Year Zero could be coming to Kabul as Taliban imposes its new order

World View: Cambodia offers a sobering precedent for Afghanistan’s predicament

Taliban members on the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Friday. Photograph: Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times

Taliban members on the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Friday. Photograph: Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times

 

The images of the desperate scramble to get on to helicopters and planes to escape Kabul have brought back vividly memories of that earlier humiliating retreat by the US and its in-country allies in the 1975 fall of Saigon.

But that same year the swift overrunning of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge, and the bloodbath that followed it, is, if anything, the better and more sobering historical precedent for Afghanistan’s predicament.

And, once again, as in Cambodia, an important factor in Afghanistan has been rural revulsion against heavy US bombing of the countryside and other excessive use of military force.

When the Taliban first sacked Kabul 25 years ago, the group also declared that it was not out for revenge, instead offering an amnesty to anyone who had worked for the former government

The US had learned nothing – the prolonged conflict in Afghanistan and in particular the US resorting to bombardment of rural areas helped fuel the return of the Taliban as a formidable force.

Although ideologically poles apart, the Taliban and the then Khmer Rouge are clones, sharing a fanatical, absolutist determination to remake their countries to their unique model, and an abiding hatred of the US.

Their similar ruthless determination to impose their new order involves turning the clock back, without constraint or regard for human life. Both have also waged in their own ways a “war on the educated”, with genocidal elimination of intellectuals en masse in Cambodia, and selective assassination in Afghanistan of the same and denial of education to women.

Kabul’s residents have every reason, despite Taliban assurances, to fear the sort of “retribution” inflicted in Cambodia and which would eventually claim 1.5-2 million deaths and empty its cities into the countryside. Year Zero could be coming to Kabul.

Prior behaviour

When the Taliban first sacked Kabul 25 years ago, Graeme Wood recalls in The Atlantic, the group also declared that it was not out for revenge, instead offering an amnesty to anyone who had worked for the former government. “Taliban will not take revenge,” a Taliban commander said then. “We have no personal rancour.”

Such initial benevolence didn’t last. The regime was exceptionally brutal in enforcing its primitive version of sharia – within days former president Mohammad Najibullah, for one, was abducted from a UN compound, tortured to death, and then dragged behind a truck through the streets of Kabul. His body was hanged from a traffic light pole outside the Arg presidential palace.

The group harboured al-Qaeda, imposed brutal restrictions on women and minorities, and were involved in several genocidal massacres of Afghan Shia communities.

Hard power has failed abysmally. Can soft power now tempt the Taliban to honour their new undertakings?

Outside Kabul today there are already reports of summary executions, revenge killings of government officials, and shooting at anti-Taliban protesters. It will not take long to test the good faith of the new regime.

Can the West, militarily defeated, now do anything to restrain the new regime, to make its state a place that desperate Afghans do not want, or need, to leave? Critically that depends on how much the Taliban now wants international diplomatic recognition and foreign aid.

What price is it prepared to pay in restraint, both in safeguarding human rights and ending the harbouring of international terrorist groups, to assure that? Afghanistan depends on more than $4 billion a year in official aid and foreign donors have been covering 75 per cent of government spending.

EU stance

The EU has made clear that it will continue to provide substantial humanitarian aid to one of the poorest countries in the world, where half the population is now dependent on such aid, and where famine, drought and the displacement of some 390,000 from their homes have already devastated the countryside.

But it and the rest of the international community will not provide desperately needed development aid unconditionally. And the US has moved to freeze the bulk of Afghanistan’s $9 billion foreign reserves being held in the US banking system.

The IMF has frozen some $480 million in emergency aid payments due this week. Kabul’s banking system is running short of cash, leading to the likelihood of higher food prices and capital controls. An agreement reached in November among more than 60 countries to send Afghanistan $12 billion over the next four years is also in doubt.

Although its control of lucrative trade routes will generate significant taxes, particularly as Pakistan and China are likely to be very willing to keep these open, the Taliban will find it near impossible to balance the books unless they reach accommodation with western donors. China, moreover, has already sought assurances that Uighur militants will be excluded from Afghanistan’s eastern province.

Hard power has failed abysmally. Can soft power, the stick and carrot of economic aid, now tempt the Taliban to honour their new undertakings? If not the refugee trail to our shores will begin again with a vengeance.

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