This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor on 9 September 2021.
See additional articles on Afghanistan in Global Insights (search www.global-geneva.com) plus our specialised updated collection of good pieces on Afghanistan by other media. (See Nusereal link: https://www.nusereal.com/afghan.php)
In March 2004, I met with Masood Khalili, Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, at his home in Kabul. I had known Ambassador Khalili, a distinguished poet and writer, since the early days of the Soviet war when he served as key adviser to Ahmed Shah Massoud, later the Northern Alliance’s military head.
As we discussed his country’s gradual disintegration, Mr. Khalili was still in pain from the severe injuries he suffered when two Al Qaeda suicide bombers assassinated Mr. Massoud on Sept. 9, 2001. As Mr. Khalili pointed out, there was much to blame on the West; Afghanistan’s conflicts have always been fueled by outsiders.
“But Afghans, too, must assume their responsibilities,” he said, referring to the corruption and abuses that were emerging under the new NATO-backed regime in Kabul. “We Afghans love blaming others for what is happening in our country.” (See piece on Masood Khalili’s book: Whispers of War)
For most war-fatigued Afghans, the Western intervention in 2001 had represented a new future. This is why so many feel betrayed not only by Washington’s sudden departure but also its failure to negotiate an inclusive government that would take power after Western troops left, involving groups ranging from the Taliban and the existing government to ordinary Afghans who feel caught in the middle. The bilateral deal elaborated by former U.S. President Donald Trump on 29 February 2020 basically granted the Taliban carte blanche to do what they liked with Afghanistan. Not only did Washington announce its planned 1 May 2021 departure in advance (this was moved back to the end of August 2021 by his successor President Joe Biden), which from the military point of view only played into the hands of Talib guerrilla strategy, but it ignored key on-the-ground realities such as the need to engage all Afghans.
Equally disturbing was the manner with which both Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani had abused their positions of power, condoning the Western-funded corruption that eroded people’s trust. Many Afghans, for example, even those who feared the Taliban, preferred the justice offered by sharia courts. The religious verdicts were considered quick and fair, whereas most government judges based their decisions on who paid the most. Both Western-backed administrations sought to intimidate their political opponents, which undermined efforts to hold free and fair elections.
Another key factor was the failure of the Western donors to understand the country they were seeking to change by enabling both the military and private contractors – much against the advice of experienced local and international aid workers, journalists, and diplomats – to impose their own visions of how the ‘new’ Afghanistan should be built. The Americans also brought back the warlords, some of whom had inflicted crimes against humanity or were involved with drug trafficking, a move that disillusioned many. Billions of dollars were squandered with numerous Afghans and foreigners enriching themselves in the process.
All this discouraged the initial enthusiasm so many Afghans had demonstrated, and the lack of accountable leadership is one reason why Afghanistan’s 300,000 strong security forces crumbled. Why fight for a government with such little credibility?
Today’s war in Afghanistan is far from over, but the National Resistance Front (NRF), a new anti-Taliban coalition headed by former government officials and Ahmad Massoud, the 32-year-old son of the former resistance commander, has withdrawn from the main Panjshir valley into the many side valleys.
That is a tactic the mujahideen adopted successfully against the Soviets, and later against the Taliban during the 1990s. This time, however, they tell me by satellite phone, they are being bombed by Pakistani drones. And their supply lines are fragile. The NRF, which is struggling to hold on, has appealed to the international community for support.
This casts grave doubt on the prospects for the kind of political settlement the NRF is proposing – a decentralized Swiss-style confederation of semi-autonomous cantons that would reflect Afghanistan’s diverse patchwork of ethnic groups. Ironically, such decentralizing was precisely what experienced “Afghan hands had proposed at the donor-sponsored December 2001 Bonn conference on Afghanistan but which was rejected by western governments as ‘unworkable’. It would also dilute the power of the tribal Pushtun, the largest ethnic group, which provides the bulk of the Taliban rank and file.
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The new Talib regime, which, as a loose guerrilla movement, is already in the process of splitting based on inside power divisions, consists solely of Pushtun ministers. There is no representation of ethnic minorities such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks or Shia Hazaras. Nor are any women included.
Furthermore, there is growing evidence that Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, ISI, has been providing on-the-ground support in the new regime’s efforts to quash resistance to its rule. Ever since mid-1975, when Islamabad first supported a failed revolt against Kabul, Pakistan has been engaged in backing hardline Pushtun fundamentalists as a means of destabilizing Afghanistan. It also strongly influenced the manner with which the Central Intelligence Agency provided its weapons and funds to the mujahideen.
