By Edward Girardet
The collapse of Afghanistan has been a disaster in the making for two decades and even longer. America’s shared responsibility for this country’s ongoing war stretches back to the summer of 1979 when the Central Intelligence Agency first began militarily supporting the anti-communist guerrillas, some of whom later became the Taliban. Even if first launched by Donald Trump, for President Biden to justify Washington’s precipitous pullout by arguing that Afghans need to deal with the problem on their own is disingenuous. In the tradition of Rudyard Kipling’s Great Game, outside powers have always fuelled Afghanistan’s conflict. Edward Girardet, who first began covering this over four-decade long war just prior to the Soviet invasion of December 1979, looks into some of the reasons behind the current debacle, but also whether some new positive opportunities may arise.
For those who know this country well, the West’s utter failure in Afghanistan has come as no surprise. Admittedly, many of us did not expect the Taliban, who have been supported on the ground by Pakistan’s powerful ISI military intelligence agency for years, to move so quickly. But the Islamic militants have always been adept at developing close ties with highly conservative rural communities, where over 70 per cent of Afghanistan’s population today live, even if locals often feared them.
Cities which fell so quickly, such as Ghazni, Kandahar and Jalalabad, were always well-infiltrated by the insurgents. Hence the Taliban knew how to push negotiations for surrender through a combination of intimidation and persuasion, plus the mediation of influential local elders who did not wish to see their fiefdoms ravaged by street-to-street combat and civilian casualties. In the end, the 70,000-80,000 strong-Taliban won primarily through a classic guerrilla war of attrition involving a mix of fighting, psychological pressure and patience. As both the mujahideen of the 1980s and the Taliban post-2001 have always liked to claim: “The West has the watches; we have the time.”
As a journalist who has covered Afghanistan’s dragging war since before the December 1979 Soviet invasion, I find it hard to witness yet another tragic déjà vu. (See 2012 book: Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan). Once again – the third time since fighting began in 1978 – hapless civilians are forced to bear the intolerable consequences of political decisions made by leaders whose agendas do not prioritize the security of ordinary Afghans. In the early 1990s, they suffered the brutal civil war amongst the mujahideen in Kabul in which over 50,000 people died and then again during the 1996-2001 Talib period, when ethnic groups such as the Tajiks and Hazaras were murdered, their villages and homes destroyed.
Today, we are hearing stories of summary executions, beatings and looting by the Taliban even while the Talib leadership claims that no one has anything to fear. To its credit, unlike during the previous Talib period when Kandaharis and others from the south descended on Kabul, the Taliban have been inserting locally-known insurgents into the control of towns. They have also ordered their fighters to respect properties and not to enter private houses. Nevertheless, residents are reporting brutal searches and threats, particularly of houses of known former government or military ‘collaborators’. Even individuals who have worked for UN agencies and international NGOs are being targeted. Earlier this week, an anti-Taliban demonstration in Jalalabad resulted in the shooting and killing of several demonstrators.
Only weeks ago, Afghan youth, who represent 60 per cent of the population and never knew Talib rule, had vibrant futures to look forward to. Today they express confusion over how Westerners, who are fleeing Afghanistan Saigon-style by the thousands, could suddenly no longer care about democracy, justice, women’s rights or all the other issues they had so loudly touted. The end result is that ordinary Afghans view the U.S. decision as an act of betrayal by a government who has simply played their country for its own purposes.
The West has never understood Afghanistan
Since the October 2001 US-led invasion, much of the West’s story in Afghanistan has been one of arrogance, ignorance and missed opportunity. (See article on 40 years of reporting in Afghanistan). While Biden has insisted that the US-led intervention was never about nation-building, but rather eliminating terror, the West was indeed engaged in nation-building. Unfortunately, this often had little to do with the on-the-ground realities of this tribally and ethnically diverse country. Instead, the West chose to quickly create a ‘new’ and democratic Afghanistan in its own image based on a strategy that often made little sense.
In some ways, the Western approach was not unlike the Kremlin’s seeking to turn Afghanistan into a Soviet-style socialist state following the communist PDPA takeover in Kabul in April, 1978. When people resisted, the Red Army invaded only to find itself engaged in a pointless occupation which ultimately led to the deaths of up to 20,000 Soviets and 1.5 million Afghans.
Few American and other western leaders have ever really grasped Afghanistan. Both President Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, who last year signed the hasty and non-inclusive agreement with the Taliban in Doha, must bear the responsibility for the current debacle. The Americans sidelined the Afghan government. The majority of ordinary Afghans, who trusted neither the Taliban nor the government, were basically sold down the river.
