'Everyone is getting out – and fast', the man tells me over a crackling line. He is tired, clearly subdued. A UN staff member, he was in Afghanistan until very recently and is still trying to process what happened. 'We knew this was going to happen,' he continues, 'but everyone was caught by surprise at the speed of the Taliban advance.'
UN staff are now being evacuated to Almaty in Kazakhstan, from where they will make their way to their respective countries. But what about the local Afghans that worked with them? 'Our Afghan colleagues were given letters of support for country visas in the region: Iran, Pakistan, and India. Some were able to leave before, mostly to Turkey, and we helped evacuate hundreds of colleagues to Kabul, but the UN cannot evacuate everyone out of the country'. He pauses, and with great sadness says, 'so essentially they are on their own'.
'We’re already dealing with the Talban,' he continues. 'Recently, a delegation of theirs came to the gate of one of our compounds: they were very respectful: we still have staff in Kandahar that we haven’t been able to evacuate, and they promised that when the time came, they would escort them to the airport. At another location when thieves tried to break into one of our compounds, they repelled them.'
And what happens to Afghanistan now? 'Now we go back to Talban rule,' he replies. 'What do you think will happen?' I fire back. 'Well,' he concludes – again with sadness. 'I heard yesterday that their spokesperson said that ‘the Taliban of the 1990s is not the Taliban of today.’ I guess we’ll see.'
When the end of empire dawned for Britain and it scuttled out of Palestine, Cyprus, and India, some described it – uncharitably but accurately – as a policy of 'divide and flee.' As the US scuttles out of Afghanistan, it appears the policy is merely 'flee'. Much has been written about Western failings and the triumph of Jihadist fascism, but amidst it all something has gone largely unremarked: the role of Pakistan’s primary intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
ISI is renowned for its meddling and brutality, both of which have been on kaleidoscopic display throughout its near 30-year dealings with the Taliban. It helped found the organisation back in 1994, soon after the end of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, during which the ISI had trained about 100,000 Afghans to fight the USSR.
When the Russians scuttled out of Afghanistan (note the pattern here), the Pakistani military backed the mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the hopes of seeing a Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul. By 1994, it had become clear that Hekmatyar’s almost pathological brutality had alienated almost everyone and that wasn’t going to happen, so they switched their attention to the group of radical Islamists that would become the Taliban. They began funding, organising, and supplying this gang of murderers right from the start as it slowly took over the country – and continued doing so all the way up to 9/11.
Even when the western coalition sent the Taliban into the hills, ISI, through the Haqqani network – another gang of jihadist nutjobs – helped them to attack western forces and, of course, civilians; it also gave them strategic depth by allowing its leaders to retreat to Pakistani territory when needed. When it wasn’t doing all of this, it was busy helping out al-Qaeda, not least by letting its mass-murdering leader Osama bin Laden hide out in in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in a house stuffed with guns and porn.
Make no mistake, without Pakistani support it’s unlikely that the Taliban’s insurgency would have worked. Now it has; and the generals in Rawalpindi are delighted. Pakistan’s perennial security fear is Indian encirclement, and with a pro-Islamabad government now in Kabul, New Delhi’s influence there just dropped to almost zero. As the Carnegie Institute has observed, the generals also believed that now former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani was working with India to destabilise Pakistan in various ways, notably by supporting minority groups in Pakistan demanding political rights and regional autonomy. All that is now over.
What makes all of this so absurd is that according to Washington (officially at least – off the record it’s a vastly different story) is that Pakistan is a valued ally in the global war on terror (GWOT). Like most policy decisions and pretty much all official rhetoric surrounding the GWOT, this elicits guffaws and sighs in equal measure.
It’s not all good news for ISI. The Pakistani Taliban, a coalition of jihadist groups that seeks to overthrow the Pakistani state, will now be empowered by the success of its Afghan allies. Pakistan will also have to deal with a migration wave heading to its borders desperate for safety.
But for now, the Taliban stand victorious in Afghanistan, and behind them in Islamabad stands the ISI, whose Afghanistan policy has outlasted the West and ultimately triumphed. For 25 years, the ISI supported and armed the Taliban while undermining western efforts in the country at every turn, and it did all this while Pakistan pocketed billions of dollars of Western taxpayers’ money in aid. It seems that there has been a clear winner in the War on Terror after all.