37

Currently there are some thousands of USA troops there, bound by strong regulations. The army of the Taliban counts hundreds of thousands, and they are not bound by strong regulations.

The USA had war with them 20 years long, and killed many of them.

Now

  • they could get revenge,
  • they could catch prisoners/hostages,
  • they could "liberate" the airport,
  • they could prevent yet more people from fleeing,
  • they could make their win over Afghanistan complete,
  • they could demonstrate their strength to the world.

Instead, they silently sit around the USA troops and help the West to avoid the political problems caused by the refugees.

Why are they so friendly to their worst enemies?

2
  • 9
    "help the West to avoid the political problems caused by the refugees"? It seems to me that refugees arriving by the airplane in the West is a big problem... for the West, well many in Europe see it that way anyway. aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/18/… ; nytimes.com/2021/08/18/world/europe/…
    – Fizz
    Aug 23 at 12:58
  • 2
    @Fizz +1 Turkey actually used the potential for opening borders to refugees as a negotiating mechanism with Europe. The Taliban is not the Soviet Union or North Korea - they're more than happy to let those who oppose them flee the country, especially if they cause havoc in enemy states. Aug 25 at 17:17
74

Here are two main reasons.

Firstly, Taliban wants to seek international recognition and not govern as a pariah. Gaining international recognition may potentially lead to the lifting of sanctions, bringing economic benefits. From The New York Times:

They need to persuade foreign powers to send aid and lift sanctions if they are to reconstitute the bare essentials of a government, much less begin to rebuild a country devastated by 42 years of war.

The group could also use foreign recognition to shore up its legitimacy at home, coaxing civil servants and everyday citizens to accept its rule. And, as the Taliban learned in 2001 when an American-led invasion expelled them from power, their reputation as a global pariah can be a grave liability.

Secondly, it’s not inconceivable that NATO forces will respond in kind to attacks by the Taliban. President Biden has indicated this in his speeches:

Aug 16 speech:

As we carry out this departure, we have made it clear to the Taliban: If they attack our personnel or disrupt our operation, the U.S. presence will be swift and the response will be swift and forceful. We will defend our people with devastating force if necessary.

Aug 20 speech:

We’ve been able — we’ve made — look, we’ve made clear to the Taliban that any attack — any attack on our forces or disruption of our operations at the airport will be met with a swift and forceful response.

18
  • 125
    And in general, not fighting is preferable to fighting, especially when "the enemy" are doing what you want anyway
    – Caleth
    Aug 23 at 11:47
  • 13
    @nanoman The "what they want" is "withdrawing troops"
    – Caleth
    Aug 24 at 15:44
  • 10
    "We will defend our people with devastating force if necessary." This is soooo patently obvious that the question should not have been asked.
    – RonJohn
    Aug 24 at 16:52
  • 2
    @RonJohn: Is it? What exactly would US forces do? Launch a huge ground invasion? Bomb Kabul, killing more civilians than militants? I don't see any "devastating force" options that are politically viable here.
    – eggyal
    Aug 25 at 11:00
  • 3
    @nanoman I do not know what the taliban want. Maybe they are happy to have the "undesirables" just go away. Do you know otherwise?
    – emory
    Aug 25 at 12:02
57

That's literally the last thing a rational Taliban decision maker would want to do.

20 years after getting kicked out the Taliban are back in power. They did just fine oppressing Afghans from 1994 to 2001, even as the international community condemned their behavior.

In August 2001, if anyone had told me the US would invade Afghanistan and end Taliban rule, I'd had have a good laugh. While the world knew of the Afghans' suffering, these were far and distant events and the Soviets had shown how much of a hornets nest the place could be.

The only reason they got invaded? Their careless involvement with Bin Laden and - indirect - killing of many Westerners.

20 years later later the West has tired of that war. The last thing the Taliban want to do is to provide Western electorates a reason to send soldiers in again. Killing of Western soldiers or Western civilians could, potentially, galvanize Western opinion against them again.

So could, but less likely, credible reports of Taliban massacres of Afghans. That's why their PR people have been at pain to say that there will be no revenge or retributions. Reports are starting to surface that this is only pretend talk and that in fact the Taliban are not very different from before. But that is plausibly deniable and will be kept that way. Overpowering the airport or evacuation procedures would negate any such claims.

Once the immediate rounds of evacuations have proceeded and the airport has, voluntarily, been evacuated by Western troops, things will be much safer for the Taliban and there will be no easy "beachhead" into a country that is, largely, only accessible by air. In short, they will be back to pre-2001 days, but with an extra dose of "never get involved in a land war in Afghanistan" thrown in.