The talks might have succeeded had they been mediated by a neutral party, such as the Swiss, which is what experienced Afghan hands had been recommending for years, but in the end Washington’s abandonment meant that no real peace agreement involving a more diverse, cross-section of Afghan society, including women, could ever emerge. This opportunity has now been missed. (See article on proposed Swiss mediation).
Biden’s assertion that it is now up to Afghans to resolve their own problems is hardly credible as a judgement of realities on the ground. The four-decade-long war has never really been an Afghan one, but more of proxy conflict fought at the behest of outsiders.
Afghanistan’s war, which first erupted in the summer of 1978, has been persistently fueled by external forces, such as Pakistan, Russia, U.S, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China, but also Al Qaeda and ISIS. Each has played its own modern-day version of the “Great Game”: engaging when expedient, and withdrawing when no longer in its interests. Biden may have been acting on poor information or simply hard-nosed pugnaciousness completely disregarding the plight of ordinary Afghans, most of whom have always disliked or feared the Taliban, but who also despised the Kabul regime the West supported.
Possibilities of a new resistance?
Afghans are exhausted by war and have long been crying out for a long-term political settlement, but not one which favours one group over the other. More years of resistance, particularly by ethnic minorities fearing Pushtun retribution, such as the Hazaras and Tajiks, remain a strong likelihood. Elements of the former United Front, or Northern Alliance, now headed by the son of former resistance leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by Al Qaeda suicide bombers on 9 September, 2001, two days prior to the World Trade Center attacks, are reportedly re-grouping in the Panjshir Valley and other areas not under Talib control. (See piece on Masood Khalili’s book: Whispers of War).
As with his father, a Tajik, who had persistently warned both European and U.S. officials about the possibility of Al Qaeda assaults throughout 2001, Ahmad Massoud, 32, has been appraising the West of the strong likelihood of a Talib takeover for more than a year. But as with Washington’s failure to take note of his father’s warnings prior to 9/11, his, too, fell on deaf ears. The younger Massoud, whom I first met as a boy during the shelling of Kabul in 1993 and has much of the same charisma as his father, known as the “Lion of Panjshir”. Whether he galvanizes a new anti-Taliban force is another question.
The US in Afghanistan: an involvement dating back decades
The U.S. first became involved militarily in Afghanistan through the Central Intelligence Agency in July 1979 when it began arming the anti-communist mujahideen in the country’s fast-emerging civil war. (See review of Arthur Kent book on the murder – reportedly by the KGB – of US ambassador Adolph Dubs) Throughout the Soviet war, when the Americans massively expanded their backing of the guerrillas, Washington chose to cultivate primarily hardline Pushtun Islamic fundamentalists many of whom later morphed into the Taliban. This was done largely at the behest of Pakistan’s ISI, which has always sought to destabilize neighbouring Afghanistan in order to strengthen its control over regional affairs. Both aid workers and journalists, including this writer who had worked clandestinely inside Afghanistan, repeatedly cautioned against this approach, yet Washington continued to create extremist Islamic monsters by following such a policy.
Reliable reports suggest that, once again, ISI, which helped bring the Taliban to power during the 1990s, has been heavily engaged in the current takeover with military advisors. Afghans have reported the presence of Punjabi-speaking ‘Taliban’ both in Kabul and other cities, suggesting the presence of Pakistani officers and special forces. This has always been known to US intelligence, yet little or no official criticism has emerged from Washington.
Furthermore, the pitiful, horrendous scenes at Kabul airport do not represent the first time that the U.S. has dropped Afghanistan like a hot potato. Following the Soviet withdrawal of February 1989, the United States washed its hands of any responsibility by abruptly pulling out from the region eventually leading to chaos and the rise of the Taliban in the mid-1990s.
A steadily growing failure
The West’s failure in Afghanistan already became evident at the December 2001 Bonn Conference, where the donor governments began outlining their visions of what the country should become. While many of their proposals were well-meaning and an understandable reaction to the harsh years of Talib rule, they largely ignored the advice proffered by Afghan and international aid workers, diplomats, including US, academics, journalists and others with years of experience in Afghanistan.
Their counseling was simple: First, there is no – and never has been – military solution to Afghanistan, so do not put the generals in charge. (It is doubtful that the current Talib takeover of Kabul will provide a long-term political solution). Focus first on the small towns and rural areas where nearly 80 per cent of Afghans then lived (it is today 70 per cent). Without rushing, embrace a 20-30 year-long plan closely involving local communities. Above all, do not throw massive amounts of money into the mix. This will only encourage corruption and other forms of abuse.
