The Taliban have swept into Kabul on a wave of terror. Already we have reports of atrocities – torture, mutilation, murder. For many Afghans, and for millions more looking on from the safety of the West, the situation must seem hopeless.
After more than four decades of reporting from Afghanistan, and having seen the Taliban rise, fall and now rise again, I find what is taking place profoundly shocking.
And yet just a week after the fall of Kabul a strong resistance movement is already taking shape in Afghanistan. At present it’s only a slender shaft of optimism, but it’s one that the West will want to grasp and nurture.
Every day, while crowds of desperate people besiege the airport in the hope of getting on a plane to safety, others are quietly slipping away to the Panjshir Valley, a hundred miles away to the north-east, to join the opposition.
After more than four decades of reporting from Afghanistan, and having seen the Taliban rise, fall and now rise again, I find what is taking place profoundly shocking, writes John Simpson
Headed by Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former vice-president who took over when the weak, broken President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, the movement has already attracted a number of generals, their staffs and some soldiers.
They, and others, are starting to plan their next step.
The Panjshir is a superb base from which to fight a defensive campaign. Overlooked by the forbidding Hindu Kush mountains and with narrow approaches ideally suited to ambush and sudden attack, the river valley stretches for mile after mile, opening out into broad meadows where most of its 170,000 people live.
During the Soviet occupation of 1979-89, the brilliant guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud defended the Panjshir from everything the Russians could throw at it. There were seven major offensives in as many years, using all the latest equipment at a super-power’s disposal: heavy bombers, tanks, artillery.
Each time the Russians eventually withdrew, defeated. The wrecks of their armoured vehicles are strewn around the valley as monuments for kids to play on.
The Taliban may be ferocious and determined, but they can’t match the Russians for firepower – not even with the vast quantities of military equipment the Americans have abandoned.
Until now, they have met with precious little opposition as they roared through the countryside to Kabul.
The Afghan National Army, trained so carefully by NATO soldiers over twenty years, simply ripped off their uniforms, threw away their rifles and headed home.
Having seen photographs of some of the Taliban’s atrocities and heard people’s descriptions of what was done, I’m not surprised. Being an Afghan soldier was a cushy number. Their duties were usually fairly light, except for those front-line troops who were deployed against the Taliban, and pay was good.
The possibilities of graft and the ease with which supplies and equipment could be sold on the black market – often bought up cheap by the Taliban themselves – were immense. The way the Afghan army operated was one long inducement not to fight.
We have to wonder if the US withdrawal now will mark of the end of Western dominance in the world. A British soldier is seen outside Kabul airport
The Taliban, by contrast, are tough, wiry backwoodsmen, largely untrained and uneducated. The movement was founded in September 1994 as an almost exclusively Pashtun force from the south and west of the country: fierce young men, tall and gaunt. Originally, most of them grew up in the sprawling refugee camps on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border.
In 1996, in a field outside Kandahar, my television team and I witnessed the start of the Taliban’s original campaign to take over the country. At an extraordinary ceremony Mullah Omar, the first Taliban leader, took the carefully preserved cloak of the Prophet Mohammed out of its shrine and held it up to show to his thousands of followers.
People wept and chanted and threw their turbans up to touch the holy relic, like some great religious event from the Middle Ages. Within weeks the Taliban had captured Kabul from the more moderate mujaheddin.
It can be weird to come across Taliban groups from the Kandahar area: they often line their eyes with kohl, paint their toenails and sometimes their fingernails, and totter around on gold high-heeled sandals; armed, of course, with AK-47s.
Now, the movement has attracted thousands of volunteers from other parts of the country, convinced the Taliban are the winning side.
The Taliban see themselves as the soldiers of Sunni Islam. On their way to Kabul they have attacked, tortured and killed an unknown number of Hazaras – the country’s third largest ethnic group, usually characterised by their Central Asian features and their Shi’a Islam faith.
To the Taliban they are heretics who need to be crushed.
Every day, while crowds of desperate people besiege the airport in the hope of getting on a plane to safety, others are quietly slipping away to the Panjshir Valley, a hundred miles away to the north-east, to join the opposition
In 1989 the Hazaras smuggled my cameraman and me into Kabul, and several of them died to save us from the pro-Soviet secret police.
The Hazaras are strong in the valleys to the west of Kabul, but they also form a sizeable part of the capital’s population.
They have benefitted strongly from the Western presence. Now they stand to suffer as a result. As a result they too are starting to join the resistance.
In 2001, when Osama bin Laden planned and organised the 9/11 attacks from his comfortable house in Kabul, the opposition to the Taliban was mostly based in the provinces to the north, including the Panjshir Valley itself.
On 13 November 2001, with the help of US air force bombers, the Northern Alliance launched its attack on Kabul.
For the previous month my BBC colleagues and I had taken over an abandoned municipal building in the town of Charikar, only forty miles from Kabul. Before dawn on 14th we swept down towards the city with the first wave of troops. When the Northern Alliance halted on the outskirts in order to minimise the bloodshed, my colleagues and I continued into Kabul on foot.
We were mobbed by crowds of people ecstatic at being free after five years of brutality, food shortages and constant power black-outs. In the ditches lay the bodies of Taliban fighters killed by angry city-dwellers, and we watched as the few who were left were winkled out of their hideouts and dragged away.
Seeing the joy all round me at the Taliban’s defeat, I felt they could never stage a comeback. It was one of the biggest misjudgements I’ve made. But I just couldn’t imagine that the Western powers would abandon Afghanistan to such a freakish, backward, cruel regime once again.
I didn’t foresee a US president as careless of the lives and rights of others as Donald Trump, who signed a laughably weak peace deal with the Taliban in February last year; or Joe Biden, who feebly went along with it and made everything even worse by the chaotic pull-out. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, which I also witnessed, marked the end of Russia’s status as a superpower.
We have to wonder if the US withdrawal now will mark of the end of Western dominance in the world.
The Taliban will consolidate their power. Their vigilantes will go round arresting and killing people they suspect of serving the old regime, and when the foreign journalists and cameramen leave the city, they will reimpose their ferocious interpretation of Islamic law and customs on its inhabitants.
Now though, President Biden will surely order US special forces to continue operating in Afghanistan. The SAS and their Australian, French and German counterparts will quietly join them in working with the resistance.
A new version of the Northern Alliance, with the tough, courageous Hazaras fighting alongside them, will emerge from the Panjshir Valley; and at some point I’m certain they will sweep the Taliban out of Kabul.
When that will happen, I have no idea. But having been in Afghanistan for every major convulsion in Afghanistan for 41 years until this, I hope I’ll be on hand to report on it.