January 11, 2020
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Back To The Future

Could the string of similarities in the fall of Kabul in 1996 and now point to what's ahead?

Back To The Future
Back To The Future
Afghanistan, it's said, is burdened by too much history and by too many people who can't remember the past. The fall of Kabul last Monday was a mirror image of the capital's collapse to the Taliban in 1996.

As Northern Alliance (NA) forces—their opponents shattered by weeks of American bombing—moved confidently down from Bagram airport into the capital, they met no resistance. Villagers along the way—many of them ethnic Tajiks persecuted by the Pashtoon chauvinist Taliban—threw flowers at advancing troops. Stray Taliban fighters, mostly Pakistanis and Arabs, were beaten up or shot. American Special Forces troops moved quietly along with the Afghans, chatting to base on satellite telephones.

In September of 1996, Taliban forces—backed by Pakistani soldiers in civilian garb and isi agents clutching walkie-talkies—advanced through Pashtoon villages to the east of Kabul. People cheered and—yes—threw flowers. They had begun their push from the eastern city of Jalalabad and the advance on Kabul was little more than a half day's pleasant drive through the stunning scenery of the Silk Gorge and along the lakeside at Serobi. Once-dreaded local commanders had either all been bought off with Pakistani rupees and dollars, or were dragged out and summarily executed.

Both the NA earlier this week and the Taliban in 1996 entered a Kabul that had been completely abandoned by its defenders. Then, the late Ahmed Shah Masood was in charge of protecting the city from the Taliban. But as the Islamic militia from Kandahar took city after city in Pashtoon areas of the country, Masood realised that holding the capital would be far too costly. He ordered his men out on September 25, 1996.

When the Taliban arrived in Kabul, they found a city without a single defender. They then went straight to the UN compound and dragged out Dr Mohammed Najibullah, the last Communist leader of Afghanistan. He'd been sheltering there since he lost power in 1992, under a UN agreement that Masood had respected. Not the Taliban. They tortured Najib, cut off his penis, stuffed it into his mouth and dragged him behind a jeep until he finally died.

Again, in a bloody repeat of Najib's death, the NA forces sought out and killed Pakistani and Arab Taliban fighters who were foolish enough to remain behind. Their bodies were left in ditches and by the roadside, a message to any residual supporters of the Taliban about the fate that awaited them. A house supposedly used by Osama bin Laden's family was looted before American intelligence agents could examine its intact contents.

The final similarity between the two "conquests" of Kabul was the presence of BBC journalists with the advancing forces. In 1996, former Delhi bureau chief David Loyn followed the Taliban into a ghostly Kabul and covered the beginning of their reign of terror. Famously, in filmed and widely broadcast scenes earlier this week, World Affairs editor John Simpson walked into the Afghan capital ahead of Northern Alliance forces. "It's as if we're liberating Kabul," he said in an emotional broadcast from the road south to the city.

All that remains now is to see if history repeats yet again, or if Afghanistan is finally to be spared the repetitions of its past.
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