How they will proceed then is indeterminate - the diplomatic situation wrt China and Russia is much more favorable than it was in 2001 and there was another question here about diplomatic overtures. They may want to be moderate and gain partial Western acceptance. Or they may want to stick to their ways but rely mostly on non-Western support. They probably will steer clear of direct involvement with Al Qaeda-type international terrorism. That's all speculation on the future.

But not "conquering" the airport right now is mostly common sense with regards to avoiding further Western interference.

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  • 2
    May I ask, why don't the Americans see Kashmiris, Palestinians, Rohingyas, Yemenis suffering? Just out of curiosity. Aug 24 at 19:01
  • 2
    @NadirAbbas That is a reasonable question, though open to opinions, making it hard to answer on SE.Politics. Also each of those examples has specific conditions pertaining it to it, making answering all the harder. However, why is posting this question as a comment on my answer useful? Aug 24 at 20:37
  • 1
    Sorry I am new. Aug 24 at 20:38
  • 5
    @NadirAbbas - Count the number of votes those groups have in American elections
    – Valorum
    Aug 24 at 23:53
  • 2
    @NadirAbbas No problem! This site is for these - questions. Only that you'll find it's much better to ask them in the proper way, so that everyone sees them, not only the specific user who wrote the answer. Comments are more for clarifications/improvement suggestions regarding the specific answer.
    – Neinstein
    Aug 25 at 6:58
33

You implicitly assume that both:

  1. The Taliban could successfully overrun the Kabul airport
  2. The Taliban believe they could overrun the airport, to a high degree of confidence

The Taliban have excelled at irregular warfare, and in conflict with the US they have been careful to fight where they are strong: they use ambushes, IEDs, and so-called "green-on-blue" surprise attacks. They attacked US patrols in areas beyond quick responses from air support, and they would typically wildly outnumber their opponents.

Per the NYT, there are currently 5,800 US troops at the Kabul airport:

President Biden has left the door open to maintaining the American troop presence — now at 5,800 Marines and soldiers — at the airport beyond the Aug. 31 deadline.

Per the AP, there has been constant US air support flying overhead in the vicinity during the evacuation:

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told a news briefing the jets had not conducted "low pass" flights over the city but had been engaged in "overwatch."

"The overwatch flights ... have been in the air since before the noncombatant evacuation operation. It's prudent force protection measures in the air, to make sure that we can protect our people and our operations against any threat," he said.

These numbers, this support, and the fact that the US forces have been dug in at the airport, all play directly against the Talibans strengths, and directly to US strengths. Whether it would technically be possible for them to overrun the airport is not completely certain, but either way it's clearly not worth the risk to Taliban commanders.

It was at a much smaller scale, but a few years ago an armored column of Russian mercenaries and Syrian forces attempted to engage a couple dozen US troops in conventional warfare. This served as an excellent object lesson of why opponents to the US do not typically use such tactics - from the NYT:

The artillery barrage was so intense that the American commandos dived into foxholes for protection, emerging covered in flying dirt and debris to fire back at a column of tanks advancing under the heavy shelling. It was the opening salvo in a nearly four-hour assault in February by around 500 pro-Syrian government forces — including Russian mercenaries — that threatened to inflame already-simmering tensions between Washington and Moscow.

In the end, 200 to 300 of the attacking fighters were killed. The others retreated under merciless airstrikes from the United States, returning later to retrieve their battlefield dead. None of the Americans at the small outpost in eastern Syria — about 40 by the end of the firefight — were harmed.

6
  • 26
    Throughout the Afghan war, US forces have routinely defeated opposing forces while outnumbered by ten to one or more, without suffering casualties. The largest estimate I've seen for the Taliban forces in Kabul only gives them a six-to-one advantage.
    – Mark
    Aug 23 at 22:19
  • 4
    @Cireo It should be "green on blue", and I don't believe it's used for accidental events at all, but the primary meaning is intentional attacks by supposedly friendly forces, whether they have "changed sides" or infiltrated and were never on the side whose uniform they wear. Aug 23 at 23:31
  • 3
    The fact the Taliban couldn’t conquer this base may or may not be true, but in any case that’s just a tactical matter. Strategy is whether they want the entire Western world pissed off at them, or just let us think ‘ok sucks to be Afghani but what can we do’ Aug 24 at 15:10
  • 2
    "None of the Americans at the small outpost in eastern Syria — about 40 by the end of the firefight — were harmed." Well now I'm curious about that phrase between the dashes... were there more than 40 or less than 40 at the start of the firefight, and where did the rest go/come from without being harmed, if so?
    – TylerH
    Aug 24 at 20:01
  • 3
    @TylerH the article describes it in more detail: "A team of about 30 Delta Force soldiers and Rangers" were joined by "a small reaction force" of about 16 Marines and Green Berets once the artillery barrage let up enough to let them through
    – thehole
    Aug 24 at 20:30
25

Really?

