My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan review – desperately sad study of a boy’s life

This documentary following one boy’s life in Afghanistan feels like a brutal, desperately sad companion piece to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Its co-directors, the British documentary-maker Phil Grabsky and Shoaib Sharifi, first started filming Mir Hussein aged seven in 2002, and they haven’t stopped. They have already made two previous films – The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan (2004) and The Boy Mir: Ten Years in Afghanistan (2011) – and this third gives us the complete picture: Mir pulled along by time’s current from boyhood to the present day, married with three kids in Kabul. To be honest, it’s the opposite of life-affirming.

The story begins in 2002, a year after 9/11. US troops have landed in Afghanistan. Seven-year-old Mir is living with his family in a cave in Bamiyan, having fled their village. They are grindingly poor, but little Mir giggles as he shows the film-makers his “bedroom” in the cave. He grins as a fighter jet roars overhead. “We thought that the Americans would rebuild our country,” Mir remembers on the voiceover, without a trace of bitterness.

He is a little older in 2004, back in his home town, attending school. Mir says he wants to be the president or a headteacher when he grows up. But then his father gets sick, so he has to work: first in the fields and then in a death-trap coalmine. Mir is resourceful, resilient and always hopefully optimistic about the future of his country, often in the face of the reality before his eyes.

It’s an intimate, painful documentary. “I have never experienced a happy life, because of war and the Taliban,” Mir says in 2020, living with wife and children in Kabul, training as a news cameraman. He is made redundant from that job during lockdown. Mir has lived most of his life through the failed Nato mission in Afghanistan. This film ends before the dire crisis that has engulfed the country following the withdrawal of troops and the Taliban re-taking control. What will a film about Mir in five years find? It’s a grim thought.

Phil Grabsky and Shoaib Sharifi have followed Mir for two decades in what is almost a brutal companion piece to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

Mir Hussein in My Childhood, My Country – 20 Years in Afghanistan
Mir Hussein in My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan. Photograph: ITV
 My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan is released on 20 September in cinemas.

My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan review – desperately sad study of a boy’s life
read more

Some Hope for Afghans in Need

The Biden Administration has agreed to release $3.5 billion in frozen funds, but will they reach a desperate population?

Embargoes imposed to coerce dictators also punish suffering populations. For years, lawyers, economists, and policy wonks have searched for technocratic solutions to this dilemma—for example, by designing “targeted” economic and travel sanctions against individual leaders and their cronies. As America’s use of sanctions grows, such efforts have become a booming field of public-policy design and, occasionally, bold experiments.

The Biden Administration’s announcement this week that it will release $3.5 billion in frozen Afghan-central-bank funds to a new Swiss foundation—the Afghan Fund, whose mission will be “to benefit the people of Afghanistan”—is such an experiment. The foundation’s bespoke rules will increase Afghan participation in deliberations over the money’s fate and broaden international responsibility, yet allow the Biden Administration to wield a veto over any disbursements. The Taliban are not a party to the project.

Unfortunately, it seems doubtful that the Afghan Fund will achieve the Administration’s stated purpose—“to help provide greater stability to the Afghan economy,” as a joint Treasury and State Departments announcement this week put it—anytime soon. The Afghan economy is in desperate condition, and hunger is spreading. Quickly deploying the $3.5 billion in reserves to recapitalize the Afghan central bank, known as Da Afghanistan Bank or D.A.B., could help revive the country’s moribund commercial-banking system and fund needed imports, among other things. Yet the Taliban have not been willing or able to change their management of the central bank to meet Washington’s requirements—for example, to remove one of the bank’s deputy governors, who is a listed by the U.S. as a terrorist. The Biden Administration went public this week with demands that the Taliban demonstrate that D.A.B. will be free from political interference, and that the regime adopt money-laundering-prevention measures and accept outside monitoring.

In political Washington, perhaps the greatest obstacle to releasing the reserves remains the Taliban’s support for Al Qaeda and other legally designated terrorist groups. The Taliban’s hubristic willingness to provide haven to Ayman al-Zawahiri, a direct author of 9/11, who was discovered hiding in downtown Kabul and killed by an American drone in late July, has cemented the already formidable bipartisan resistance in Congress to doing business with the restored Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban regime calls itself. Taliban spokesmen have denied knowing that Zawahiri was hiding in Kabul. But, according to a briefing by the Biden Administration, senior members of the regime’s Haqqani faction knew of his presence. The family network’s most powerful figure, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is the acting interior minister.

The Afghan Fund’s plan to empower Afghan leadership might improve the odds, long though they may be, that the Taliban will eventually implement the reforms that Washington and European allies require. (Other countries besides the U.S. have frozen Afghan deposits.) The Administration has named two Afghan-born finance experts, Anwar-ul Haq Ahady and Shah Mehrabi, as “co-founders” of the Afghan Fund. They are to appoint a diverse committee of Afghan advisers.

The fund’s creation is “a very positive first step,” Mehrabi told me. D.A.B. “was the envy of our neighbors” during much of the life of the Islamic Republic, the nato-backed government that collapsed in August, 2021. During the past year, Afghanistan “has suffered a brain drain,” he added. “We need to rebuild.”

In the short run, the Afghan Fund might also be able to obtain Taliban coöperation and American acquiescence for relatively small disbursements to benefit civilians, such as the manufacture of bank notes. But the over-all record of technocratic innovations like the Afghan Fund is not encouraging. One problem is complexity. The foundation’s decision-making board so far has four members—Mehrabi, Ahady, a U.S.-government representative to be named, and a Swiss-government representative to be named—and can make decisions only unanimously. That is potentially a recipe for gridlock. The board may expand to include a European Union member. Suggestions that an apolitical member of the current D.A.B. staff be appointed have so far been turned aside. “The devil is in the details,” William Byrd, a development economist who worked for years in Kabul for the World Bank and is now a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, told me. Byrd had not examined the Afghan Fund’s design when we spoke this week, but, from past experience, he said, “the nuts and bolts of the arrangement are going to be quite important and could very well determine its success or failure.”

At the World Bank, Byrd was involved in the early development of the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, a mechanism that regulated large flows of international-donor funds to the fledgling government led by Hamid Karzai. That fund’s relative success, Byrd argued, came from “simple management arrangements with clear responsibilities, along with sound financial engineering, governance, and accountability.” As the new Afghan Fund operates, “the last thing you would want is for the U.S. to be heavily involved.”

By sending the money to Switzerland, the Biden Administration has made plain that the funds are not U.S. property but, rather, are part of the sovereign wealth of Afghanistan. Yet the Administration’s decision to award itself a veto over disbursements reflects a reality that it would be reckless on counterterrorism grounds—not to mention politically untenable in Washington—to simply hand the money over to the Taliban, given the restored emirate’s record. The Taliban’s closure of secondary schools to girls and failure to protect Hazara minorities targeted by the Islamic State make a decision to release funds even more unlikely.

In the end, Washington’s veto, like the imposition of economic sanctions, is best understood as power politics. And the ineluctable fact that nations battle hard over resources such as multibillion-dollar piles of cash is one reason that clever technocratic designs like the Afghan Fund have failed in the past. Rich countries generally don’t hesitate to leverage their financial advantages, and dictators and extremists generally don’t care what international lawyers or policy wonks want them to do.

The oil-for-food program, conceived by the Clinton Administration to relieve Iraqi civilian suffering under Saddam Hussein, is one case study. During the program’s life, between 1996 and 2003, Hussein skimmed off hundreds of millions of dollars in kickbacks to shore up his police state, while the U.S. used its U.N. veto to play hardball, slowing and blocking exports to Iraq in ways that exacerbated Iraq’s humanitarian crisis, as recounted in the ethicist Joy Gordon’s book, “Invisible War.”

The Afghan Fund may turn out to be just a Swiss bank account for funds that will remain blocked for years. Yet the initiative offers at the least the possibility that Afghans themselves will play a leading role in deciding what to do next. Mehrabi said that reforms to prevent money laundering at the Taliban-controlled central bank, which are among the Biden Administration’s requirements, should be achievable and could allow for confidence-building in Kabul and Washington alike.

“Look, people are dying of hunger,” Mehrabi said. “State and Treasury deserve to be commended; they’ve brought a lot of attention to relieving the hardship. But we need to be concerned about the structure of the economy. We need to be able to go ahead and rebuild these institutions.” As for the Taliban, he added, “I cannot answer the question of whether they will coöperate.”

Some Hope for Afghans in Need
read more

Is Afghanistan’s Long Civil War Really Over?

The Forces That Could Threaten the Taliban’s Control

One year ago, the democratic government of Afghanistan collapsed. The humiliating evacuation of U.S. military forces and civilians as well as roughly 100,000 Afghans remains a sore spot for Washington and its allies. The Taliban regime has ruled the country ever since. Levels of violence throughout the country have been dramatically reduced—but so, too, have the rights of women, the freedom of the media, and the safety of those who supported the overthrown democratic government. Questions about the new state of affairs abound. Should the international community recognize the Taliban? Will the Taliban moderate themselves? Can diplomacy or sanctions compel them to do so? Is a new international terrorist threat forming under the Taliban’s watch?

And an even more pressing question looms over the country: Is the Afghan civil war that started in 1978 finally over? For four decades, Afghanistan tore itself apart. Mujahideen fought communists. Warlords fought warlords. The Taliban fought the Northern Alliance. The democratic republic’s army fought the Taliban. In the process, more than two million Afghans were killed or wounded and more than five million became refugees. Last year’s withdrawal of foreign forces from the country put an end to that cycle and allowed the Taliban to consolidate its control—at least for the time being. Pockets of resistance to Taliban rule, the Taliban’s continued embrace of the tactics of terrorism, and foreign intervention could all potentially rekindle the civil war in ways that are not apparent right now. What today appears to be a new period of peace may turn out to be just a pause in Afghanistan’s long trauma. Washington’s ability to do much about this is limited. The most important thing is to be cognizant of how previous interventions prevented the civil war from ending. Getting involved in Afghanistan again in order to mitigate risks to U.S. national security would pose an even greater risk: worsening the tragedy for the Afghan people.


Afghanistan has never been entirely peaceful. Tribal feuds, government repression, border skirmishes, and dynastic plots have been part of Afghan life for centuries. It is a hard place to govern. Tribal norms place a high value on the individuality of every member of a tribe, and no government—including the monarchy that ruled the country from 1747 to 1973—has ever been able to control the country’s hundreds of tribes, subtribes, and clans. Religious leaders—village mullahs and Islamic scholars and judges—also play an important role in society. They, too, have posed checks on the power of state authorities, and have sometimes called for jihad against not just foreign invaders but Afghan rulers, as well.

