11 hours ago
In October 2001 I was standing on a hilltop 40 miles north of Kabul watching US aircraft bomb the Taliban front line. The night sky was lit up with the flash of explosions and the sparkle of ineffectual anti-aircraft fire. It was fairly obvious who was going to come out the winner.
A few weeks later the US-backed anti-Taliban forces advanced south and captured Kabul without the Taliban putting up any resistance. It looked as if they had suffered a decisive military defeat which had ended forever their rule over Afghanistan. As their armies broke up, I drove to the southern city of Kandahar past ragged groups of Taliban fighters on their way home.
Except that they had not really been defeated and, 19 years later, the Taliban are closer than ever to regaining power in Afghanistan as the US withdraws the last of its troops. Under an agreement between the Taliban and the US signed on 29 February this year, the number of US soldiers in the country, which once exceeded 100,000, dropped to 8,600 this week and the remainder should be out of the country before the middle of next year.
The final withdrawal of US troops may come even earlier than that because President Trump would like to declare that he has brought back all American troops in Afghanistan before the US presidential election on 3 November. He tweeted on Wednesday: “Bring our soldiers back home but closely watch what is going on and strike with a thunder like never before, if necessary.” The Pentagon is none too happy about this, but keeping US troops in the country for a few more months, after almost two decades of failure, is not going to make much difference.
The return of the Taliban should not have come as quite such a surprise. When I got to Kandahar on my journey south from Kabul in 2001, I asked a local man if I could meet some of the surviving Taliban commanders. He said this would be no problem. We drove to his village not far from the city where we met half a dozen tough, confident-looking Taliban who said that they would go back to war if they were marginalised and not treated right.