Bombarded with multiple narratives on the ongoing tragedy of Afghanistan it’s easy to see why many people might shrug and turn away leaving it as a dangerous and desperate void of suffering… ‘The US have learnt nothing’ writes Muhammad Idrees Ahmad. He does us all a huge service by getting to the heart of the complex Afghan matter with concision, clear-sightedness and neutrality.
In the months leading up to the western evacuation from Afghanistan, many European states were still repatriating Afghan refugees to Kabul. Between 2008-2020, over 70,000 Afghans were deported. None was more enthusiastic in this regard than Britain, which forced 15,755 Afghans to return home during this period. They insisted the country was “safe”.
But as all eyes fixed on Kabul Airport in late August, the world witnessed in a microcosm the dangers that still beset the country. As the IS-K — the local offshoot of the “Islamic State” — launched an attack on the airport, 169 Afghan civilians were killed, many of them in return fire from US troops. The US retaliated for the attack, which had also killed 13 American servicemen, with a drone strike that blew up an aid worker’s car, killing 9 members of his family, including 7 children. As many Afghans rushed to the airport to find a passage out, the CIA-trained Zero Units of the Afghan Intelligence beat them up and extorted up to $10,000 per person to let them flee.
Afghanistan certainly did not look safe. People seemed desperate enough to want to get out, even if it meant hanging from the side of a C-17. How had the west squandered its long and costly investment in blood and treasure so badly that things came to this pass?
In October 2001, when the US intervened in Afghanistan, the global response was ambivalent. The images of the atrocities committed by Al Qaeda earlier in September were fresh in everyone’s memory. All reasonable people agreed that Al Qaeda should be made to pay a price. The US had demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden. But the Taliban were recalcitrant because no Afghan was involved in the terrorist attack and diplomatic options hadn’t yet been exhausted. They were skeptical about the charges against Bin Laden and reluctant to violate Pashtun tradition by handing over a man they considered a guest, albeit a problematic one.
The relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda was complicated. The Taliban are conservative Islamists with territorial ambitions, more committed to Saudi style social control than waging foreign jihad. Al Qaeda on the other hand is an international jihadist movement which believes that the Middle East can’t rid itself of despotic rule (the “near enemy”) without defeating the “far enemy”, the US, which enables its regimes. Al Qaeda has little interest in territory. The Taliban were happy to use Al Qaeda volunteers as shock troops in their territorial wars against their rival Northern Alliance, but they were leery of any unauthorized actions by Al Qaeda that could jeopardize their rule. In the years after Al Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the Taliban had seized Bin Laden’s satellite phones and forbidden him from giving media interviews. There were wedges in this relationship that could have been exploited to make the Taliban give up Bin Laden.
The Taliban, however, didn’t present a pretty picture and were less than amenable to diplomacy. As a consequence, many people, including progressives and feminists, saw in the intervention an opportunity to free Afghan masses from the clutches of a regressive and tyrannical movement whose treatment of women, minorities, and the country’s cultural heritage had horrified many.
After the fall of Kabul, the optimism appeared to have been borne out by the scenes of jubilation, with men shaving off their beards, girls returning to school, music playing in the streets, and women being able to leave home without male chaperones. Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar had fled and his forces had melted away. Hamid Karzai had been appointed the new leader of Afghanistan and most Taliban leaders had acceded to his rule.
But the quick collapse of the Taliban and the ease with which the US was able to reengineer its political system bred hubris that would prove costly. In its haste to defeat the Taliban, the US had forged expedient alliances that would sabotage all its efforts. In the heady aftermath of its victory, it had failed to consider either its own history or that of Afghanistan. The US made the mistake — a mistake it would repeat in Iraq — of excluding the vanquished from any place in the country’s new administration. But when the defeated party is one like the Taliban, with deep roots in Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, such exclusion merely guarantees future strife.
The trouble started early. There were the inevitable revenge killings, but some took grisly form. One of the America’s new allies was General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord who had the rare distinction of having allied with and betrayed every side in the conflict. His men put surrendered Taliban fighters into metal containers and drove them across a scorching desert and executed those who had survived the heat, suffocation, and dehydration. Taliban leaders who agreed to lay down their arms and reconcile with the new government were arrested and shipped off to Guantanamo. Denied the option to either lay down their arms or become part of the new regime, the surviving Taliban rank and file went into hiding or crossed the border into Pakistan to bide their time.
