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An unceremonious end, and a shrouded beginning

Afghanistan has once more completed a cycle that has repeatedly defined the past 40 years of violence and upheaval: for the fifth time since the Soviet invasion in 1979, one order has collapsed and another has risen. What has followed each of those times has been a descent into vengeance, score-settling and, eventually, another cycle of disorder and war.

It is up to the Taliban, now, to decide whether they will perpetuate the cycle of vengeance, as they did upon seizing power from a group of feuding warlords in 1996, or will truly embrace the new path that their leaders have promised in recent days: one of acceptance and reconciliation.

Members of the Badri 313 Battalion, a group of Taliban special forces fighters, tasked with securing Hamid Karzai International Airport and the surrounding area, pray on Saturday.

Members of the Badri 313 Battalion, a group of Taliban special forces fighters, tasked with securing Hamid Karzai International Airport and the surrounding area, pray on Saturday.Credit:Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times

Nearly 20 years have passed since Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda executed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, and president George W. Bush announced the US would invade Afghanistan as the first act in a global war against terrorism. Now, the US is contending with how to define its relationship with the same Islamist rulers it toppled in 2001 — again a question of vengeance or acceptance — and how to try to head off the resurgence of any international terrorist threat rising from Afghanistan.

Now, there are smaller prospects of air strikes in the Afghan countryside that leave the unnamed and faceless dead as data points in a coloured bar chart of a barely read United Nations report. No roadside bombs buried in haste, in the dead of night, that might strike a government vehicle or a minibus packed with families.

Instead, there is a widespread anxiety about what the true shape of Taliban rule will be with the Americans truly gone. And there is fear that the chaotic rush of the government’s collapse during the Taliban advance could leave an unfixable economy, ruin and hunger.

Even before Joe Biden’s August 31 deadline announcement and Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, the US had been in stages of withdrawal since December 2009, when president Barack Obama announced both a surge of tens of thousands of troops, and their departure by 2014.

Taliban fighters control their positions near the entrance to the airport in Kabul on Monday.

Taliban fighters control their positions near the entrance to the airport in Kabul on Monday.Credit:Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times

Since then, Afghans and America’s allies have been in varying stages of alarm and second-guessing, clambering to secure their future and business interests. This uncertainty reinforced the endemic corruption that the West decried, but continued to feed it with billions of dollars in the hope it might somehow change.

Now, at the end, the Afghan politicians and entrepreneurs and elite who fed off the war’s coffers have largely fled. The final US military planes departed, leaving behind at least 100,000 Afghans eligible for resettlement in the United States for their work with the Americans.

The evacuation, which began in July as an orderly and modest relocation of a few thousand Afghans, devolved into an apocalyptic exodus as Kabul collapsed on August 15. Hundreds, then thousands, amassed at the gates; people abandoned their cars; and US forces watched on infrared cameras as people overran their defences, not with tanks or explosives but with sheer mass.

“We have a mutually beneficial relationship with the Taliban,” one soldier said unironically this month, standing near the sea of people holding signs and documents and passports to get into the airport in the dead of night, illuminated by the flashlights attached to rifles held by US soldiers who yelled at them to stop pushing and get back. One person was caught in the string of barbed wire and ripped free by panicked family members as more steel barrier coils were laid in place.

A year ago, or 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, the Taliban were shadows in an adjacent tree line, the unseen spectres who turned the ground in front of US, NATO and Afghan troops into a mine-laden hell. Each step posed the question of what to do if a friend in front was suddenly blown in half — the tourniquet goes here, the blood type is O positive.

US soldiers stand guard at the international airport in Kabul last week.

US soldiers stand guard at the international airport in Kabul last week.Credit:AP

Yet in the final hours of America’s war, the Taliban fully materialised, just down the road or on the other side of the gate in the country’s capital. They were suddenly everywhere, their white-and-black flags orbiting the American positions, controlling the crowd, letting the Americans end the war — but not on American terms.

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In the United States, historians and analysts will look back on the failed solutions and the misguided strategies and general officers who assured victory even though in off-the-record briefings and closed-door sessions they acknowledged the US was losing. Perhaps the American people will demand accountability for the thousands of lives and trillions of dollars spent, only for the Taliban to end up back in control, more powerful than they were 20 years ago.

Or perhaps they won’t care, and will move on in an America that will continue to be profoundly shaped — politically, economically and personally — by the war, noticed or not.

As for those left behind in Afghanistan, a country of 38 million minus the thousands who have fled or died in recent weeks, all they can do is look forward, asking themselves and anyone who will listen: What comes next?

The New York Times

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