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In autumn 2001, having returned from Afghanistan just prior to the September 9 assassination by al-Qaeda of northern Afghan resistance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and before its World Trade Center attacks, I was invited to talk on The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News. Hosted by Bill O’Reilly, a tabloid right-wing presenter, the program was known for its glib lack of substance but considered one of America’s most watched cable news shows. Based out of Europe, I had no idea what the show was about. But National Geographic, which had sent me on assignment to Afghanistan, was keen to promote an article that I had written for their December 2001 issue by organizing various radio and television appearances in the United States.
During the interview, I warned that by bombing Afghanistan in order to punish the Taliban, who had no part in the 9/11 assaults, the United States could be unleashing a whole new slew of bin Ladens. I tried to point out, one only needs to go back into history for lessons learned. O’Reilly cut me off. “The American people are not interested in history,” he asserted as if speaking for the nation.
This attitude basically sums up why so much of the West’s commitment to Afghanistan has proven a disaster. Whether the British in the 19th century, the Soviets during the 1980s, or today the United States and NATO since October 2001, we have failed to learn from history. We also failed to grasp that there are no military solutions and that there is no point in dabbling with Afghanistan. The only real way out was — and still is — for the country to develop economically with a political solution that provides all Afghans, including the Taliban, with a viable future.
Both the Americans and their NATO allies now appear to have understood that there is no point in persisting with a military strategy aimed at defeating the Taliban and other insurgents. This is not a war that can be won. For the moment, however, NATO members, who met in Brussels on February 17-18, 2021, have yet to make a decision on whether to withdraw from Afghanistan. Fearing further casualties if troops remain, but also that the country will become a safe haven for terrorists if they do not, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg maintained that “all options remain on the table” but that “we face many different dilemmas.” As one insider noted, NATO is waiting to see whether President Joe Biden will reestablish firmer leadership.
As various analytical studies argue, any new approach must include a reduction if not an end to the fighting, coupled with a political compromise accepted by all. “Peace talks can take years and are vulnerable to ‘events,’ not least violence between warring parties,” observed Michael Keating, a highly experienced Afghan hand and executive director of the European Institute of Peace in Brussels. Their success depends not only upon the skills and good will of negotiators and facilitators. Critical, too, is whether they truly enjoy the support of the constituencies, such as the Afghan people. “If the Taliban or the republic side do not invest in them seriously … they are unlikely to deliver,” he added.
The success of any talks, however, must include agreements by Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional interest groups, such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, to bring an end to their support of the Taliban. Above all, Pakistan and India must stop using and abusing Afghanistan for their own strategic purposes. ISI, Islamabad’s military intelligence agency, persistently undermines Afghans since the 1970s by pitting one group (including the Americans) against the other — from the mujahedeen to the Taliban.
And yet, for years, the West has played along. ISI still involves itself by fielding operatives, including military support, in Taliban-held areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan. It also harbors insurgent groups, both local and foreign, inside its own tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
“The West Have the Watches, but We Have the Time”
The trouble now is that following four years of eroding diplomacy under ex-President Donald Trump, the initial US-Taliban peace talks, which kicked off in Doha in February 2020 (these have been replaced by direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul regime), appear to be going nowhere. Washington’s declared troop withdrawal simply helped to provide the Taliban with a timetable for waiting it out. To use that well-worn adage of the Taliban and the mujahedeen before them: “The West have the watches, but we have the time.”
To date, the Taliban, plus the Islamic State group and others, have continued to level their horrific attacks, assassinations, and now magnetic bombs against not only civil society figures, journalists, judges, and government officials, but also ordinary Afghans. The November 2, 2020, assault by three gunmen against the University of Kabul killing 32 people and injuring 50, many of them students, is only one such example. The Taliban have been steadily stepping up their pressure for control of key areas such as Kunduz and Puli Khumri to the north and Kandahar to the south. Two-thirds of the country is now reportedly in insurgent hands, not much different from when the US launched its invasion on October 7, 2001, when over 80 percent, including Kabul, was held by the Taliban.
While certain Afghan government officials maintain with bravado that the Afghan army has the competence to stave off further Taliban advances, much in the same manner that communist forces managed to stymie the mujahedeen for almost three years following the February 1989 Soviet withdrawal, many observers are not so sure. Without continued Western military commitment, including both funding and on-the-ground troops, they believe Afghans could face even more years of brutal war and eventually a return of the Taliban. The US, which provides Kabul with $4.8 billion of assistance a year, currently covers 80 percent of Afghan security costs, according to the February 2021 Afghan Study Group Report established by Congress in December 2019.
What Now for the United States, NATO, and the United Nations?
