America’s 20-Year War in Afghanistan Is Over, but Some of the U.S. Military’s Waste May Last Forever

Interview by Jenni Doering

A farmer from Khoshob village walks near his water reservoir near Kandahar airfield, in southern Afghanistan. Credit: Kern Hendricks
A farmer from Khoshob village walks near his water reservoir near Kandahar airfield, in southern Afghanistan. Credit: Kern Hendricks

JENNI DOERING: The war in Afghanistan was the longest the U.S. military has engaged in with the last of American troops withdrawing in 2021. Over twenty years, the U.S. military dropped tens of thousands of bombs in Afghanistan and more than 70,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians died as a direct result of the war.

The prolonged conflict also left many Afghan people without adequate food, clean water, and shelter, making them vulnerable to natural disasters, including the devastating earthquakes that have taken thousands of lives in recent days. But there is another cost to the war that is often overlooked.

Afghan civilians are now living among dangerous pollutants left behind in the wake of the fighting, according to reporting from Lynzy Billing. She’s a freelance journalist who was born in Afghanistan and dug into this for our media partner Inside Climate News and New Lines Magazine.

Lynzy, welcome to Living on Earth!

Lynzy Billing reported on environmental and public health issues around three former U.S. military bases in Afghanistan in 2022. Credit: photo courtesy Lynzy Billing.
Lynzy Billing reported on environmental and public health issues around three former U.S. military bases in Afghanistan in 2022. Credit: photo courtesy Lynzy Billing.

LYNZY BILLING: Thank you for having me.

DOERING: So we often think of the direct injuries that bombs and other weapons can inflict during a war, but they can also leave behind dangerous chemicals. So what kinds of toxic substances can munitions have?

BILLING: I think that beyond the obvious impacts of the bombs and weapons during the American war in Afghanistan, there was a longer lasting effect that came with the war. And that really is the chemicals and residue attached to these weapons and munitions. If we’re speaking about bombs alone, tens of thousands of bombs were dropped on Afghanistan over the last 20 years. And most of these included explosives like RDX. And RDX has been described as being potentially carcinogenic. There’s a whole array of munitions that are left behind.

But it’s also the bases themselves, the military bases, and their waste disposal practices, and their activities during the war that also left behind the environmental effects that really we haven’t had a chance to look at properly until now. I think I really wanted to get away from just talking about the weapons that are still left half buried or uncovered and really look at the longer lasting health impacts from the war in general, which are in soil and are in water and in the air and in people’s food and what they eat and drink from on a daily basis.

DOERING: Yes, from what I understand, the U.S. military consistently dumped sewage into agricultural fields where Afghan people were growing their food. What pollutants were in that sewage, and what kinds of impacts did that have?

BILLING: One of the things that kept coming up around the three bases that I visited, which were in Nangarhar, Kandahar, and Parwan provinces, these were three of the largest US bases in the country, it was a lot of agricultural land, and farmers working in that land were telling me the same story, which was that U.S. military contractors were bringing tankers out to their fields and dumping sewage or wastewater in them. And they all relayed that either the sewage was blue, or it was gray.

And the gray wastewater and black wastewater comes from toilet facilities at the base. So it could be like sinks and showers. And it’s like grey water, and it has a residue in it, which contains phosphates and other chemicals. The blue that they were seeing was a dye that comes from portable toilets, which also had an array of chemicals that can have different levels of toxicities that are harmful to human health. So I started looking at studies that were done on wastewater and sewage sludge in other countries where, for example, sewage would go through a treatment process. And even that sewage had chemicals in it that couldn’t be removed, such as PFAS, which are also known as forever chemicals, just because they have a really long shelf life.

A water outflow from Bagram Airfield, formerly America's largest military base in Afghanistan. Credit: Kern Hendricks
A water outflow from Bagram Airfield, formerly America’s largest military base in Afghanistan. Credit: Kern Hendricks

And those chemicals have been linked to a whole array of health problems: kidney problems, cancer. So I started to realize that this sewage and wastewater that was being dumped in the fields was, you know, incredibly harmful to the farmers who were working there. And children that were working there as well.

DOERING: Those PFAS “forever chemicals,” municipalities here in the U.S. are spending many millions of dollars per facility to install systems that remove those chemicals. And we know that military bases often use these chemicals in their operations. So I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be in Afghanistan.

BILLING: As well as the residents living around the bases, I spoke with contractors who were tasked with the job of hauling this waste off the bases and finding somewhere to dump it. And they just relayed a really big problem just because of the amount of waste the bases were producing. Some of them had 40,000 troops on them at one point. And there was just so much waste, it couldn’t all be burned in a burn pit. It had to go somewhere. And one of the other areas aside from fields for sewage was waterways. And for the contractors, one of the reasons one relayed was that they could save on fuel if they found somewhere close by to dump. And in terms of those in charge at the bases, the waste really wasn’t their priority at the time, they were fighting a war, and the responsibility really went with the contractors to come up with their own solution of where to put the waste. No one was really checking it or thinking about any long term impacts at the time. And there were no laws or any prohibitions, really, from a U.S. military perspective, or international perspective, that was stopping them from dumping in waterways and fields and land or burning in areas around, also.

DOERING: A couple of years ago, when the U.S. finally did pull out of Afghanistan, there was a lot of talk about how important it was, this moral obligation that we had to help out some of the Afghans who had helped us during the war, and who had worked with the U.S. military, interpreted for the U.S. military, done a whole range of different things. So some of those people were able to come to the U.S. and flee the Taliban. But it seems like there’s kind of a lack of understanding of the obligation that we have to protect Afghans from the environmental degradation that we’ve caused there.

BILLING: Absolutely. I don’t think there’s any responsibility from the American military to protect Afghans. And I think that one of the reasons that we don’t know much about the U.S. military waste is that they’re not required to share what they do with their waste. There’s this whole black box on responsibility just because they don’t actually have to share that information. And I think on top of that, there’s actually a DOD prohibition that means the U.S. military doesn’t actually have to clean up its bases when it leaves a country overseas. And that it’s then the host nation’s responsibility to clean up.

And you know, you look at the amount of bases in Afghanistan and the size of them. They are still sitting exactly the same today as August 2021 when America left. You can see it on satellite today, you can still see the amount of scrap and broken tanks and engines. And then on top of that, you can still see the burn pits, some as big as three football fields, still scorched and charred from how they were left. So there was a lack of care when they were there at the bases for both their own service members and for the entire Afghan population, but then a definite lack after they left because they don’t need to, there’s no requirement for them to care about the environmental damage that they had on the country.

DOERING: What kinds of health impacts did you see on the ground while in Afghanistan? Can you tell us a story or two from Afghan civilians that really stood out to you?

BILLING: There were a lot, a lot of stories. I spoke to a lot of people. One thing, though, that does come up is that there’s definitely a pattern with the same health problems, which very much mirror the health problems of U.S. service members who were returning from deployment. One around Jalalabad airfield, there was a farmer and his name’s Khan Mohammad.