And finally, they stressed, do not establish a highly centralized government but rather a more flexible federal approach, such as a Swiss-style cantonal system with the provinces having their own directly elected governors and councils rather than outsiders imposed by Kabul. Donor policymakers flatly rejected this suggestion as “not workable.”
Despite the extraordinary enthusiasm that many Afghans harboured during the early two or three years of international intervention for finally bringing an end – or so it appeared – to Afghanistan’s dragging war, the West went on to make one mistake after another in its efforts to move the process ahead quickly and easily.
One such disastrous example was bringing back the discredited war lords at the first Loya Jirga, or Grand National Assembly, in Kabul in 2002. I recall Swedish UN advisor Anders Fange, one of the most experienced international aid workers, leaving the meeting in disgust when he saw that the Americans had allowed the warlords, some of whom had committed human rights atrocities, enter the conference venue with their armed cohorts. It was a move which intimidated many of the delegates, particularly women, and marked a further move in the wrong direction for Western engagement.
Another poorly informed move was failing to involve, at least symbolically, the former King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, who had only a few years to live, yet remained the only figurehead leader capable of rallying most Afghans to national reconciliation. While he had never been great shakes as a monarch, he was widely remembered by many Afghans, including the Pushtuns, as someone who had represented an era of peace during the 1960s. (See Whitney Azoy’s exceptional book on tales and photos from the pre-1978 period). Washington failed to recognize this political opportunity and instead imposed its own Afghanistan Tzar, Zalmay Khalizad, a Pushtun-American, who then went on to call his own shots rather than to listen to what local voices might be saying. He was also perceived by minority groups as, once again, an example of the Pushtuns, who provide the main base of the Taliban, seeking to impose their influence.
The West’s approach post-2001: ignoring those who knew better
In many ways, what emerged was a distinct “we know better” arrogance which carried over to the parallel Afghan government created under western auspices. This was one reason why the security forces collapsed so miserably in the face of the advancing Taliban. The Afghans had no incentive to fight for an out-of-touch regime, whose current and former leaders, Ashraf Ghani and Hamid Karzai, operated administrations riddled with graft and whose henchmen persistently sought to intimidate voters during elections. The government completely lacked credibility and leadership.
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The donors were fully aware of just how corrupt and incompetent these politicians were, but did little to hold them to account. They even provided western PR firms to defend their wards in the face of public criticism. So it was no surprise that confidence in the Kabul leadership evaporated like water on a hot stone well before ex-president Ghani skipped the country.
While Biden has criticized the Afghan military for failing to do their job, saying they had little inclination to fight. Why should they?
The reality of the Afghan security forces was far different. As US and other NATO military veterans have themselves pointed out, despite “green on blue” attacks against Coalition forces or sometimes high desertion rates amongst the Afghans (many soldiers and police complained of not being paid their salaries), government forces fought well over the years. They also took huge casualties. Hence many veterans regard both Trump’s and Biden’s decisions as both duplicitous and embarrassing, a complete abandonment of the Afghan people whom they had vowed to support.
As experienced Afghan hands have consistently pointed out, for recovery to succeed, the principal thrust for development should always have been on the countryside. This was vital if ordinary Afghans were to enjoy sustainable futures, notably jobs. With the collapse of the Taliban in 2001, it was evident that many of the five million refugees in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran would start returning. They would first head back to their villages, but if they could not survive they would converge on Kabul in search of work. This would lead to overcrowding and poverty, which is exactly what happened.
While many successful rural projects were indeed implemented with western funding and, to some extent, by the military’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), such development occurred primarily through western NGOs and Afghan civil society. These sought to work closely with local communities, including those with known links to the Taliban, something the official donors refrained from doing. Had the West moved to work with civilian populations in towns and villages controlled by the Taliban, including collaborating – as did some aid groups – with individual insurgent commanders whose responsibilities tended to be first towards their own people, we might be witnessing a different situation today.
A failure to focus on rural communities
And yet, there was so much that could have been achieved through simple cash-for-work programmes. For example, the reforesting of Afghanistan’s severely depleted tree cover – from 8 per cent at the beginning of the war to less than 1 per cent – was one such idea, but was only implemented in certain parts. This would have provided work for both men and women with projects such as seedling nurseries to the planting and caring of trees. At the same time, local communities could have built basic access roads enabling highland farmers to bring their produce more easily – and cheaply – to market. Such initiatives would have significantly contributed toward better land management, including the prevention of floods and landslides.
