security guards at the restaurants, the ride operators, the cleaning staff. When the time is right, the place will be full of Taliban."

Six weeks after our meeting, in the middle of August, the same man drove to the Presidential Palace along with 10 bodyguards and the senior commander responsible for the conquering of Kabul. He hadn’t lied when he said that his men had already infiltrated the park at the reservoir. What he had failed to mention, though, was that the Taliban were also already in the heart of the city.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 34/2021 (August 21th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Numerous witnesses in various neighborhoods of the capital following the fall of Kabul had similar stories to tell. "It started in April," says a longtime acquaintance from the western part of the city. "More and more outsiders were suddenly in the neighborhood. Some had beards, others didn’t. Some were well dressed, others wore rags. Completely different. That made them difficult to notice. But all of the locals realized: They aren’t from here." They had silently infiltrated Kabul. The outsiders also appeared in the northern and eastern parts of the city, telling those who asked that they had come to Kabul for a new job or for business reasons.

Then, last Sunday morning, "they came out of the buildings holding white Taliban flags, some of them armed with pistols," says a resident of an eastern district of the city. It was the ultimate victory over America’s high-tech military, whose air surveillance proved powerless against this army of pedestrians and motorcyclists that would overrun Kabul from within and from outside in the ensuing hours. Later that day, they would drive through the city streets in captured police cars – from the air, an image of perfect confusion.

How could such a thing happen? How was it possible to lose Afghanistan to exactly the same group that was defeated – destroyed, really – in just two months back in 2001?

An anti-Taliban protest in Kabul on Thursday: The Taliban rolled in like an avalanche.

An anti-Taliban protest in Kabul on Thursday: The Taliban rolled in like an avalanche.

Foto: Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

For 20 years, the U.S. – together with Germany, Britain, Canada and other countries – maintained a presence in the country with its dominant military superiority and, at times, with over 130,000 troops. The Afghan army and police were trained and outfitted over and over again for a period equivalent to an entire generation – only to ultimately capitulate almost without a fight to an offensive of pedestrians. The takeover happened in the morning hours of last Sunday, with the Taliban suddenly appearing in Kabul like a ghost army.

It seems as though all of the efforts made in the last two decades – all of the roads, schools, wells and buildings that were built, all of the over $1 trillion that flowed into the country – were not enough to decisively sway the majority of Afghans to the side of the country’s financial backers.

It was like an avalanche from the north, beginning with the loss of several northern districts only to ultimately crash over the entire country, crushing the established state within just a few weeks. The first districts to fall were those with names hardly anyone in the West had ever heard before, but they were followed by entire provinces. Day after day, cities surrendered to the advance: Kunduz, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar. The more dramatic the collapse grew, the quieter it became as resistance faded away – until Kabul, the capital city cowering in fear, simply gave up within a matter of hours.

The shock was followed by panic. Tens of thousands of people rushed the walls of the Kabul airport in a desperate effort to escape the city and the country. The Taliban had long since closed down most of the overland border crossings through which people might have been able to escape to neighboring countries. Soon, the metal fences at the airport gave way. The guards vanished and masses of people forced their way onto the tarmac.

If images from the fall of Kabul have been burned into the world’s collective memory, it will be these ones: Men running alongside a slowly accelerating C-17 military cargo plane, desperately clinging to the landing gear of the taxiing jet. And then, a short time later, small figures losing their grip on the plane and falling to their deaths from hundreds of feet.

People at the airport in Kabul climbing on a plane belonging to the Afghan airline Kam Air.

People at the airport in Kabul climbing on a plane belonging to the Afghan airline Kam Air.

Foto: Wakil Kohsar / AFP

And then the triumphant victors driving through Kabul in pickups, their Kalashnikovs thrust into the air. Sauntering into the Presidential Palace and posing there as if it had always belonged to them. Ensuring the Afghans that they had no reason to be afraid, that they should carry on with their daily lives and nothing would happen to them. All they had to do, the Taliban insisted, was adhere to their rules.

Who is to blame for this disaster? Is it U.S. President Joe Biden, as his predecessor immediately trumpeted to the world? "It will go down as one of the greatest defeats in American history," Trump said, ignoring the fact that the deal he signed with the Taliban in February 2020 paved the way for the U.S. withdrawal.