He had been working there for 20 years in a field just by the base, and his whole family helped him work in this field. And he had two sons, who were five and seven, who both have kidney problems. He had another son who had other health problems, their cousins had kidney problems, his mother had a skin rash, a persistent skin rash, and she was working the land as well in that field.

And so you have this whole family working in this field where tankers are dumping sewage waste, and they’re coming down with really serious kidney problems, even at the ages of five and seven.  And they really believe that they’re sick from the waste being dumped in their fields. But the reality is that they can’t afford the medical treatment they need, or they can’t afford to constantly go and see doctors. And there’s really not much they can do. And then you’d go to speak with a farmer next to Khan Muhammad. There was another  one next to him called Wali Rahman. He had the exact same problem. He had the same kidney problems. Doctors in that area know what’s happening. They know the waste is being dumped there. And they say, “There’s a pattern here. People are getting sick from the same things. They’re drinking and washing in the same rivers. They’re working on the same land, they’re eating the food they grow in the fields. It’s all connected.”

DOERING: And like you say, they don’t really have the resources to get the medical help they need. In your story, there was somebody who maybe would need a kidney transplant at some point. But that’s several thousands of dollars.

BILLING: And also, there are people in areas that didn’t have the possibility to travel to get the medical treatment they needed before, because there was ongoing fighting going on. A lot of people traveled to Pakistan to get treatment just because Afghanistan doesn’t have the resources or medicines available for it, as well.

DOERING: I think in your story, you came upon a couple of kids who were collecting scrap metal from one of the piles of  waste that was left behind. Can you tell us about that?

BILLING: They had a little shop across the road from Kandahar airfields. And they’d moved there after their father had died. And they were making a living off scrap metal collecting. And outside of bases in Jalalabad, Kandahar and Bagram are just rows and rows of little shops, with a whole array of scrap in them, all of which comes from the bases. And these two boys, you know, they had everything from broken motors and seats from Humvees to grenades, like whole grenades still, and—

DOERING: Live grenades?

BILLING: Live grenades, still with the key hole. And, you know, unexploded artillery shells. So there’s all these dangers of them collecting these things. The scrap metal collectors, not just in Kandahar, had persistent skin rashes and problems as well. And the doctors were telling me about this also. And this is just because of the materials that they’re dealing with on a daily basis.

DOERING: This is really heavy reporting, Lynzy. What keeps you going back to Afghanistan to report stories like this, about the environmental pollution left behind by the U.S. military?

BILLING: I think I’ll keep going back to Afghanistan until I can’t get in anymore. And it is getting harder to get in. I think that Afghanistan is a country in which the effects of this kind of environmental damage, and the effects of the war in general, they didn’t go away when the U.S. left in 2021. And they’re still there, and people are still there waiting for answers and some level of accountability.

An Afghan scientist collects soil samples from a family farm near the site of a former American base in Jalalabad. Credit: Kern Hendricks
An Afghan scientist collects soil samples from a family farm near the site of a former American base in Jalalabad. Credit: Kern Hendricks

And this is an American war in Afghanistan. And I think, especially Americans should really know about what happened there and what happened with these waste disposal practices. And also just because the U.S. military is in so many countries around the world using the exact same waste disposal practices, and right now there is no law saying they have to clean up, there is nothing that’s stopping it.

DOERING: Lynzy Billing is a freelance journalist who wrote about this for Inside Climate News and New Lines Magazine. Thank you so much, Lynzy.

BILLING: Thank you so much for having me.

America’s 20-Year War in Afghanistan Is Over, but Some of the U.S. Military’s Waste May Last Forever
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We Still Haven’t Figured Out How to Beat ISIS

The New York Times

March 31, 2024

Mr. Costa was the special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018. Mr. Clarke is the director of research at the Soufan Group.

For all of the counterterrorism wins that the United States has had in its fight against the Islamic State — and there have been many — we still have not figured out how to defeat it.

terrorist attack targeting a concert hall in the Russian capital of Moscow on March 22 killed more than 130 people and left many others severely wounded. It served as the latest deadly reminder that the Islamic State — and particularly its Khorasan branch, ISIS-K, which is active in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan — remains a potent threat. It’s a painful lesson Afghans and Americans alike learned in August 2021, when ISIS-K conducted a complex suicide operation that killed at least 170 Afghan civilians and 13 American service members in Kabul, in the midst of a chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Since the start of the new year, ISIS-K has launched lethal assaults in Iran and Turkey. Several ISIS-K plots in Europe have been disrupted, with arrests in Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands. On Tuesday, four days after the Moscow attack, the ISIS-affiliated al-Battar Media published a message threatening Italy, France, Spain and Britain: “Who’s next?” Both France and Italy have since raised their terror threat levels.

All of these events point to what we now know: Stripping the Islamic State of its self-proclaimed caliphate is not the same as beating it. At its peak, the caliphate was as large as the territory of Britain, stretching from the Levant to Southeast Asia, and boasted over 40,000 foreign fighters from more than 80 countries. Forced from this redoubt, ISIS has reconstituted itself in other countries, going underground in less detectable — but more dangerous — forms.

To stop that threat from reaching America and its allies, the United States must prevent two decades of counterterrorism expertise from atrophying. There are other serious threats that deserve Washington’s attention, including Chinese adventurism and the challenge of artificial intelligence. But to keep Americans safe, counterterrorism must remain a strategic priority — and that includes finding a way to keep eyes on the Islamic State in parts of the world where we no longer have a footprint.

After the terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda of Sept. 11, 2001, the American public was told to brace itself, that the war on terror would be a generational one. The United States made some profound blunders in the decades-long fight that followed, and eventually, Washington turned its national security focus to different geopolitical threats. But neither of those facts obviated the need to remain committed to countering transnational terrorism. By pulling back troops and intelligence assets from active conflict zones, the United States has allowed groups like ISIS-K to rebound. It’s not the time to let up, or predictably, we will find ourselves facing a resurgent adversary.

The Islamic State is nothing if not resilient. Aggressive Western military campaigns helped dismantle the caliphate and have in recent years severely curtailed the operations of ISIS militants in other countries, including the Philippines and Syria. Rather than disappear, they have gone on to rebrand, enlist new fighters under the same banner and plot new attacks. Some have reappeared in other countries, better trained and harder to find and protect against. Some are intent on committing acts of terrorism like those we’re witnessing now, traveling across borders to infiltrate target countries.

How did a jihadist group operating from a remote region of Afghanistan manage to expand its networks and begin planning external operations with such global reach?