  • they could get revenge,

They don't need revenge, they need to rule (i.e. money and power)

  • they could catch prisoners/hostages,

Short-term benefit with long term risks.

  • they could "liberate" the airport,

The airport liberates itself at a good rate. They may as well fail spectacularily.

  • they could prevent yet more people from fleeing,

They don't really want these particular people around. From the Taliban viewpoint, the near future of the local economy is natural-resource based and not workforce-based.

  • they could make their win over Afghanistan complete,

They waited 20 years just to fail in the last month or two? Plus, they still have left a lot of easier places to gain control over.

  • they could demonstrate their strength to the world.

The only thing they could demonstrate is that they don't hold to their word. The US has the technical capacity to wipe them out and everyone involved knows that. The US didn't need to (for sure, didn't need it bad enough to pay the rather high price in own casualties, colaterals and diplomacy). If attacked, US army will have little (image-wise) choice but to fight back.


Taliban may look like emotional, disorganized and primitive fighters.

Their leaders are not, their sponsors are not either.

They know pretty well that the present US administration may not like very much the Doha agreement. Who knows, the present US administration may desperately look for a legitimate reason not to feel bound.

They know pretty well that defeating the local not-so-much-army is quite different from fighting against US and NATO. US and friends will suddenly lose their domestic-originating pressure to get out of Afganistan.

In short, Taliban have little to gain and much to lose by attacking the orderly leaving americans.

On the other hand, nothing stops them from looking like they are going to attack.

8

Regarding one specific point: Why would they want to stop these people fleeing? They're all people who are opposed to the Taliban governing. For the most part, they're more likely to oppose them in a way that causes problems for the Taliban from within the country if they're forced to stay than if they can escape overseas. For a similar previous example, look at the Mariel boatlift: Cuba got rid of a lot of opponents of the regime and (a small, often overstated number of) prisoners and mental health patients. Diaspora communities can still cause problems for the old government, but usually much less than if they were still in the country.

Of course, if you're a group like the Taliban, you can also just execute all your opponents, but it seems like at least for now they're trying to stay on the bad-but-internationally-acceptable level of human rights abuses.

2
  • I wouldn't necessarily point to Cuba or Mariel as an example of brilliant strategy: If you make trouble for us, your "punishment" is to be relocated from our hellhole to a powerful country where you can enjoy relative wealth and opportunity, and where you can influence that country's foreign policy against us!
    – nanoman
    Aug 24 at 15:47
  • 1
    Well, the Taliban just said in a press conference why they want to stop their engineers, doctors etc. from leaving the country... bbc.com/news/av/uk-politics-58320221
    – Fizz
    Aug 24 at 16:48
2

The Taliban has stated it wishes for the withdrawl of US troops and no interference from the US. In terms of the thousands of US troops evacuating the airport, this is exactly what the Taliban wants.

In Feb 2020, President Trump signed a peace deal with the Taliban for a withdrawal of all troops by May 2021. Following President Biden broke this agreement by extending the withdrawal date to Sep 11 (Trump's VP Mike Pence's take on the matter), but the Taliban have no incentive to "get revenge" and prolong US troops staying any longer.

... Our advice to Joe Biden would be to own Trump's policies by withdrawing his forces. ...

... The solution with the United States is that they won't interfere with us, nor we with them. We've given them a way out so they can leave in peace.

1

In "War and Peace" Tolstoy describes the Russian general staff decision making against blocking Napoleon's retreat from Russia in favor of guerrilla attacks from behind. The Russian commander-in-chief said something like this, IIRC:

"Imagine that a dangerous animal breaks into your property, wreaks havoc there, and then turns back to the gate and walks towards the exit. Do you confront it head on or do you keep its exit path clear and encourage it to hurry up from behind?"

To clarify, I am not making the same comparison in regard to US Army as Tolstoy did about Napoleon. I am only pointing out that the tactics of encouraging the fastest possible retreat of the enemy by keeping the exit (the airport in this case) fully available and harassing exclusively from behind has been used before.

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