It’s Time for America to Go Back to Afghanistan

Ms. Gannon is a Canadian journalist who covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for 34 years for The Associated Press.

The New York Times
4 January 2024

It’s striking how much Afghanistan, which has the unfortunate legacy of being the site of America’s longest war, has all but disappeared from public discussion in the United States. But perhaps it’s understandable. After all, there always seems to be another conflict, another war — which, as it happens, is also Afghanistan’s history.

Since 1979, Afghans have lived in almost perpetual conflict. Millions of people have been forced to flee their homes or their country. Foreign interventions have come and gone, ending in failure, leaving Afghans and their neighbors to live with the consequences.

Today, America’s longest war is over. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul sits empty, a daily reminder of how America has sought to isolate Afghanistan since the U.S. military’s withdrawal in 2021. Washington has done so in an effort to pressure the ruling Taliban to moderate its views, including committing to women’s rights, expanding the government to non-Taliban members and addressing human rights abuses.

That tactic backfired the first time the group was in power. And vacant Western embassies aren’t going to get girls back to school or increase women’s participation in the work force. Instead, isolating the Taliban has served only to isolate Afghans, leaving many of them feeling alone and, worse, helpless.

It’s time to accept that past policies have failed and that the United States and its allies must change course and commit to greater engagement, which would in turn bring a better understanding of the realities in Afghanistan. Along with the large amount of humanitarian aid Washington provides, it’s time for America to return to Afghanistan and the 40 million people who live there. Washington should reopen its embassy in Kabul and commit to engaging with Afghans across society. Afghans need to know that the United States and others are there and that they can be depended upon.

As a journalist who worked in Afghanistan for decades, I have seen the country through its many wars and witnessed the results of successive failed policies. I watched as so many nations and international organizations scrambled to evacuate some of the country’s brightest and best-educated people. I watched the last U.S. aircraft fly out of the Kabul airport in 2021, bringing a frantic end to the war and ushering in the Taliban’s return to power.

I wondered then whether the world would ever be able to see Afghanistan for the striking country it is and to see Afghans — not just the Kabul elite and expatriates but also those in villages and cities, on farms that stretch for miles or in the rugged mountains — not as a problem to solve but as the very answer to lasting peace in their country.

When the Taliban previously controlled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, Washington, the United Nations and others came down hard on Taliban leaders with conditions they were instructed to meet if they could hope to gain recognition by the United States and other nations. The Taliban were told to educate girls, end drug production and expel Osama bin Laden, who had lived there since the spring of 1996, before the Taliban took power.

But U.S. and U.N. sanctions closed off Afghanistan and undercut those among the Taliban who wanted to engage with the world and had a vision for their country that — while it might not have matched the conception in Western capitals — included having girls and boys attend school.

Most significantly, some of those Taliban members open to engagement did not support foreign fighters taking up residence in their country. As I reported at the time, the Taliban’s then deputy interior minister, Mohammad Khaksar, told me that in the years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strike on the United States, he had reached out to a U.S. diplomat and a C.I.A. official in neighboring Pakistan for help in expelling foreign fighters but was rebuffed. Gregory Marchese, at the time the vice consul at the U.S. Consulate in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar, later corroborated to me that he’d had that meeting with Mr. Khaksar and a C.I.A. official, Peter McIllwain. Mr. McIllwain later confirmed what Mr. Khaksar had said about it.

America did not focus on Afghanistan in the years after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when it closed its embassy. This left Washington blind to what was taking shape there in the lead-up to Sept. 11. Over the past two years, Washington has pursued a similar policy, shunning a diplomatic return to Kabul and believing it can pressure Taliban leaders into educating girls and easing restrictions on women with the promise of international recognition. And once again, that notion is failing.

In my reporting on the Taliban movement since 2021, I have found that the most restrictive Taliban leaders have grown more assertive, capitalizing on the nation’s isolation to tighten their grip, at the expense of those who advocate international engagement and whose vision for their country does not exclude girls from education or seek to make women invisible.

Financially, America has continued to be generous to Afghanistan, providing significant humanitarian aid since the Taliban’s return to power. In fact, America remains one of the nation’s largest humanitarian donors — having spent about $2 billion on aid since leaving the country. (At the same time, the United States and European nations are holding more than $9 billion in Afghan assets, frozen since the Taliban’s return.) But humanitarian aid alone won’t help Afghanistan move forward.

The public face of the anti-Taliban movement in Afghanistan is composed of some of the same discredited warlords accused of war crimes and former generals who took charge after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, some of whom have also been accused of — and denied — crimes against Afghan civilians. The United States has been engaged with those leaders, but they are part of the problem, not a solution.

Of course, America talks to the Taliban as well. U.S. officials have met with Taliban leaders in Qatar, where the group maintains a political office and where the U.S. diplomatic mission to Afghanistan is based. Washington’s special envoy, Thomas West, is the public face of America’s Afghanistan policy. He has met with the Taliban in Qatar to discuss topics like education for girls and humanitarian aid, and he holds meetings with the leaders of Afghanistan’s neighbors and those in the Middle East and Europe.

But it is engagement at a distance. That strategy offers a voice to only a few Afghans — the Kabul elite, expatriates and former government officials. That means U.S. officials don’t hear, see or understand what is happening on the ground. The United Nations has maintained a steady presence in the country since the Taliban took power, and nearly 20 nations, including Japan, China, Russia and some Middle Eastern nations, have maintained or established some sort of diplomatic presence there in the past two years. Until the United States and other Western nations do the same, there will be people in Afghanistan who will continue to feel alone and unable to make the changes that only they can make.

It would also be helpful if Western officials’ public statements aided in finding a path forward rather than inflaming sentiments. Speaking to Congress in April about how U.S. funds were being used in Afghanistan, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, said: “I would just say I haven’t seen a starving Taliban fighter on TV. They all seem to be fat, dumb and happy. I see a lot of starving Afghan children on TV. So I am wondering where all this funding is going.”

While Mr. Sopko’s concerns about how U.S. money was being spent may have been legitimate, that kind of caricature is not in anyone’s interest. The Taliban is a movement defined by its religious zeal, whose tribal roots are deeply wedged in Afghanistan’s conservative countryside. Respect goes far in Afghanistan — and a lack of respect goes equally far in unproductive directions.

The Taliban come from within Afghan society. That does not mean all Afghans support the relentless restrictions on girls and women, but it does mean that navigating a way forward requires deeper understanding, less arrogance and more of a homegrown Afghan solution.

And like it or not, that means returning to Afghanistan.

Kathy Gannon is a Canadian journalist and former correspondent and news director of 34 years for The Associated Press, covering Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia and the Middle East. She was seriously injured in 2014 when an Afghan police commander fired on her car, killing an A.P. photographer from Germany, Anja Niedringhaus.

It’s Time for America to Go Back to Afghanistan