Were it not for the high probability that 2015 will be significantly worse, 2014 would long be remembered as an awful year in Afghanistan. Sufficiently awful for Pamela Constable to write that “the last time Kabul felt like this, the Taliban reigned.”
Many winters ago, I stood in a vast, empty intersection of central Kabul. The only sounds were the jingle of passing horse carts and the ticking spokes of old bicycles. There were no other Westerners on the streets, and all eyes were upon me. Despite being wrapped in many layers of modest clothing, I felt naked.
Much has changed in the Afghan capital since those haunted days under Taliban rule. Bombed-out ruins have been replaced by multistory apartment buildings and ornate mansions. The populace has quintupled, and traffic jams are constant. Cellphone and computer shops with picture windows line the streets, and beauty parlor signs feature women with pouting lips and geisha makeup.
But this winter, even as a frequent foreign visitor to Kabul, dressed modestly and with my head covered, I feel naked once again. Almost every Westerner I once knew here has left the country for good, their missions suspended or shut down, and several of my longtime Afghan acquaintances and colleagues have fled abroad and sought asylum.
There’s no mystery as to why.
The Taliban is back. . . .
In the past two months, the militants have bombed or stormed foreign symbols and sanctuaries around the city — aid agencies, guesthouses, even a performance at a French cultural center, while warning that they will treat Western civic activities exactly as they would military enemies. Among the targets were three compounds where I had once shared meals and laughter with friends — now long gone — who cared about Afghanistan and had no plans to leave.
Statistics show that life has, indeed, become more dangerous for civilians in Afghanistan. In 2009, according to the U.S. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, civilian deaths/injuries totaled 2,142/3,566. This year, they were 3,188/6,429.
Next year almost certainly will be worse. As Constable observes, the new American-brokered government has failed to produce a cabinet and the last NATO combat forces have just departed.
The U.S. still has about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, but their combat role ended with 2014. As that number diminishes — to zero except for a contingent guarding the embassy, if Obama carries through his stated plan — we can expect substantial gains by the Taliban which, according to Constable, is “already howling at the gates of [Kabul].”
Iraq appears to be Obama’s model for Afghanistan. So expect to see reports out of Kabul that look like this Washington Post headline (print edition), written without apparent irony, from Iraq: “Iraq fighting edges nearer U.S. troops.”
There was a time when, if U.S. troops were committed to places where war was occurring, our troops edged, if not rushed, towards the fighting.
Thanks to Obama, the Taliban now seems destined to prevail in Afghanistan. The big question is whether, this time around, it will be content with oppressing its own people or whether it will once again make Afghanistan a launching pad for attacks on the West.
Obama, I imagine, hopes that the Taliban has learned its lesson. But what lesson should it have learned from Obama?
If the Taliban can count on an America that won’t “edge near fighting,” then it has no reason not to make Afghanistan a staging ground for international terrorism.