Five Afghanistan myths that unleashed a disaster foretold
The devastating scenes of thousands of Afghans desperately trying to flee the Taliban takeover and deadly August 26 Kabul airport attack have highlighted the humanitarian and security threats following the hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The disaster was slowly brewing, but alarm bells were muffled by the spin to bring an instant end to America’s “forever war”.
Former US national security advisor, H. R. McMaster, was not mincing his words as he took to the airwaves last Thursday, shortly after a suicide blast ripped through crowds outside the Kabul airport, killing more than 100 Afghans and 13 US soldiers.
“This is only the beginning. This is what happens when you surrender to a terrorist organisation,” McMaster told the BBC.
McMaster’s detractors promptly pushed back, noting the retired US Army lieutenant general had been national security advisor to former US president Donald Trump. His arguments, they explained, was another example of Republicans clamouring for US President Joe Biden’s resignation following the Afghanistan debacle.
While the toxic partisanship of US politics has long refracted the realities on the ground in Afghanistan, the fact remains that both Trump and Biden promised voters a rapid end to the “forever war”.
In the race to proclaim the war is over, several myths and misconceptions dominated the political discourse over the past few years. FRANCE 24 examines some of them.
The Taliban 2.0 moniker gained traction around 2018, when the Trump administration appointed former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, as new US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation.
The upgraded Taliban had learned lessons from their disastrous 1990s reign and had swapped Kalashnikovs for Twitter, cricket gear and selfies with children, according to news reports.
The upgrade had style and content. While the UN designated the Taliban a terrorist organisation two years before the 9/11 attacks, the US never did the same, although the group met the criteria for a US State Department listing. In 2002, then US president George W. Bush signed an executive order (13224) labeling the Taliban a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist Entity". But that designation is narrowly focused on financial transactions, lacking the teeth of a State Department Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) listing.
Moves to designate the Taliban a foreign terrorist organisation were shelved since it was acknowledged that negotiations with an FTO group would be complicated. And so, even though the Haqqani Network, a branch of the Taliban, was (and remains) on the FTO list, its parent body evaded a designation.
Despite the headlines, the new Taliban stuck with much of its old discourse. Their statements focused on ending the American “invasion” and celebrating the bravery of their mujahideen fighters against the “foreign invaders”. They never bothered addressing human – particularly women’s – rights concerns. When pushed, the Taliban adopted a “women’s rights within an Islamic framework” fudge. They were clear about their views on the democratic system though. It was a Western imperialist system which had no place in their yet to be detailed version of sharia law.
But the Taliban started putting out statements in English – on Twitter, which was an upgrade.
The Taliban could credibly break with al Qaeda
“For the first time, they [Taliban] have announced that they're prepared to break with their historic ally, al Qaeda,” said then US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in a March 1, 2020 interview. “You can see, go read the document, the Taliban have now made the break,” he added.
Pompeo was speaking a day after the US signed a withdrawal deal with the Taliban cumbersomely titled, “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America”.
Part Two of the four-page agreement states the Taliban “will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qai’da, [sic] to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies”.
Military and security experts however warned that the links between the Taliban and al Qaeda were deep and included intermarriages, making the two groups effectively one family.
“Relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage,” said a UN report to the Security Council this month.
While the Taliban was officially throwing their jihadist brothers in arms under the bus, al Qaeda “has reacted positively to the agreement [with the US], with statements from its acolytes celebrating it as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global militancy”, said the report.
Following the August 15 Taliban takeover of Kabul, al Qaeda’s North Africa branch, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), celebrated the “victory” in Afghanistan while al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based largely in Yemen, heralded the “beginning of a pivotal transformation” worldwide.
While the Taliban publicly attempts to distance itself from the global jihadist group that conducted the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda has no qualms stating its fate is tied to Taliban gains in Afghanistan as it proceeds with its core goal of threatening the US and its allies.
The Taliban is solely an Afghan nationalist group
Portraying the Taliban solely as a nationalist movement was necessary for the US to engage with the group as a strictly Afghan political player.
But the Taliban leadership survived the US war on terror by basing themselves in Pakistan, where they were able to pursue their strategic plans “with considerable support from the Pakistani Inter-Service intelligence (ISI) agency and military”, warned the Atlantic Council in just one of many reports noting the Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan.
“How would they decrease and eventually cut a dependency on the Pakistani military and political establishment in order to act as a nationalist movement ready to govern?” the report asked, providing no answers.
Afghanistan has long been the playing field for India-Pakistan strategic rivalries. The US presence in Afghanistan maintained a status quo in a region that has seen China flex its expansionist muscles under President Xi Jinping. The stability is now floundering in a zone that has three nuclear powered nations – China, India and Pakistan – vying for influence.
The Taliban stress their independence from Pakistan, but with their reliance on Islamabad’s military intelligence network and resources, they are unable to cut the link.
