Time moves in a straight line according to Western notions. But on the sun-baked edges of the Near East, time can get seriously warped. In Afghanistan, it turned full circle the other day—and so, in a year not untouched by epochal tragedy, we now have one more to contemplate. The Taliban are back. They took Kabul without firing a shot. This stunning collapse was the story in city after provincial Afghan city—minimal fighting, except in Herat and a few other places—as the Taliban spread like a pandemic, its takeover near-total. Their second coming imparts a tectonic shock to a whole trans-Asian region— those affected by this born-again Kalashnikov caliphate include India, China, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and the Central Asian republics. The old theatre of the Great Game, to be precise, with a new 21st century edition promised now—complete with untold humanitarian tragedies as footnotes.
What brought this about? The spectre of American military imperialism in one more historical retreat. Twenty years after invading Afghanistan with a posse of global policemen—out hunting Osama bin Laden after 9/11—the Americans have literally handed the country back to their enemy on a platter. The Afghan National Defence and Security Force (ANDSF) collapsed like a house of cards. The army just put down their weapons and switched loyalties, in the age-old fashion of Afghan warlords who sense defeat. In the words of Kabul-based journalist Asad Kosha, “Afghan history has long been witness to this. It has happened time and again.” The Ides of August, 2021, was in many ways a tragedy foretold.