With the Taliban no longer a threat, Washington’s new allies turned on each other. To maximize their power and influence, they harnessed American power to eliminate their rivals. For the warlords in the pay of the CIA, this reaped dual rewards: by denouncing a rival as Taliban, they could not only get Americans to eliminate him, they’d also earn kudos for aiding America’s “war on terror”. The fall of the Taliban also marked the return of the opium trade, which the puritanical group had banned before its fall. During the US occupation, despite western efforts at eradication, the opium trade flourished, with both US allies and the Taliban profiting from it. Warlords allied with the US, however also instrumentalized the poppy eradication program to secure their own monopolies by directing western efforts towards their rivals. Poppy cultivation increased during the US occupation, reaching a total are of 224,000 hectares, with a 37% jump in the last year alone.
Though the quick collapse of the US-backed government surprised everyone, including the Taliban, the catastrophe was not unforeseen. US and its NATO allies treated 2001 as year zero and ignored Afghanistan’s recent history, including their own role in it. Afghans were not always hostile to the west. Indeed, during the anti-Soviet war, the west was seen as an ally. It is worth revisiting how the squandering of that goodwill laid the seeds of future disaster.
Afghanistan has seen little peace since time immemorial being invaded at various times by the Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, Mughals, Sikhs and the British. But under the benign but ineffectual rule of King Zahir Shah, it enjoyed four decades of rare stability. The respite ended when Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin, Muhammad Daoud Khan, who established a republic. But as years passed, Daoud’s rule became increasingly autocratic. In April 1978, Daoud was overthrown in a communist coup and murdered along with much of his family. Afghanistan’s new rulers—the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA)—embarked on a process of forced modernization whose limited gains were offset by a massive increase in repression, generating resentment in the countryside. The communists executed over 27,000 political prisoners at the Pul-e-Charkhi prison. It was around this time that figures like Ahmad Shah Massoud, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Burhanuddin Rabbani fled to Pakistan.
Afghanistan grew restive under the heavy-handed communist rule and in March 1979, there was a major uprising in the western city of Herat, with and an entire army division joining the rebellion. The communist government used airpower to crush the revolt, killing between 3,000-25,000 civilians. As other insurrections followed, the Soviet Union got increasingly involved, sending advisors and military support to shore up its Afghan allies. In July the Carter administration approved support for the rebels, which was initially limited to non-lethal aid. The Soviet Politburo was reluctant to get directly involved but after the PDPA chairman Nur Muhammad Taraki was overthrown and replaced by his own protégé Hafizullah Amin, the Soviets finally decided to act. The Soviet intention was to stabilize Afghanistan, install a less volatile communist government, and leave. In the first dramatic act of the invasion, a Spetsnaz unit assassinated Hafizullah Amin, replacing him with Babrak Karmal as the new leader of communist Afghanistan. The US meanwhile dispatched a clandestine shipment of British Raj-era Lee-Enflied 303 rifles for the Afghan rebels.
For the first two years of the Soviet occupation, the poorly armed Afghan mujahideen suffered heavy losses. But in 1982, CIA director Bill Casey succeeded in engineering a massive military aid program for the Afghans, with the Saudis matching every US dollar with one of their own. The support gave Afghans a fighting chance against the Red Army; but Soviet airpower continued to overwhelm the resistance, with Mi-24 gunships devastating entire villages. In 1986, the mujahideen succeeded in bringing down the first Mi-24 with a shoulder-fired Stinger missile supplied by the CIA. The Stinger changed the calculation for Soviet forces. They could no longer rely on heavy gunships or tactical air support without incurring risks. By 1989, an exhausted Soviet Army decided to withdraw. Ten years of war had left the country in ruins and over a million Afghans dead. The Red Army had also left behind 270,000 landmines, to which Afghanistan’s communist government added 200,000, which continue to maim and kill to this day.