Others saw the fall of Kabul as the "result of a large, organized and cowardly conspiracy," as Atta Mohammad Noor, the warlord and former governor of Mazar-e-Sharif, raged on Facebook following his precipitous helicopter escape. Ashraf Ghani, now the ex-president of Afghanistan, complained in an interview with DER SPIEGEL back in May of an "organized system of support" operated by Pakistan that was destabilizing his country. "The Taliban receive logistics there," Ghani said. "Their finances are there, and recruitment is there."

The list of accusations could continue. But the causes of this failure stretch back to the beginning of the invasion. The grumblers of today were themselves involved in this debacle, the most expensive act of self-deception of the century so far. Only those who understand how this disaster came about will be able to understand how things are likely to progress.

The term self-deception isn’t often used in its plural form, but it should be in the case of Afghanistan. The misconceptions from the West started at the very beginning of the intervention, when Washington thought the military would be sufficient to pacify the country, to the end, when Berlin was still asserting that it would only take just a bit longer to reverse the situation. Another fallacy was the assumption that a nation could be built and protected if enough money was invested and enough training undertaken. The Afghans, too, were guilty of self-deception, with the government and a large share of the population believing for two decades that the U.S. would never pull out.

Some lies served to obscure the true state of affairs in the country, others were the product of ignorance, and still others were truly believed. It was a fatal, collective delusion that ended up costing a six-figure number of Afghan lives along with those of more than 3,500 foreign troops. A fallacy that unintentionally sent Afghanistan on a 20-year detour from one Taliban reign to the next. Meanwhile, an entire generation grew up in the country’s cities under the assumption that the freedoms guaranteed by the foreign powers would be theirs forever.

These lines are born of the experience of having traveled to Afghanistan repeatedly over the course of 19 years and of having lived in Kabul as a correspondent for three of them. And they come from the sad realization that I wrote of the predictable failure of this project back in 2009. "If you take a look at the progression of the last eight years in Afghanistan, the following conclusion is unavoidable: The longer the international engagement there has lasted, the worse the situation has become," was my verdict at the time, "no matter how many thousands of kilometers of roads have been built, how many schools constructed and how many wells dug."

Nobody planned to stumble into this situation. The trigger for the mission was the shock of Sept. 11, 2001. Even as smoke was still rising from the rubble of the Twin Towers in New York, the masterminds of the biggest terror attack in recent history were discovered in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden and his followers had developed a state within the "emirate" controlled by the Taliban. Washington’s primary goal was revenge and justice, not nation-building. Then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder promised Germany’s "unlimited solidarity."

It was a different era, marked by the successes and horrors of the millennium that had just come to an end. The aftershocks of the euphoric events of 1989, when the Eastern Bloc managed to escape Moscow’s iron grip and Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary returned to democracy. On the other hand, the atrocities of Rwanda, the slaughter of 800,000 people as the UN stood by and watched, reinforced the idea of "never again." The NATO mission in Yugoslavia, which was controversial in Germany, managed to stop the Serbs in Kosovo. The Islamist Taliban movement, which ruled over most of Afghanistan following years of civil war, had been merely a side note to the horrors occurring elsewhere.

That was the situation immediately following Sept. 11 when Washington issued an ultimatum to the Taliban, demanding that they arrest and extradite bin Laden and the rest of the al-Qaida leadership or face the consequences. The Taliban said no. Whether they really meant no, and whether they might have been open to a face-saving plan whereby they would stand aside and allow Osama and the other leaders to be captured, as some from Taliban leadership would later claim, remains unsettled. NATO invoked Article 5, the collective defense mandate. The UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1368, legitimizing the coming attack as an act of self-defense.

The attack began on Oct. 7 with ballistic missiles, warplanes and B-2 long-range bombers targeting Kandahar and other targets in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance, which joined the U.S. in the fight, arrived on horseback wielding Kalashnikovs. Kabul fell without a fight on Nov. 13 and Kandahar, where the Taliban got its start, followed on Dec. 7. The victory had taken just two months.

