North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

A disgraceful stab in the back of Afghans

Our writer, a Western-Afghan scholar and government official, reflects on the pain and fury he feels watching the scenes unfolding in Kabul, and explains how we got here

Anonymous .
27 August 2021, 10.15am
The chaos at Kabul airport is just the tip of the iceberg
Staff Sgt. Victor Mancillavia American PhotoArchive/Alamy

The gut-wrenching scenes at the Kabul International Airport over the past week have looked and felt like a nightmare, leaving many in shock, disbelief and anger. As I received messages of support – and many questions – from colleagues, friends and acquaintances, I tried to suppress my own fury.

Though I have spent most of my life outside of Afghanistan, I always kept a keen interest in and connection to the country. I found myself watching, together with the rest of the world, as the Taliban were closing in, taking another city, another provincial capital. I was watching as my country of birth and its people were being pushed once again into the darkness of Taliban rule.

The chaos at Kabul airport is just the tip of the iceberg. It is a vivid image of fear and panic, caused by the shameful betrayal of a people and a country. Yesterday everything became even more tragic when explosions hit the crowds of civilians that had gathered at the gates of the airport.

As the tragedy unfolds, and foreigners rush to evacuate their remaining citizens and Afghans whose lives they have put at risk, the world is watching, and I am watching, like many people, with absolute and utter dismay, and with a feeling of helplessness.

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Dozens have now lost their lives or been injured as a direct result of the current situation, while many Afghans are still in panic, slowly realizing that there will be no way out for them.

Afghanistan is a burning house and every hour we wait may be too late for someone

There will be time to draw larger lessons about all that went wrong, and there will be dozens of books and hundreds of articles written about the limits and possibilities of international intervention. The ‘international community’ will have enough time to ‘recalibrate’ policies and find new narratives to frame the situation.

But the main priority right now should be people’s safety. There is no time to waste. Afghanistan is a burning house and every hour we wait may be too late for someone.

Amid the ensuing chaos and despair, it’s important not to lose sight of some fundamental truths and to demand responsibility, honesty and action. There are already divergent narratives and misrepresentations about how we got here and what will happen next, which could impede the efforts to protect Afghans at risk, to assist the country in the medium and long term and to work for sustainable peace and freedom for its people.

Not an Afghan defeat

The first truth is that what happened was not a defeat of the Afghan government nor of the Afghan forces. They were sold out – and with them ordinary Afghans – by their main ally of the past 20 years, amid an ongoing war, while they were on the losing side.

Various claims have caused confusion among observers. How is it possible that an army of 300,000 lost against the Taliban forces of around 60,000? US president Joe Biden even went as far as blaming the Afghan forces for being unwilling to fight and defend their country. Not only is this factually incorrect but it was also a shameless insult added to injury.

Afghan forces have borne the biggest brunt of the war since the handover of the responsibility for combat operations in 2014, with more than 45,000 members of the country’s security forces killed between then and 2019.

At the same time, the number of trained Afghan soldiers was hugely inflated, which served well those who wanted to justify a fast departure from Afghanistan, but everyone close to the matter knew the actual state of the defense and security forces of the country. Only about 10,000 Afghan special forces were actively fighting in combat operations by August, though there were many others on the books and on payrolls who were not actual servicemen or who were ill-trained to fight.

The moment the US intelligence, logistics and air support were completely withdrawn amid ongoing fighting, the Afghan forces had no chance.

There were surely problems with corruption and weak leadership in Kabul, personified by the former Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, but that in itself cannot explain the Taliban’s fast takeover.

Predictable outcomes

The second truth is that the outcomes of the war at home, and the peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban negotiators in Doha, the Qatari capital, were neither foregone nor unpredictable.

When the US leadership decided it had enough of the war in Afghanistan, a decision driven by its domestic politics and sentiments, it chose to accept defeat. But it did so deceitfully, seeking a face-saving exit. By signing a deal with the Taliban about its withdrawal, setting a date for it, forcing the Afghan government to sit and negotiate with the group, and then announcing that Taliban violations of previously agreed upon conditions would not affect the withdrawal, the US chose to inflict a defeat on itself and on its Afghan partners.

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The withdrawal, which set in motion the collapse of the Afghan government and the subsequent Taliban takeover, was based on a set of arbitrary benchmarks and unrealistic deadlines, including the artificial (and inflexible) deadline on the withdrawal of all foreign troops by 31 August.