Part of the answer is that we left. Before the United States withdrew, ISIS-K was far more constrained, particularly its ability to launch external attacks. In a 2020 agreement between the United States and the Taliban signed in Doha, Qatar, the Taliban agreed to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghan soil to threaten the United States and its allies. In return, Washington agreed to fully withdraw its forces from the country. The stipulation to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan asian operating base was primarily relevant to the Taliban’s longstanding, cozy relationship with Al Qaeda. The Taliban and ISIS-K, on the other hand, are mortal enemies and have been fighting each other since ISIS-K started operating in the country in 2015, at the apex of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate.

Either way, it’s unrealistic to expect the Taliban to be a reliable counterterrorism partner in an international effort to defeat ISIS-K. But some level of cooperation, however unappealing, is necessary. The human intelligence so critical in counterterrorism can only be gathered on the ground. With no American footprint left in the country, our counterterrorism interests would be better served with intelligence derived from Taliban security and intelligence operations directed against ISIS-K — a mutual enemy. The cooperation should remain limited to information sharing and should not extend to training or the provision of equipment.

Intelligence history is replete with examples of marriages of convenience between intelligence services for sharing threat information, even between adversarial countries. Although a “shadow war” has played out between Iran and the United States for decades, the United States still reportedly shared threat warnings on an impending terrorist attack with the Iranians in January. Washington did the same with Moscow two weeks before the ISIS-K attack on the concert hall.

Of course, coming to any kind of agreement with the Taliban is a deeply complicated and controversial endeavor. Even a highly restricted relationship with the Taliban would be distasteful and fraught with ethical dilemmas, given the regime’s human rights record.

But it’s been considered before. And the alternative is worse: a devastating attack directed at Americans overseas or at home.

We Still Haven’t Figured Out How to Beat ISIS
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Asfandyar Mir on Why ISIS-K Attacked Moscow

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel 124.


Laura Coates: Asfandyar Mir is the USIP senior expert for South Asia. There’s really been a thought process and a lot of pieces surrounding what happened at that Moscow concert hall attack. Our guest says it will have far reaching impact and he is here today to give us a little more information about that very point. Asfandyar, welcome. How are you?

Asfandyar Mir: Good. Thanks for having me on, Laura.

Laura Coates: Thank you for being here today. Now, there are a lot of questions that people have. One is, what exactly ISIS-K is and what was its intent in Moscow. They, of course, have claimed responsibility for the attack. And I wanted to understand more about this organization, if we can even call it that this group, what is ISIS-K?

Asfandyar Mir: Sure. So, ISIS-K is the Afghanistan based branch of ISIS in the Middle East, which has now been around for roughly 10 years. It first emerged in early 2015. And ever since, it has been active in the region, it has been fighting there. The Taliban, of course, you know, back when the United States had a presence in the region, you know, ISIS-K was attacking the United States. And around the time that the U.S. evacuated from Afghanistan, if you remember, in August 2021, there was a big attack. A terrorist attack during the evacuation, which killed around 13 service members, as well as 200 or so Afghans who were trying to evacuate. And ISIS-K was responsible for that attack as well. So, this is a nasty group. It is doggedly persistent. And now it is attacking countries both in the region. It has struck Iran, it has struck Pakistan, it has attacked in Central Asia. And it has finally managed to reach parts of Europe as well. We heard about some foiled plots, terrorist plots in Europe and more recently, we saw this attack in Moscow.

Laura Coates: Why now? It’s not an emergence, but why do you think it is becoming so much more active now?

Asfandyar Mir: Look, it has been active, it’s just not been in our news cycle, as much. But the group seems to have this goal of punishing disbelievers and infidels, you know, as per its doctrine. And in line with that it has been actively consistently plotting in the region, outside of Afghanistan, but also aiming for parts of Europe. The U.S. military has been warning that we could see an attack against Western states, U.S. interests, which is code for targets in Europe, in six months, with little to no warning. And this attack is very much in line with that warning.

Laura Coates: When What do you think the intent was in Moscow, specifically, obviously, Putin a very strong force in the region, why there?

Asfandyar Mir: I think multiple motivations were at play for one, ISIS and Russia have, you know, have sort of sparred with each other. Remember Russia backed the regime of Bashar Al Assad in the Syrian Civil War, in which the Assad regime was also fighting ISIS. And the Russians came on the side of Assad in a big way. And ISIS has not forgotten that ISIS-K is angry and upset about that. Another motivation is competition with the Taliban, which now runs the government of Afghanistan. And ISIS-K, wants to show that it is the most audacious terrorist group around, that it sort of holds the mantle of the global jihadi vanguard. And it really seeks to outperform, you know, militants like the Taliban who tend to reserve themselves or limit themselves to the boundaries of Afghanistan or its immediate neighborhood. By reaching Moscow ISIS-K is trying to signal that, that it has the geographic reach to hit anywhere in the world in the way that the Taliban won’t.

Laura Coates: Really, really important. Thank you so much for joining us today, Asfandyar Mir, for all of your expertise. Thank you.

Asfandyar Mir: Thanks for having me, Laura.

Asfandyar Mir on Why ISIS-K Attacked Moscow
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Does Counter-Terrorism Work? by Richard English review – a thoughtful and authoritative analysis

The Guardian

In January 2002, during his State of the Union address, President George W Bush said that in “four short months” the US had “rallied a great coalition, captured, arrested and rid the world of thousands of terrorists … and terrorist leaders who urged followers to sacrifice their lives are running for their own”.

The term “war on terror” had been coined a few days after al-Qaida’s attacks of 9/11 to describe the most extensive and ambitious counter-terrorism operation the world had seen. As Bush spoke, it all seemed to be going rather well.

Two decades later, with more than 300,000 people killed in Iraq, according to some estimates, and perhaps 240,000 deaths in Afghanistan, the violence of the “war on terror” can be seen to have created further chaos and carnage. Even excluding Iraq and Afghanistan, the numbers killed in terrorist attacks around the world rose from 109 a month in the years before 9/11, according to one study, to 158 a month during the six years that followed. Meanwhile, some of those whom Bush said were running for their lives are now in power in Kabul.

In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, the conflict came largely to an end – after 30 years – once British governments began to use the military and police to contain, rather than attempt to brutally extirpate, anti-state violence. Security forces patiently developed their intelligence-gathering capacities, while government ministers acknowledged the political causes of terrorism and, eventually, formed partnerships with those whom they had been fighting.

Richard English, the author of Does Counter-Terrorism Work?, is a professor of political history at Queen’s University Belfast, and has dedicated decades to the analysis of terrorism and to governments’ efforts to overcome it. Given that the choices made in counter-terrorism policy impact directly upon each of us every day, it is a vitally important area of study.

His previous work includes a 2016 volume, Does Terrorism Work?, and a highly regarded history of the IRA. Here, he offers a thoughtful and authoritative dissection of the counter-terrorism efforts of the “war on terror”, Northern Ireland’s Troubles and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and the lessons that each can offer.