At the time, during this winter of fury, neither the voting public nor the government apparatus asked about plans for the future or the mission’s goals. In December 2001, the first Afghanistan Conference took place, an assembly of victors, some of whom dreamed of a return of King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who had been deposed in 1973. Missing from that initial gathering, as they would be from all subsequent meetings, were the Taliban. Nobody wanted them there.

I arrived in Afghanistan in the scorching hot summer of 2002, just after the U.S. Air Force had bombed a wedding party in the countryside. At least that’s what survivors said. The U.S. military spokesmen countered that gunmen onboard the U.S. aircraft had fired in self-defense after having been targeted from the ground.

That sounded so absurd that we went there ourselves, traveling unchallenged through the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan, the cradle of the Taliban. But they were no longer there. "You know," an Afghan man said one evening around a fire at a rural rest stop, "I was also with the Taliban! But they’re history now." His tone was laconic, and he didn’t sound particularly disappointed, since he could now plant poppies again, something that had been strictly forbidden under Taliban rule.

In the bombed village in Uruzgan, it quickly became apparent that the story behind the wedding bombing had unfolded rather differently. The Americans hadn’t just attacked from the air, but had rolled in with a convoy of heavily armed infantrymen. It hadn’t been self-defense at all, but a planned attack. Members of a Kandahar tribe had accused allies of President Hamid Karzai of being members of the Taliban.

If you couldn’t defeat the Americans, you could apparently use them for your own purposes. It was a pattern that would repeat itself over and over again, and which would contribute to the abject failure of the intervention. The great tribal council meeting in Kabul in June 2002 "was the moment when it failed," recalls Thomas Ruttig, who was a UN official from Germany at the time, but who later co-founded the Afghanistan Analysts Network. "The moment when U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad brought back the warlords." They were the men who had destroyed the country in the earlier civil war, but who had helped the U.S. government of President George W. Bush in the fight against the Taliban.

Khalilzad and others forced the tribal council to include 50 additional men on top of the elected representatives – militia leaders who had ruled with fear and aggression before the arrival of the Taliban. They were men like Mohammed "Marshal" Fahim, a Tajik leader who stood accused of perpetrating massacres and kidnappings. And Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek leader who murdered several hundred imprisoned Taliban and later had his opponents raped with bottles. Both of them would go on to serve as vice president of the country. The new holders of power remained uncompromising. They immediately set about exacting revenge on their former enemies and plundering the new government.

A U.S. soldier trying to clear the tarmac at the Kabul Airport on Sunday.

A U.S. soldier trying to clear the tarmac at the Kabul Airport on Sunday.

Foto: Wakil Kohsar / AFP

Billions of dollars earmarked for construction projects, roads and power plants would vanish in the ensuing years. Court verdicts could be bought, and rampant corruption corroded the state. Farmers, at least in the Pashtun provinces, remained poor and were bullied by the militias of the new rulers. The fighters would show up to hunt down the Taliban, but would then cut down the farmers’ almond trees and plunder their villages.

American and German politicians justified the eternal continuation of the military mission by claiming that the Taliban were "still there." But that wasn’t true. They slowly reappeared after several years of absence, first in the south and then in the north. Starting in 2007, I spent months with a former mullah documenting the Taliban’s slow return in his home district of Andar, south of Kabul. "The ill will toward everything foreign, toward Americans, toward Tajiks, toward police, was seamlessly nourished by real wrongs, exorbitant excesses and invented slights," we wrote at the time.

In the north, the German military rhapsodized at the time about the quiet in the provinces under their watch. When a new police chief was then appointed and he established a regime of horror in Kunduz, beating farmers and destroying their market stands when they didn’t pay sufficient protection money, the German troops stood by and watched from their hill overlooking the city. They were, they pointed out, only there as the "International Security Assistance Force" for the Afghanistan government. That presaged the return of the Taliban in Kunduz, with the Islamists taking control of village after village, until the Germans didn’t even dare to make forays six kilometers from their base. In September 2009, the German military called in U.S. airstrikes in Kunduz that killed 91 people  who were looting fuel from two hijacked tanker trucks. The German commander thought they were insurgents.