But there was a kind of stability to the instability. Tribes were too divided to pose an existential threat to the country or society. The monarchy’s own plotting and short bursts of violence were too brief to prevent leadership transitions. Attempts by the monarchy to oppress Afghans were largely deterred by the tribes and religious leaders. And for nearly a century after the British invasion and occupation of 1878–81, no major foreign invasions upset the equilibrium.

Forces of modernization began to tip that balance in the late twentieth century. But the event that sparked 40 years of civil war was the Saur Revolution, in 1978. Communists overthrew the regime of Daoud Khan, the cousin and successor of the former king. Yet the communists enjoyed only a small base of popular support, and their education, land, and marriage reforms prompted a backlash among tribes, religious leaders, and the rural population. In 1979, an insurgency formed and advanced rapidly. In December of that year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prevent the defeat of the incipient communist regime.

The Soviet invasion brought modern industrial war to Afghanistan and led to a decade of bloodshed. The majority of Afghan casualties and refugees from the past 40 years took place during this period. Soviet tanks, aircraft, and artillery smashed into villages, which militarized in response. Resistance to the occupation united once disparate tribes, ethnic communities, and religious leaders. Declaring themselves holy warriors, the people rose up, armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and sophisticated communications gear supplied by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other countries.

The Soviet defeat and departure in 1989 left the mujahideen without a common enemy, especially after the communist regime finally fell in 1992. They turned to fighting each other. War entered Kabul itself. Many Afghans remember this as the worst part of the past 40 years. The different sides razed neighborhoods and victimized communities. The tribal and ethnic community leaders that had been mujahideen became warlords.


The Taliban emerged out of the chaos of the early 1990s. In his 2010 book, My Life with the Taliban, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who served as Taliban ambassador to Pakistan at the time of 2001 U.S. invasion, argued that “the Taliban were different” than what had come before. “A group of religious scholars and students with different backgrounds, they transcended the normal coalitions and factions,” Zaeef wrote. “They were fighting out of their deep religious belief in jihad and their faith in God. Allah was their only reason for being there, unlike many other mujahedeen who fought for money or land.” Although combat persisted in the north, the Taliban were able to reduce violence in much of the country, slowly gaining ground such that by 2001 their rivals were fairly contained. Their rule appeared stable, if harsh.

The U.S.-led intervention in 2001 toppled the Taliban regime and briefly created greater peace and freedom than Afghans had experienced since at least 1978. In the years that followed, however, it became clear that the more consequential effect of the invasion was the rekindling of Afghanistan’s civil war. The challenges of governing were not going away easily. Nor were the Taliban. Taking advantage of mistakes in U.S. policy, misrule by the government in Kabul, and support from Pakistan, the Taliban movement turned into a capable insurgency. Violence and instability persisted to August 2021.

The war between Western forces and the Taliban changed Afghan society dramatically. That can most easily be seen in the casualties from bombs, mines, night raids, and drones. War also disrupted the economy; many Afghans became dependent on poppy cultivation for income. Afghans experienced their first legitimate elections. Parliament had real power for the first time. Yet, in the end, democracy lost out.


The source of Afghan political power that has proved most enduring is religion. In the anarchy following the Soviet withdrawal, it was the traditional Islam of the villages that retained credibility among the people. As the anthropologist David Edwards has written, “Islam migrates better than honor or nationality. As a transportable system of belief and practice whose locus is personal faith and worship, it can be adapted to a variety of contexts and situations, but estranged from the familiar settings in which it arose, is it not also more resistant to the mundane negotiations and compromises that everyday life requires?” Through the Taliban, a religious movement ruled Afghanistan for the first time in the modern era. That was no flash in the pan. The movement survived 20 years of war and rules once again, making the Taliban the most significant religious force in Afghanistan’s modern history.

The civil war and its foreign interventions have a yet darker side. They bred extremism. As Edwards charts in his 2017 book, Caravan of Martyrs, the Soviet invasion and U.S. and Pakistani support for the mujahideen pushed martyrdom to the forefront. Foreigners—the Palestinian Abdullah Azzam and the Saudi Osama bin Laden foremost—brought with them ideas of terrorism and suicide bombing. Throughout the U.S. intervention, the Taliban were unable to divorce themselves from either. Siding against foreign terrorism risked criticism from internal supporters, and suicide bombing was an invaluable weapon against U.S. and government forces. In 2019, Amir Khan Muttaqi, a chief assistant to the Taliban emir Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada and now the Taliban government’s foreign minister, told me: “Suicide bombers are very cheap for us. Just a few suicide bombers thwart all the forces, expenses, and technology of the United States.”

As leader of the Taliban from 2016 onward, Mawlawi Haibatullah has endorsed the use of terrorism. In 2008, Haibatullah advised the Taliban founder and leader Mullah Omar that Islam justified a wider use of suicide bombings. Haibatullah’s own 23-year-old adopted son blew himself up in a car bomb during an attack in Helmand in 2017, recording a video before setting off on the mission. Until that point, no other Afghan leader had ever martyred a son, adopted or otherwise, signifying how values were changing. Traditionally, sons were to be cherished, not cast aside needlessly. An embrace of martyrdom and an indifference to the lives of civilians had become part of what it meant to belong to the Taliban. One can only hope that the trend fades with the departure of foreign powers and becomes an aberration in Afghan history.


A year after the U.S. withdrawal, it remains uncertain whether a new form of stability has taken hold in Afghanistan. The war may have truly been a transformational process for Afghan society. It is possible that the Taliban’s Islamic government may be able to keep violence at bay, enjoy a base level of legitimacy among the people, and deter foreign intervention. It is also possible, however, that the civil war is not yet over. It previously paused at times—for parts of the country during Taliban rule in the 1990s and during the first years of the U.S. intervention from 2001 to 2005. With that historical precedent in mind, a new unstable balance may not be apparent for another five years or so.

Peering ahead, a renewed civil war could take many forms. One is the resumption of decades-long fighting between the Taliban, which is composed primarily of Pashtuns, and resistance groups based in the country’s north that tend to draw from Afghanistan’s Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek minorities. So far, the Taliban has faced little more than sporadic attacks from these groups and fiery statements from their exiled leaders—a far cry from an effective insurgency. But that could change with time if the groups can build up their cohesion and resilience and win over popular support. Resistance groups could also wind up receiving support from Iran or Russia, which might decide to aid them because of historical relationships, cultural ties, opposition to the Islamic State, and competition with Pakistan.

In a different scenario, a conglomeration of Afghans in cities around the country could rise up. With sufficiently poor governance, even certain Pashtun tribes could revolt. The Taliban could also be challenged by land disputes. Tribal and villager dissatisfaction with access to land and water have traditionally caused strife. The Taliban received support for 25 years from poor farmers to whom they gave or promised land. For the Taliban to make good on those promises, other Afghans, including landed tribes with title, must lose land, and they may resist. How well the Taliban can balance these competing demands matters. So far, the regime has not been too oppressive, taking a little from the landed without taking it all. Yet land issues can fester and are notoriously difficult for any government to manage.

The Taliban could also fuel their own undoing. The tactics of terrorism feed violence, and the Taliban may be unable to control extremist trends. Young men could continue to look to martyrdom for meaning, grow restive, and look for new targets. Those targets are as likely to be within Afghanistan as abroad. In late 2021, there were rumors that Mawlawi Haibatullah and Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taliban government, had declared an end to suicide bombings. But the presence of the al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, where he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in July, bodes poorly. A wider acceptance of extremism could create more recruits for the Islamic State, which maintains a faction in the country and could adapt its terrorist campaign into an anti-Taliban insurgency.

Perhaps nothing is more likely to revive the civil war than foreign interventions. Russian and Iranian efforts to support ethnic and sectarian proxies in Afghanistan and ill-judged Pakistani moves to tame the Taliban, protect Islamabad’s perceived interests, or more clearly define an Afghan-Pakistan border could stoke new violence. U.S. military actions to counter terrorism could also do the same. Precision strikes on Afghan soil could trigger a backlash among Afghans and increase support for terrorist groups. Over-the-horizon strikes may be essential to U.S. national security, but they are also likely to encourage radicalization in Afghanistan. Worst of all, in today’s environment of great-power competition, intervention or influence by one great power could compel others to intervene, backing their own proxies or the Taliban government and producing an escalatory spiral of violence. That would be a recipe for renewed civil war and a tragedy for the Afghan people.


The United States and its allies may want to be more than passive observers and try to do something to stabilize the country. There is little harm in providing humanitarian assistance or even stepping aside if other countries want to assist the Taliban regime. Such activities—in contrast to supporting the anti-Taliban resistance and conducting counterterrorism activities inside Afghanistan—would not raise the risk of restarting the Afghan civil war. But the amount the United States and its allies can do is limited. The Taliban regime is unlikely to heed incentives or sanctions to modify its behavior. Moreover, substantial U.S. financial assistance to the Taliban regime would likely draw reactions from China, Iran, and Russia, which would would back Afghans to oppose any U.S. influence. The same is even more true if the United States attempts to back proxies to supplant the Taliban regime. The best policy for Washington may be to monitor the situation closely rather than to inadvertently cause harm by trying to help one side or another.

The United States and other powerful outsiders should not forget the roles they played in prolonging Afghanistan’s suffering during the past four decades. If they do, they may very well repeat the mistakes of the past.

Is Afghanistan’s Long Civil War Really Over?
read more

UN Human Rights warns of Afghanistan’s descent into authoritarianism

Kate Clark

Afghanistan Analysts Network

print sharing button

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan has released his first report to the UN’s Human Rights Council. The situation in the country has deteriorated, Richard Bennett said, “to the point where the human rights crisis matches Afghanistan’s humanitarian and financial crises.” He holds the Taleban responsible for the worsening of Afghans’ civil, political and cultural rights, including “widespread gross violations” and is concerned that the country shows “strong signs of descending into authoritarianism.” On economic and social rights, however, he says that “all parties bear degrees of responsibility,” not only the Taleban but also the ‘international community’. AAN’s Kate Clark has been reading the report and brings her thoughts. 

In this his first report, UN Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett writes that the Taleban have “effective control over the country” and so, even though they are not recognised by the countries of the world, are “responsible for fulfilling the obligations arising out of the various international human rights and humanitarian treaties to which Afghanistan is a party.”[1] He reports that in his meetings with the Taleban they said they were committed to Afghanistan’s international obligations and also that the great majority of international human rights norms were compatible with sharia. Even so, Bennett finds much to say about breaches of these obligations.