English believes that post-9/11 counter-terrorism was far too short-termist, that the histories of Afghanistan and Iraq were “substantially ignored in a disgraceful fashion” and that the US became overly impressed with its own early military successes in both countries.

In Iraq, the claim that the removal of Saddam Hussein from power was a necessary part of a global counter-terrorist campaign was, of course, founded on the false claim that Saddam was supporting al-Qaida and the mistaken belief that he possessed weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, English writes, the assumption that the Middle East could be recast “through naive invasion” took no account of the region’s past, its complex allegiances, or the possibility of something simply going wrong.

He cautions that very few counter-terrorism campaigns will ever achieve complete strategic success. Unconvinced by those who claim bullishly that the Provisional IRA was “defeated”, he argues persuasively that the republican movement’s sustainable campaign of violence was suspended only because its pragmatic leaders decided that they might more likely achieve their objective – a united Ireland – by peaceful means. Equally, he is sceptical of those among his fellow academics who argue that counter-terrorism operations will inevitably promote terrorism.

However, he writes, there are times when “those who criticise counter-terrorists for worsening their state’s strategic position regarding terrorism, and those who celebrate tactical-operational successes against terrorist adversaries, might shout past each other while yet both being right”.

English judges that if any counter-terrorism campaign is to achieve even partial strategic victory, it must be conducted in a patient, well-resourced manner, with clear objectives. Given that terrorists often seek to provoke outrage and overreaction, the public should be encouraged to be realistic about the limits to what can be accomplished.

He also concludes that to avoid failure, counter-terrorist efforts must be integrated into broader political initiatives: “We should not mistake the terrorist symptom for the more profound issues that are at stake.”

Although this book was written before the Hamas attacks of 7 October and the war in Gaza, English was already convinced that Israeli counter-terrorism tactics, no matter how carefully conceived or brilliantly executed, will not resolve the conflict unless there is a strategic engagement with Palestinian grievances and desire for statehood.

Finally, he cautions that his three case studies present serious warnings about the self-harm that can be inflicted by state actions judged to lack morality. All three have involved the abuse of prisoners; that an overreliance on aggressive military methods can shatter public support; that technical surveillance should be lawful and proportionate; and, as a senior British police officer warned in a report published this month, that there are serious questions to be asked about the morality and legality of allowing informants within terrorist organisations to commit serious crimes.

“A successful counter-terrorism will be a just counter-terrorism,” English writes: legally bound, accountable and proportionate. To stray from this, he says, risks delegitimising the objectives of the state. Or as a mural in Northern Ireland used to say: “When those who make the law, break the law, in the name of the law, there is no law.”

Ian Cobain is the author of Anatomy of a Killing: Life and Death on a Divided Island (Granta)

  • Does Counter-Terrorism Work? by Richard English is published by Oxford University Press (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

Does Counter-Terrorism Work? by Richard English review – a thoughtful and authoritative analysis
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Finally, Rain and Snow in Afghanistan: Will it be enough to avert another year of drought?

Kate Clark • AAN Team

Afghanistan Analysts Network

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The last few weeks have finally seen rain and snowfall in Afghanistan, raising hopes for farmers and herders that this year could be better than the last three drought years. Afghans typically categorise a drought year as one where the low amount of precipitation causes problems for agriculture – a poor harvest or crop failure or not enough grazing for livestock. At its worst, a drought also affects drinking water. The long-term future for Afghan agriculture is grim: scientists predict the global climate crisis will bring more severe droughts more frequently. But this year, AAN’s Kate Clark found, together with Ali Mohammad Sabawoon, Rohullah Sorush and Sayed Asadullah Sadat, farmers hope there might be enough rain and snow to, at least, avert another year of drought.
Afghanistan has had three consecutive drought years (khushk sali), with terrible consequences for many farmers and herders. Winter and spring is when most precipitation in Afghanistan should fall, but this winter began with two dry months. Since then, there has been some good snow and rainfall, but coming into the Afghan new year, Nawruz, which falls on the spring equinox, cumulative precipitation was still only creeping up towards average levels. See the Food Security Outlook for Afghanistan from the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), which this report will quote from extensively, for more detail.

Afghans usually view drought through the prism of agriculture,[1] not surprisingly, given it is the backbone of the Afghan economy, providing jobs, income, food for households and more than a third of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).[2] Those cultivating rain-fed land (lalmi) are most vulnerable to drought, but farmers who have access to irrigation also suffer the consequences of low rain and snowfall, with springs drying up or streams running dry at times of the year when they should not. The greater variation in the rain-fed wheat harvest when there is drought, compared to the irrigated crop, can be seen in the chart below, which shows Afghan annual wheat production from 2005 to 2020.[3] Lack of snowfall on the mountains, or higher spring temperatures leading to premature snowmelt, can also result in a shortage of irrigation water downstream at critical times.[4] Herders are also hit hard if pasture is too little to sustain their flocks and herds. Scientists modelling the effects of greenhouse gases on the climate forecast that Afghanistan will see more frequent and harsher droughts, as well as warmer temperatures, a general shift from snow to rainfall, and heavier spring rains.[5]

Annual Afghan wheat production, rain-fed and irrigated, 2005-2020
Annual Afghan wheat production, rain-fed and irrigated, 2005-2020. Data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock; chart compiled by Mohammad Fahim Zaheer, FEWS NET regional scientist with the University of California, Santa Barbara Climate Hazards Center.

For this report, we spoke to farmers in Helmand, Daikundi, Ghazni, Paktia, Laghman and Kunduz to get a sense of their outlook for the coming year. Most had some access to irrigated, as well as rain-fed land, and many also had a small number of livestock.[6] We found that after the distressingly dry early winter, there is renewed hope that this year will be wetter and crops and pasture might flourish. Still, most famers we spoke to worried that spring rains would not fall in enough quantity or not at the right time to ensure a healthy crop and fear for the longer-term future.

The interviews were conducted in mid-March, just before the Afghan New Year (Nawruz). Farmers refer to the Afghan months: the last month of winter, Hut (20 February to 19 March) and the three months of spring: Hamal (20 March to 19 April), Saur (20 April-20 May) and Jawza (21 May to 20 June).

Farming in uncertain times

The winter of 2023/24 was unremittingly dry, until finally, in the month of Hut (beginning on 20 February), rain or snow fell, and it has rained or snowed several times since.

A farmer in Zurmat district of Paktia, said those two dry months at the start of winter had made people worry if there would even be drinking water this year. He has ten jeribs of irrigated and three jeribs of rain-fed land, plus five jeribs shared with a neighbour; he grows wheat for the household and maize, beans, onions, tomatoes and potatoes to sell. He also has two cows and a 20-strong flock of sheep and goats. After so many dry years, he said he had not bothered to sow winter wheat on his rain-fed land in the autumn. Those few people in the village who had saw the wheat dry up, or be eaten by birds or, at best, it had cost more to get it to harvest than it brought in.[7] The snow that fell in the last month of winter had come too late to save the winter wheat, but at least there was hope for the spring crops and people had been spurred into action:

The weather was cold, but it made the people happy. It snowed four times in all, although not more than 30 cm in depth. Then, it rained and the snow melted. As a result, the underground water level has increased a little and there is water in the wells. Water in our village’s karez is running again because water has come down from the mountains.[8] Agriculture is renewed. People are busy sowing crops, wheat, some are even planting trees. Everyone’s busy and happy. A few days ago, I was able to sow barley. The earth is soft and moist and the barley should grow very welI. I hope it will rain again so that we get a good harvest.

