Contextualizing Afghanistan: A Deeper Look

By Professor Dr. Neamat Nojumi

The article is also available in German here.

“We worked closely with the German foreign ministry (AA) on the ground, but now they ran away and left us behind… it is unbelievable…”

This recount was expressed in a desperate call to this author by a member of the German civilian-led effort that aimed to get people out of Kabul in the days after the city fell to the Taliban. This depth of the desperation expressed was revealed in shocking images of young Afghans who were clinging on a C-17 U.S. military aircraft and falling to their death. These desperate Afghan youths were just a few of millions who embraced democracy wholeheartedly, created a secular national constitution, went to elections, and liberated girls and women with access to education, health services, and emerging public responsibility; now, they preferred to risk excruciating death over living under a medieval theocracy that desired to establish an Islamist dictatorship under which girls and women are considered sub-human, freedom of expression and thought is considered a sin punishable by death, religious minorities – other than the Taliban themselves – are viewed as impure, and women’s rights and human rights are considered outcomes of Western immorality and corruption. Taliban rule of Afghanistan can quickly result in as many as seven million refugees with millions more displaced, and turn the country – once again – into a safe haven for international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS.

The gruesome images of Afghanistan befuddled most Americans and the NATO nations who have invested an estimated $290 million per day for 7,300 days (2020) and over 7,400 military and civilian personnel in an international military intervention that lasted for 20 years. In addition, many American and European veterans who served in Afghanistan all watched the unfolding events with anger, despair, and even shame.  The collapse of the Afghan government was considered the second major failure (after Myanmar) of a Western-sponsored democratic experiment in 2021 at a time when Russia has been pushing for security dominance across the former Soviet republic, China has been expanding its economic influence through Eurasia, and both are questioning the very essence of the alliance of democracies in a 21st century global order.  This article will explain briefly major contributing flaws in the U.S. and NATO mission that eventually resulted in the collapse of the Afghan government, and will outline important opportunities to jointly back the stability of post-NATO Afghanistan toward preventing a civil war and supporting a broad-based government, including through the formation of a quartet of support, comprised of the E.U., U.S., China, and Russia.

Professor Dr. Neamat Nojumi is an American social scientist researching diverse issues relevant to global governance and public and foreign policy. He worked as a research professor at George Mason University, a research fellow at Harvard Law School, and a senior advisor within the U.S. government. He is the recipient of awards and recognitions from world leaders and national and international institutions.

How We Got Here

There are a number of key contributing factors that shaped the unfolding Washington-made catastrophe of August 2021:

Militarization of Political Strategy

“We started on the wrong foot in Afghanistan, and I’m intent on investing in reconciliation to end the war.”

This was Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s plan, which he expressed to me at a meeting in his office at the State Department, where he had invited me to discuss opportunities and possibilities – weeks before he died from an aortic dissection in mid-December 2010. The 2001 U.S.-led military intervention of Afghanistan aimed to “ensure the country does not again become a safe haven for international terrorists to attack the homelands of NATO members.” With this intent, removing the Taliban regime as the sponsoring party for Al Qaeda led the U.S and NATO to support the formation of a new national government in Afghanistan. Even though this was considered a noble intent, it was flawed, since bringing the terrorists to justice demanded counterterrorism and law enforcement, not large-scale conventional military approaches. More importantly, forming a new government required political and diplomatic strategies, critical capabilities that both the U.S. and NATO lacked in their policies toward Afghanistan.

When it came to form a new government, a militarized approach prevented both Washington and Brussels from developing a political strategy that could define long-term security objectives and embolden local stability via a cooperative regional agenda. This explains why the U.S.-led military intervention was only supported by a minimal team at the State Department and USAID and other relevant departments were not on the table or severely under-resourced and lacking direction. This strategic deficiency resulted in mission creep, as U.S. and NATO efforts gradually shifted from “kill and capture” those “assumed” responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attack to reconstruction programs, counternarcotics, counter-insurgency, and building Afghan national security forces. The cost of the mission and lives lost snowballed with the prolongation, while successive American Administrations focused on withdrawing forces six different times after Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense, declared “the end of major combat” on May 1, 2003. This arbitrary withdrawal of forces enabled the Taliban to continually adjust their insurgency to Washington-declared timelines.

On July 22, 2019, President Trump met with Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan and apparently conceded to Pakistan’s role in delivering the Taliban to a peace deal in return for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. This untutored and unsupervised decision by the U.S. president led to a poorly negotiated process and a flawed peace deal with the Taliban, which aimed for a safe withdrawal of American forces by May 1, 2021. Knowing the risks of a rushed withdrawal, the Biden administration pushed back the withdrawal date to September 11, 2021, yet still adopted Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban. Both presidents’ decision to end the war in Afghanistan at a time when U.S. and NATO war casualties and costs were at their lowest better reflects their own political ambitions to win a second term, as opposed to the long-term national security objectives of the United States. Despite the presence of numerous warnings and practical multilateral approaches to end the conflict in Afghanistan, the Biden administration adopted the flawed peace deal with the Taliban.

The U.S. and NATO militarization of the mission in Afghanistan and its politicization within American electoral politics minimized the military and the intelligence community’s accountability as they were often preoccupied with tasks pertaining to an upcoming withdrawal or tactical requirements for protecting U.S. troops on the ground. This lackadaisical policy approach impeded military command and intelligence capabilities with an extremely short-sighted foreign policy approach. These dramatic shortfalls enabled the Taliban to retreat into their protected safe havens in Pakistan, recuperate losses, reorganize, and reemerge again and again. As long-term consequences, Washington and Brussels failed to foresee the rapid collapse of the Afghan government, the departure of President Ghani,  and  the striking speed of the Taliban’s takeover of the entire country while seizing over $83 billion of U.S. and NATO weapons and equipment. In the end, there is no doubt that U.S. and NATO military commanders and their solders won every battle they were tasked, in part, carried reconstruction projects, and supported governance, counternarcotics, and infrastructure-building programs – all of which should have delegated to civilian and non-military partnerships that were never established.  It was the American and European politicians who have lost the war.

NATO’s Lethargic Complicity

“We have captured high value insurgent commanders from the battlefield and we want them to cooperate with us.”

This statement was presented to me by a British Special Forces commander in 2011, as I was supporting peace and reconciliation possibilities. I asked him the following questions:  Do you have anyone on your team who can speak your captives’ language?  Do you know anyone who is familiar with the recent history of Afghanistan, or who understands the roles of religion and culture or Islamist ideology? The answer to all of these questions was “no,” mainly because they were given an operational task that evaded a political direction, an outcome of NATO’s automatic joining of the U.S.’s “Global War on Terror” out of solidarity under Article 5 of the Collective Defense Treaty, which obligates each and every member of the Alliance to take actions. At the time, many viewed such an intervention as contrary to the international law that addresses counterterrorism under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR obligates treating terrorism as a crime against the rights of public in general. Given this, NATO’s following of the Bush administration into an international military intervention was more based on political solidarity rather than European national security or the obligations under international law. This lethargic approach continued without a political strategy that could visualize the mission’s endgame or avoid unintended consequences such as growing civilian casualties, extraordinary renditions, the justification of torture, and the establishment of Guantanamo detentions by military commissions with “ambiguous jurisdictional authority.”

Even though UN Security Council Resolution 1386 defined the military intervention in Afghanistan as a NATO-led mission aimed to train the Afghan forces and assist in rebuilding government institutions, it never rose to take the leadership in that direction but instead followed the counterterrorism objectives of killing and capturing suspected militants from 2001 through 2009. The reemergence of the Taliban into a full-blown insurgency challenged both the political vision and military leadership of NATO that forced them to postpone the 2009 withdrawal to 2011, which was then pushed again to 2014 by the Obama administration. UN Security Council Resolution 2189 of 2014 recognized the transfer of security responsibility to Afghan national security forces and sustained another NATO-led Resolution Support Mission. The objective of this mission was to help Afghan security forces and institutions develop the capacity to defend Afghanistan and protect its citizens in the long term. This mission was complicated once Donald Trump came to office with an indescribable “America First” agenda that was more a personalized emotional outcry about the U.S. global role than a sensible Washington’s responsibility in leading an alliance of democracies. Looking at U.S. participation in the NATO-led support mission in Afghanistan from a transactional cost-and-benefit perspective, the White House attempted a safe-exit strategy via a negotiated peace deal with the Taliban. President Trump’s acceptance of meeting the Taliban leaders at Camp David outraged many Republicans as well as Democrats; his phone conversation with Taliban political leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar outraged Afghan government leaders, particularly President Ghani. The concession meeting with Prime Minister Khan and the subsequent negotiations with the Taliban were done without the participation and consultation of NATO leaders, who were only briefed afterwards by the U.S. State Department and its Special Envoy Ambassador Khalilzad in a limited capacity.

A unilateral negotiation with the Taliban was a direct violation of the NATO mandates under UN Security Council Resolution 2189. Accordingly, ending the NATO-led U.S. mission should have been negotiated with the Afghan government and not with the Taliban. Agreeing to nullify the Afghan National Constitution and ending the republic of Afghanistan with the enemy of that government unilaterally and without the Afghan leaders was a violation of Afghan sovereignty, which NATO had a mandate to assist in protecting. NATO’s complicity in the U.S.’s unilateral approach toward Afghanistan then offered the Biden administration the ability to bully the Afghan government into accepting Washington’s agreement with the Taliban. The negotiation process emboldened the Taliban; the peace deal offered the militant group the needed political legitimacy they failed to attain since their inception in 1994, at the expense of the legitimacy of the Afghan government. The outcome severely undermined the already fragile influence of the government leaders, particularly President Ghani, and disillusioned the Afghan armed forces who stopped fighting the Taliban and deserted their posts soon after the U.S. abandoned the Bagram Air Base.

In early August, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wales called the U.S. deal with the Taliban “rotten,” and tried to convince other NATO allies to support a U.K.-led military alliance to back the Afghan forces, but failed to gain needed support. Afghanistan was Germany’s first military deployment since World War II; the disastrous ending of the NATO mission was shockingly bitter. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the scenes of desperate civilians at the Kabul airport a human tragedy and “shameful,” while German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the situation in Afghanistan a “debacle” created by Washington. Norbert Rottgen, chair of the German parliament’s foreign relations committee, even warned that the catastrophe in Afghanistan “does fundamental damage to the political and moral credibility of the West.”

These final developments could have been avoided if NATO leaders had built the capacity for needed leadership instead of working within an intangible militarized framework led by Washington for 20 years. On August 12, U.S. Central Commander General Frank McKenzie and Khalilzad met Mullah Baradar to inform him about bringing some forces back into Afghanistan to complete the U.S. withdrawal, to ensure Taliban fighters did not interfere.  Baradar agreed to pull out any Taliban fighters already in Kabul and asked General McKenzie if he planned to take responsibility for the security in the city; McKenzie suggested it was not his responsibility. The Taliban leader sensed a security vacuum – as the Afghan government forces were decidedly not stopping the Taliban advancement – and quickly filled the void by capturing Kabul and ending the government. This raises a judicious question: could this security vacuum have been avoided if there was a NATO political or military representative (e.g., E.U. Special Envoy to Afghanistan Tomas Niklasson) in that meeting in Doha? Undeniably, the Biden administration has to own the catastrophe in Afghanistan, but the rest of NATO leadership should also be held accountable for a lethargic and grossly neglected mission, as illustrated by the Dutch parliament forcing Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag to resign over mishandlings within the mission in Afghanistan.

The Outcome

Accepting the truth of what is possible and what is unlikely to occur in a country devastated by four decades of war seems intriguing yet also complicated. To simplify, what the 20 years of the NATO mission offered the people of Afghanistan and to the allied nations is amalgamated into the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

“I’m encouraged. This gives me greater confidence that Afghans are capable in further advancing democratic institutions once ISAF leaves Afghanistan.”

This is how General Jurgen Theodor Weigt (from Germany) responded to my question about the state of affairs in Afghanistan in 2011. General Weigt was representing ISAF in a civil-military dialogue with local and international civil societies, during which some called NATO as a “belligerent force” in Afghanistan. Two years later, NATO Senior Civilian Representative Sir Simon Lawrance Gass told me, “If one looks into what has been accomplished from 2001, Afghans are coming along well, even though there are still important steps ahead … Afghanistan is a better country for its people now.” After all, since the start of the NATO mission in 2001, the ruined city of Kabul that the Taliban left behind became a booming metropolis with a population of more than 4 million, and the country boasted one of the highest rates of urbanization in the world in 2020. The country has experienced a communications revolution that includes a nationwide cellphone network, satellite access, better transportation and electrification approaching 90 percent in urban areas (up from only 5 percent in 2001). Primary and secondary education, including for girls, reached nine million (in a population of 35 million). From a single university in 2001, Afghanistan established hundreds more (most privately funded) that enrolled 300,000 students, of which 100,000 were women (up from zero in 2001). From zero in 2001, Afghan women secured 27% of parliament seats and captured ministerial ranking and senior positions within the conservative judiciary, the police, the Afghan military and court system. Afghanistan mass media emerged ubiquitous with over 200 TV stations (up from zero in 2001), a larger number of radio stations and internet-based social media outlets that were amplifying progressive values and perspectives to most of the corners of the country. The rise of a middle class along the expansion of mass media increased the country’s freedom of press to one of the highest in the region, and the economy grew from $2.5 billion in 2001 to $19 billion in 2020. These levels of progress were highlights of the cautious optimism expressed to me by General Weigt and Ambassador Gass a decade ago.

The Bad

“We are confused now. We need to put a forum between you and Ashraf Ghani (then Chairman of the Afghan Transition Coordination Commission) to debate the essence of centralization versus decentralization.”

This was suggested by the deputy head of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan after I presented findings from my research on How to Fix Governance in Afghanistan. Centralization of governance in Afghanistan was a failed experiment tested by the communist-led Afghan government in the 1980s, which resulted in widespread local uprisings, the Soviet military invasion, and a bloody civil war that led to the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. The 2001 U.S./NATO international military intervention in Afghanistan aimed to enforce an extreme centralized government, formulated in Bonn, Germany, by anti-Taliban opposition groups. The Bonn Agreement was grossly dominated by then-President Bush’s Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Khalilzad’s efforts were complemented by Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations Special Representative, who was extensively reliant on Ashraf Ghani (the recently fleeing President of Afghanistan). Both Khalilzad and Ghani supported a centralized republican political order in Afghanistan. The Taliban were excluded from the Bonn process and former Afghan monarch Mohammed Zahir, who was viewed as a popular national figure, was pushed to the margin. Instead, Khalilzad lobbied for Hamid Karzai, an unknown individual from southern Afghanistan, as the head of the new government.

Importing a centralized political and administrative order from outside badly minimized vast opportunities to boost a bottom-up delivery of governance in Afghanistan. To use the words of Thomas Barfield, the renowned anthropologist from Boston University, “this structure [centralization] reduced Afghan citizens to subjects in their dealings with unaccountable administers who seek to please the palace [the president] rather than the population, of which they often know very little.” Under this NATO-protected centralized national authority, the president was directly appointing a significant number of seats in the national parliament, appointing all provincial and district level administrators, and playing a strong role in the judiciary. This extreme centralized political order created numerous bottlenecks for resources pushed forward by the U.S./NATO and the rest of the international community across the 34 provinces and 421 districts of the country. Incompatible political and administrative structure obstructed the generously committed resources in education, healthcare services, nutrition, and job opportunities. The weakness of the government, the unchecked abuse of power and the corruption at district and provincial levels disillusioned the populace and provided space for the reemergence of the Taliban at local levels four years after they were removed from power. A locally weak government and inept administration in Kabul grow more responsive to the requirements of international donors rather than its own people, and a mismatch of budgeting, planning, and implementing programs caused growing tensions between the Afghan government and donors who were following mandates formulated by their respected governments.

U.S. and NATO objectives for the Global War on Terror in Afghanistan relied on former warlords and militia commanders, who each followed their own local interests and often undermined the good intentions of the Americans and NATO nations that supported democratic process and rule of law. By 2009, NATO viewed building the national security institutions, including a national army, as a viable solution toward withdrawing forces from Afghanistan. Yet as a fragile national government facing a growing Taliban insurgency launched from safe havens in Pakistan and widespread corruption across government institutions, this strategy further militarized NATO’s approach. The Afghan military was built as an extension of NATO forces in Afghanistan with profound institutional and operational reliance on logistic, intelligence, and air support by the US/NATO. Billions of dollars were directed to commission over 17,000 contractors to provide needed support, and billions more funded the cost of fighting at the expense of badly needed investment in governance and capacity-building at the district and provincial levels which were crucial for the political and social stability of the country.

The Ugly

The Taliban didn’t defeat us. We defeated ourselves.”

This explanation was offered by H. R. McMaster, former national security advisor to President Trump. The militarization of the U.S./NATO policies toward Afghanistan led to building a 300,000-strong Afghan security force. To large extent, the funding of these forces was reliant on international assistance. During this effort, there is no doubt that a generation of charismatic lower- and middle-ranking military cadres emerged as patriotic and loyal leaders within the armed forces, but senior cadres were often appointed on the basis of political loyalty to the Afghan president and not merits or allegiance to the institution of the armed forces. The Afghan special forces units and the rank and file of the Afghan military emerged as popularly respected and loved across Afghanistan. They became an effective fighting force and, with U.S./NATO support, won every single battle against the insurgents since the transfer of security responsibility in 2014.

Yet the morale of the Afghan military was broken by the U.S. peace deal with the Taliban that undermined the credibility of the Afghan government. “The American peace deal with the Taliban, an enemy we have been fighting for twenty years, was difficult to explain to our officers and soldiers,” a senior Afghan military officer recently told me. Another former Afghan security official stated: “We were left in limbo, between an unknown future government and the legitimization of our enemy that has killed our family members and our children at schools, hospitals, universities or construction sites covertly by suicide bombers.  The situation grew more damning when we saw U.S./NATO aircrafts and drones flying over our battlefields but refusing to assist – and we didn’t know on whose side they were on anymore.” Taking away these essential capabilities overnight left the Afghan military with inadequate ammunition, transportation, evacuation, and even food supplies, according to Lieutenant General Sami Sadat, who commanded the Afghan National Army’s 215 Maiwand Corps in southwestern Afghanistan. Washington’s flawed peace deal with the Taliban by the Trump administration and the rapid withdrawal by the Biden administration fully demoralized the Afghan security forces who lost their reasons to fight. Again, in the words of H.R. McMaster:

“Our secretary of state [Mike Pompeo] signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban.”

Ways Forward

The gloomy question in front of the U.S. and E.U. now is this: we lost the government of Ashraf Ghani; are we willing to lose Afghanistan? Afghanistan symbolizes 20 years of investment that led to the rise of a new generation of Afghans who, in most cases, adopted a new way of life and took every opportunity possible to be productive members of the international community and move toward a nation of laws and civility. Afghanistan, not the fleeing Afghan president or his circle of political elites, symbolizes the sacrifice of thousands from the international community, particularly from NATO nations and the U.S., who are not with their families anymore. Afghanistan is a nation with 75% of its population under 25 years of age; most were born and grew up with the NATO mission, and will now have hard time coping with a theocratic dictatorship that does not represent the traditional cultural tolerance of the country and is abhorrent to the progressive values embraced over the last 20 years. This blend of good, bad, and ugly is the reality of Afghanistan and makes the possibility of a bloody civil war with regional and global consequences imminent. Given this, Washington and Brussels should support the following:

Bridging China and Russia 

The stability of Afghanistan offers significant security interests shared between Brussels, Washington, Beijing and Moscow, especially now that the U.S./NATO military presence has ended. The Central Asian and Uighur Islamists have been parts of the Taliban movement and have fought in Afghanistan for a long time. These militant fighters were instrumental in the Taliban’s advances in northern Afghanistan and are incorporated with other regional militant groups, including Al Qaeda. The rise of ISIS-K and its fast expansion since the Taliban takeover is backed by most of the jihadist militants from the Russian Federation and Caucasus who fought in Iraq and Syria. An Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan will result in a civil war which will pose serious security threats to western China and the soft belly of the Russian Federation, central Asia and Caucasus. This is why Moscow has conducted several military drills across central Asian countries that border Afghanistan while Chinese security forces are on high alert in the bordering region of Xinjiang.  In addition, China has extended influence in Pakistan toward directing the Taliban to alter their course, prevent the eruption of a civil war and participate in a broad-based government in Afghanistan. The Taliban consider China  a ‘friendly nation,’ and have offered security assurances to the Russian Embassy in Kabul and its resources across Afghanistan. Compared with the U.S. and E.U., the militant group has sustained a functioning relationship with Beijing and Moscow in recent years. A quartet of support from the E.U., U.S., China, and Russia can further enhance stability efforts within a broader regional and international mandate.

Preventing Civil War

It would be extremely naïve to put the Taliban to a test after 20 years of experimentation. The Taliban’s behaviors indicate that they remain an ultra-conservative, medieval theocratic movement that seek to establish an Islamist Emirate where Al Qaeda and ISIS will once again be able to establish a strong foothold, though from a position of strength. Currently, the security posts in the Taliban-proposed government has been given to the leaders of the Haqhani network, a U.S.- and NATO-designated terrorist group responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. and NATO soldiers and thousands of civilians serving the mission in Afghanistan. The top intelligence posts have been given to those who were in charge of recruitment and deployment of hundreds of suicide-bombers against hospitals, schools, worship places, and local markets. Under international law, these individuals should have been turned into International Criminal Courts for Crimes against humanity. For most Afghans, it would be unbearable to live under terrorist leaders who are responsible for the deaths of their family members. They are left with two options: fight or leave the country. If not mitigated, millions of young Afghans will cross the borders, in most cases, toward Europe. Banning terrorist leaders from key government positions should be a red line for Washington and Brussels.

Supporting a Broad-Based Government

There is a growing network of resistance to the Taliban rule across Afghanistan, mainly comprised of those who built a post-Taliban Afghanistan. The Taliban neither paid a cent nor a drop of sweat in building the roads, buildings, and other infrastructure they now enjoy. Furthermore, they lack the educational background, technical expertise, and the statecraft to lead complex administrations and laws compatible with international norms and regulations. Washington and Brussels should keep the lines of communication open with the National Resistance Force (NRF), headed by Ahmad Massoud and Amrullah Saleh. Both of these charismatic leaders stand for a broad-based government, which has significant support at the regional level and has been strongly encouraged by government leaders of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries.

Bridging the security interests between the E.U., U.S., China, and Russia will allow the international community and particularly UN agencies to reach out to the local populations inside Afghanistan who face serious disruptions to basic services. Additionally, Afghanistan’s private sector and business community will, once again, re-engage with regional global trade networks, while educational, and training institutions could bring growing normalcy as Afghanistan reintegrates once more into the global community. Achieving this level of effort is a low-cost endeavor that would improve and save lives. This would allow the people of Afghanistan to protect and advance the gains achieved in term of human development and regional and international integration during the past 20 years.