By then, Germany and the U.S. had invested so much capital, both financial and political, that they had become hostages of their own project. For the lack of other achievements, the international aid community in 2009 sold the mere holding of elections as a great triumph. But when more and more evidence began emerging of election fraud orchestrated by Karzai’s entourage, the West found itself stuck in an insoluble conundrum. If they recognized Karzai’s fraudulent election victory, they would be supporting an illegitimate government. If they did not, they would have to force out a government that they had spent billions of dollars supporting.

In the search for a solution, Washington overrode Karzai’s objections and pushed through a second vote, one that would be monitored by UN election observers. What then took place is among the darkest examples of the opportunism exhibited by the U.S. government and the UN.

At daybreak of Oct. 28, three attackers launched an assault on the UN guesthouse in Kabul, shot the guards to death, pushed their way into the courtyard and set about slaughtering the almost 30 UN employees inside. But they unexpectedly met resistance. Louis Maxwell, a former U.S. soldier and security officer, was able to hold back the attackers from a rooftop for one-and-a-half hours. No help came from the Afghan police or the army – right in the heart of Kabul. Once the three attackers set off their suicide belts, Maxwell staggered out, while four other UN employees were calling others on the outside telling them they would also emerge from hiding.

Just minutes later, they were all dead, the four shot from the front. Maxwell was hit as he was standing on the street between two Afghan soldiers. Neither of them batted an eyelash. They then dragged his body into the courtyard. Months later, internal UN investigators only managed to make progress with their inquiry thanks to a chance video of Maxwell’s murder made by a German security officer from a rooftop several buildings away. But it was all supposed to remain confidential.

In summer 2010, an FBI investigator asked to meet with me in Kabul. When I asked what would happen next, he just shook his head. There would be no further investigations. Washington, he said, didn’t want to expose Karzai. Following the attack, half of the UN staff was pulled out of the country and the second election was cancelled. Hamid Karzai got the victory he wanted.

When Joe Biden announced a concrete date for the pull-out in April, many in Afghanistan still refused to believe that the Americans were leaving.

The Americans and the rest of the NATO allies consistently let Karzai off the hook, along with his corrupt family and his secret service. The British, for example, wanted to focus on combating drug production in the country. When soldiers from the elite British force SAS happened across a gigantic opium storehouse near Kandahar that belonged to the president’s half-brother, all British diplomats were ordered to keep quiet about it. When two German hikers were murdered on the Salang Pass north of Kabul in 2011 and evidence pointed to the entourage of a contract killer for the Afghan secret service NDS, secrecy was once again the order of the day.

It was the era of U.S. President Barack Obama – and his then-vice president, Joe Biden, who experienced the unfolding disaster firsthand for eight years. Just before he became vice president, Biden had abruptly stood up and left a dinner with Karzai in anger after the Afghan president, in response to questions about corruption in Afghanistan, told Biden that the U.S. is ultimately responsible for everything that goes wrong in the country.

Biden’s current stubborn insistence on a complete and rapid withdrawal from the country may be informed by the fury he felt in those years. He knew the situation was a disaster. But it ultimately became even more disastrous than expected.

Obama sought to bring the situation under control by steadily increasing the number of troops. By 2011, more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers were stationed in Afghanistan. They could be victorious anywhere in the country, but not everywhere at the same time. More than anything, though, the rapid increase in the number of U.S. attacks, the rising total of civilian victims and their insurmountable military superiority all fed into their opponent’s most powerful narrative – that the Americans were infidel occupiers who must be driven out.

This narrative of foreign occupation was so useful that it was deployed by the Taliban and the Afghan government alike, just for opposite reasons. It helped the insurgents with mobilization, and it was a source of comfort for those in power. Then-President Hamid Karzai, in particular, transformed the narrative into a kind of mantra: The U.S., he would insist, will never withdraw. Their interests in Afghanistan are simply too great: fantastic natural resources, geopolitical conspiracies and the rest of it. It allowed him to constantly agitate against the American occupiers while having Washington pay the bill.

This alleged powerlessness combined with grand patriotic gestures were the order of the day in Kabul. Even when Donald Trump announced his withdrawal deal with the Taliban in early 2020, many reacted with disbelief. When Biden announced a concrete date for the pull-out in April, many still refused to believe that the Americans were leaving. Even in late June, when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flew to Washington, there were those in the Presidential Palace and in the ministries who were still hoping that Biden would change his mind at the last moment.