Another farmer,from Jaghatu district of Ghazni province, who is landless and cultivates irrigated land as a sharecropper, said they had had about 40 cm of snow, enough for drinking water and the animals (he has 25 sheep, four cows and a calf) and a slight improvement for the crops.

In years when there’s more water [than average], we can get a harvest large enough not only for my family and the landlord, but also with a surplus to sell. But for the last three or four years, we just didn’t get enough rain and snow and I’ve only been able to meet my family’s needs. We’ve had so many losses – we weren’t able to grow winter wheat and had to buy flour and potatoes and I’ve had to reduce the herd and flock by half, while the price of animals had gone down.

A farmer in Qarghahi district of Laghman said, “It recently rained so much that it went a long way towards quenching the earth’s thirst – not enough yet to meet the needs of farmers, but much better than last year or the year before.” He grows wheat for household use and a second crop of barley for sale on three jeribs and vegetables – cucumbers, chives, green onions and cauliflowers – all for sale on another two jeribs of his own land, as well as on six jeribs which he rents with his brother. He also has five cows and ten sheep grazing on his land and grows fodder crops for them. Laghmani farmers, he said, generally have access to water for irrigation from the Kabul and Panjshir Rivers and, in some areas, canals. Despite that, he said, rain is invaluable:

Compared to water from the river, rain can double the harvest. It functions like fertilizer. Last year, we grew winter wheat, but it dried up due to a lack of water and we had no harvest. When it snows on the mountains for three consecutive months, the water in the rivers increases and the groundwater level rises. When there’s no snow or rain, the water level drops. In the summer months when it gets hot, the water level in the river also goes down and people face a water shortage. When there’s a lot of rain, of course, the water in the springs that was reduced or dried up increases again and the springs flow.

Prospects had also turned for a farmer from Nad Ali district of Helmand Province who cultivates winter wheat on 5.5 jeribs to feed his household, and spring crops on another one-and-a-half jeribs – vegetables to eat and sell and cotton to sell. He also has 10 goats. The dry winter followed a long drought – not a single drop of rain had fallen in spring 2023, he said, and that had badly affected his winter crops.

The wheat turned yellow because of the lack of rain and was very weak. It was only around ten centimetres tall when the grain started to fill out and the cumin was about to dry up. [But then], it rained in the month of Hut, the wheat turned green again and began growing taller and the cumin got better. The wheat and cumin crops are happy now, very happy. We hadn’t watered our crops for around 50 days because the canal was dry.

The rain in Hut, he said, had “more than 90 per cent” addressed the drought. A local well-digger had told him the water table had risen from a depth of about 18 to 20 metres to 11 metres. “People are now ploughing their land,” he said, “and preparing to sow the new crops.” However, elsewhere in the province, the rain in February had come just in time, and the situation remains precarious:

The population of some districts of Helmand like Washer, Nawzad, Kajaki and Musa Qala were about to migrate because of the shortage of water. They were lacking even drinking water. Now the karezes there are full of water again. In Nawzad and Washer districts, snow fell. If the rain continues, I mean if it rains occasionally in Hamal [began 20 March], the drought in those districts will be addressed. If not, they will still have severe problems irrigating their crops.

Changing and chaotic weather patterns and ‘untimely rain’

Precipitation is crucial at various points in the growing cycle. Wheat, for example, needs water to germinate and for the initial growth, and then for flowering and finally for the grain to swell. The farmers stressed that it was not only the overall amount of rain and snowfall that was crucial, but also its timing and whether it was in or out of sync with what used to be the normal weather patterns – which their crops are adapted to. One interviewee in Daikundi province referred to the problem of ‘untimely rain’ (bidun-e mowqa), ie rain falling at the wrong time. He could also have referred to ‘untimely warmth’ and ‘untimely cold’ as equally serious problems brought about by climate change.

Two fruit farmers from the same province, from Khadir and Kiti districts, both described how untimely warmth had affected their fruit trees, especially almonds. The dry early winter had been unseasonably warm (that is, such warmth was unseasonable prior to climate change). Sudden snow and rain had prompted the fruit trees to come into blossom early. Then, a cold snap devastated the blossom. As a result, they said there would be no crop of almonds or stone fruit, or only a very poor crop, this year. “The experience of the past few years,” one added, “has shown me that changes in the weather, and late rains are usually more harmful than beneficial. They also increase the likelihood and number of pests, which people don’t have the capacity to deal with.”

The farmers in Paktia and Laghman both also described the harm of rain that is too heavy. In spring 2023, such rainfall had caused flooding and damage to the crops. The interviewee in Laghman warned that rain in the third month of spring, Jawza (21 May-20 June), was also problematic; the earth cannot absorb the water, he said, and it can lead to floods. Indeed, it is generally difficult for the soil dried out by the multi-year drought, to hold and absorb water, especially if it rains heavily. With Afghanistan now likely to see more droughts, warmer springs and heavier spring rainfall, catastrophic run-off and more frequent flooding is forecast (an upcoming report will delve into this). The other major change affecting agriculture is snow melting too early and too quickly. That causes a sudden rush of meltwater when farmers need it to come gradually, so they can use it for irrigation across the growing season.

Storing water

Pressure on water resources is not only due to the climate crisis, but also changing water use. The development of turbo wells, whether powered by diesel or solar, has enabled farmers to draw water up from deeper levels than was previously possible and expand the area of cultivation – crops can now even be grown in the dasht (desert) if water can be drawn up from the deep aquifers. As a result, groundwater is being extracted at a rate greater than it is being re-supplied by precipitation or run-off, only adding to the risk of water shortages and crop failure.[9] Many of our interviewees mentioned the water that was ‘stored’ in the environment, whether in reservoirs, canals, or aquifers, or as it flowed in springs, streams and canals. Most said the recent rain and snow was not yet enough to end their worry over whether they could count on water being available in the coming months.

The farmer in Zurmat, for example, said he only has access to irrigation from the public karez and because water levels are low everyone only gets their turn every 12 days, which is not sufficient. People have mostly been using water from wells, deploying solar power, he said, but again, water levels are low in the wells as well.

If it had snowed at the beginning and during the winter, it would have been useful, as the water storage could get full. The snow and rain in the month of Hut is not that effective, but it’s still good. If it rains and snows for three months in winter, we can call that year a water year because the springs and ground water come alive with it. [In that case] there will be enough water in the wells and the water will be flowing during the month of Jawza and Saratan [21 May to 20 July] and people will be able to irrigate their lands. However, this year, there was snow only at the end of winter, and then it rained and the snow melted. The greater the quantity of snow on the mountains and on the ground and the longer it remains, the more useful it is.

Re-charging the streams and aquifers and the very soil itself after three years of drought will take prolonged precipitation, as the farmer from Jaghatu explained. Following the recent snow fall, he said the water in their small spring [saqawa] had increased, but so much more was needed.

If there’s wet, heavy snow [tarbarf] and it snows four or five times during the winter and each time it is more than 50 cm, that’s good and we’ll have enough water. However, because there’s been drought for several years and the land is completely dry, it has to snow a lot and for the entire winter for us to say the drought has ended.

Looking to the past… and to the future

Every farmer we spoke to had stories of just how different the weather was not so long ago. The farmer in Kunduz, who is 50 years old, said that when he was a child, it had snowed a great deal in Dasht-e Archi and the canal behind his home had frozen in winter, so hard that the cows could cross it. “My family returned from Pakistan around 15 years ago,” he said, “and I haven’t seen the canal frozen since.” The farmer in Laghman, now in his early 40s, also recalled colder and wetter winters in his childhood, which meant that “every valley in Laghman flowed with water. In recent years, that’s much reduced. The water level in the wells used to be three metres and you could easily get water out, but now they’re down to 25 metres.” The interviewee in Paktia also recalled:

When I was a child, there was so much snow that even the street to the mosque was blocked and the people in the neighbourhood would gather to clear it and open up the way. We used to get at least one metre of snow, but now, it’s not more than a span [a hand’s width). We’d take water from our well with a jar: you could just put the jar in the water and get it out. Now the level is down to 50 metres. Winters used to be very cold. Now, they’re warm.

The farmer in Ghazni remembered how, during his childhood, it would start snowing at the end of autumn.

It snowed through the entire winter and we could have snow even during the first full month of spring. There was more than enough water, but now climate change has had its effect and there has been severe drought. As a result, we can’t keep a lot of animals and we can’t grow enough.

Those days of regular plentiful rain and snow in most years falling at the right time, are gone. Yet, how to respond, said one interviewee from Daikundi, is complicated by the fact that the crisis facing Afghan agriculture and the rural economy goes wider and deeper than ‘just’ climate change. There are now more people to feed, he said, and at the same time, natural resources are damaged, diminished or lost. He spoke about the loss of vegetation, soil and upland forests and the lack of a plan to restore them. He described how the loss of ground cover meant that when it does rain, or the snow melts, water now runs off the hills and is not absorbed by the soil. Avalanches and spring floods have destroyed cultivated land, orchards and water resources. At the same time, the people lack water storage in the foothills and around the sources of springs. And all of this, he said, is the backdrop to a growing population and expanding villages:

A patch of land on which a hundred man [450 kilogrammes] of grain could be grown, fifty years ago, would support one family. Now, that same patch of land is expected to support at least five and even up to ten families. Agricultural land can no longer, in no way, answer the food needs of the local people.

While Afghans can do nothing about the changing climate – Afghanistan is one of the lowest emitters of greenhouse gasses – there are ways to minimise the ill-effects. Better water management is urgent, to ensure what water there is goes further and that flooding and loss of soil in run-off is minimised. Measures include harvesting water in reservoirs, ponds, diversion dams and check dams,[10] changing irrigation methods, growing cover crops to reduce transpiration and ensuring there is vegetation cover, including trees, planted at the higher altitudes to reduce and slow down run-off.

There should be international help for this: the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement recognised that countries like Afghanistan are suffering out of all proportion to the contribution they have made to damaging the planet’s atmosphere and climate. Yet, as AAN guest author Assem Mayar reported in 2022, Afghanistan is largely blocked from accessing global funds dedicated to helping poor countries mitigate the effects of climate change because their government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is not recognised.

Hopes and worries for the next few months

In the short-term, the outlook this spring is better than it has been for the last few years. The deficit in cumulative precipitation from October 2023 through to the end of February, of 60 per cent below-average and 70 per cent below-average in the driest areas, as reported by FEWS NET, is now reducing because of the recent snow and rain. If there is average precipitation from March to May, FEWS NET said, the cumulative deficit will be further reduced and there will be enough moisture to support the all-important spring wheat crop.

However, FEWS NET also has a warning: the snowpack, which is the mass of lying snow that is compressed and hardened by its own weight, whose melting is so important for providing irrigation water to many communities, will likely be below-average. “Near-record low snow-water volumes,” it said, “have been recorded through much of the winter.” It said the snowpack needs to develop in March and April to ensure “water availability in the summer for downstream areas where irrigated crops are cultivated.” However, high temperatures are forecast for April and May 2024, which would result in early snow melt and high evapotranspiration rates and, potentially then, causing stress to both pasture and rainfed crops because of the lack of moisture in the soil.

FEWS NET also had other forecasts about harvests and livestock. This year, it still expects national wheat production and second-season crop production to be below-average, although vegetable and cotton production could be near-average. It also expects the condition of pastures to be near-average, although with a later decline in the warmer areas, and the bodily condition of livestock and production of milk to be below-average.[11] All of this means that even after the recent relief of rain and snow, the outlook for farmers and herders remains precarious.

Farmers everywhere are always acutely aware of the weather and the climate and pondering what to do for the best. That anxiety has been exacerbated by the chaos to weather patterns brought about by the climate crisis. In Afghanistan, where so many live on the breadline, the worry is especially acute. Watching the skies and hoping, they contemplate various futures this year, as one of our interviewees in Daikundi concluded:

If the spring rains continue to fall regularly, rain-fed crops and the grass and mountain plants will improve and thrive. The pastures and fields in our region will be green. But if the spring rains stop, pests will thrive and the harvest will be insignificant.

The recent rain and snowfall have turned despair into hope, but still, the fear lingers.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert


1 Scientists have different categories of droughts. Meteorological drought occurs when there is a prolonged period with less than average precipitation. Hydrological drought occurs when water reserves fall short in aquifers, lakes and reservoirs, run-off and stream-flow. In Afghanistan, drought usually refers to agricultural drought, when crops or pasture becomes stressed because of lack of moisture. That is often due to a meteorological drought, but could also be due to evaporation and low soil moisture.
2 This is from the latest World Bank GDP figures, from 2022.
3 FEWS NET reports that irrigated wheat typically makes up around 85 to 90 per cent of Afghanistan’s national wheat production, with rainfed wheat contributing around 10 to 15 per cent.
4 See also AAN’s earlier report on how climate change is melting Afghanistan’s glaciers, ‘Shrinking, Thinning, Retreating: Afghan glaciers under threat from climate change’ and the threat that poses to irrigation and drinking water, and of floods.
5 Modelling of what would happen to Afghanistan’s climate was carried out by WFP, UNEP and NEPA in 2015 and quoted in this 2022 report by AAN guest author, Assem Mayar The projections used what they called a ‘moderate’ scenario, which would see greenhouse gas emission peaking in 2040 and included:

Temperatures in Afghanistan would increase by more than the global average and there would be further melting of glaciers and snow cover, a shift in precipitation from snow to rainfall and a rise in demand for water for crops, with plants possibly requiring extra irrigation.

There would be an increase in drought and flood risks. Local droughts would become the norm by 2030, while floods would be a secondary risk.

Snowfall would diminish in the central highlands, potentially leading to reduced spring and summer flows in the Helmand, Harirud-Murghab and Northern River basins, while spring rainfall would decrease across most of the country.

In the northeast and small pockets of the south and west, along the border with Iran, there might be a five per cent or more increase in ‘heavy precipitation events’ that can lead to flash floods. However, these potentially devastating events might actually decrease across most of the south and other parts of the north.

In the medium-term, the frequency of snowmelt-related floods in spring might increase simply due to accelerated melting associated with higher spring temperatures.

6 This report hears from those growing crops, who, typically, also have some livestock. The multi-year drought has also devastated livestock and the livelihoods of herders in Afghanistan. FEWS NET reported:

As a result of the early depletion of pasture and grazing areas last year and below-average straw availability following below-average domestic production, fodder availability for livestock in January and February, the peak of the lean season, is at below normal levels, which is negatively impacting livestock body conditions. Overall, herd sizes remain at below-normal levels as households are still recovering their herd sizes following the drought, but herd sizes are near average levels in the eastern, northeastern, and some parts of the southeast that were not impacted by the drought. According to field reports, the livestock sector has been significantly impacted by the drought in northern (Samangan, Faryab, and Jawzjan) provinces due to a lack of fodder and insufficient drinking water during the winter and the peak of the lean season, resulting in poor body condition and productivity.

7 FEWS NET wrote that despite the multi-year drought and dry soil, some farmers did sow winter wheat, “expecting better precipitation due to the ongoing El Niño. By late January, irrigated crops sown in October were stressed due to a lack of available water for irrigation, low rainfall, and poor soil moisture.” There was also early germination in some lower-altitude areas because of above-average temperatures from October 2023 to January 2024, “leading to a need for moisture earlier than normal during the agricultural season.” Better precipitation at the end of the winter, it said, was “supporting the recovery of previously stressed crops.”
8 karez is formed from a series of well-like vertical shafts, connected by sloping tunnels, which tap into subterranean water to efficiently delivers large quantities of water to the surface by gravity, without need for pumping. More on this UNESCO website on how karez “allow water to be transported over long distances in hot dry climates without loss of much of the water to evaporation.”
9 Similar problems are seen in the cities, where a growing population and mismanagement of water supplies has drained aquifers to deeper and deeper levels, meaning the wealthier may be able to dig ever deeper wells, but not the poorest.
10 For an example of measures taken locally to conserve water in Faryab province, see this AAN report: ‘Kanda and Backyard Pools: Faryabi Ways of Coping with Water Shortages’.
11 The forecast from FEWS NET in greater deal was:

The spring rainfed wheat harvest is expected to be lower than normal due to the drier start of the wet season, a reduction in planted area for rainfed wheat production, low snowpack development that will be important for water for irrigation during the dry season, and high temperatures. However, irrigated wheat production is likely to be average. 

National wheat production is expected to be below average due to the cumulative impact of three years of drought and the poor start to the October to May precipitation season that negatively impacted winter wheat planting.

Vegetable production in eastern, southern, and central parts of the country is expected to be near average, with the harvest likely in April and May. Cotton production in southern Afghanistan is expected to be near average as it was not significantly impacted by the drier start of the wet season and is supported by groundwater. Second-season crop and horticulture production is anticipated to be below average due to limited water access for irrigation, high temperatures, and lower-than-normal water availability in the main water basins.

Pasture is expected to regenerate to at least average levels with the average March to May spring rains and remain at those levels through at least May. From May to September, pasture conditions in lower elevation areas of the country will decline and be below average due to high temperatures, leading to high evapotranspiration rates.

Livestock body conditions are anticipated to be below average from February to April due to lower-than-normal fodder availability and lack of grazing areas, specifically in northern, central, and western parts of the county. However, livestock body conditions will improve seasonally through September due to improved access to fodder and grazing areas following the anticipated average March to May spring rains.

Livestock milk production is expected to be below average nationally due to poor conception rates over the past three years. However, livestock milk production is expected to be better than last year as regenerating pastures during the March to May rains support livestock access to food.

Livestock prices are expected to be lower than the five-year average through most of the scenario period due to below-average body conditions, lower-than-normal demand, and below-average pasture conditions.


Finally, Rain and Snow in Afghanistan: Will it be enough to avert another year of drought?
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The U.S. Failure in Afghanistan Was Not the Withdrawal

World Politics Review

This past week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held hearings on the Biden administration’s controversial withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Retired Gens. Mark A. Milley and Kenneth McKenzie, who both served in leadership roles under President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, testified and faced questions from congressional leaders from both parties. In explaining Washington’s failures in Afghanistan, Milley told Congress that the U.S. “could not forge a nation.” He has previously stated that the U.S. had “lost the war.”

The hearings are not related to Congress’ bipartisan Afghanistan War Commission, which is investigating the entire 20-year period of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and whose report will be released later. Rather, they are an effort by congressional Republicans to draw negative attention to the Biden administration’s foreign policy in the runup to the November presidential election. As such, the hearings have become a renewed focal point for political narratives about blame. But they also create an opportunity to consider counterfactual hypothetical scenarios that could expand our understanding of the U.S failure in Afghanistan.

For many Democrats as well as Republicans, the mishandling of the withdrawal is seen as a moral blight on the U.S., which having first broken Afghanistan then walked away. Even for the majority of U.S. citizens who believed leaving was the right thing to do, the chaotic nature of the withdrawal itself and the failure to adequately protect Washington’s Afghan allies during and after the withdrawal have caused concern. A separate U.S. State Department report from 2022 traced the roots of the botched evacuation to the policies of both the Biden and Trump administrations.

Many criticisms from both sides of the aisle are well-founded, regardless of which of the two men battling for the White House this year are perceived to bear the greatest blame. When the U.S. announced its departure in 2021, it caused a swift collapse in the morale of the Afghan army, allowing the Taliban to sweep across the country. Since their takeover, repression is severe, food insecurity is rife, and women and girls face ongoing and worsening gender apartheid. The problems have been compounded by the Biden administration’s continued freeze of Afghanistan’s national reserves as well as crippling sanctions that have thrown the population into greater poverty. Amid these dynamics, al-Qaida has a resurgent presence in the country, as does the Islamic State, whose Afghanistan-based offshoot—the Islamic State-Khorasan, or IS-K—was responsible for the attack in Moscow that killed at least 137 people Friday.