The good news is that most Afghans, including many Taliban, desperately want peace. This was amply demonstrated during a three-day 2018 ceasefire when Taliban fighters openly fraternized with government troops, police, and civilians, hugging, drinking tea and soft drinks, and even dancing (a major Taliban no-no). Significant numbers of insurgents never bothered to return to Taliban ranks, seriously worrying the movement’s leadership. This is believed to be a primary reason for its reluctance not to enter into any more ceasefires.
Yet it is clear that Afghans are tired of war and simply wish to get on with their lives. They want a future. But they are also tired of those politicians and warlords, such as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who was questionably reelected in September 2019, and Hamid Karzai before him, who come across as lacking accountability and representing their own interests rather than those of the country.
One question is whether Ghani will stand aside should a compromise settlement be proposed, including a traditional Loya Jirga, a “grand assembly” of elders. As for Karzai, who has enriched himself and his entourage from his time in office, he continues to influence developments from behind the scenes. While the Taliban are both feared and hated by many, particularly in the cities, their presence in numerous rural areas has brought stability and even justice, particularly when compared to the law meted out by the government’s own — often heavily corrupt — courts.
What the population wants is a return to normality, including local commerce and farming (both of which Afghans are good at), enabling people to survive. Nevertheless, numerous ordinary Afghans, particularly women, are under no illusions as to what the Taliban may seek to impose should they come to power.
As the Taliban see it, one can only really discuss Afghanistan’s future once they have retaken Kabul. This does not bode well for a “new” Afghanistan. In their areas of control, the Taliban have already ordered curbs on women’s rights and banned smartphones because of their access to social media and outside information. It can be assumed that if back at the helm they will outlaw “inappropriate” or “un-Islamic” practices, such as the right of women to study at university, stand as parliamentarians or even president, run their own businesses, or wear Western dress.
The West must decide whether, after nearly two decades of shoring up the Kabul regime, it has simply squandered lives and money for nothing. Or whether it is willing to make the effort to ensure proper talks leading to a compromise political settlement adhered to by all parties. Doha has never been the ideal option. Furthermore, the tribal delegates in Qatar, who, as one French observer noted, “have been growing fat on food and per diems,” do not necessarily represent the Taliban as a whole. As with the mujahedeen of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Taliban consist of a broad insurgent movement with different commanders and factions operating both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Afghanistan Is Far Different Today Than in 2001
Without doubt, ever since the United Nations, World Bank, European Union, and a host of NGOs and contractors began launching Afghanistan’s recovery process in early 2002, much has been achieved. Numerous courageous and dedicated Afghan grassroots initiatives have made steadfast advances. Afghan society today is far different from what it was when United Front (Northern Alliance) Afghan fighters supported by US and British air strikes “liberated” Kabul from the Taliban in November 2001. At that time, too, most ordinary Afghans believed their nightmare of years of brutal war and civil strife had finally come to an end.
A short period of relative peace did in fact take place, but by 2003 and 2004 the insurgency was beginning to start up again, and not just by the Taliban. Various bombings and assassinations are believed to have been conducted by Hezb-e-Islami (Islamic Party) operatives headed up by former mujahed politician Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the man behind the shelling of Kabul, killing and wounding up to 50,000 Afghans during the early 1990s. Heavily backed by both the ISI and the CIA during the Soviet-Afghan war, he was also accused of murdering numerous moderate political opponents. This did not stop Ghani from signing a peace deal with Hekmatyar in 2016 enabling him to respectably reinsert himself back into Afghan politics.
Despite Afghanistan’s worrying rise in insecurity (the rampant spread of COVID-19 has not helped, either), it still enjoys a vibrant civil society together with a basic, yet resilient, democracy even if regularly disrespected by both the government and the insurgents. It has also witnessed vast improvements in education, literacy, health, and agricultural development, as well as women’s and minority rights. Despite constant threats against the Afghan press, including the beating and murder of journalists by the Taliban, the Ashraf regime, ISI, Hezb-e-Islami, and other political or mafiosi interests, Afghanistan’s Fourth Estate persists with a determination that one can only admire.
Young people, too, have changed. They have different aspirations, widely inspired by their access to outside influences through satellite television and social media. The mobile phone has helped create a whole new world that the Taliban may find hard to counter. Young people want jobs and the sort of lifestyle they know exist in other countries, a sense of the outside world also brought to them by foreign military and the international aid community.
Furthermore, not only do people under the age of 25 now represent a majority, but many are educated. They never really experienced the Taliban period of the late 1990s, let alone Afghanistan’s previous chapters of war from the Soviet and mujahed periods. Many young people cannot even begin to understand why they are now the ones forced to suffer from the greed, vanity, corruption, and politics of past and present Afghans and foreigners. As indicated by the high number of young Afghan men seeking to migrate to Europe, many see little or no future in Afghanistan given the current situation. They want out. For the European Union — and Brexit Britain — this remains even more of a reason to remain engaged with Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s Post-2001 Recovery: A Mess From the Start
Afghanistan’s war drags on. While Afghans themselves must bear much of the responsibility it is also the fault of the West. Ever since the December 2001 Bonn conference, the international community has sought to impose its own norms, which do not necessarily work with Afghan culture and traditions. It also chose to ignore the advice proffered by so many diplomats, aid workers, journalists, historians, and others with experience in Afghanistan.
