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Kabul airport attack has grim echoes for the US and its allies

Formed six years ago by disaffected fighters from the Pakistani Taliban, IS-K has launched dozens of attacks in Afghanistan, including at girls’ schools, hospitals and a maternity ward where they reportedly shot dead pregnant women and nurses.

There is so far no suggestion that the Taliban condoned or allowed the attack on the airport. It is hostile to IS-K and the two groups have clashed repeatedly in the country’s east. Islamic State –heavily defeated with the loss of its former territories in Iraq and Syria and having failed to hold any territory in Afghanistan – has sought to take advantage of the instability caused by the Taliban’s takeover. The terrorist group this week mocked the “new Taliban”, saying victory had been handed to them by the withdrawal of US troops. Rather than providing a “safe haven” to terrorists, the Taliban’s victory has created a new zone of instability for groups like Islamic State to thrive.

Islamic State supporters in Mosul in 2014. Their claim to Afghan territory puts the group in conflict with the Taliban.

Islamic State supporters in Mosul in 2014. Their claim to Afghan territory puts the group in conflict with the Taliban.Credit:AP

Dr Niamatullah Ibrahimi, a Middle East expert at La Trobe University, tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age the airport attack is a likely indication of how tenuous the Taliban’s control will be over Afghanistan. “The Taliban does provide a safe haven to terrorist groups in the sense that there have been militants from many countries in Taliban areas – some al-Qaeda militants and some Central Asian groups are more tolerated by the Taliban, but there are others who are not tolerated by the Taliban,” he says. “Al-Qaeda and the Central Asian groups are not an enemy of the Taliban because they don’t challenge the Taliban’s hegemony in Afghanistan. They have their own agendas and they don’t want to try to establish a government. On the other hand, Islamic State wants to hold territories, and that puts them in direct conflict with the Taliban.”

After the immediate threat from within Afghanistan, the second concern for Western intelligence agencies is the propaganda win the Taliban’s victory has granted jihadist groups around the world. Several murderous attacks launched by African Islamist groups, apparently emboldened by the Taliban’s victory, have already killed more than 400 people over the past two weeks.

The Syrian commentator Marwan Qablan this week said that the Taliban’s victory could restore the morale of jihadist and Islamist groups “that they lost due to the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”.

“Most likely we will witness a surge in the activity of international jihadism in the wake of the US failure in Afghanistan, and it will be no less powerful than the one that followed the Soviet defeat and their departure three decades ago,” he wrote in the London-based newspaper al-Araby al-Jadeed.

Taliban fighters patrol the streets of Kabul after their takeover.

Taliban fighters patrol the streets of Kabul after their takeover. Credit:AP

Ibrahimi said jihadist groups throughout Africa, the Middle East and East Asia – including Indonesia and the Philippines – were openly celebrating the Taliban’s victory.

“For the first time in many years a jihadist group has achieved a spectacular victory,” he says. “You can see a range of statements from all sorts of groups made around the world congratulating [the] Taliban for their victory. The main concern now is these groups see a likelihood, a possibility that – with sustained effort and persistence – they can achieve victory.”

He also warns that the apparent failure of countries like Australia, Britain and the US to rescue local allies who served with their soldiers would also be used by jihadist groups as propaganda. “This whole debacle at Kabul airport is providing these groups with very powerful images that can be used to promote a narrative of humiliation, an inability of Western forces to not only secure Afghanistan, but to secure their allies.”

There are particular concerns for the fate of women and ethnic minorities such as the Hazaras in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover. According to Amnesty International, Taliban fighters massacred nine ethnic Hazara men after capturing Afghanistan’s Ghazni province last month.

Can Pakistan’s government, led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, rein in the victorious Afghan Taliban?

Can Pakistan’s government, led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, rein in the victorious Afghan Taliban?Credit:AP

Ibrahimi says a lot hinges on how Pakistan, the Taliban’s main patron, responds to its takeover of Afghanistan. He says the last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, there were increased calls for laws based on strict interpretation of sharia in Pakistan, while marginalised groups such as the Hazaras were targeted. “The question will now be: will the Pakistani institutions be able to exert influence to rein the Taliban in?”

Rasoul Omid is a Hazara man from Afghanistan who worked as an interpreter with NATO and is now an Australian citizen. Ten of his family members have been killed over the past 15 years, including his mother in recent months. Omid, who has been living in Australia since 2012, desperately wants to get his remaining family out of Pakistan to Australia. He says the Hazara community has “never known safety whilst the Taliban have reigned”.

“My brother and sister – having faced suffering, war, injustice and ongoing trauma – are now facing an imminent humanitarian crisis with the violent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan,” says the 44-year-old, who lives in Geelong. “The forceful takeover of Afghanistan has instilled immense fear within Afghanistan’s historically persecuted Hazara ethnic group, who faced widespread killings and genocide the last time the Taliban were in power.”

Major Tim Glover, part of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, assists the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with locating Afghan Australian visa holders at the congested Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport, later the scene of a deadly Islamic State attack.

Major Tim Glover, part of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, assists the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with locating Afghan Australian visa holders at the congested Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport, later the scene of a deadly Islamic State attack.Credit:ADF

With Kabul’s airport now shut off, neighbouring countries are also preparing for a humanitarian crisis as people try to escape across their borders. Closer to home, Afghan refugees stranded in Indonesia are already contemplating boarding boats to travel to Australia.

It is easy to forget the extraordinary feats that have been achieved amid the tragedy of the past two weeks: more than 100,000 people have been airlifted out of Afghanistan in that time. In just nine days and without an embassy on the ground, Australia alone rescued more than 4100 people.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard, speaking hours before news of the terrorist attacks emerged, said it had been “heart-rending” to watch the footage of the “desperation and chaos as people literally run for their lives”.

“People who have helped Australian forces, foreign forces generally, feminists, outspoken women in the media, who are now at such risk,” Gillard told the Lowy Institute’s Director’s Chair podcast. “The manner of the exit has, and continues, to truly trouble me.”

While Australia’s rescue mission is over, Biden on Friday vowed to continue evacuations up until the August 31 deadline.

But then, just as they did 38 years ago, the Americans will withdraw.

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