What is in the report

Most significant – presented first in his report – is what the Special Rapporteur calls “the staggering regression in women and girls’ enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights since the Taliban took power.” In no other country, he says, “have women and girls so rapidly disappeared from all spheres of public life, nor are they as disadvantaged in every aspect of their lives.”

He writes about the sending home of most civil servants and the “numerous evolving rules” affecting women and girls: the suspension of secondary education for girls, the stipulation that women should stay at home unless necessary, the ban on certain travel without a mahram (a close male relative) and mandatory dress codes. The closure of specialist courts for women, and the sacking of female judges, he said, has also “adversely affecting women’s access to justice,” while an order that the “male family members are punishable for women’s conduct,” is “effectively erasing women’s agency and prompting increased domestic abuse.” He points out that

With the exception of one decree issued on 28 December 2021 (forbidding forced marriage, declaring widows have inheritance rights and the right to a dowry in a new marriage, and asserting the de facto courts will consider applications involving women), these directives violate the rights of women and girls. 

He stresses that Afghan women “have faced severe discrimination throughout history.” Even so, his comments paint a picture of women not only being stripped of many of their rights and freedoms by the Emirate but also the creation of an environment which facilitates abuse within the home. There has been a collapse of mechanisms,” he said, “for victims to seek protection, support, and accountability.”

The second area of concern for the Special Rapporteur is Afghans’ “increasingly precarious” access to food and livelihoods which he puts down to “drought, rising commodities prices, reduced incomes, supply chain disruptions, decreased supplies caused by conflicts, including the war in Ukraine, and lack of donor support.” He notes that the government is “responsible for the realization of economic, social and cultural rights to the maximum of their available resources, including through domestic and international cooperation, under the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]. He calls for more transparency from the Emirate over its revenues and spending and “notes with concern” that “reportedly a lower proportion of budget is allocated to basic services compared to the proportion allocated for military and security purposes.”

However, Bennett also raises “serious questions” over how “the relevant international actors” are applying the humanitarian exemption to UN Security Council sanctions (signed off in December 2021) and how this “appears to contribute to the humanitarian crisis.” One of Bennett’s recommendations is that UN member states should “continue to provide assistance and cooperation to ensure adequate resources are made available to realise human rights, particularly rights to adequate food, safe drinking water, sanitation, health and education without discrimination.”

This wide-ranging first report also covers conflict-related human rights violations – the arbitrary arrest, extrajudicial killing and torture of civilians, some amounting to collective punishment – and reprisal killings of former government officials and members of the security forces, and people the government associates with the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) or the National Resistance Front  (NRF).

In a section on ethnic and religious minorities, Bennett looks at the situation facing Hazaras and other ethnic and religious monitories in Afghanistan. Hazaras, who are largely Shia Muslims, he says, have been subjected to continuing sectarian attacks by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) as well as what he calls “multiple forms of discrimination, affecting a broad-spectrum of human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights” by the state.

The Taliban have appointed Pashtuns to senior positions in government structures in Hazara dominated provinces, forcibly evicted Hazaras without adequate prior notice from their homes and imposed religious taxation contrary to Shia principles. There are reports of arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment, summary executions and enforced disappearances. In addition, an increase in inflammatory speech is being reported, both online and in some mosques during Friday prayers, including calling for Hazaras to be killed. 

Some of these allegations apply far more widely: it is not just Hazaras who feel excluded from an administration made up overwhelmingly of male, Pashtun clerics and, as Bennett’s report makes clear elsewhere, Afghan citizens of all stripes have been subject to arbitrary arrest, torture, enforced disappearances and other violent abuses. At the same time, the Sunni Muslim nature of the Emirate makes it inherently exclusionary for Shia Muslims and non-Muslims, and any discrimination or abuses they suffer are felt against the background of what Bennett calls the “historical persecution of Hazaras and other minorities.”

Fundamental freedoms and access to justice 

Towards the end of the report, Bennett assesses the threats to what he calls the ‘fundamental freedoms’ – the right to free speech and assembly, and notes the shrinking space for human rights defenders and civil society activists to operate in. He also points to serious flaws in the Taleban’s administration of justice. There is “uncertainty of the applicable laws and process,” he says, with cases “handled idiosyncratically across jurisdictions and venues.” Cases may be heard in the provincial and district courts, with all judges now having a religious rather than secular training, but in the provinces, officials who are not judges are also “empowered to administer justice.” Crimes such as theft or assault, he says, are often “dealt with by security forces without involving prosecutors or judges. In some provinces, more serious crimes may be tried without the assistance of either a prosecutor or a defence lawyer.”

Confusion over the law and who administers it facilitates wider abuses of human rights – as does curbing the freedom to speak and protest.  For this reason maybe, Bennett’s first recommendations to the Taleban authorities are to do with the legal framework: restore the constitutional order; review the rules and directives issued since the takeover bringing them in line with international human rights standards; restore clarity and certainty of applicable laws, judicial independence and capacity; protect judges and lawyers, especially women, from reprisals.

What happens next?

Bennett is due to present his report at a session of the UN Human Rights Council on 12 September. While much of the report is addressed to the Taleban, he also has strong words for the international powers that supported the Republic for twenty years and which will be among those addressed at the Council:

The international community must acknowledge its own role and responsibility for the situation unfolding in Afghanistan today. While much was done in the past 20 years to strengthen institutions designed to promote and protect human rights and to ensure the enjoyment of those rights by the people of Afghanistan, reflection is needed on what more could have been done to prevent the human rights crisis and what should be done now to resolve it. 

As to what happens next, Bennett says his first responsibility is “to report on the developing situation of human rights and to make recommendations to improve it” and this is the principal objective of his first report. He envisages undertaking research on thematic issues, working closely with other institutions, so that “the situation of Afghanistan continues to be kept high on political and human rights agendas.”

The UN does already have another entity on the ground working for human rights, UNAMA’s Human rights office (read its first report on human rights in Afghanistan after the Taleban capture of power here published in July 2022; AAN analysis here). It was established as part of UNAMA’s mandate from the UN Security Council and reports to the UN Secretary General and the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR). The Special Rapporteur position was created by the UN Human Rights Council and while it also has the support of OHCHR, it is independent. Bennett says he plans to “work with and complement other UN mechanisms, including UNAMA and UN agencies present in Afghanistan” and urges a strengthening of international support to UNAMA, “in particular its human rights service.”

Having two UN entities pushing for human rights in Afghanistan undoubtedly strengthens the cause. Additionally, Special Rapporteurs serve in a personal capacity, and do not receive salaries or any other financial compensation for their work. That means that Bennett with his independent voice can speak more freely.

He has also used his report to sow a seed for the idea that his mandate should be strengthened. In recommendation 99b he calls on UN member states to:

Take necessary measures to strengthen accountability for human rights violations and abuses, including through this mandate and others, including potential mechanisms to address impunity, provide redress for survivors and victims, and bring perpetrators to justice. 

Behind the scenes in Geneva, there have been discussions about whether to strengthen the Rapporteur’s mandate, or create an additional mechanism with accountability powers. A group of NGOs released a joint letter on 9 September calling for the renewal of the Rapporteur’s mandate, agreeing that it should be strengthened, as well as calling for the creation of a stronger accountability mechanism, which would be able to investigate and gather evidence of crimes and perpetrators. What Bennett suggests here is that his mandate could be given similar powers, not least because, in his words, his mandate already has “an important accountability component” and that he “plans to take this forward.” At the same time, he says he is not opposing additional mechanisms, which he also makes reference to. It will be interesting to see how far the Human Rights Council is prepared to move. Clearly, given the scale of human rights violations, many human rights defenders argue that while the Rapporteur mechanism is a welcome addition, it is not sufficient, at least in its present form.

So far at least, the Taleban have facilitated Bennett’s work, meeting him at a senior level and providing him with access to some places of detention, education and medical treatment during his visit to Afghanistan in May. He was also able to meet representatives from civil society and minority communities in Afghanistan, as well as people with disabilities, children and members of women’s groups. Bennett believes there must be fundamental changes to the Taleban’s approach if Afghanistan is to stop “descending into authoritarianism.”

The Taliban still has an opportunity to redeem the situation, which requires a substantial change of approach. The Taliban must be more inclusive, respect women’s rights, accept diversity and differences of perspective, protect the population, renounce violence, acknowledge and address human rights abuses and violations, rebuild the rule of law including oversight institutions, and accept, demand and provide accountability. They must close the gap between their words and their deeds and will continue to be judged on the latter. 

Thus far, the Taleban have proved fairly immune for calls to change what they see as their basic principles, for example policies on women and girls, or to address abuses they deny exist, for example extra-judicial killings and discrimination against ethnic or religious groups. Nevertheless, this is an administration conscious of how it is perceived by the wider world. It will be interesting to see if Bennett can get any more traction than donors, Afghanistan’s neighbours or Afghan civilians in pushing for change.

Finally, Bennett appears to see his role as looking to the past as well as the future, for example in this call:

The international community should pay particular attention to the calls from Afghans across all walks of life for accountability and justice, for concrete and effective challenges to the impunity pervasive in the country and to remedying the wrongs of the past to prevent their recurrence in the future.

Edited by Rachel Reid


1 They include: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); Convention of the Rights of the Child; and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and; the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.


UN Human Rights warns of Afghanistan’s descent into authoritarianism
read more

Afghanistan withdrawal remains the correct choice one year later

By Adam Smith

August 26, 2022

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump both reached the same conclusion about U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan — it no longer made sense.

Twenty years into our effort, it had become clear that no amount of money or U.S. and coalition troops could get the Afghan government to the point where it could provide for its own security and stability. We could no longer justify placing more American lives at risk and spending billions of additional taxpayer dollars on the effort. One year ago, Biden took the final step in the process started by the previous administration of ending our involvement in Afghanistan by ordering the withdrawal of the last few thousand American troops from Afghanistan.

Many lessons can be learned from this 20-year campaign. Last year, in the annual defense bill, Congress created a bipartisan commission to examine this very important issue. But the biggest lesson seems obvious. We could not remake Afghanistan, a country on the other side of the world with a vastly different history and culture than ours, through the sheer might of U.S. military power. 

Biden and Trump made the decision that needed to be made because they both acknowledged this reality.

Taliban fighters escort women march in support of the Taliban government outside Kabul University, Afghanistan.  (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Some disagree with this point and insist that if the United States had simply kept trying and put more resources into the effort, then we could have built a stable government in Afghanistan that would have been a strong partner of the United States. Twenty years of effort by four different presidents and more generals and diplomats than most of us can now remember make it clear that this is not the case. If we had stayed, we would have simply lost more American lives and spent more money — only to wind up in the same place five, 10, or 20 years from now.

Others argue that we should have kept a smaller military force in the country, not in an effort to remake the government or build up Afghan security forces, but to fight and contain terrorist groups in the country. But this approach does not make sense, either. Who would have secured this small force from the Taliban insurgency rising in Afghanistan? This small force would have been under constant threat, spending the majority of their time on force protection and not adequately conducting their counterterrorism mission. It would have become apparent that this force would either have to be withdrawn or tens of thousands of more troops would need to be deployed to provide force protection for this counterterrorism mission, placing more Americans at risk and costing billions of more dollars.

Lastly, a large number of people focus their criticism on the details of the peace agreement agreed to by Trump, and on the way Biden and his team executed the final withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.

Ending the war in Afghanistan was never going to be easy or without risk. We stayed as long as we did precisely because U.S. government leaders understood this. Analysts knew that without the support of the United States and our coalition partners, the Afghan government would not be able to stand against the Taliban. And the takeover by the Taliban would mean a return to their violent, brutally repressive rule.

Trump bought some time for U.S. and allied forces with the peace agreement he reached with the Taliban in February 2019. This agreement did nothing to stop the Taliban’s war against the Afghan government, but it did stop the Taliban from attacking U.S. and coalition forces. This agreement, however, ended in May 2021. Only Biden’s decision right before that deadline to begin withdrawing remaining U.S. troops stopped the Taliban from again targeting our service members and the coalition forces.

The end was tragic. We lost 13 more brave U.S. service members during the last efforts to evacuate as many Americans and Afghan allies as possible, and the Afghan people have suffered horribly under the return of the Taliban-led government. But the United States and our coalition partners made the decision to leave precisely because we realized that, after 20 years, a large military force was not going to be able to prevent this outcome. More lost American lives and spent U.S. dollars were not going to change that.

The evacuation was chaotic, but it was the inevitable outcome of the Afghan government proving unable to provide for its own security and stability. While we clearly need to examine the details of the evacuation to learn what could have been done better, we also need to look at the 20 years of decisions that came before it.

Removing our military forces from Afghanistan, however, was the right decision.

Congressman Adam Smith, D-Wash., represents Washington’s 9th congressional district, serving parts of King and Pierce counties including Seattle, Bellevue, and Tacoma. As a senior member of Democratic leadership in the House, Congressman Smith also serves as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Afghanistan withdrawal remains the correct choice one year later
read more

Afghanistan’s Women Are on Their Own

Life under the Taliban is the worst women’s rights crisis on the planet. When the Taliban returned to power last August, they imposed immediate and brutal restrictions, the harshest of which were reserved for women. They quickly imposed a ban on girls’ secondary education, which remains in place despite domestic and international demands to lift it. They also placed restrictions on women’s movement, requiring women to be accompanied by a male family member while traveling, and women’s dress, ordering women to cover their faces in public. Girls and women are also no longer allowed to play sports.

Afghan women working for the government, with the exception of those doing jobs in the education and health sectors, were told to stay home and not report to work. The Taliban have also dissolved the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, an institution that I led until January. These moves have left female victims of domestic violence with no legal remedy or support at a time when there are reports of increased forced marriages, including child marriages. The Taliban have excluded women from appointments in government and participation in major national events, including a large political gathering in June to discuss the country’s future. When a reporter asked Abdul Salam Hanafi, the Taliban’s deputy prime minister, about the lack of women’s participation, Hanafi said that women would be participating, in a way, because their sons would be attending. This kind of rhetoric, along with the new rules, promotes a demeaning narrative about women and their place in society and nullifies two decades’ worth of positive changes in public attitudes about the social and political roles that should be available to women.

The international community’s response to these events has been pitifully insufficient. Members of the UN Human Rights Council, as well as countries that have explicitly feminist foreign policies, such as Canada, France, Germany, and Sweden, have done little more than make statements of condemnation. The same is true for leaders in the Islamic world. Even imposing a travel ban on Taliban leaders has been a struggle, because Russia and China have blocked it at the UN Security Council. The UN Human Rights Council has yet to establish a strong, well-resourced accountability mechanism for Afghanistan despite repeated calls from the human rights community. Diplomats, including those from the United States, continue to engage with Taliban leaders at international conferences and in bilateral talks that exclude Afghan women and members of Afghan civil society. As a result, for the Afghan women at the forefront of the nonviolent resistance to the Taliban, a disturbing truth has sunk in: they are mostly on their own.

This total abandonment requires those working for women’s rights in Afghanistan to question their assumptions about the will and influence of the international community to help. Understanding that foreign partners are not going to show up requires changing the approach of those working in diaspora and on the ground. The focus for the Afghan women’s rights movement should be to strengthen its cohesion and prevent any divisiveness between the diaspora and activists inside the country. The Afghan women’s rights movement also needs to cultivate new allies inside the country and in the region. These should include Afghan writers, cultural activists, and moderate religious thinkers. Afghan women’s rights organizations need to strengthen their partnerships with organizations in Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, and other countries in the region to increase their engagement beyond the Western world. The women’s rights movement should invest in long-term social and cultural change in Afghan society through producing and disseminating content about women’s rights in local languages, strategic engagement with the Afghan media, and finding resources for educational and cultural exchanges for Afghan youth. Although the women’s movement needs to maintain a degree of engagement with Western countries and international human rights bodies, expectations for the international community should be based on a clear-eyed assessment of its near-nonexistent response over the past year.


After the Taliban takeover last summer, Afghan women’s lives changed dramatically. For young women across the country, the situation presents a complete absence of hope. I know teenage girls who are suffering severe depression due to the closure of secondary schools. Although universities have not been closed to women, the classes have been separated for women and men and women’s clothing is policed. These restrictions have caused some female university students to abandon their studies. They have also lost their motivation to attend school because there are no employment opportunities waiting for them when they graduate. Households where the woman was the top earner now struggle as women have been sent home from their jobs or have had to shut down their businesses. Although the restrictions on women’s clothing and movement are not always enforced, they have created an environment of intimidation and fear where the act of leaving one’s house now requires immense courage.

As women confront this new reality, they are also reckoning with the severe humanitarian and economic crises that are threatening Afghanistan. An estimated 97 percent of households are unable to meet their basic needs. Tens of thousands of children are suffering malnutrition and being admitted to hospitals every month. Women and girls have been hit the hardest by the humanitarian crisis and lack of access to income, food, and health-care services as most women in the public sector have lost their jobs, and there has been an increase in reports of families selling their daughters into marriage.

Despite their anger, frustration, and loss, women are the only group inside Afghanistan consistently protesting the Taliban’s policies. Female activists have marched in the streets in Kabul and other cities, demanding the restoration of their basic rights. They have organized public events and spoken about the right to education and the need to reopen schools. Just as they did in the 1990s, when the Taliban were last in power, Afghan women have set up secret schools for girls so that they can continue to learn. The Taliban’s response to this civic activism has been a brutal crackdown. Female protesters have been violently dispersed, abducted, and held in illegal detention. They have also been subject to forced confessions. The Taliban have further tried to delegitimize female activists by claiming that they have staged their own abductions to seek asylum. Following the Taliban’s crackdown, the protests have become less frequent and now mostly take place in Kabul—and only if participants can ensure that some international media will be present, in the hope that it will offer greater protection. On some occasions, women gather inside their homes and release protest videos from there.

Women are the only group inside Afghanistan consistently protesting the Taliban’s policies.

Women in the Afghan diaspora have also mobilized, writing and speaking to shed light on the situation in Afghanistan and pressing Western officials and diplomats to take a variety of actions, including setting up independent monitoring mechanisms to make sure that humanitarian aid reaches Afghan girls and women, increasing political pressure on the Taliban to ensure girls’ access to education and women’s right to employment, and keeping in place targeted travel bans on Taliban leaders. Sanctions placed on the Taliban by the UN Security Council in 2011 banned 135 members of the group from traveling outside the country. But 13 Taliban leaders were granted an exemption so that they could meet officials abroad and travel to talks with the United States in Doha during the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. That exemption was renewed regularly until it finally expired in early August. Now, no Taliban leaders are allowed to travel outside the country. China and Russia are pushing to change this, but Western countries have argued that the number of leaders allowed to travel should be smaller and the approved destinations fewer.

Western support for the travel bans is heartening, but too often the international response to the plight of women in Afghanistan has been hollow condemnations. Although officials from the United States, the EU, and the UN have held many meetings with women activists, there has been little if any concrete follow-up. Women’s rights activists have called for the UN Human Rights Council to establish an Afghanistan fact-finding mission, which would investigate human rights violations, but they have received only partial support from the council members. In October 2021, the council appointed Richard Bennett, a longtime human rights official at the UN, as a special rapporteur to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Afghanistan. Bennett traveled to Afghanistan in May and visited women’s rights activists, families of victims of various attacks, and members of Afghan civil society. He has said that the Taliban “is unparalleled globally in its misogyny and oppression.” His report is expected to be released in September. The work of a rapporteur is important, but Bennett is not paid for his work and his team members are not UN staff. Given the ongoing and widespread violations of human rights in Afghanistan, much more is needed. A more robust response would require a fully mandated and resourced investigative mechanism, such as a fact-finding mission or a commission of inquiry, both of which would require mandates from the UN Human Rights Council.


This is not the first time that the demands of Afghan women are falling on deaf ears. Throughout the U.S.-initiated talks with the Taliban, which began under the Trump administration and lasted from 2018 until February 2020, Afghan women campaigned, wrote, and organized mass gatherings to demand an inclusive peace process. But their appeals went unheeded. I attended a round of talks with the Taliban in Doha and heard firsthand their worryingly vague and general statements on women’s rights “within Islam.” Following this, in many interactions with U.S. officials, including Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy who negotiated the Doha deal, I raised concerns about the lack of participation of women and victims of war in the talks and the emptiness of the Taliban’s reassurances. None of these concerns or warnings were taken seriously. Instead, I and others in the women’s movement were constantly told that the Taliban have changed.

Additionally, a convenient counternarrative took hold, pushed by male diplomats and male commentators, who claimed that the demands of Afghan women’s rights activists were not representative of rural Afghan women, and instead represented a Western imposition and were therefore not legitimate. In the end, the Doha agreement excluded any references to women’s rights, human rights, or civilian protection, key areas of concern for all Afghan people. Even while the United States and its allies made proclamations committing to protect the women of Afghanistan, they let the Taliban set the conditions of the talks. They participated in a process that would decide the fate of millions of Afghan women but that included zero Afghan women at the negotiating table.

This has meant that in addition to standing up to the Taliban and battling patriarchy inside Afghanistan, advocates for the rights of Afghan women have also had to contend with condescension, gaslighting, and marginalization at the hands of Western officials and alleged experts on Afghanistan. Women activists who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban took control last summer have had to endure this while also navigating the bureaucracies of various Western countries as they try to gain legal asylum. Although Western leaders have talked for the last two decades about supporting Afghan women, at critical junctures, where women’s rights activists’ rights and lives are on the line, Western countries have provided limited support for them or their cause, exposing a deep hypocrisy.

None of this is to say that the situation in Afghanistan is an easy challenge to solve. The Taliban won the war, and nobody wants to stand by and watch Afghans starve in a humanitarian crisis. So outside powers and organizations must deal with the Taliban regime in at least a limited way.

Yet Western officials have exercised poor judgment in picking their Taliban interlocutors and in setting the public tone of their engagement. Consider, for example, how Western governments and even the UN continue to deal with Sirajuddin Haqqani, Afghanistan’s acting interior minister and the leader of the Haqqani network, who remains on the FBI’s most wanted list because of his involvement in some of the bloodiest terrorist attacks in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. The world was reminded of his ties to al Qaeda earlier this summer when a U.S. drone strike killed al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was living in Kabul in a house owned by a top aide to Haqqani, according to U.S. intelligence.

Western officials may have to meet with Haqqani, but they should be mindful of how their interactions further normalize him and whitewash his deeply problematic background. In June, in a tweet noting a “farewell meeting” between Haqqani and Deborah Lyons, the outgoing Afghanistan representative for the UN Secretary-General, the UN used the honorific term “al hajj” in referring to Haqqani, which is typically reserved for people who have completed a pilgrimage to Mecca and connotes a level of respect. The tweet referred to discussions between him and Lyons on issues including counterterrorism, which infuriated Afghan human rights activists who have worked with victims of the Haqqani network’s terrorist attacks for years.

It is possible to deliver foreign aid through Afghan and international nongovernmental organizations without having to cozy up to some of the world’s most wanted terrorists. The EU is one of the biggest contributors of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and EU Special Envoy Tomas Niklasson has continued to be outspoken about the human rights issues and violations by the Taliban. He also engages with Afghan women and men outside the Taliban’s leadership.


What has become excruciatingly clear is that Afghan women’s rights activists should not assume that the leaders of the democratic world will stand with them; such leaders and the institutions they represent no longer have much ability to protect Afghan women, nor much interest in doing so. Afghan women’s rights activists should also not assume that the leaders in Muslim-majority countries will pressure the Taliban into protecting even the most basic rights, such as girls’ access to education. It has been a year since the Taliban’s return to power, and not a single government leader from the Islamic world has issued a strong condemnation of the Taliban’s oppression of women, let alone applied any meaningful political pressure. Pakistani leaders, for instance, have continued engaging with the Taliban as if it is business as usual, while women in Afghanistan are imprisoned in their homes by the Taliban’s misogynistic and un-Islamic policies.

These are difficult realizations for the Afghan women’s movement. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, many American politicians spoke about the protection of Afghan women as part of the “war on terror,” and a great deal of the progress that Afghan women experienced in the two decades that followed depended on the United States. Afghan women leaders learned to put pressure on foreign embassies and Western politicians to push the Afghan government to improve legal protections for women and to enhance its own performance on gender equality. In some cases, Afghan women invested more time cultivating relationships with donors and allies in the West than in the communities they intended to serve. This is one of the dynamics that needs to change to ensure the movement’s continued effectiveness and relevance on the ground.

The weak international response to the plight of Afghan women also reflects the ineffectiveness of the global human rights system. Afghanistan is a signatory to many treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, but none of these commitments are serving the needs of Afghan women and girls under the Taliban regime. International agreements on human rights often rely on naming and shaming wrongdoers. But the current situation in Afghanistan exposes the limits of that approach, as the Taliban themselves admit to widespread violations of women’s rights. They have no shame. Unless there are concrete punishments on them, such as banning their travel or excluding their leaders from regional and international platforms, naming them will do nothing.

Western officials have exercised poor judgment in picking their Taliban interlocutors.

Coming to grips with the international community’s limited commitment to human rights should not deter Afghan women’s rights activists from carrying on with their struggle. They must continue to demand the world’s attention, seek increased humanitarian aid, and push for a sense of urgency in responding to the economic crisis. And they should continue to call out foreign leaders and countries who normalize the Taliban’s oppression of women’s rights.

They must also remember, however, that this is only half the battle, and that little can be achieved without increasing regional and domestic pressure on the Taliban. Afghan women in the diaspora should align with and support the civil society in Afghanistan in that effort. Creating a broader domestic alliance in support of women’s rights will require creativity and patience. Afghan women should mobilize civil society in the region and in Islamic countries to more forcefully stand in support of Afghan women’s rights. This can be achieved by Afghan women leaders in the diaspora investing more time and resources in regional engagements and building strategic partnerships in the region. Women in the Afghan diaspora should act in solidarity with their sisters on the ground, amplifying their demands by providing platforms to activists in Afghanistan and facilitating their access to the networks and resources outside the country. The long-term strategic goal of the movement should be broader cultural and social change in support of women’s rights among Afghans, not just exerting external pressure on the Taliban.

The Taliban’s systematic oppression of women will have devastating implications for generations to come. To change the situation in Afghanistan, activists must go beyond knocking on the same doors and hearing only the same halfhearted statements of support. Meanwhile, if the international community continues its desultory approach to women’s rights in Afghanistan, it will lose its credibility on the issue across the globe.

  • SHAHARZAD AKBAR is the former Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. She was previously Deputy on the Afghan National Security Council for Peace and Civilian Protection and served as Country Director for Open Society Afghanistan from 2014 to 2017. She is currently an Academy Fellow on Human Rights at Chatham House.
Afghanistan’s Women Are on Their Own
read more

How America Sealed Afghanistan’s Fate—Again

Lynne O’Donnell
Foreign Policy
August 28, 2022

Two recent books chronicle how the United States turned its back on Afghanistan and pitched the country into chaos.

The betrayal of Afghanistan by the United States was inked on Feb. 29, 2020, when an emissary of then-U.S. President Donald Trump signed a bilateral deal with the unreconstructed terrorist-led crime gang known as the Taliban, which U.S. forces had spent the last two decades fighting. The agreement sealed the withdrawal of all U.S. military forces who had been supporting Afghanistan’s democratic experiment for those same two decades, in exchange for empty Taliban promises about breaking ties with terrorists. The deal essentially handed the Taliban the victory they’d so long sought.

But the betrayal wasn’t completed until Aug. 30, 2021, when the last U.S. military transport plane left Kabul crammed with scores of desperate people who feared for their lives in a Taliban-ruled state. The final liftoff came after two weeks of pandemonium that followed the hurried flight of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his circle.

There would be no “Saigon moment” in Afghanistan, U.S. President Joe Biden said of the departure from Kabul of American soldiers, diplomats, and Afghans who had worked with them, after he decided to abide by Trump’s Taliban deal. But the terror, chaos, and violence of those last days were as bad as anything that led up to the last choppers on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975, as the United States cut and ran from South Vietnam. Young men clung to the undercarriages of planes as they taxied for takeoff from Kabul’s international airport; some died as they plummeted to the tarmac. The horrific scenes, the capstone to America’s Afghan misadventure, were painfully reminiscent of the nameless silhouettes seen leaping from New York’s blazing Twin Towers after al Qaeda’s terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, the event that precipitated the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the first place.

With America’s departure from Afghanistan, its so-called war on terror had come full circle. The homeland was safe, and the troops were back home. America’s forever war, its longest, was over. Afghanistan’s isn’t. Those left behind are emotionally and physically scarred and were left to their fate as vengeful, victorious extremists began their pogroms against perceived enemies, reprisals that continue today with impunity. Many millions of people are hungry, jobless, and penniless, some so desperate to feed themselves and their families that they have sold children and body parts for money to buy food. Many of those who need to escape from Afghanistan are in hiding; many more are waiting for the knock on the door that could spell interrogation, torture, or death. In Afghanistan, no one can hear you scream.

Even those who made it out are suffering: Hundreds of thousands of Afghans who were evacuated remain depressed and discombobulated by the disappearance of the lives they knew and wonder if they’ll ever be able to go home again. Many are refugees for the second or third time, a testament to the vicious cycle that is country’s recent history.

Inside and out of Afghanistan, they ask why their country has been allowed to turn dark, their friends and families hunted down for their ethnicity, their religion, or their past affiliations with the government or its security forces. They ask why women are virtually locked indoors, girls all but barred from education, if not raped, killed, and forgotten. There are no answers to the question: Why?

A pair of recent books, from radically different perspectives, seek to grapple with the question, if not quite finding the answer. Betrayal is a theme that runs through both. The authors are under no illusion that this disaster in Afghanistan is of America’s doing. As soon as the United States began its troop drawdown to zero, upon the signing of Trump’s deal with the Taliban, NATO partners began their own rush to the exits; the U.S.-trained Afghan army wasn’t far behind in collapsing.

The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan is a memoir by Elliot Ackerman, a former U.S. Marine and CIA operative, who grapples with the weight of his own involvement in a now-lost cause as he attempts to lend a hand in the evacuation process immediately after the Taliban’s takeover. It’s a tome tinged with guilt, the guilt felt by many with a connection to Afghanistan who watched the human horror unfold far away, and the guilt they still feel as the pleas keep coming: “Help me, I’m desperate, I have no money, my children are hungry. I worked for the United States, for Britain, for Germany. I’m gay, I’m a journalist, I’m a woman. Please help.” Help is not on the way.

Less personally engaged, but no less angry, is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of U.S. Power. The book is a conversation between linguist, activist, and political gadfly Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad, who runs a left-leaning think tank. They discuss the origins and excesses of U.S. foreign policy since America’s post-World War II rise as global hegemon. Chomsky stays true to form with his critiques of the legacy of imperialism, whether British, Portuguese, French, or American, that has culminated this century alone in the disruption and destruction of societies in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan—and beyond. After a lifetime of telling us so, the book is Chomsky’s latest “I told you so.” Few listened.

Ackerman is thoughtful and regretful, a man who cares deeply for the people he believes he and his buddies in the Marines and the CIA fought for. His conscience was clouded by America’s wars for years, as he makes clear in the recounting of targeted killing campaigns—which Chomsky and Prashad call “the worst terrorist campaign in the world by far.” Ackerman believes those programs violated the U.S. prohibition on government-directed assassinations.

“[L]awyers working for multiple presidential administrations had drawn up semantic arguments carefully delineating the difference between a targeted killing and an assassination,” he writes. “But when the picture of the person you were trying to kill sat on your desk, when you watched the predator [drone] strikes light up the night sky … and then when you took that same picture and moved it into a file for archiving, it sure felt like an assassination.” To the hearts and minds of the local populations living under that deadly rain, it surely must have, too, as they turned increasingly sour on the presence of foreign soldiers.

n’s narrative is the Afghan endgame, long after he’d left the country. The fall of Kabul caught him on vacation in Italy, and the contrast between sunshiny days, rooftop restaurants, and his children playing at gladiators contrasted cruelly with the distress of those trying to navigate the chaos of Kabul for a desperate flight to freedom. Some, Ackerman could help; many, he could not.

Ackerman scours his WhatsApp and Signal threads in a vivid retelling of the failures and successes that provided the all-too-human dimension of the evacuation efforts. The tension and drama unfold like a movie script: a pacey, urgent, heart-in-throat, will-they-make-it-this-time narrative as he communicates with fellow Americans and veterans who are trying to get Afghans through the horrible gauntlet surrounding the airport entrances and onto planes that will fly them to safety. At one point, we are in the lobby of a fine Kabul hotel, standing among terrified Afghan friends and colleagues as the decision is made to board a fleet of buses to chance a run to the airport, before they turn back, hoping to try again tomorrow.

Across Europe, the United States, Australia, and all over the world, well-meaning people mobilized their contacts to collate and vet thousands and thousands of names that could otherwise become epitaphs to the Taliban takeover. They lobbied governments, politicians, activists, nongovernmental organizations, wealthy people with private jets, interest groups, human rights defenders, anyone at all who could potentially help get people out of hell before the Taliban found them. Operations like those that Ackerman was involved in were life-saving airlifts for anyone lucky enough to get on the right list, the right bus, arrive at the right gate, wave to the right soldier, know the right people with the right contacts to get them on a crowded plane headed somewhere, anywhere else.

Whereas for Ackerman, the story is personal, especially the awful endgame, for Chomsky and Prashad, it is intellectual. If Ackerman focuses more on the final act, Chomsky and Prashad’s quest for the source of betrayal focuses more on what they see as the original sin. The allied invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan that began on Oct. 7, 2001, was illegal, Chomsky says, serving only as a warning to anyone who would challenge American supremacy. As if the 9/11 attacks had never happened, he says that “it was unprovoked, it was an illegitimate aggression, and it was a severe atrocity.” That cherry-picked history overlooks both the universal condemnation of al Qaeda’s attack and the immediate United Nations Security Council resolution that stressed “that those responsible for aiding, supporting or harboring the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of these acts will be held accountable,” an unequivocal reference to the Taliban then controlling Afghanistan who had hosted Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda as the attacks were planned and carried out. But Chomsky is right that those who paid the biggest price for the U.S. intervention were the people of Afghanistan, who themselves had nothing to do with 9/11 but have been paying for it for more than 20 years.

Washington repeatedly called on the Taliban to hand over bin Laden before and after 9/11, and it had been repeatedly rebuffed. But Chomsky and Prashad, like other scholars of the Afghan War, find fault with the George W. Bush administration’s refusal to negotiate with the Taliban to that end. Carter Malkasian, in The American War in Afghanistan: A History, wrote that the Bush team was under pressure to ensure the United States was safe from future terrorist attacks, but it missed two opportunities to “avoid a long war”—convincing the Taliban to hand over bin Laden, and including the Taliban in the post-2001 political landscape. These were the signal mistakes that led to the 20-year quagmire and thousands of deaths, Chomsky and Prashad argue in a section titled “The Godfather,” comparing the United States to a mob family.

“[T]he Taliban understood the gravity of a U.S. attack after 9/11 and made it clear on several occasions that it would be prepared to hand over Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network to a third country,” Chomsky and Prashad write. “Their plea for a settlement was rejected” because, they add, “When the United States wants war, it gets a war.”

And what a war it got. Gangsters, murderers, and drug dealers exploited the local ignorance of the foreign forces to eliminate their own enemies, while a spigot of cash poured into the coffers of the corrupt appointees who masqueraded as a government. Of the trillions of dollars spent by the United States alone, billions remain unaccounted for, their disappearance logged by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, set up by the U.S. Congress to follow the money.

Chomsky and Prashad find fault in the endgame, too, blaming the vested interests of a military-industrial complex that serves to benefit the Western elite and multiply and secure its wealth. U.S. asset freezes on Afghan central bank funds that could today finance the Taliban are, for Chomsky and Prashad, just another theft. What possible benefit, Chomsky asks, could there be for the masters of the universe in “battering the country to dust” for 20 years and then robbing the Afghan people of their own money, condemning them by this “cruelest of current crimes” to “imminent starvation”?

For Chomsky and Prashad, the war in Afghanistan is just one more piece in the United States’ quest to put together its hegemonic jigsaw puzzle. For Ackerman, by contrast, the war helped achieve the “essential objectives of the global war on terror” by keeping the U.S. homeland safe. But he, too, ponders the cost of this success—not only in the thousands of lives lost or ruined, but also in the financial cost to the American people who have barely noticed the grim toll on their democracy of a long war fought by a volunteer military and paid for on credit. He notes that 2001 was the last federal budget passed by Congress that had a surplus. He fears, too, a creeping politicization of the military, warning that history from Julius Caesar to Napoleon Bonaparte shows that “when a republic couples a large standing military with dysfunctional domestic politics, democracy doesn’t last long.”

As we mark the first anniversary of the Taliban’s return to power and the final act of America’s betrayal, genuinely reasonable people watch slack-jawed while the Islamists squabble violently among themselves as they further brutalize a long-brutalized population. The neighboring states that cheered the departure of the United States now despair of transforming their problem child into a credible, responsible creature.

On Aug. 14, 2021, just hours before the Taliban entered Kabul and declared the war over, Biden told the people of the United States that the point of the war had already vanished 10 years earlier, with the death of bin Laden. Now, he said, it’s time for the Afghan people to take responsibility for themselves; the United States, he warned, would hold the Taliban accountable for its promises to stop cooperating with terrorists. And it has: At the end of July, a U.S. drone strike killed bin Laden’s successor, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was living as a guest of the Taliban in a Kabul villa. From beginning to even after the end, the United States put homeland security first. Ackerman fought for it. Chomsky resents it. And the Afghans?

Almost exactly a year after Biden made that speech, this Aug. 13, brave young women marched through the streets of Kabul carrying banners that mourned a “black day” as they demanded their now-vanished rights to work, to learn, to be free. Taliban gunmen fired over their heads, beat them, and detained them. They, like a lot of American hopes and promises, are lost in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, where no one can hear them scream.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

How America Sealed Afghanistan’s Fate—Again
read more

Americans Must Face the Hard Truth on Afghanistan

The National Interest
August 18, 2022
We must resist the temptation to believe that if only the United States had done this or that differently, the war would have been won.

Editor’s note: In August, The National Interest organized a symposium on Afghanistan one year after the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban takeover of Kabul. We asked a variety of experts the following question: “How should the Biden administration approach Afghanistan and the Taliban government?” The following article is one of their responses:

One year ago, the Afghan government and military disintegrated in one of the most remarkable, sudden, and widespread collapses in modern military history. Looking back, not just at the year since that collapse but the twenty years that preceded it, there are some important lessons for the United States to acknowledge. Key among them: foreign interventions to “promote democracy” and “fight terrorism” have been exposed as expensive failures. We fail to apply these lessons to our future peril.

Just before midnight in Kabul on August 30, 2021, Maj. Gen. Christopher T. Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, left the tarmac to board a U.S. C-17 military transport, becoming the final U.S. servicemember to leave Afghan soil. After twenty years of blood, sacrifice, and futility, the American military had withdrawn from Afghanistan—with the victorious Taliban watching from the Kabul government buildings they had captured.

As one who deployed to Afghanistan over the course of two combat tours, watching the mission literally disintegrate before my eyes last August was a bitter pill, to say the least. Especially during my 2010-2011 combat deployment, I had traveled thousands of miles throughout the areas in northern, eastern, central, and southern Afghanistan where U.S. Army troops had been operating. I met hundreds of U.S. and allied soldiers and scores of Afghan citizens and military personnel.

Like nearly every American sent to Afghanistan, I had hoped to be part of something that would bring peace to the people of Afghanistan, who had by 2010 already suffered under forty consecutive years of one war or another. Yet as I had identified as early as 2009, the strategies, objectives, and plans the United States tried to employ in pursuit of helping Afghanistan win were so deeply flawed that failure was almost baked in.

For example, in a 2010 essay I wrote in the Armed Forces Journal, I pointed out that it was already obvious our efforts were failing. I warned that absent a “major change in the status quo that currently dominates in Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military effort there will fail to accomplish the president’s objectives and, despite our best effort to spin it otherwise, we will lose the war in Afghanistan.”

The problems I identified in that essay proved prescient. Too many senior leaders had spent too many consecutive years making optimistic claims of military and governmental success, yet none had been evident on the ground. The history of the Afghan people resisting any foreign military presence—considering outside forces occupiers—had helped fuel the insurgency.

Other foundational problems included a fatally corrupted government in Kabul, an Afghan military that was clearly inadequate for the task of securing the country and unlikely to do so for the foreseeable future, and, most critically of all, the Pakistani sanctuary. Without getting Islamabad fully on board with U.S. strategy and shutting down all support for the Taliban, it would be physically impossible to defeat them.

None of those issues I had raised in 2010 were ever rectified (many others, by the way, had likewise raised similar warning bells). If anything, the problems mounted over the next decade. Compounding the strategic errors, as exposed in the 2019 Washington Post Afghanistan Papers, was a resolute unwillingness to acknowledge plain truth. It was always clear that the government never corrected its severe corruption problem (as graphically evidenced by the fact that the Afghan state the United States created after September 11 never produced a free and fair presidential election; all were marred with massive cheating).

As I discussed at some length in my public criticism of the war in February 2012, I had observed during my 2010-2011 combat deployment that the Afghan National Security Forces had not made any progress since my 2005 deployment, and there was fundamentally no reason to believe that would change. It never did. None of the problems that I and many others identified year after year were ever acknowledged—and therefore they were never resolved.

The plain truth of the matter is that the war was never winnable. There was no “right” strategy to find, no formula that if only we’d have adopted things might have been different, and no amount of troops on the ground would have changed the outcome. Some contend it was reasonable for U.S. forces to have punished the Taliban for their support of Al Qaeda in the smoldering aftermath of September 11. Once that punishment had been meted out, however, the absolute best thing that could ever have happened for U.S. national security would have been to withdraw.

By the summer of 2002, there was no Taliban and no organized resistance to the formation of a government in Kabul. That was the perfect time to let the Afghan people decide, on their own, what sort of government they wanted, requiring them to figure out how to make it happen. The United States would have still been perfectly capable of taking out any identifiable direct threat to American national security, as it demonstrated by taking out Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria, and, just last week, Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul.

Instead, the United States continued the fiction of believing that with “just a little more time,” “just a little more money,” or “just the right tweak to the strategy,” the outcome could be changed. Despite every report, every sober analysis of the fundamentals, and every observable outcome screaming that the war was always unwinnable, U.S. leaders at nearly every level in the White House and the Pentagon continued to blithely ignore the evidence in search of the unattainable.

Of course, none of those advocates for keeping the war going forever paid any price for their arrogant, presumptuous behavior (in fact many of them still hold highly-paid positions to this day). But 2,443 Americans paid with their lives, another 20,666 were physically wounded, and hundreds of thousands more will carry the plague of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries for the rest of their lives.

We must resist the temptation to believe the many architects of the Afghan disaster who try to convince us that “if only” the United States had done this or that differently, the war would have been won. From virtually the opening stages of the war, the fundamentals involved showed that both the war and our nation-building efforts were futile. One can only hope that now, a year after the two-decade disaster culminated, we can accept the truth.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America

Americans Must Face the Hard Truth on Afghanistan
read more

The Evacuation of Afghanistan Never Ended

The New Yorker

A year after the last U.S. military flights left, some Afghans who are vulnerable to retribution from the Taliban are being resettled in the U.S. But others are stuck in third-party countries, and many remain trapped in Afghanistan, at great risk.

Last month, Metra Mehran, an Afghan human-rights activist, faced a choice. Until last summer, she lived in Kabul, where she worked as a director of a U.S.-funded women’s-education program. But, in August of 2021, when the Taliban took power, she was forced to flee. Through friends from the Fulbright program at Texas A. & M., which she had attended from 2016 to 2018, Mehran secured a place for herself on a list of Afghans eligible for protection in the U.S. Her mother, father, and brother travelled on a Special Immigrant Visa, granted for her mother’s role as a civil engineer, designing and building bridges and roads for American projects. They were flown to a military base in Kuwait, then eventually brought to Falls Church, Virginia.

I met Mehran in the winter of 2021, through a network of volunteers engaged in evacuation efforts, and we’ve worked together to help Afghan women still in peril. Mehran thought that she would be able to continue that work. But recently the Taliban began to harass her colleagues still in Kabul. “Because I openly criticize the Taliban’s policies and continue to engage with women on the ground, some low-level guys were threatening them,” she told me. “They kept coming to their offices, harassing them with screenshots of my tweets and of me on TV.” She had to decide whether to leave her job or continue risking the safety of her colleagues; in the end, she quit. It stunned her that the Taliban were able to assert power from so far away. “It was painful to see that, even though I am here in the United States, the Taliban can control my freedom of speech,” she said.

Mehran, like thousands of others who tried to leave the country last August, had little desire to build a new life outside of Afghanistan, but, for her safety, she had little choice. The U.S. government set up a system to evacuate thousands of people who were vulnerable to retribution from the Taliban—activists and civil-society members, judges and prosecutors, and people who had worked with the U.S. military or American-backed projects. But the effort was quickly overwhelmed by the speed of events. (A White House spokesperson said that the Administration conducted “extensive contingency planning,” and that its evacuation efforts constituted “one of the largest airlifts in history.” A State Department spokesperson added, “We will be relentless in this effort as we stand by our Afghan allies and their families.”) Alongside formal government initiatives, ad-hoc collectives stepped up. Afghans, former American officials, journalists, aid workers, and others cobbled together charter flights to evacuate those in danger. (With friends and colleagues, I took part in one of hundreds of such efforts.) Thousands of Afghans escaped, but then, on August 30, 2021, the military left, the airport closed, and many more were left behind.

It has now been a year since the last U.S. military flight left Afghanistan. At the end of 2021, according to the United Nations, there were more than 2.7 million Afghan refugees registered worldwide. Since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, there have been no such reliable figures. “A year later, neither we nor the U.S.G. really knows in any comprehensive way where everyone ended up or how many there even are,” Mike Breen, the president and C.E.O. of Human Rights First, told me, referring to the United States government. “To this day, there appears to be no systemic solution for accounting for all these people and getting them somewhere safe and sustainable.”

Among the luckiest Afghans are roughly eighty-five thousand who made it to the U.S. Halima Amiri, a twenty-two-year-old belonging to the Hazara ethnic minority persecuted by the Taliban, was studying to be an engineer at a military academy before Kabul fell. She spent three months being shuttled between windowless safe houses in Afghanistan, before flying to the U.S. and being resettled in Duluth, Minnesota. She arrived in Duluth last February, with three other young Afghan women, wearing matching black puffy coats and combat boots they’d received at a U.S. base in New Jersey. They were greeted by a pastor and retired professors taking part in a pilot program that allowed private citizens to help resettle refugees. It was eight degrees outside, and the women had worried about the cold. They were also, as far as they knew, the only Afghans in a city of eighty-five thousand. But they had the support of Episcopal Migration Ministries, a resettlement agency, and also of a devoted group of volunteers, who took turns spending the night with the women in a retreat center when they first arrived.

When I spoke to Amiri, by phone this month, she was working in the kitchen of a Benedictine home for the elderly; one of the other women scooped cones at Love Creamery, a local ice-cream shop. They spent the summer intensively studying English, working, and sending money back to Afghanistan. “Our education has always been the most important factor,” Amiri told me recently. In September, she will start the fall semester at the College of St. Scholastica, studying computer science and health. But stories of their families suffering in Afghanistan, where the spectre of famine caused prices to spike, has made it difficult to focus on their new routines.

When Amiri, an accomplished amateur artist, first arrived, she sketched images of the girls left behind in the safe houses. “I’m only in touch with some,” Amiri told me. The safe houses had been disbanded; no one was leaving anytime soon, and the funding dried up. “Most are still living in hiding, on their own,” Amiri added. “They always tell me that I’m lucky that I’m not in their situation, and that makes me really sad.” Almost all those she knew of were still in Afghanistan, with only four making it over the border to Pakistan.

There are also an untold number of Afghans who made it out of the country but are stuck abroad. Breen, from Human Rights First, told me, “Thousands who’d hoped to find a pathway to the U.S. are in limbo in a kind of global safe-house archipelago all over the world.” Some are in Pakistan and others are in the United Arab Emirates, where thousands are stuck in a “humanitarian city”—a place sometimes described as an international no man’s land. Thousands are in Turkey and Greece. Most were transported out of Afghanistan with promises that they would eventually be resettled in the U.S., but, for various reasons, that hasn’t happened.

During the past year, Operation White Scarves, a volunteer effort led by women, has successfully evacuated more than a thousand female leaders from Afghanistan. Nasrin Oryakhil, a fifty-six-year-old gynecologist and the former minister of labor and social affairs, escaped this past August with only a small carry-on of possessions. “Because I’m not a corrupt minister, I don’t have any money,” she told me. She is currently living in Istanbul, waiting for the United States to process her application to enter the country. “I can’t accept that the United States is offering me no support at all,” she told me. In 2014, Michelle Obama awarded her the State Department’s International Women of Courage award. This year, Oryakhil found an online contact form for the Obamas and wrote to ask for her help. “She’s a very kind person,” she said, but “I never heard back.” In Turkey, Afghan refugees struggle to be able to work, and Oryakhil is unable to pay her rent. “Even though there are so many threats against me, I’m considering going back to Afghanistan to run my private clinic,” she said. “I might be tortured, but I have to support my daughters.”

Mursal Ayar, a twenty-eight-year-old freelance journalist who worked with CNN, among other outlets, was arrested at her home, in Kabul, in January. For two weeks, she was interrogated, locked in a toilet, and beaten with a steel pipe. “They beat you until you give them names,” she told me. In June, after she was released, she fled overland to a nearby country. No nation has yet offered her family asylum. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen to me,” she told me.

Some women are living in hiding, even abroad. “I am not safe here and I hope you don’t publish where I am,” Tamana Paryani, a well-known twenty-five-year-old activist wrote to me last week, by encrypted chat. In January, Paryani live-streamed the moment when the Taliban broke into her house to arrest her. “At the moment, my camera was my only weapon,” she told me. “It was my protest.” Paryani was recently awarded asylum in the U.S., but she’s deeply ambivalent about accepting it. “To be honest, I am not interested in going to America,” she wrote. “I don’t like to seek refuge in the same government who gave our land to the terrorists.”

Despite the chaos of the evacuation from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden has touted it as an “extraordinary success.” Many of the difficulties in processing refugees, the Administration has claimed, are the result of changes that the Trump Administration made to U.S. resettlement programs. “The United States fucked it up for sure last August, and there’s no giving anyone a pass on that,” Shawn VanDiver, who founded #AfghanEvac, which coördinates relocation efforts between the U.S. government and two hundred volunteer groups, told me. “But, man, I can’t imagine what this would’ve looked like under the previous Administration.”

Although a small number of individuals inside and outside the Biden Administration have committed themselves heroically to the effort, the situation remains a chaotic mess. Currently, there are a handful of legal pathways for Afghans who want to settle in the United States. “Not one is working like it should,” Becca Heller, the head of the International Refugee Assistance Project, a nonprofit organization that works on refugee policy, told me. One option is a Special Immigrant Visa, or S.I.V., designated for Afghans in danger because of their work with the United States. A report released this month by the nonprofit the Association of Wartime Allies estimated that a hundred and sixty thousand applicants eligible for S.I.V.s still await processing for their visas, and that the Administration has issued an average of only seven hundred and twenty-five such visas per month since September of last year. (The Administration claims that the number of “full applications,” or those that are ready for approval, is much lower, and amounts to seventeen thousand.) Even more distressing, according to a report co-authored by the Association of Wartime Allies and Mina’s List: only an estimated seven to ten per cent of S.I.V. primary applicants are women. Although they are also at risk, owing to their work, they often cannot meet the United States’s eligibility requirements.