Some of these former guerrilla Jihadists, such as Hezb-e-Islami’s Hekmatyar Gulbuddin and the Haqqani Network’s Jalaluddin Haqqani, went on to create bitterly anti-western organizations if not the Taliban itself. Shirazuddin Haqqani, the regime’s new Minister of Interior and branded an international terrorist by the FBI, is the son of Jalaluddin, who died in 2018. The Haqqani Network, which is traditionally based out of Khost and Paktya Provinces and the Pakistani tribal areas of Kurrram and North Waziristan, is regarded today as one of the two main components of the Taliban movement.
Both this and other journalists have encountered ISI operatives inside Afghanistan since the 1980s. More recently, local sources have reported Punjabi-speaking ‘Taliban’ in the streets of Kabul, possibly ISI officers. Such allegations are firmly denied by the Islamabad government.
So how will the majority of Afghans deal with the future?
It is a deeply uncertain future, given the country’s dire economic situation: Kabul and other cities are already suffering food shortages; tens of thousands of employees have lost their jobs or not been paid recently.
One bright spot: the re-establishment of Western Union money transfers, estimated at $800 million a month, from the large Afghan diaspora. But unless the international community steps up, ordinary Afghans can expect even more penury. Under the previous regime, it cost over $12 billion annually to run the civil service; 75% of that money came in the form of Western aid.
And it will take more than money to run the country. It will also take skilled workers, qualified technicians, and professionals who are just the sort of people now seeking to flee Afghanistan. Numerous Afghans are reaching out via social media, desperately appealing to whatever Western contacts they have. But the NATO military evacuation of 130,000 people, mostly Afghans, represented a severe brain drain, and the Taliban are increasingly reluctant to let still more qualified people leave. Pakistan, meanwhile, is doing its best to keep potential refugees out unless they have proven third country asylum options.
For those stuck in Afghanistan who will have to learn to live with their new masters, much will now depend on whether the Taliban will re-embrace their earlier hard-line policies, such as banning women from political life or cracking down on the media.
On the ground, the reality is not encouraging. While the international press is still able to operate, in recent days, Afghan journalists have been beaten severely by Talib militants. One, too, Fahim Dashty, who highly respected Afghan journalist, was killed last week in the Panjshir Valley during an interview with the BBC. Though an independent TV station, Tolo, is still broadcasting, its days are likely numbered; female broadcasters at other stations have already been told not to come to work. And according to Hassina Syed, Afghanistan’s former businesswoman of the year, many female entrepreneurs are now being prevented from reestablishing their businesses. Demonstrating women have also been beaten and killed.
The Taliban had indicated that the new government would prove sufficiently inclusive to enjoy broad appeal; the government it announced last week dashed any such hopes. And doubts persist about whether the top Talib leadership can control its regional commanders, many of whom have unleashed reprisals against ‘collaborators.’ Summary executions, brutal beatings, rapes, and forced marriages are on the rise. One Kabul family has militants blocking their front door with calls for its daughters, the youngest barely 12 years old, to come out and marry the fighters. Most Taliban come from rural areas and see the movement as their chance to make some money (all fighters are paid) but also to obtain ‘free’ wives without having to provide expensive doweries according to Afghan custom.
At the same time, both the West and ordinary Afghans may hold significant trump cards. Over 60 percent of Afghans are under 25. Many of them, including girls, are educated and know the power of social media. The Taliban, whom many city dwellers disdain as “bush boys,” as one urbanite put it, may find it hard to impose their will on such young people. It may also be worth recalling that the first demonstrations against the Soviet-backed communist regime in the 1970s were led by female high school students in Kabul.
And unless the Chinese or Russians step up with financial aid, Western countries might gain some traction. Some suggest that donors should withhold diplomatic recognition of the Taliban government, and suspend aid, until it meets certain conditions such as free and fair elections, no curbs on women’s rights, and a halt to human rights abuses.
That smacks of wishful thinking. The Taliban have not fought for 20 years to establish a Western-style democracy embodying U.S. and European values. It remains to be seen whether armed resistance will continue or not. As some observers note, ordinary Afghans may initially keep their heads low, but if the repression continues, then this could develop – as before – into armed opposition.
While the international community may not recognize the Taliban as a government, it will have to develop working relations, particularly through the United Nations, if only to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid. At least 18 million Afghans are believed to be in need of basic food support. At the same time, it could bring its negotiating power to bear, such as the release of pledged World Bank and other donor funding. This includes the UN, which must decide whether basic rights, notably women’s rights, are indeed part and parcel of its global agenda. Or whether it will sit back and simply mouth words of support, but do little constructive to improve the situation.
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)