NATO forces in Afghanistan. (Photo: Courtesy NATO)

The following article is part of our oped Agent Provocateur column

Given that the United States and its international partners failed to adequately deal with the threat of Islamist terrorism when they had the time and opportunity, it appears that the old shark is coming back again. Back-to-back reports to the American Congress last May have addressed the total reversal of everything the West sought to achieve in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 with over two decades of war and nation-building.

One, by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) attempts to explain why the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) collapsed so suddenly in August 2021 while the withdrawal of the last American troops was still underway. The other, by the Department of Defense’s own inspector general, details how the country is steadily returning to what it was in the summer of 2001: a safe haven for a variety of transnational terrorist groups.

On the surface, the documents appear to be models of objectivity and a mastery of details regarding a seemingly endless international conflict. This has usually been presented to the public by both governments and media with a high subjectivity and confusing obscurity. Nevertheless, the two reports adhere to this entrenched myopic approach by focusing on too much detail, thus losing the wider and more vital perspective needed.

Breaking the will of Afghans to fight

The SIGAR report is systematic in its account of the technical, financial, and logistical aspects of the war. It also points to specific critical policy decisions made in Washington as the major reasons for the disastrous outcome. Above all, it holds that the bilateral agreement reached by the Trump administration with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar in February of 2020 – without the participation of the Kabul government – as the main reason behind its declared withdrawal date of May, 2021. This in turn led to a pervasive feeling of abandonment among Afghans of all walks of life, military and civilian.

The cumulative effect of forty years of wave after wave of foreign aggression and domestic strife finally broke the Afghans’ will to fight. This included two decades of repeated assurances by Western governments, such as former British prime minister Tony Blair’s October 2001 Brighton speech: “We will not walk away, as the outside world has done so many times before.” and Biden’s own decision to adhere to Trump’s agreement with the Taliban.

Yet while the report probes the psychological and material reasons for the Afghan military’s ultimate demise, it does not get to real sources of the Taliban’s strength. While it does speak of their “comparative advantage, notably a “volunteer army who fought for religious beliefs,” this was true of the Afghan security forces as well. Then there was the added burning desire to return to an Afghanistan at peace with a focused on modern, practical economic and social development. At no point does the SIGAR report address the question of where the militants found the resources to wage a twenty year war against not only a national army equipped by the world’s greatest superpower, but also the ground and air forces of that superpower heavily engaged in the field. There is only a vague reference to “the Taliban’s own foreign dependencies.”

The United States lost the narrative

Summing up the vast omissions which characterized the war from the beginning, the Associated Press’ longtime Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief Kathy Gannon told National Public Radio in May that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, “the actual narrative of the Afghans got lost to the narrative of the U.S.-led coalition, and it was very much focused on the horrors of what had happened and where is al Qaeda.”

While that might have been understandable in an hour of existential shock, nothing but
willful denial can explain the active refusal, over the course of a twenty-year conflict, to understand how the modern history of Afghanistan fits into the expansive backstory of the global rise of Islamic extremism.

For most of the 20th century, Muslim countries as diverse as Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, and Afghanistan aggressively pursued secular nationalist and strongly modernizing programs which focused on societal development. They sought to harmonize Islam with the contemporary world. However, this seemingly irresistible current was violently resisted by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, who, together,  sought to block transformations considered a threat to the absolute economic, social, and political power wielded by their feudal  elites. They opposed such reforms with religious radicalism.

Though initially limited to their immediate neighborhoods, this subversion reached the point of global metastasis when Washington acceded to their demand that they be the ones to dictate the ideological agenda of the Afghan resistance to the Soviets in the 1980s. The West also turned a blind eye to their heavy backing of the Taliban’s initial drive to power in the 1990s. That the United States and its allies have supported Saudi Arabia and Pakistan since the early days of the Cold War by considering their engagement as being useful for defeating communism or simply ignored as irrelevant has rarely entered the debate.

The day that “changed everything” changed little.

Al Qaeda was always nothing but the fin of the shark, while the Taliban represented a small part of its body. The change that was needed after “the day that changed everything” was a cessation by Washington of its reliance on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as allies in the Muslim world and instead expand rather than curtail its assistance to secular nationalists and religious moderates.

Such a sea change was dashed by the taboo of pointing out that American foreign policy had funneled a path to 9/11 coupled with the insistence of the oil lobby that Washington’s alliance with Saudi Arabia be maintained intact. Pakistan continued to heavily support the Taliban despite receiving at least $33 billion in military assistance from Washington over the course of the war. It was also on Pakistani soil, literally in the backyard of Islamabad’s own West Point in Abbotabad, that American troops killed d Osama bin Laden.

The “endless” and “unwinnable” war might have ended differently long ago had Pakistan been instead on the receiving end of the kind of punishing sanctions now being directed against Russia because of its aggression against the Ukraine. This might have curtailed its capacity to pursue its aggression against Afghanistan via its Taliban proxies.