Rather than using the post-2001 challenge as an opportunity to develop imaginative rural and urban examples of post-conflict recovery coupled more environmentally-friendly approaches, the international community preferred instead to focus on developing Kabul’s infrastructure in a manner that led to even more corruption, wealth for the privileged and weaponry. This was primarily because the capital served as the main operations’ base for NATO, diplomatic missions, international service companies, UN agencies and NGOs. Western donor funding helped turn Kabul into a poor man’s Dubai with steel and glass office buildings, elaborate villas and wedding-cake palaces, asphalted roads, air conditioners and fume-belching traffic jams surrounded on the outskirts by sprawling shanty towns.
There were even plans with the enthusiastic backing of some World Bank officials from 2010 onwards to construct a completely new capital with vast business centres, shopping malls and exclusive suburbs between Kabul and Bagram airbase to the north – all at the expense of proper rural development and better use of natural resources, such as water. Fortunately, the project made little headway.
Overall, the donors spent over two trillion dollars on both the war and development support. And yet their approach refrained from engaging in intelligent investment involving local communities, which invariably always requires a lot of discussion and tea-drinking. But as one USAID contractor managing the Kabul to Kandahar Highway with foreign construction companies told me: “We haven’t got time to drink tea. We’ve got a road to build.” When I warned him that this would mean the highway would never enjoy full security because the villagers were never directly involved, he asserted that the road would be guarded by armed contractors, notably mercenaries.
The presence of thousands of mercenaries, widely used to protect NATO bases, with some contracted to guard the Afghan president, also proved a huge problem. They had little accountability and often treated Afghans like dirt. Once at Kabul airport during the arrival of an American VIP with the Afghan president there to greet him, I watched as heavily armed Americans, Australians and British operatives working for a leading US contractor openly abused civilians seeking to make their way into the main terminal. When one man complained that this was their country and not America’s, a mercenary told him to ‘F-off’ and levelled his assault rifle. All this contributed to growing resentment toward the internationals, from which the Taliban profited.
NATO, however, was often faced with an impossible job. It expected its soldiers to fight but also to serve as ‘aid workers’. For this reason, it liked to highlight “hearts and minds” efforts to collaborate with locals, such as through the building of schools or wells. On the face of it, such projects worked well, but the long-term drawback was that these were implemented by armed military. Despite all the village meetings and often close camaraderie, the locals could never be fully open to armed soldiers, particularly in areas infiltrated by the Taliban. Furthermore, much to the frustration of well-meaning officers, military deployments were usually limited to six months at a time, so replacement teams virtually had to start all over again with their community relations.
A further detriment was NATO’s control of the narrative. The overwhelming majority of western journalists only reported the military side as ‘embeds’. Few made the effort to venture out on their own, or to explore the country with the help of local and international aid agencies working in the provinces. As a result, many failed to report the ‘other’ side of the story. (See Mort Rosenblum piece on the role of the press: We tried to tell you.)
Similarly, by 2008, as many themselves admit, most embassy and donor officials no longer dared leave Kabul or even the safety of their high-walled and barbed-wire protected compounds. As a result, they lost touch with the realities on the outside. All this eventually led to Afghanistan’s prospects for a peaceful future being reset to zero with the Taliban now in charge.
So what can the international community now do? Clearly, much has been achieved in the form of education, health care, women’s rights and a vibrant free press, but much of this is now in jeopardy. If all of this is whittled away by the new regime, it will mean that the West will have very little to show for its occupation of Afghanistan. It will also have to explain why over 3,500 Coalition lives, most of them American, have died for absolutely nothing, not to forget the tens of thousands of Afghans also killed.
There may be other long-term global consequences. Many fear that the Taliban will start eroding all the progress brought about by two decades of Western engagement. Reports from newly controlled Talib zones indicate that women are forced to wear full head cover, local media has been banned and forced marriages are taking place. Furthermore, the U.S. and its NATO partners may be increasingly perceived as countries whose commitments cannot be trusted, something that the Iranians are already undoubtedly noting.
Mineral-rich Afghanistan may now fail to reach its economic potential to become the key ‘Silk Roads’ transit hub between Europe, Central Asia, the Gulf and the Subcontinent. Instead, another door will be open for China, which never cared which regime was in power as long as it could exploit the country’s riches and expand its reach. The Russians, too, are carefully eyeing events with the possibility of assuming a new role.
