11 July 2024

The quick fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has made the 20th anniversary of Sept 11 even more sad. The loss of tens of thousands of lives, both American and Afghan, during the two decades of conflict aside, the good intentions and opportunities carefully nurtured over the years have all but gone in a puff of smoke. Now the Afghan women are having to fight for their fundamental rights unarmed.

The Afghan debacle’s message is very clear: trying to win the hearts and minds of the local people is both tricky and unpredictable. The Afghan governments in power since 2001 have created illusions and eventually monsters in their image. No wonder their soldiers abandoned their posts or joined the Taliban. The worst example came from former president Ashraf Ghani, who turned out to be the biggest liar of them all. Just hours after declaring on TV that he loved and would fight for his country, he left for Qatar, allegedly with bagfuls of cash.

Looking back, the events of Sept 11changed the security environment throughout the world, embedding distrust among various religious communities, Muslim and non-Muslim. In hindsight, the US decision to invade Afghanistan was a bad one, given the consequences that are seeing now. However, at the time, and given the great damage caused by the terrorists to the American way of life, pride, and power, retaliation by large-scale brute force was seen as the only option. Rightly so, the American troops brought their modern aircraft and weapons systems to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. But they failed miserably, leaving all their half-destroyed and disabled weapons and war machines behind. Afghanistan is today an abandoned war lab for all to see.

Although President Joe Biden reiterated that the US achieved its important goal of eradicating Osama Bin Laden by killing him, the roots of terrorism remain. He boasted that America has been safe for the past two decades due to this policy. Now, the jury is out. With top leaders of the Taliban, former ISIS, and other extreme groups free and some of them in positions of power, it is only a matter of time before the extremists strike again.

Now the US allies and friends fear that the new Taliban government might use extremist groups as bargaining chips with the US and Nato. It was amazing to watch the foreign troops scrambling to help people who had worked with them to leave Kabul. Then a few days later, the world also witnessed the irony of the Afghan drama—the same groups of countries that were fleeing are now coming back to protect their interest.

When the war against terrorism started, Southeast Asia was perceived as the second front for terrorism. That impression remains strong because some of the most dangerous terrorist leaders come from the region. Some of these leaders were radicalized during the war in Afghanistan. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines have all seen extremists operating in their countries. This terrorist connectivity must be severed or kept at bay otherwise it could pose serious regional problems as the countries are fighting to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thailand must remain vigilant in border management and control. During the pandemic, more stringent measures were required. Now, with the prospect of having some extremist elements crossing the border from abroad, the Thai authorities must keep their eyes and ears open. With its location at the crossroads of Asia and the Pacific, Thailand has often been used as a rendezvous point for ill-intentioned extremists.

The international community must not isolate the Taliban. Humanitarian and economic assistance is necessary for the new Afghanistan to emerge. Save the Afghan people must be the top priority. Through coordinated efforts of all concerned international partners, they can rein in the Taliban for good this time around.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn