“The markets in Kabul have food, but few can afford it. A sack of flour can cost about $40. Businesses struggle to get materials because of lack of access to bank accounts or foreign currency. Teachers and government workers weren’t getting paid, and even if those salaries have resumed, incomes are lower. People sell furniture and silverware for cash. They also sell their kidneys.
This is Afghanistan in the months after the Taliban marched into Kabul, the Afghan government fell, and the United States withdrew. America’s 20-year war ended, but another crisis replaced it: economic collapse. This was brought on by the near-instant evaporation of billions of dollars in foreign aid, sanctions on Taliban leaders, and the US’s freezing of Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves. A severe drought, the Taliban’s struggles to govern, and now the global shocks from the Ukraine war have pushed Afghanistan toward humanitarian catastrophe.”
“The Taliban are not changing. In March, in Qatar, the US planned to begin discussions with the Taliban about economic issues, including those frozen funds, but talks fell apart after the Taliban issued their decree stopping girls from attending secondary school. Those talks resumed this summer in Doha, but Zawahiri’s assassination in Kabul might sidetrack them once again.
The Taliban are content to blame the West, and especially the US, for Afghanistan’s suffering — but their continued human rights violations and ideological extremism have kept Afghanistan cut off from the world. The Taliban continue to curtails women’s rights, like barring girls from attending school beyond sixth grade after they promised they would allow it. The Taliban’s restrictions on freedom of movement for women and girls, and on employment outside the home, have added to the economic strain, as they can’t earn income or seek access to things like health care.
The Taliban have also continued to target civil society. They embarked on revenge killings of former members of the Afghan security forces, and human rights groups and the United Nations have documented arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings across the country, along with the targeting of minority groups, specifically the Hazaras, a Shiite population.
The Zawahiri killing also eliminated any doubt about what kind of government the Taliban oversees. “The Taliban — if there was any doubt — hasn’t changed,” said Douglas London, who served as the CIA’s counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia and is the author of The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence. “It’s really the same organization we know from the ’90s, and thereafter.” As London pointed out, Zawahiri wouldn’t be in Kabul without the Taliban’s permission, a sign they are continuing to give sanctuary to terrorists groups that might threaten the US and its allies, in direct violation of the deal the Taliban signed with the US.”
“McKenzie was flying to Doha, Qatar that day to offer the Taliban a deal: Keep your forces outside the capital so the U.S. can evacuate tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans from the city, and we won’t fight you.
But by the time McKenzie landed, the offer was DOA. Taliban fighters were already inside the presidential palace, and Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, had fled the city. The Afghan government the United States had worked so hard to keep afloat for 20 years had collapsed in a matter of hours.
McKenzie had to think fast. His mission, to conduct a massive air evacuation from Kabul’s one functioning airport, had not changed. So, on the way to Doha’s Ritz Carlton, he came up with a new proposal. Don’t interfere with the airlift, he told the Taliban’s co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and we won’t strike.
The general, who spoke to POLITICO Magazine by video call almost exactly one year after the fall of Kabul, walked away from the meeting with a deal that would allow the U.S. military to control the airport while they undertook the largest air evacuation in U.S. history, flying out more than 120,000 people in the span of two weeks.
But during the meeting, he also made what critics say was a strategic mistake that contributed to what became a chaotic, deadly evacuation: refusing the Taliban’s offer to let the U.S. military secure Afghanistan’s capital city.
McKenzie defended his decision during the interview, noting that he did not believe it was a serious proposal, and in any case securing the city would have required a massive influx of American troops, which could have triggered more fighting with the Taliban.
At the end of the day, the U.S. military didn’t have many good choices.”
“I got on the airplane on Sunday morning. While I was on the airplane over, I was getting reports that the Taliban is in downtown Kabul, they’ve actually overrun the city. By the time I met with them, they had significant forces inside the city. So I said, ‘Look, we can still have a solution here. We’re going to conduct an evacuation. If you don’t interfere with the evacuation, we won’t strike.’
Mullah Baradar said, off the cuff, ‘Why don’t you come in and secure the city?’ But that was just not feasible. It would have taken me putting in another division to do that. And I believe that was a flippant remark. And now we know in the fullness of time that Mullah Baradar wasn’t actually speaking for the hard-line Taliban. I don’t know if he could have delivered, even if he was serious about it.
I felt in my best judgment that it wasn’t a genuine offer. And it was not a practical military operation. That’s why they pay me, that’s why I’m there.
By and large, the Taliban were helpful in our departure. They did not oppose us. They did do some external security work. There was a downside of that external security work, and it probably prevented some Afghans from getting to Kabul airport as we would have liked. But that was a risk that I was willing to run.”
“I believe the proximate defeat mechanism was the Doha negotiations [on a peace deal]. I believe that the Afghan government began to believe we were getting ready to leave. As a result, I think it took a lot of the will to fight out them.”
“You can go back to the very beginning of the campaign, when we had an opportunity to get Osama bin Laden in 2001, 2002 and we didn’t do that. The fact that we never satisfactorily solved the problem of safe havens in Pakistan for the Taliban. There are so many things over the 20-year period that contributed to it.
But yes, I believe that the straw that broke the camel’s back and brought it to the conclusion that we saw was the Doha process and the agreements that were reached there.
It’s convenient to blame the military commanders that were there. But it was the government of Afghanistan that failed. The government of the United States also failed.”
“It’s very hard to see in Afghanistan after we left. We had 1 or 2 or 3 percent of the intelligence-gathering capability that we had before we left. All our intelligence told us that the Taliban would probably allow space for al Qaeda to reassert itself and at the same time, they’re unable to get rid of ISIS. I think both are going to be entities that are going to grow.
The fact that al Qaeda leader Al-Zawahri was in downtown Kabul should give us pause. It tells you first of all, that the Taliban obviously negotiated the Doha accord in complete bad faith. They said they wouldn’t provide a safe haven for al Qaeda. What’s the definition of a safe haven if it’s not the leader in your capital city?”
“the US‐backed government likely would have survived only so long as Americans remained to fight the Taliban. Despite three successive US administrations devoting two decades and billions (actually, hundreds of billions) of dollars, and allied forces suffering thousands of casualties, little established by Washington in Afghanistan would have survived on its own.
And nothing at stake in Afghanistan warranted America staying. Washington has no significant interests inherent to Central Asia, which is about as far from the US as anywhere on earth and is bounded by several global and regional powers: China, Russia, India, Iran, and Pakistan. All have serious security interests in Afghanistan, which they would have had to address without Washington’s presence – as they have discovered after the US left.
The Bush administration intervened to destroy or disable al‐Qaeda for attacking America and punish the Taliban for hosting the terrorist organization. US forces quickly succeeded; so complete was their victory that the Taliban sought to negotiate its de facto surrender. However, arrogant and self‐righteous from start to finish, Dubya & Co. foolishly refused. The rest, including abundant death and destruction in that tragic land, is history.
Although residents of Afghanistan’s largest cities tended to benefit from the allied presence, not so rural Afghanistan, in which the war was primarily fought. Baktash Ahadi, an interpreter for the US, explained how Afghans viewed the fight: “Virtually the only contact most Afghans had with the West came via heavily armed and armored combat troops. Americans thus mistook the Afghan countryside for a mere theater of war, rather than as a place where people actually lived. U.S. forces turned villages into battlegrounds, pulverizing mud homes and destroying livelihoods. One could almost hear the Taliban laughing as any sympathy for the West evaporated in bursts of gunfire.” Which made America, along with the corrupt, incompetent, unreliable, and distant Kabul government, an enemy. Added Ahadi, “When comparing the Taliban with the United States and its Western allies, the vast majority of Afghans have always viewed the Taliban as the lesser of two evils.””
“The critical factor was the disintegration of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDFS). What happened? SIGAR concluded: “the single most important factor in the ANDSF’s collapse in August 2021 was the US decision to withdraw military forces and contractors from Afghanistan,” reflected in both the agreement signed by the Trump administration and the withdrawal ordered by the Biden administration.
Explained SIGAR: “Due to the ANDSF’s dependency on US military forces, these events destroyed ANDSF morale. The ANDSF had long relied on the US military’s presence to protect against large‐scale ANDSF losses, and Afghan troops saw the United States as a means of holding their government accountable for paying their salaries. The U.S.-Taliban agreement made it clear that this was no longer the case, resulting in a sense of abandonment within the ANDSF and the Afghan population.””
““the length of the US commitment was disconnected from a realistic understanding of the time required to build a self‐sustaining security sector – a process that took decades to achieve in South Korea. Constantly changing and politically driven milestones for US engagement undermined the its [sic] ability to set realistic goals for building a capable and self‐sustaining military and police force.”
The fault was not that successive American administrations failed to take extra time, since US interests did not warrant such an effort. Rather, the error was to imagine that the process could be completed in reasonable time at reasonable cost.”
“On March 17, Human Rights Watch reported that the food shortage affecting 95 percent of Afghans has led to the deaths of about 13,000 Afghan newborns since January 2022. Though the international community has long warned about the dire consequences of impending famine in Afghanistan, it has struggled to find a means to provide foreign aid that is not afflicted by endemic corruption and does not enrich the Taliban.
Since humanitarian aid, including aid from the United Nations World Food Programme, began flowing into Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal, some Afghans claimed it has benefited those with “influence and access.” The Taliban have also been accused of using their “food for work” program to support associates, rather than the needy, diverting food aid sourced from China, India, and Pakistan.”
“Afghans in the United States are now eligible for temporary protected status (TPS), an immigration protection that shields people from deportation and allows them to work in the U.S. legally for the next 18 months.
“This TPS designation will help to protect Afghan nationals who have already been living in the United States from returning to unsafe conditions,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. “Under this designation, TPS will also provide additional protections and assurances to trusted partners and vulnerable Afghans who supported the U.S. military, diplomatic, and humanitarian missions in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.”
The designation pertains most directly to the 76,000 Afghans who were resettled in the U.S. after the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. They entered the country under parole, a temporary classification that does not involve a pathway to citizenship or permanent residency. Though TPS is also a temporary designation, it prevents deportation in the event that an asylum claim is rejected.”
“Prior to the fall of Kabul in August 2021, the Afghan economy relied heavily on foreign aid; after the Taliban takeover, that influx of cash ceased. Under Taliban rule, unemployment is rampant and banks operate intermittently, with people able to withdraw no more than $100 in a month. On top of that, the US froze much of the $9.4 billion in Afghan currency reserves in Afghanistan’s central bank in August — a move which has functionally cut the country off from many foreign banks and left the Central Bank of Afghanistan unable to access its reserves and shore up the country’s cash flow.
Now, much of the country is facing poverty and starvation: In December, the World Food Program (WFP) found that 98 percent of Afghans aren’t getting enough to eat, and Guterres warned this month that “we are in a race against time to help the Afghan people.””
“Many of Afghanistan’s current problems are intimately connected to the US withdrawal from the country last year, and the Taliban’s ensuing takeover of the central government. Since then, US sanctions and an abrupt end to international aid have wrecked Afghanistan’s economy and sent it spiraling into crisis.
The US and the UN have made some concessions to allow humanitarian aid to operate outside the auspices of the Taliban; the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) granted some licenses to aid groups to operate in Afghanistan without running afoul of financial restrictions on other individuals and institutions in the country.
But, as experts have said, it’s not nearly enough to bring the Afghan people anywhere close to the needed aid, and regardless of the OFAC licenses, the Afghan banking system is still essentially held hostage by US sanctions against the Taliban.”
“The chilling effect of sanctions is keeping businesses and banks from actually engaging with the economy. As House Democrats pointed out in their letter last month, relatively simple steps — like issuing letters to international businesses assuring them that they are not violating US sanctions — could help alleviate the crisis and shore up the Afghan private sector, but the US Treasury has yet to do so.”
“In the meantime, the Taliban will hold talks this coming week with Western nations, including Norway, the UK, the US, Italy, France, and Germany, about humanitarian aid. The talks should not be seen as a legitimization of Taliban rule, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed to AFP on Friday, “but we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster.””
“Afghanistan’s government lost trust in the United States because of the Trump administration’s negotiations with the Taliban and the Biden administration’s insistence on withdrawing its forces, a former Afghan official said Sunday in describing his government’s collapse earlier this year.”
“Mohib told Brennan the decision was made to leave when it became clear that the military had largely melted away and the police had not shown up for work. “We had to make a decision that was right for Afghanistan,” Mohib said.
For his part, Mohib said the Afghan government expected more from the United States, but that his country was betrayed by the U.S. government negotiating with the Taliban independently.
