Patrick Cockburn: Beware, an apparent victory can come back to bite you

World View: The Taliban were defeated in 2001, but they are back in business – mainly because the Coalition has no partner to consolidate expensively won gains
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The Independent Online

I was living in a village called Jabal Saraj at the entrance to the Salang valley about 50 miles north of Kabul on7 October 2001 when the US began air attacks on the Taliban at the start of a war which, 10 years later, shows no sign of ending.

As darkness fell, I climbed on top of a small hill in the grounds of aruined textile plant to watch the bursts of yellow fire where the bombs were exploding on the Taliban front line. Occasionally there was a bigger blast, probably from a cruise missile, and the night sky to the south was briefly illuminated by a white light. The response from the Taliban was a feeble dribble of anti-aircraft fire.

The defeat of the Taliban had looked inevitable from the moment the US decided to give air support to the mainly Tajik Northern Alliance forces penned into north-east Afghanistan. But the war was never quite what it seemed. The Taliban folded easily – much too easily in retrospect. There is a cynical saying about the Afghans that they owe their reputation for never losing a war to their skill at joining the winning side at the last moment. The Taliban's own occupation of most of the country before US intervention owed more to judicious changes of side by warlords, encouraged by large bribes, than to victory on the battlefield.

The Taliban collapse was never quite the disorganised flight that it appeared to be. When I reached Kabul, I employed as an assistant a medical student who was a Pushtun from Kandahar who had been in prison when the city fell to the Northern Alliance. He explained he was in jail because a business rival of two of his uncles had denounced them as anti-Taliban. But the part of his story I found most intriguing was how, just before the Taliban abandoned Kabul, their officials had come to his prison to release anybody from Kandahar who might be in danger from the triumphant Northern Alliance troops. This showed a surprising degree of forethought on the part of the Taliban and suggested that their defeat might not be as permanent as it looked.

Driving south to Kandahar, cities I passed such as Ghazni and Zabul had fallen without a fight. The Taliban seemed to evaporate. I had a panicky moment when I stopped to ask a man where the Taliban front line was and he pointed down the road behind us and said we had driven straight through it. The situation was the same around Kandahar. I met a confident-looking man in a village who until recently had been a local Taliban police chief in Kabul. He said if anybody came after the former Taliban they would certainly fight.

There were two other points about the Taliban retreat: the Taliban might be gone, but the Afghans replacing them were not up to filling the vacuum. When Hamid Karzai was appointed interim Afghan leader, I was in Maydan Shahr, south of Kabul, where the local warlord was openly derisive of the appointment, asking:"Who the hell is he?" The new government was obviously going to have difficulty asserting its authority.

I wondered at the time if the Taliban would soon be back but, as the years passed and nothing happened, I thought I was wrong. It was true that at the time they fell the Taliban were highly unpopular – not least because of their ban on the growing of opium poppies – and had proved incapable of ruling. But then the warlords who took their place were not much better.

The Americans and the new government in Kabul believed too much of their own propaganda about their continuing popularity. The majority Pushtun community felt marginalised, and ex-Taliban were persecuted. Pakistan provided a base where the Taliban leadership could survive, re-organise and plan its return. Imagining that the Afghan war was over and absorbed by the escalating conflict in Iraq, Washington made the disastrous mistake of relaxing pressure on Pakistan to prevent the Taliban restarting their campaign.

I spent most of 2003-08 in Iraq. By the time I started revisiting Afghanistan in 2009, the Taliban were very much back in business. For all their talk about anti-insurgency tactics, the American army was unable to focus on simple but essential things such as keeping the main roads open. The last police station in south Kabul was the limit of government control in that direction. It was far too dangerous for me to drive to Kandahar, or even Ghazni, any longer. The Taliban sent patrols of half a dozen fighters to set up checkpoints and were even checking the mobile phones of travellers to see if they had been in touch with government officials. Those that had been were in danger of being killed or held prisoner.

Most striking of all in Kabul today is not support for the Taliban, but loathing for the government. It is revealing to talk to property developers and find them as anti-government as any village elder in Helmand or Kandahar. They denounce the ruling elite as successful racketeers making vast profits out of aid contracts and the soaring price of land.

The American and British presence is increasingly detested because of the sense that their presence brings permanent insecurity. In the long term, the Taliban and Pakistan can calculate that, as the Americans and British withdraw, they will become stronger. In the short term, gains on the ground made by US troop reinforcements cannot be made permanent because there is no effective Afghan partner to take over.

The main reason for the US and UK to still be in Afghanistan is that it is too embarrassing to admit failure after such efforts. Striking, too, is the inability to learn from mistakes. This may matter because, driving around Tripoli after the fall of Gaddafi in August, Libya reminded me of Afghanistan in 2001. In both cases local forces, whose strength has been exaggerated, have overthrown an unpopular regime because of foreign air support, but in power are too weak and divided to rule successfully.