Meanwhile, the massive presence of foreign troops created deep dependencies well beyond the mission’s true aims. One of those was sending the Afghan economy down a dead-end road for more than a decade. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), as the headquarters of the individual NATO forces were called, wanted to buy peace in the provinces under their control. They contracted construction projects and sponsored local media outlets and security companies. Slowly but surely, the PRTs became the largest employer almost everywhere. In Faizabad in the northeast, a warlord received a five-figure sum each month for the protection of the army camp – so that he wouldn’t attack it himself.

The corruption, nourished by the billions of dollars being poured into the country, "threatens all U.S. and international efforts in Afghanistan," was the conclusion reached in March by John Sopko, who has been the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction for almost a decade. His reports have long provided a detailed look at the shocking situation in the country.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai (third from left) with a Taliban delegation.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai (third from left) with a Taliban delegation.

Foto: Abdullah Abdullah / Facebook / REUTERS

The money attracted the greedy to both the government and the military, creating an elite that stubbornly dug in its feet against all efforts to put a stop to the corruption. Even as recently as July, with the collapse of the government imminent, the corruption continued to worsen, said Yama Torabi, the outgoing founder of Integrity Watch Afghanistan and the country’s best-known anti-corruption activist. "Everyone was trying to drag in money at the last moment," he says.

In early July, the U.S. secretly abandoned their gigantic airbases overnight, first in Kandahar and then in Bagram, north of Kabul. They didn’t even inform their Afghan guards of the coming withdrawal. The Americans’ No. 1 priority was "force protection." The precipitous pull-outs, though, only served to inflame growing resentment among the former allies. When withdrawing from a Special Forces base, the U.S. troops destroyed almost all of the armored vehicles at the site. "They’d end up on the black market anyway," the commander said. Only one vehicle was left intact.

The drama surrounding the withdrawal was certainly not Washington’s intention. But it triggered the internal collapse of the Afghan government, the Afghan military and, indeed, the entire Afghan state. "We have never really believed in anything," says the old militia leader Hadji Jamshid in the north, who already fought against the Taliban 25 years ago. "They fought for the wrong thing. But damn it, they’re prepared to die for it. We aren’t."

"They fought for the wrong thing. But damn it, they’re prepared to die for it. We aren’t.”

Former militia leader Hadji Jamshid

By July, there was hardly anyone in the Western secret services and militaries who had much faith in Afghan security forces. Kabul, though, according to increasingly pessimistic forecasts, would stay in government hands. In June, a prognosis from Washington suggested that Kabul would hold out for six more months. The BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, predicted 90 days  on the eve of the city’s capitulation. Last Saturday, a high-ranking security official with an international organization in Kabul said the capital would hold out for 17 more days. The constant American air surveillance over the capital with drones and B-52 bombers, the official said, would prevent the Taliban from attacking Kabul until the U.S. withdrawal was complete.

But that’s not how things turned out. Since spring, the Taliban has been able to smuggle thousands of fighters into the capital, apparently undisturbed by Afghan security forces. During our July meeting in Kabul, the Taliban military commander accurately told me that Taliban fighters had long since taken up position at the Qargha Reservoir. On the day of the takeover, videos taken at the amusement park there show the fighters joyfully driving bumper cars and jumping on a trampoline.

But as accurate as his claims were about the Taliban’s presence at the amusement park, it remains unclear precisely what the new rulers plan to do with the power suddenly in their possession. The commander said that Taliban leadership was open to the idea of a joint transition government. Not even the higher-ups in the Taliban, it would seem, expected the country’s political leadership to implode so suddenly and President Ashraf Ghani to fly out of the city on Sunday, apparently finding shelter in the United Arab Emirates. The takeover of Kabul was "unexpected," Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the 53-year-old lead negotiator for the Taliban’s political arm, said in a video message.

Which of the quartet of Taliban leaders will ultimately end up at the top? Not even that is clear. Mullah Baradar, who immediately returned to Afghanistan from Qatar, helped found the Taliban with the legendary Mullah Omar and is the most senior of the four. Baradar was instrumental in negotiating the 2020 deal with Washington – talks to which the Afghan government was not invited – that laid the cornerstone for the Taliban takeover.