By announcing the withdrawal date and ignoring the reality on the ground, the US gave the Taliban no incentive to de-escalate or to compromise in their talks with the Afghan government, and all the time in the world to prepare for and plan a takeover of the country. And that is exactly what they did; they went into provinces and cities to put pressure on local tribal and other leaders and struck deals with them.

In the meantime, the Afghan government forces were increasingly deprived of support, forcing them into the defensive. The US unconditional withdrawal against the backdrop of increasing violence was a green light to the Taliban. The fall of the Afghan government was entirely predictable, although the speed at which it happened was shocking to all.

After their expulsion from Afghanistan in a matter of two months in 2001, the Taliban were given much freedom and time to regroup, recruit and retrain in Pakistan – and come back stronger several years later. And until the very last moment before their advance on Kabul, the Taliban managed to maintain their stronghold and bases in Pakistan – this problem was never really addressed. Pakistan skillfully outplayed the US and NATO: on the one hand paying lip service to the West about fighting the Taliban, and on the other providing a safe haven for them.

Let us not forget that defeating the Taliban was an explicit aim of the US military intervention in Afghanistan. The US and its NATO allies failed in this, which was one of their main objectives of the war. The mission was not only about killing Osama Bin Laden and destroying Al Qaeda. And even Al Qaeda has not been fully defeated and new groups like ISIS have emerged.

The number of Afghan soldiers was hugely inflated to justify a fast exit

In addition, contrary to what was this week claimed by Biden, nation-building and state-building were very much part of what the US engaged in in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, although it is clear that there, too, it failed miserably.

More than $2trn were spent in total in Afghanistan in those years, with hundreds of billions spent on reconstruction, training and state-building projects. Let us not forget the many arguments used to justify the invasion, including the emancipation of women: what happened to those aims?

It would be both wrong and unfair to claim that Afghanistan was not making progress or that the Taliban project had won the popularity contest among Afghan people.

There were many obvious gains in the past two decades, perhaps most visible the increased freedoms for women and girls and a flourishing free media and civil society. The country was making incremental but tangible changes, albeit not always in a linear, progressive way.

Most of the problems, such as corruption, nepotism and bad governance stemmed in part from the US and NATO prioritizing collaboration with, and hence empowerment of, warlords and other militia for the sake of that lost war against the Taliban and terror. This happened instead of building truly democratic institutions based on justice and accountability.

On many occasions, the US and some important NATO countries dismissed calls to work on accountability or to sideline warlords – all for the sake of that same objective of fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban. All this was detrimental to the legitimacy of the national government.

Some in support of the US military withdrawal have persistently argued over the past few years that the Taliban have changed, that they are divided, that they are now ready to recognize and respect the rights of women and girls and to be more inclusive. There were even some indications that this may be the case: in discussions in Doha, in the statements of the Taliban spokesperson, and most importantly in the various communications of the Taliban since their takeover of Kabul. Why, then, are so many Afghans so scared that they are running for their lives? Why did dozens cling to the side of a moving US plane, in an attempt to escape Afghanistan under the Taliban?

Defeating the Taliban was an explicit aim of the US military intervention

The answer is simple: because they know better! They are not running away from some imaginary danger or enemy. They are not even running simply because they have seen Afghanistan under the Taliban in the 1990s. Instead, they know that they must run because the Taliban have shown their brutal face on countless occasions over the past two decades with attacks on innocent civilians including suicide bombings. They have shown again and again their complete disregard for human life – targeting religious minorities, journalists and judges and lawyers.

There have already been incidents that warn of what the Taliban rule will look like. In Kabul, the Taliban have already started their hunt for ‘collaborators’, going from home to home searching for those who worked with the government and foreigners.

What has changed is that the Taliban have become more shrewd and much better at their PR game, looking to avoid their isolation in the 1990s. They are trying to be on their best behavior in the first days of their de facto rule of the country, especially on the streets of Kabul, where there are still many foreign journalists. They seek to gain recognition and acceptance from other countries, starting with Pakistan, Russia and China but then others. They also know that Afghans are hugely dependent on aid, so they will need some form of donor support.

Later on, and perhaps more subtly, they will likely return to their campaign of terror, perhaps together with other groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda who are also present in the country. Indeed, the prospects are as grim as they get. And now that we are here, let us be honest about how we got where we are and who is responsible so that perhaps we could find the necessary actions that are needed now.

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