As if the world did not have enough to worry about with COVID-19, last week saw the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
It will not end well, but not for the reasons you may have read.
To recognise the real danger of the last week in Afghanistan we need to understand where the Taliban came from, how they got to where they are now, and what is yet to come.
Although some commentators trace the Taliban back to the immediate pre-September 11 days, and others to the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, neither is true and neither school of thought looks far back enough.
The Taliban fighters have been patient and have always seen things through the lens of a multi-generation war, while the West have looked only at decades.
The Taliban trace their history back through the Mujahideen fighters, who did resist the Soviets and received CIA funding to do so, all the way to those who fought for an ‘independent Pashtunistan’ dating back not decades, but centuries.
Many in the Taliban still hold the original objective of reuniting all Pahstuns on both sides of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.
Pashtunistan includes territories of southern and central Afghanistan, taking in Kandahar and Kabul, and stretches across the border taking in Peshawar and other parts of north-western Pakistan.
The border region was created by the British as part of the ‘Great Game’ conflict with the Russians in the 1890s, then known as the Durand Line that divided the Pashtun territory across the two countries.
Pashtuns are still the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the second largest in Pakistan.
This is an important detail as Afghanistan (literally ‘land of the Afghans’ – with Afghan and Pashtun previously being synonymous words) is a complex country with many ethnic minorities including Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and many others.
Following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 the Taliban found it relatively easy to unite disparate groups against a common enemy – the Americans.
While in Afghanistan, a US official told me the story of one Taliban detainee saying to a CIA interrogator: “You think you are Luke Skywalker, but we see ourselves as the rebels fighting against you, the overpowering evil empire. No, you are not Luke Skywalker, you are Darth Vader”.
The Taliban have been patient and organised and have shown, by the speed of this takeover, how much planning and local-level negotiation they had put in place waiting for the trigger point to take over.
So what of the Taliban now? Are they different from the last time they were in power?
Without doubt they are, but in what ways?
How the Taliban have changed
Firstly, the Taliban are far more organised than many thought. They will not crumble quickly.
Secondly, the Taliban have learned from history. September 11 taught them that if you threaten the US, the US will fight back.
Equally, pre-Kuwait Iraq and North Korea among others showed the Taliban that the West is unlikely to intervene to prevent human rights abuses that do not spill outside national borders.
China, in its recent discussions with the Taliban, have repeated the lesson by making it clear that the Taliban can do what they like in Afghanistan. But if the Taliban were to harbour groups that threatened China’s stability, namely the Uighur ethnic minority in the Chinese region that borders Afghanistan, then the Chinese would respond ferociously.
The lesson: Do not threaten foreigners and they will not threaten you.
This means that the Taliban will say ‘nice things’ and allow Americans to leave, and only after that will we see how Afghanistan shapes up.
It won’t be good for Afghans, but Afghanistan under the Taliban won’t threaten the West in the short term.
Pakistan’s so-called ‘victory’
Pakistan is a different story.
India and Pakistan have been fighting proxy and real wars on and off since the British left more than half a century ago.
Afghanistan has been one of the proxy battlefields, with India and Pakistan backing different sides.
Within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are secular, moderate, conservative and radical elements roughly equating to the general community of Pakistan.
Some of ISI’s operations in Afghanistan have reflected Pakistan government policy. Other operations have been less formal but used ISI resources to strengthen more radical elements in Afghanistan, including the notorious terrorist group the ‘Haqqani network’.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is the son of the Haqqani network’s founder, is No.3 in the Taliban today.
Some serving and retired Pakistani army officers have said on their Facebook feeds that the Taliban takeover is a great Pakistani victory.
This triumphalism forgets that the Taliban’s desire for a united ‘Pashtunistan’ includes parts of Pakistan. To them, I say “be careful what you wish for”.
Some in the Taliban will not consider Peshawar ‘foreign’ and the above lessons with respect to China and the West may not apply to Pakistan.
Peshawar in Pakistan’s Pashtun area is also one of the world’s largest sources of counterfeit US dollars in circulation outside the US.
While many fear the Taliban could destabilise Pakistan’s grip on their nuclear weapons, others see the Taliban’s ability to flood the world with counterfeit US dollars as a huge economic threat. Both are real risks.
The Taliban have taken over a country and, thanks to the Americans, inherited advanced weaponry and machinery for an army, police and security force of 300,000. What will they do with this power?
What next for the Taliban?
History is littered with rebel groups united against a common enemy only to divide and squabble once power has returned.
This will be the Taliban’s first challenge – will they want to govern all of Afghanistan, or only the Pashtun homelands? Will they or won’t they seek to extend their reach into Pakistan?
Looking beyond these first few weeks of evacuations and chaos at the airport, there will be far greater challenges.
Will the Pashtuns want to reunify the territory across the Pakistan/Afghanistan border?
Will China, not encumbered by the history of colonialism and the ‘Great Game’, be more effective in relations with Afghanistan?
Will Pakistan and India continue their proxy wars on Afghanistan territory?
Will any or all of these happen?
None end well and none end in Kabul.
Andrew MacLeod is a visiting professor to King’s College London, chairman of Griffin Law, a non-executive director to Australian and US companies, a former high-level UN official and co-founder of BrexitAdvisoryServices.co.uk. He tweets @AndrewMMacLeod