Meanwhile, foreign fighters – including Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Chechens and other Central Asian nationals – have swelled Taliban ranks and enabled their lightening sweep across Afghanistan.
US negotiators hoped the war between the Taliban and the Islamic State group – Khorasan (IS-K) would result in the Taliban rooting out the global jihadist threat in Afghanistan.
But the August 26 Kabul airport attack underscored the security challenges confronting the Taliban in their fight against the group.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 two days after the attack, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid blamed the “infidel” American army for the security failure even as he admitted his group controlled "93 or 94 percent" of Kabul.
The Taliban’s anti-IS group fight since it came to power has not impressed strategists. At a press conference a day after the Kabul airport attack, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed the Taliban had released “thousands” of prisoners during their sweep through Afghanistan and that the unvetted releases included IS-K members.
The costly ‘forever war’ must end – now means now
That the forever war has cost the lives of more than 2,400 US troops and nearly $2 trillion are statistics often quoted in justifications for an immediate end to the war.
The realities however are more nuanced. Following a 2014 drawdown, the US military had a much smaller footprint in Afghanistan than during the early years, resulting in reduced costs and casualties. According to US Department of Defense figures, as of August 23, 2021, fewer than 100 US troops died in combat in Afghanistan over the past five years – “roughly the equivalent of the number of Americans currently dying from Covid-19 every two hours”, noted the New York Times.
The amount of Afghanistan funding going right back to Americans is well documented. This includes military contractors and salaries of US civilian and reconstruction personnel who were “often unqualified and poorly trained”, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a US government oversight authority.
Afghanistan’s major socio-economic gains, including female education and health services, since the 2001 fall of the Taliban were consistently overlooked under the “it bleeds, it leads” imperatives of news coverage, which focused on maps displaying geographic areas under Taliban control without examining population densities concentrated in the cities.
The lost cause narrative enabled Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation since 2018, to agree to withdrawal timetables that included a US commitment to withdraw all military personnel “within 14 months” under the 2020 deal.
When Biden came to office earlier this year, he undid several Trump era policies, but the US-Taliban deal was not among them. Khalilzad, a Republican appointee, also retained his post.
In the disastrous aftermath of the Taliban takeover, several US diplomats and experts have discussed America’s lack of “strategic patience”. In a New York Times column, Ryan Crocker, who served as US ambassador to Afghanistan under Obama, noted, “Our lack of strategic patience at critical moments…has damaged our alliances, emboldened our adversaries and increased the risk to our own security.”
Afghan political and military institutions are weak and can be sidelined
Afghanistan’s democratically elected government, under a constitution ratified in 2004, was not party to the negotiations over the country’s future.
The irony of the US, which under Biden has promoted democratic values as its main foreign policy plank, withdrawing without a credible peace process while sidelining Afghanistan’s elected government has shocked America’s allies and delighted her foes.
The justification for this omission was the perennial US problem with the occupant of Afghanistan’s Arg presidential palace. The country’s first elected president, Hamid Karzai, was viewed as corrupt, inefficient and so intransigent that US media reports openly speculated if he was on meds.
His successor Ashraf Ghani didn’t fare much better. Afghanistan’s parliament, which included more female representatives than in the US Congress or British parliament, was rarely, if ever, mentioned.
Corruption was certainly a problem. “When vast resources are poured into a country without established institutions and rule of law, corruption is likely to be a significant byproduct,” wrote Crocker, the Obama-appointed former US ambassador to Afghanistan.
But, Crocker noted, “corruption was endemic in New York, Boston and Chicago through much of the 19th and into the 20th centuries. It took us time to grow the institutions and legal structures that would eventually make corruption the exception rather than the norm”.
Tackling the problem, though, requires time and patience and the US has none of it, Crocker pointed out.
In the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover, blame was laid at the door of another Afghan institution – the country’s military.
The Afghan National Army, which bore the brunt of the casualties against the Taliban, was faulted for collapsing in the wake of a Taliban sweep. But the US had already undermined the Afghan armed services by crushing what top military generals and strategist have long said is the most important ingredient of an effective fighting force: morale.
When US troops abandoned the Bagram base in the middle of the night without informing their Afghan counterparts, it served a death blow to an army facing an enemy that everybody had declared the winner. “When the Americans left in middle of the night without informing their Afghan counterparts, that also meant the American contractors that were so critical had left,” explained veteran journalist Bilal Sarwary. “Afghanistan’s elite forces saw that as a signal and they were confused. They thought, What is happening? America is abandoning us, the Taliban are coming, the political class is divided.”
The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu famously noted, “Every battle is won before it’s even fought.” His book “The Art of War” is studied in military academies across the world. The commander in chief of the world’s mightiest military, though, wanted nothing to do with that primer.
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