For recovery to succeed, they warned, it should be based on careful, long-term development and investment over 20 to 30 years. It should also closely involve all Afghans, not just the well-connected, such as corrupt warlords and political factions. Even more crucial, there could be no quick fixes. Throwing vast amounts of money into the Afghan cauldron was not going to resolve the problems, particularly if it was handed out to foreign private contractors with little understanding of on-the-ground realities and local culture.
Nor should Kabul become the main focal point for power and jobs reinforced by centralized government and elaborate international donor offices. Instead, investment should be directed at provincial towns, roads, and more sustainable agriculture given that over 70 percent of the population was rural. Local populations should have a greater say over how their provinces should be run. (A form of decentralized government similar to the Swiss cantonal system was often cited as a possible model to emulate). All too often, Kabul makes heavy-handed decisions that do not take into account local or regional realities, so many Afghans do not trust those making policy from their urban redoubt in the capital.
The experienced Afghans further warned that if such factors were not taken into account, streams of refugees, migrants, and others would flood in from the countryside. This is precisely what happened. Kabul has been turned into an overcrowded, fume-saturated, Afghan version of Dubai, with luxury villas on the inside and shanty towns along its rapidly expanding edges.
Why not develop the new Afghanistan as a positive example, including environmentally friendly infrastructure, for the rest of the world, they suggested? Unfortunately, much of this advice was ignored. The Afghan capital Kabul has now become a traffic-clogged metropolis with over 4.2 million people, three times more than in 2001. Furthermore, NATO generals, rather than the international aid community, took the lead, primarily because of the worsening security situation once the Taliban began to regroup and the United States became distracted by the war in Iraq in 2003.
A Pointless Commitment Unless Peace Is Achieved
Since 2001, coalition forces have lost some 3,500 American, European, Canadian, Australian, and other soldiers, while nearly 160,000 Afghans — over 43,000 civilians — also have been killed. And the numbers continue to rise. According to the US State Department and Pentagon, the United States alone has spent $778 billion on total military expenditure with another $44 billion on reconstruction between October 2001 and 2019. NATO countries ranging from Germany to the United Kingdom have also spent billions.
Much of this international presence led to an artificial economy that relied massively on military funding and development aid. This caused much of Afghanistan, particularly in the cities, to live beyond its means. The hope was that this might attract genuine investment bolstering the country’s potential as an attractive trade center for the region.
However, many privileged Afghans, including senior government officials — no dummies with regard to what was happening — preferred to invest abroad, such as in real estate, rather than in their own country. Much of this donor financial support has since disappeared with the withdrawal of Western troops, forcing businesses that relied on foreign contracts to go bankrupt. Both jobs and cash vanished, leaving hundreds of thousands unemployed, often with one earner supporting an extended family of 10, even 20 people. This is also one reason why the Taliban, who pay their fighters, are able to gain recruits.
Much will now depend on whether the Americans and NATO, who between them deploy slightly more than 10,000 troops on the ground, plus over 6,000 mercenaries and contractors, will remain committed to bringing peace to Afghanistan. This includes assuring the sort of security that will prevent the Taliban from taking over even more of the country, particularly Helmand and Kandahar in the south, or Nimruz and Farah to the southwest, but also Kabul itself.
It would be wishful thinking to imagine the Taliban will simply fall in and abide by its commitments if and when all foreign troops leave.
As analysts now suggest, there should be an extension on the final date of withdrawal without committing to any firm timetable unless appropriate commitments are made — and adhered to — by all concerned. Hence the need to continue talking, but not with negotiations that ignore the majority of ordinary Afghans. An artificially imposed mixed government consisting of both Taliban and Ashraf cohorts will not work. There needs to be an internationally overseen Loya Jirga or an interim administration more representative of the Afghan people.
So what now? Both the US and its NATO allies must demonstrate that their commitment remains consistent as guarantors of a viable peace process. But this must also be translated into more realistic, and above all, transparent development and investment support. The European Union is still Afghanistan’s largest aid donor so this remains important. But such backing should not only be directed toward a new government.
Instead, even if time-consuming, it must involve ordinary Afghans more directly. Far too much international aid has disappeared into private Afghan and foreign pockets, including many in positions of influence. Afghanistan has enormous possibilities as the crossroads for Europe, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. But people need to witness positive change if they are to regain confidence in their own country and its future.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Lance Cheung / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).