It was however western actions in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal that would leave the seeds of Afghanistan’s future instability. As soon as the Red Army withdrew, the west abandoned Afghanistan. The effects of this betrayal were further exacerbated by the manner in which outside support had shaped the Afghan insurgency. The CIA had used Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the ISI, as the conduit for its support; and the ISI had mainly picked hardline Islamists as its beneficiaries. This was also the Saudi preference. Such favoritism had changed the character of the uprising, which had started as a nationwide rebellion that had included nationalists, leftists, royalists, Islamists and liberals from all classes. Afghanistan was now left at the mercy of squabbling warlords, grinding down the people in the middle. The anti-Soviet war had happened mainly in the countryside; it now came to the cities. And in the siege and devastation of Kabul, tens of thousands were killed by rival mujahideen factions.
For most Afghan rebels, the war had ended with the Soviet withdrawal, however. Except for members of the seven feuding factions, they had largely returned home in the hope of resuming normal life. Among these was also one Mullah Omar, a prayer leader from Kandahar who had lost an eye in battle with the Soviets. But looking at the criminality afflicting Afghanistan in the shadow of the civil war, Omar and his comrades decided to act. The trigger was the abduction and rape of two young women by a local warlord. Omar responded to the family’s call for help, rescued the women and had the warlord hung from the turret of his own tank. The legend grew and in a place without functioning authority, people started turning to Omar and his comrades for justice.
The new movement’s ranks were soon swelled by “talibs”, young seminarians, most of them orphans of the Afghan war, studying at madrassahs in Pakistan. They received financial support from trucking magnates who hoped that this movement of incorruptible religious zealots would create a safe trade route from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean. As the movement gained ground, even the ISI abandoned its protégé Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to put its weight behind this new force. Within a few years, the new movement had conquered Kabul and much of Afghanistan, ending the depredations of the warlords.
The movement however had no political vision beyond creating a Saudi-style conservative society. Afghans experienced its rule mainly as tyranny, unrelieved by economic progress or personal security. Where many Afghans had initially welcomed it as a relief from the earlier instability, by 2001 the Taliban had accumulated such a record of misrule and repression that Afghans rejoiced when their rule was ended by the US intervention.
That winter, Afghanistan was at the center of the world’s attention, engendering hope in the country that it could finally emerge from the shadow of its grim past. But instead of setting it on a path to progress, the US delivered Afghans to the past. The occupation empowered the very forces whose depredations had made the Taliban seem like an improvement. While liberal and telegenic leaders like Hamid Karzai were appointed as the head of the new state, real power remained in the hands of Afghanistan’s old and discredited warlords. While US diplomats recognized their abuses and corruption as a major cause of the new regime’s dysfunction, the CIA continued to cultivate these relationships in pursuit of its “war on terror”. It even reconstituted the communist-era Afghan intelligence service KhAD, renaming it National Directorate of Security (NDS), consciously modelling it after the Iranian Shah’s notorious SAVAK. Most egregiously for Afghans in the countryside, their main experience of the western presence came in the form of special forces night raids and the over 13,000 drone strikes that US forces launched during the course of the war. According to UN data, airstrikes resulted in 2,122 civilian deaths, including 785 children, in the last four years of the war alone.
In the end, these misjudgments, the expedient alliances, and the disregard for Afghan lives undermined the tangible gains that had been made (though from which most Afghans felt excluded) and created the resentments that allowed the Taliban to present themselves once again as a less rapacious alternative.
The US has now withdrawn from Afghanistan, but it intends to keep an over-the-horizon capacity to strike terrorists. Ironically, this puts them in a situation where they will have to ally with the Taliban to combat the common enemy: IS-K (Al Qaeda by now is a spent force). But the prospects don’t look good. The US war on terror in Afghanistan ended the way it started: with a drone strike that misidentified its target and killed civilians. It seems that after 20 years, the US still hasn’t learned anything from its Afghan folly. It still sees Afghanistan primarily through a security lens. Afghanistan faces a major humanitarian crisis. Such distress and hopelessness often engender new pathologies, in rare instances driving people to desperate acts. There are few things that do more to defuse resentment than the restoration of hope. What Afghanistan needs is not more drones, but a massive influx of humanitarian aid that bypasses its rulers and empowers its people.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is the Director of the International Journalism Programme at Stirling University and Global Editor at New Lines Magazine