“What happened was the rug was pulled under the Afghans’ feet,” he said, adding: “The decision to talk directly and engage the Taliban and make a deal with the Taliban that didn’t include the Afghan government was protested.””
“It is common to chalk up America’s failures in Afghanistan to incompetence, ignorance, or stupidity. Yet The Afghanistan Papers, by The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock, shows an American government that, although it had no idea what it was doing when it came to building a democracy in Afghanistan, did an excellent job manipulating the public, avoiding any consequences for its failures, and protecting its bureaucratic and financial interests. The problem was a broken system, not a generalized incompetence.
In 2016, Whitlock received a tip that the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) had interviewed hundreds of participants in the war, including top American and Afghan officials, military leaders, and outside consultants. When the paper tried to get its hands on the results, SIGAR fought it every step of the way; it took a three-year legal battle to get the documents. The Post then published them on its website—along with some related items, such as memos from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—and those formed the basis of this book.
Ultimate responsibility must start on top. No matter what he told himself, President George W. Bush acted as a man who simply didn’t much care what happened to Afghanistan beyond how it influenced his political fortunes. One of Rumsfeld’s memos notes that in October 2002, Bush was asked whether he’d like to meet with Gen. Dan McNeil. The president asked who that was, and Rumsfeld answered that he was the man leading the war in Afghanistan. Bush responded that he didn’t need to see him. The president was presumably preoccupied with the Iraq war he would launch five months later. (That is, he was preoccupied with selling the war. He didn’t really think much about what the U.S. would be doing in that country either.)
The bureaucracy beneath the president comes across as a big dumb machine that was unclear about what it ultimately wanted, and whose different limbs sometimes worked at cross purposes. Many parts of that machine were extremely aware of how hopeless the mission was. As Gen. McNeil said, “There was no campaign plan. It just wasn’t there.” The British general who headed NATO forces in the country from 2006 to 2007 similarly remarked that “there was no coherent long-term strategy.” American military personnel would be sent to Afghanistan on more than one occasion over the two decades of conflict and, in Whitlock’s words, “the war made less sense each time they went back.”
To fight the Taliban, the U.S. empowered brutal warlords, who would often rape and terrorize the local populations. One of the most prominent of these, Abdul Rashid Dostum, was such a destructive force that one American diplomat offered to make him the executive producer of a movie just to get him out of the country. At the same time, the CIA was paying him $70,000 a month. Whitlock’s account includes an endless number of similar stories, in which one part of the American government was doing things that completely negated the actions of others. Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living documented this on the ground, showing how the same individual might be an ally to the CIA and an enemy to the military, and how ultimately this hurt the Afghan people more than anyone else.
As of 2006, Afghanistan had one successful industry: growing up to 90 percent of the world’s opium. Under pressure from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and members of Congress, and over the objections of the military, the Bush administration decided to start destroying those crops. This only fueled the insurgency, even as opium production increased. When the U.S. tried paying farmers not to grow opium, more had an incentive to start planting the crop—and many of them still sold the harvest on the open market anyway after taking American money. According to one official, “urging Karzai to mount an effective counternarcotics campaign was like asking an American president to halt all U.S. economic activity west of the Mississippi.””
“Each part of the American war machine had its own mission, and was going to do what it did regardless of the facts on the ground. The DEA wanted to destroy opium, the human rights bureaucracy pushed women’s rights, and the military wanted to keep the war going. Nobody was there to force these disparate parts to work towards a common goal in a way that made sense. Theoretically, the president should have done so, but the American system clearly rewards political competence more than it does the ability to build stable democracies on the other side of the world. Often extremely self-aware, American officials were not as stupid or incompetent as they were self-interested cogs in a system filled with misaligned incentives.”
“The transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump shows how flexible the Pentagon could be to keep the war going. When working for the former law professor, the generals used more rhetoric about human rights and became experts at manipulating statistics to show how they supposedly were making people’s lives better. Under Trump, they realized that they could maintain his support for the war by talking of victory and killing bad guys. In both cases, the generals successfully resisted a president who was skeptical about their mission. The military seemed relatively indifferent to whether it was spending its time building girls’ schools or undertaking a more expansive bombing campaign, as long as it could keep the war going. Joe Biden watched the generals box in Obama, and he came into the White House determined not to be similarly manipulated.”