The Taliban’s true top-ranking "emir" still hasn’t even made a public appearance. Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who took over his current position when his predecessor was killed in a U.S. drone attack, is thought to be in Quetta, Pakistan, where numerous Taliban leaders reside.

That leaves two other members of the leadership quartet, one of whom is likely to have gained no small amount of prestige recently. Taliban military leader Mullah Mohammad Yakub, around 30 years old, propagated a military strategy of targeted attacks, long-term bribery and clever infiltration in recent weeks – an approach that proved fabulously successful. The son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, Yakub had long been considered too young, too inexperienced and too self-centered to lay claim to become a successor to his father.

That leaves Sirajuddudin Haqqani, commander of the terror network Haqqani, which is thought to maintain close relations with both the al-Qaida leadership and to the Pakistani secret service ISI. He is well known in Washington: He is on the FBI’s list of the world’s most-wanted terrorists and the CIA supported his father 40 years ago in his fight against Afghanistan’s Soviet occupiers.

Given this cast of characters, it is far too early to posit an answer to the key question being asked in the West: Will Afghanistan once again become a breeding ground of terror? What the Taliban want at all costs is power over Afghanistan. On that count, they are nationalists. Terror attacks overseas, though, as they learned to their detriment in 2001, can quickly lead to losing power. A lesson which has likely contributed to their becoming an organization that is obsessive about control, in contrast to the first time they ruled Afghanistan prior to the U.S.-led invasion.

Still, they are not able to decide on their own, nor can they rule the entire country alone. For the past several months, the Pakistani secret service has been assiduously developing jihad groups in the north and east of Afghanistan that could develop into terror threats to the rest of the world: The Islamic State, Jaish-e-Mohammed and others. Pakistan’s leadership, which has for decades been obsessed with the country’s conflict with India, would like to maintain Afghanistan as a dependent hinterland and intends to continue exerting pressure on the Taliban.

People stranded at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

People stranded at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Foto: Akhter Gulfam / EPA

Installing Haqqani would likely give Pakistan significant leverage in the Afghan leadership. Mullah Baradar, by contrast – who spent eight years in Pakistani custody and was maltreated after he established unauthorized contact to the Karzai government – would likely be an embittered adversary. He was only released in 2018 because Washington hoped that it would be possible to reach an agreement with the Taliban if he was part of the negotiations. And that hope was fulfilled.

This week, the victorious Islamist radicals struck a more conciliatory tone in their statements and first press conference. Of course, they insisted, girls will be allowed to continue their schooling and women will be permitted to work. But such assurances mean little; the Taliban have proven in the past their proclivity for rapidly changing course. As soon as the last U.S. troops have left the Kabul airport for good and the Taliban have consolidated their power, that conciliation could be quickly abandoned.

TV moderator Shabnam Dawran, one of the country’s most prominent journalists, has already described her experiences with the new rulers in a video: "Today, I wanted to go to my work; I did not give up my courage." She was told to go home and that the rules had changed. "Our life is at great risk," Dawran says in the video, then asking the world for help.

Serious resistance to the Taliban rulers isn’t likely in the near future. To be sure, erstwhile Vice President Amrullah Saleh did not leave the country as Ashraf Ghani did, instead returning to his home in the Panjshir Valley, the last bit of the country that isn’t under Taliban control. But Saleh won’t be able to do much from there. The valley is legendary for being home to Ahmed Shah Masood, who was able to prevent both the Soviet military and the Taliban from taking the valley. Back then, he benefited from supply lines stretching into neighboring countries. Today, though, the valley is completely surrounded by the Taliban and also doesn’t have an airport.

Most pressing, though, could soon be the question as to how the Taliban can rule at all. Already, several million Afghans are dependent on food aid from the World Food Program. Western Afghanistan is currently suffering under the worst drought it has seen in a decade. The state coffers are empty and the central bank’s assets are largely stored outside the country, where they are inaccessible. Whether the West likes it or not, if aid deliveries are not made and assistance is not provided to the country’s health-care facilities, many people will die.

Soon, the humanitarian situation may force the West to do something it spent the last 20 years trying at all costs to avoid: Support Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

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