A second pathway is through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, for people including journalists and other members of civil society, but advocates say that it is also too slow. A third option, humanitarian parole, permits only a temporary stay in the U.S., during which Afghans must apply for permanent protection. As of August, of the sixty-six thousand Afghans who’ve applied, a mere hundred and twenty-three have been approved, according to the investigative outlet Reveal. (An Administration official said that the Biden Administration is dissuading Afghans from applying to humanitarian parole because of its temporary nature, and encouraging them to apply through a pathway that offers durable status, such as S.I.V. or the Refugee Admissions Program. The official also noted that, upon taking office, the Administration “substantially increased” the number of staff processing S.I.V. applications, increasing the pace of S.I.V. arrivals in the U.S. nearly eightfold between January and July of 2021.)

Compare these numbers with those fleeing Ukraine, for whom the United States has created the highly successful Uniting for Ukraine program, known as U4U. Of more than ninety-seven thousand Ukrainians who’ve applied for humanitarian parole, more than sixty-eight thousand applications have now been approved. “It’s pretty clear at this point that the U.S.G. needs to face up to the situation and create a parole program for everyone who fled the Taliban based on the lesson learned via U4U,” Breen said. (An Administration official said that U4U was created after speaking with Ukrainians in refugee camps, who “overwhelmingly” said that they plan to return to Ukraine and only seek temporary refuge in the United States.) These policy changes would begin with the passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act, currently before Congress. Among other things, the Afghan Adjustment Act would establish an interagency task force that could begin by providing a comprehensive picture of where at-risk Afghans actually are, and create a path to application for lawful permanent residency for many who now hold only temporary and uncertain status.

The American allies and activists most at risk are those still trapped in Afghanistan. “We still have ten thousand left on our list that didn’t make it out,” Horia Mosadiq, who helps lead Operation White Scarves, told me. The list includes one of Mosadiq’s colleagues who has been detained and tortured twice. There are at least three women on the list still inside Afghanistan who are under extreme threat. At least one was highly known for her work in tackling cases of violence against women, including cases committed by members of the Taliban. For those who have escaped, their families are now at risk of retribution. “Silencing exists far beyond the borders of Afghanistan,” she said.

There are still efforts to get women at severe risk out of Afghanistan, but they face steep odds. “There aren’t many flights available,” VanDiver told me. Given the demand, it’s nearly impossible to find a seat on one. Also, for many, evacuating through a third-party country is prohibitively expensive. “In a best-case scenario, we estimate that a family of five needs between twelve and twenty-five thousand dollars just to travel and stay afloat while awaiting an asylum interview,” Laura Deitz, who runs Task Force Nyx, a grassroots group helping small numbers of high-risk families evacuate and resettle, told me. “Even if they have that kind of money, they run the risk of running out and becoming homeless as they wait for processing.” When their temporary visas expire, those who make it out have been sent back to Afghanistan. “We’ve seen women deported from Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asian countries, and returned to the Taliban,” Mosadiq told me. “That’s why the speed of processing isn’t just a matter of bureaucracy—it’s life and death.”

Mehran, the activist in Falls Church, wakes many mornings in a panic that something has happened to her friends. One recent morning, she reached for her phone to find bloody images of them in her text messages. Dozens of women had met up in the former site of Kabul’s Green Zone to protest the Taliban’s first year in power. Some were caught by the Taliban and beaten with sticks and pipes between their legs. Among the women was Munisa Mubariz, who previously held a position in the Ministry of Finance. Photos showed her in a bright-green coat, screaming into the face of a Talib. “We were screaming, ‘Food, freedom, work!’ ” she told me later. “The Taliban took my phone, so I’ve gone into hiding,” she said. “I can’t even go to the doctor.” She was looking for the quickest way out of Afghanistan. “Nobody wants to leave their country,” she told me. “But I can’t survive here anymore.” ♦

The Evacuation of Afghanistan Never Ended
read more

You Can’t Choose Your Neighbors: The Taliban’s Testy Regional Relationships

A year after the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan’s neighbors are engaging pragmatically with the Taliban, but still wary of what’s next.

One year after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, its relations with its neighbors remain tepid as the region comes to grips with the reality that they now own a greater share of Afghanistan’s problems and the Taliban realize that neither recognition nor financial aid are going to come from the region easily.

Around the Region

It seems that there is disappointment on all sides about what has unfolded since the Taliban’s victory.

  • Regional powers, particularly Iran, Russia and China, were happy to see U.S. and NATO troops go but are not in a position to replace the massive amounts of development assistance that went with them — leaving a humanitarian crisis on their doorstep with the new Afghan government lacking the capacity to run a modern state. China, which had a free ride on the regional stability NATO provided in Afghanistan, has been thrust into an unwelcome role of addressing complex political dynamics between the Taliban and Pakistan as well as trying to mitigate unrest within Afghanistan.
  • Regional countries tend to prioritize “stability” over rights or democracy. But even by those standards, the Taliban have under-performed. While the Taliban maintain tight security control across the country, they have excluded non-Pashtun ethnic groups from any meaningful political power, alienating their traditional patrons in neighboring states and increasing risks of future insurgencies from these marginalized groups.
  • The Taliban have also continued to harbor a range of terrorist groups that endanger their neighbors, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which threatens Pakistan; the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which threatens China; the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which threatens Uzbekistan; and ISIS-Khorasan Province, which threatens everyone (including the Taliban).
  • Regional countries are also concerned about drug trafficking from Afghanistan, which remains the world’s largest producer of opium for heroin and is increasingly a significant source of methamphetamine. Iran suffers from violent drug trafficking across its border and addiction of Iranian consumers. Pakistan, Tajikistan and Russia are also hurt by the flow of Afghan drugs through their territory. While the Taliban publicly announced a ban on opium cultivation, evidence from field studies suggests this is more about taking control of drug networks that were created according to the Afghan Republic’s power structures than about cutting exports.
  • The Taliban’s policies against girls’ education and women’s role in society are of less concern to the region than to Western powers, but nonetheless are alienating and out of step with their own domestic policies. At a recent regional summit in Tashkent, all regional powers issued statements condemning the ban on girls in high school and called for greater political inclusion.

For all of these reasons, the Taliban have not received recognition from any country, which is worse than when their rule in the 1990s was recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Taliban and Pakistan

Perhaps the most surprising regional dynamic since the Taliban took power has been its testy relationship with Pakistan. The Taliban came to power with the benefit of existential support from Pakistan. But, in power, the Taliban have done little to reward that support. Instead, they have pursued a foreign policy that can best be described as nationalistic — asserting Afghan sovereignty and focusing on their group’s own needs first. This includes harboring the TTP, which seeks the overthrow of the Pakistan government; opposing (albeit weakly) Pakistan’s efforts to fence the border between the two countries along the disputed Durand Line; and most recently threatening Pakistan over its apparent decision to allow U.S. drones to use Pakistani airspace to kill al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the middle of downtown Kabul. For its part, Pakistan still supports the Taliban politically and gives significant technical assistance but has refrained from significant amounts of aid, maintained tight border controls and has withheld diplomatic recognition.

Adding further insult to Pakistan, the Taliban has made surprising overtures to establish friendly relations with India, which just re-opened its embassy in Kabul. This reflects a pattern of daring diplomatic gamesmanship from a regime that lacks formal international standing: In addition to courting India to gain leverage against Pakistan, the Taliban played Qatar and the United Arab Emirates against each other in competition for a contract to manage the Kabul International Airport (which UAE won) and has jousted diplomatically with Uzbekistan over the return of Afghan air force planes that pilots flew out of the country as the Taliban took over. This aggressive foreign policy demonstrates the Taliban’s strong sense of sovereignty but also its aversion to compromise with a goal of winning friends.

No Option but to Engage

Regional countries do not have the luxury of choosing whether to be Afghanistan’s neighbor and have pursued pragmatic strategies of engagement. Uzbekistan, Turkey and Qatar have all offered good offices in different ways to broker diplomatic dialogues with the international community and with Afghan political factions excluded by the Taliban. Most regional powers seek to avoid the West’s hubris of expecting the Taliban to change quickly — instead seeking incremental change over time. But just because regional countries are willing to talk and averse to imposing sanctions on the Taliban, does not mean they these countries are its ally. All of the neighboring countries would have preferred a negotiated power-sharing arrangement to the outright Taliban victory.

A positive outcome for the region in Afghanistan would be if the Taliban maintain political and security control by giving enough to other political groups to avoid facing a domestic insurgency, keep a lid on transnational terrorist groups, and at the same time opening the country to free trade across the region and profitable access to Afghanistan’s prodigious mineral resources. Traders report that arbitrary checkpoints and corrupt customs collection are dramatically reduced. The Taliban have expressed openness to international trade and connectivity, encouraging the long-stalled gas pipeline that would link Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India as well as power lines from Central Asia to Pakistan and road and rail links that would fit into China’s Belt and Road regional infrastructure initiative. It remains to be seen, however, whether international investors including China (and presumably excluding the World Bank or Asian Development Bank due to Western vetoes) will want to make multi-billion dollar bets on the Taliban’s security control and political stability.

Ultimately, however, all nations in the region are concerned that the Taliban will not be able to contain cross-border threats in the form of terrorism, migration and drug trafficking. If the Taliban can deliver on these obligations over time, recognition from the region will come. If not, one can expect regional powers will seek greater alliances with non-Taliban Afghan factions to control these threats in their own areas of influence. Followed to its logical extreme, this was the recipe in the past for an intra-Afghan civil war.

While the United States and regional powers differ on many global issues, their interests in Afghanistan are remarkably aligned — even if Washington cares much more about women’s and human rights. It is therefore important to maintain parallel diplomatic channels with rivals like Iran, Russia and China so that disagreements over issues like nuclear proliferation, Ukraine and Taiwan do not undermine opportunities to put joint pressure on the Taliban to achieve common objectives in Afghanistan. This includes the current discussion about whether to re-instate the U.N. travel ban on the Taliban and decisions about diplomatic recognition.

You Can’t Choose Your Neighbors: The Taliban’s Testy Regional Relationships
read more