People of a different generation from me remeber, or perhaps imagine to remember, where exactly they were and what exactly they were doing on the day President Kennedy was assassinated. For me and many others, I suspect the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 were a similar moment in history, engraved into our individual and collective memories. I was in central London and watched the live coverage in horror at one of the many electronic goods shops that used to line up Tottenham Court Road and had many televisions sets on display. At that time I had family members in NYC. The phone lines went down and it was late in the evening UK time that I managed to get in touch with them. It feels surreal that it will be 20 years since then this September. It is hard to explain rationally, but for some reason I struggle with the idea that someone born on that day will be turning 20 in a matter of weeks.
Soon after 9/11, on 7 October 2001, US-led military operations began against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In about two months, the Taliban regime collapsed, in terms of holidng territory, but many of its and al-Qaeda’s fighters remained at large, shifting their stragetgies to insurgency, guerrilla warfare, and suicide-bombing. Dislodging but not defeating the Taliban militarily was the relatively easy part. The next phase of ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan was not. Somewhat of a digression, but I prefer the term state-building to nation-building, since I feel that expresses the main aims far more accurately, as it was an attempt to create a sound institutional footing for a functioning and legitimate state that would be self-sustaining and sufficiently stable to withstand challenges posed by the Taliban and others. That attempt at such state-buliding has failed abjectly, despite the amount of resources poured into it. The Afghan state has now collapsed far more quickly and totally than had been anticipated. The planned complete withdrawal of US troops by 11 September 2021, 20 years after 9/11, is brought forward by the events on the ground.
I have no hope or illusions that the Taliban has changed. It will be brutal, gruesome, repressive. It will kill and maim at will. It will deprive many people of their rights, education, and opportunities, particularly from women. It is horrific and devastating. There will be plenty of heart-bleeding, blame-gaming, and platitudes, but in the end, most people in the West and outside Afghanistan do not sufficiently care about the people of Afghanistan, so long as Afghanistan does not become a base for terrorists who threaten them directly. That is probably the deal. The Taliban is free to do whatever it wants in Afghanistan, so long as it stays within Afghanistan and does not threaten without.
It is a desperately sad time, knowing the horrors and suffering that will now inevitably follow. I wish I had the confidence and conviction of many armchair generals and strategists as well as opinionated commentators to state what ought to have happened and what should happen now. Honestly, I don’t know, as I can only follow powerlessly a tragedy unfold.