The Department of Defense report, though similarly limited in scope, is straightforward
about the consequences of Washington’s self-inflicted defeat. There is now once again
a “permissive environment” for terrorists to thrive in a Taliban-restored Afghanistan, and
the roster of transnational terror groups with potentially global ambitions have returned
with a sense of invincibility. These include al Qaeda, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba (which carried out the Mumbai attacks in 2008), and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The report admits that the prospect of controlling this shark pool through a drone-driven “over-the-horizon” program without intelligence on the ground is a dim one at best. A recent report to the UN Security Council reached the same conclusions.

Afghan women. (Photo: UNAMA)

Afghans now face veritable disaster

Tempting as it is to speak of matters having come full circle, the increasingly apocalyptic humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has added a severely compounding dimension. The almost total economic collapse caused by the freezing of billions of dollars of Afghan government assets held abroad, the simultaneous ending of Western subsidies and development aid, crushing sanctions against doing business with the new regime, and the Taliban’s own crippling of whatever economic potential was left by its persecutions and restrictions against people connected with the fallen government, minorities, dissidents, and women, have together produced an almost unprecedented pervasive suffering in the country’s history.

An estimated 97 percent of Afghans are experiencing real poverty as well as acute food insecurity threatening half the population with starvation. The severe June 22 earthquake in Paktika and Khost provinces that killed over a thousand, possibly many more, and left tens of thousands without food or shelter, has come across as a a final blow although, of course, in Afghanistan no blow is ever final.

Amidst reports of the selling of girls for food and boys into forced labor, the Department of Defense specifically speaks of the rival terrorist group Islamic State – Khorasan “leverag(ing) the widespread poverty and governance shortfalls in Afghanistan in its recruitment efforts by offering payment to potential recruits.” But such exploitation is likely to be practiced by transnational terrorists friendly to the new regime as well. The official religious radicalization of the school curriculum for those still in school will help. In short, while the emphasis has been on the physical effects of Afghanistan’s near-collapse, not only economically but potentially its society as a whole, the precise ways in which all of this will play out may well foster a new wave of international terrorism. 

In his widely-noticed article “The Obama Doctrine” (The Atlantic, 2016), Jeffrey Goldberg reported that that president “privately questions why Pakistan, which he believes is a disastrously dysfunctional country, should be considered an ally of the U.S. at all,” and that “he has also questioned, often harshly, the role that America’s Sunni Arab allies play in fomenting anti-American terrorism. He is clearly irritated that foreign-policy orthodoxy compels him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally.”

Such an attitude epitomizes how the United States’ traditional national strengths were absent from its post-9/11 behavior. America is not a land of orthodoxy; it is a land of restless innovation and the recurring creation of new programs and technologies that surpass old ones and allow it to adapt to and master new, even terrible, circumstances. At best, it is a land where the sins of the past are examined not only for the sake of moral atonement, but in the service of adapting new strategies to achieve better results. To have failed to carry this spirit into its engagement with the Muslim world after 9/11 was the very definition of sclerosis.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have played a critical role in their support of the Taliban and other hardline fundamental groups in Afghanistan since the 1980s and even earlier. (Photo: Ministry of Defense, Pakistan)

The United States: Providing Saudi Arabia and Pakistan with a cover

In the light of these enduring realities, “sclerotic” is the only word that can be applied
to President Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia. While condemning Riyad’s egregious violations of human rights in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the devastation of Yemen as a “pariah” during his presidential campaign, Biden’s trip stands out as an obsequious bid to mend fences and persuade its rulers to increase oil production. The agenda, however, appears not to be limited to political and economic tradeoffs, but also security guarantees, including a commitment to defend the regime with US lives.

Saudi Arabia’s centuries-old official Wahhabi creed is the ideological font of modern Islamic extremism; it is a cause, while terrorism and human rights abuses are merely the inevitable effects of such a repressive and hate-filled view of human life. If certain terror groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State have broken with the Saudis and each other,
they still retain a a dynamic common in the history of extremisms.

That the United States and other liberal Western countries have provided the cover for the Saudis’ diffusion of fanaticism for the better part of a century solely to have access to oil is the original sin. This should have been recognized and atoned for after 9/11. Yet it was not.  
The Biden trip is not merely the moral failure it has been termed in the press, but part of
a decades-old enablement of serious threats to American national and international security.

Stephen Crane strikingly begins his great story with the declaration: “None of them knew
the color of the sky.” His embattled characters are too absorbed in confronting the relentless threats directly before them to ever look up. Yet when they do at long last reach the shore,
he concludes: “They felt that they could then be interpreters.” Until America and its Western allies resolve to become interpreters instead of desperate opportunists, we shall continue to be menaced by an old shark that has only grown more determined on account of
its victories. 

Vanni Cappelli, a freelance journalist, is president of the Afghanistan Foreign Press Association.

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