Even more critical, Afghanistan will disintegrate further into a veritable multi-billion-dollar narco-state given that the Taliban are already furnishing over 80 per cent of the world’s opium and heroin. Finally, despite U.S. claims that it has rooted out terrorism, ISIS elements or “foreign Taliban” remain operational inside Afghanistan. Although too early to say, some fear that a Talib regime may enable such groups to re-establish themselves on a much larger scale.
As international aid agencies are warning, Afghanistan is now facing a massive humanitarian disaster. Over a million Afghans have reportedly fled their homes. Many are seeking refuge in Kabul, while others are crossing over into Pakistan and Iran. Europe can expect new waves of Afghan migrants, particularly young men, whose families will be desperate for their remittances to survive. Quite a few long-term NGOs, not willing to abandon the Afghans, are seeking to remain in country with their local and international staff.
The U.S.’s calamitous decision has condemned millions of Afghans to an unthinkable future. (See articles on the West’s abandonment and women) The only option now may be to talk to the Taliban, including recognizing the new regime. While distasteful to many, this may prove the most effective way to pressure the Taliban, who will wish to present themselves as legitimate, particularly through international aid and World Bank loans, into respecting basic human rights, including those of women.
While various western governments and organizations have already cut their ties, they will need to think of a new workable strategy which will enable them to ensure that ordinary Afghans receive the help they need, but primarily as a means to pressure the Taliban into accepting certain reforms. A further difficulty will emerge if the Northern Alliance and the Hazaras start fighting back. Will the West support them?
International funding will be needed if UN agencies, NGOs and Afghan civil society are to re-engage with their on-the-ground work. Such institutions will also provide jobs, particularly to Afghans who are destitute and unable to leave the country. Yet many qualified Afghans – doctors, aid coordinators, technicians, academics – are currently trying to flee, a sad reality that will leave many gaps in the very health and educational infrastructure Afghanistan needs for people to live.
For the moment, no one knows how the Taliban will play out. Have they changed, and if so, to what extent? Most Afghans do not believe that they have.
One of the long-term issues is that the Taliban consist of a diverse movement of guerrilla fronts, including the powerful Quetta-based Shura in Pakistan, over which the central leadership may have no control. During the late 1990s, when I travelled through Talib-controlled parts of Afghanistan, I found Talib restrictions less forceful the further I got from Kabul. Young fighters wanted their pictures taken and played music, both of which were banned in the capital. They operate in much the same manner as did the mujahideen during the 1980s and who perpetually suffered from internal disagreements and lack of unity.
Hence, Talib fighters in some parts of the country will act onto their own version of the law, notably their interpretations of Sharia, while those in Kabul may seek to present themselves as respectable. The renowned Bamiyan Buddhas, for example, were delibately destroyed in 2001 by a Kandahari Talib commander despite international protests. (See article on cultural heritage by Jolyon Leslie). The Talib leadership, however, allowed it to happen, something that is worrying people regarding the extraordinary cultural heritage preserved at the Kabul National Museum and previously saved from Talib destruction.
The Taliban, while still cocky, are almost certainly realizing that they are dealing with an Afghanistan that is completely different from 20 years ago. Kabul has a population of 4-5 million, unlike one million in 2001. It is also a far more vibrant city with a population that will not take kindly to repression, so the Taliban will need to work with civil servants, business people and even police who are far more sophisticated than their fighters.
One key question is how the new Talib administration will pay the civil service for the running of public services, such as water and electricity, given that this was heavily supported by international donors during the NATO period. The Taliban have access to considerable revenue from the drug trade as well as lucrative customs’ fees at the borders. Much will depend on who controls such funds and whether they will be made available for running the country.
Furthermore, most young people are social media savvy and aware of what is happening in the world. So they may not prove susceptible to accepting the discipline imposed by the Taliban, who are widely perceived by urban Afghans as poorly educated but dangerous country bumpkins.
One of the most crucial issues, however, is the need for Western pressure to include pushing Islamabad to influence the Taliban to accept international norms of behaviour. Only with extensive pressure on Pakistan will Biden be able to influence a bearable outcome for the Afghan people, avoiding the most extreme abuses. He will never, however, be able to erase the stain of his ill-considered and irresponsible withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent, author and editor of the Geneva-based Global Insights Magazine. He has covered wars and humanitarian crises worldwide for The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report and the PBS Newshour. His books include: “Afghanistan: The Soviet War”; “Killing the Cranes – A reporter’s journey through three decades of war in Afghanistan”; and “The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan”. (4 fully-revised editions).
This article was first published on Global Geneva.