But the deeper blame here with regard to the U.S. failure to improve the lives of Afghans and secure the region against terrorism can’t reasonably be pinned on either Trump or Biden. That’s because the problem wasn’t the failure to build a nation, win a war, stay longer or leave sooner, but rather the fact that the U.S. was never the right actor to create or oversee a sustainable peace once the immediate conflict with the Taliban ended in 2002. The decision to remain in the country fighting a counterinsurgency, rather than step back and allow the United Nations to take over, was taken by neither Trump nor Biden, but by then-President George W. Bush soon after 9/11. This meant Trump and Biden both inherited a lengthy “war” in Afghanistan that could have and should have been a multinational peace operation almost from the start.

Milley is right: The U.S. military is not good at nation-building, defined by political scientist James L. Payne as “the use of ground troops to support a deliberate effort to establish democracy.” But nor are most other invading countries good at it, which is why, Payne argues, “nation-building” conducted by the invader that topples the previous regime so often fails. In fact, political science research shows that international involvement on the side of a government to fight insurgencies, which frequently occurs once a regime is toppled, usually lengthens, broadens and complexifies the very civil wars that are often the impetus for such interventions.

But this doesn’t mean that international support to rebuild a society after toppling a repressive government is itself a bad idea or that the U.S. couldn’t have made it happen. In fact, there is a different paradigm for post-conflict societal reconstruction that actually has an excellent track record: peace-building under U.N. auspices. Such missions take as their starting point U.N. involvement as a neutral actor that does not back either side of a conflict but rather supports peace. According to research by the Rand Corporation, compared to the U.S. or other invading countries, this recipe more often than not actually works.

The problem in Afghanistan wasn’t the U.S. failure to build a nation or win a war, but the fact that the U.S. was never the right actor to create or oversee a sustainable peace once the conflict with the Taliban ended in 2002.

U.N. personnel can help create peace by solving credible commitment problems, and they can help keep peace by providing inducements, persuasion and, if needed, coercive measures to enforce agreements. Beyond simple peacekeeping, democratic, rights-based institutions are also generally part of the peace-building recipe, but under U.N. auspices they use home-grown, culturally appropriate models rather than those imposed by specific Western powers. And the use of armed force in such missions is generally limited to that required to protect civilians from armed groups or the government. These strategies, when conducted by the U.N. rather than invading foreigners, have been shown to be extraordinarily effective across numerous U.N. missions using various indicators of success. This is a completely different paradigm from the counterinsurgency approach adopted by the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Despite the current narrative of failure, the U.S. actually won the initial Afghanistan war, routing the Taliban quickly in late 2001 and early 2002 with help from a coalition of nonaligned Afghan tribes, the Northern Alliance. But then the U.S. threw itself behind the Western-styled, U.S.-funded Afghan national government while continuing to hunt terrorists in violation of U.N. human rights standards and conducting low-intensity “warfare” against the Taliban, which by then had become an insurgency. In so doing, the U.S. became a party to an ongoing civil war it couldn’t ever win and created a perception by the Afghan people that their national government was being propped up by the West. Under these circumstances, it was no surprise that the national government fell when the U.S. withdrew.

Imagine, however, a counterfactual history where the U.S. removed the Taliban but then immediately pivoted to supporting a truly multinational U.N. peacekeeping and peacebuilding force comprising not just Western troops but troops from the Global South—as was actually requested by the Taliban at the time, and again in 2009. In this scenario, the U.S. would have allowed the U.N. to negotiate an inclusive power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and a new Afghan national government when the Taliban was on the back foot, with Washington rallying funding and troop contributions from other U.N. members. The resulting large, inclusive, mostly non-Western U.N. peacekeeping mission would have overseen reconstruction in culturally sensitive ways consistent with both Afghan cultural normsand international human rights standards, and based on the will of the Afghan people. The U.S. would have leveraged the unprecedented international sympathy it enjoyed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to rally support from moderate Muslim-majority countries and Islamic scholars to conduct international trials of captured terrorists. The venue for those trials would have been a U.N. Security Council-initiated special ad hoc tribunal using processes the U.N. had mastered in trying crimes against humanity in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

In that scenario, many problems could still have arisen. But the U.S. military would never have been stuck in a quagmire unsuited to its training and job description; Afghanistan’s rural countryside would not have been ravaged by drone warfare for two decades, throwing sympathy back to the Taliban; the U.S. government would not have besmirched its own reputation in the Muslim world through extrajudicial executions and detainee-abuse scandals, providing recruitment material to the likes of ISIS; and the Afghan army would have been less dependent on U.S. backing from the start.

The events of August 2021 were made inevitable not just by the Biden administration’s hurried evacuation or even by the Trump administration’s sidelining of the Afghan national government in its 2020 negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, but also by the 20 years of counterinsurgency that preceded the withdrawal. Rather than allowing the U.N. to broker, enforce and build on a sustainable peace, the U.S. sided with one belligerent in what became an ongoing civil war. By the time Biden took office, as described in the White House’s own 2023 report on the evacuation, he felt his hands had been tied.

This is not to say Trump and Biden did not make meaningful choices. Trump could have avoided throwing the national government under the bus. Biden could have reversed Trump’s timetable, begun the evacuation sooner or extended it over a longer period. And his administration could still do much more to streamline red tape for Afghans and assist many more to reach the United States.

But if the overall U.S. record in Afghanistan was a failure, it wasn’t a failure to “win a war” or “forge a nation,” but rather to build a postwar peace starting in 2002. That failure of imagination was inherited by both of the presidents being blamed in these congressional hearings now. By expanding their imagination now, analysts and U.S. citizens can draw smarter lessons for future interventions.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets at @charlicarpenter.

The U.S. Failure in Afghanistan Was Not the Withdrawal
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Afghanistan: Playing Both Sides of the U.S.-Chinese Rivalry

By Sheena Chestnut Greitens and Isaac Kardon

Foreign Affairs

March 15, 2024

Why Countries Get External Security From Washington—and Internal Security From Beijing

On a visit to Budapest in late February, China’s minister of public security, Wang Xiaohong, secured a face-to-face meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to establish a new bilateral security arrangement. China and Hungary agreed to cooperate on law enforcement, policing, and counterterrorism, putting security ties at the center of their relationship.

In many ways, it was a puzzling agreement, since Hungary is already a member of a security alliance—NATO—that protects it from armed attack. But Budapest’s pursuit of security relationships with both Beijing and Washington is a notable example of a global trend. Overlapping security relationships are increasingly common. Countries as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam are courting Chinese and U.S. security cooperation at the same time.

This phenomenon has a simple explanation: Beijing and Washington are offering different products, reflecting their distinctive concepts of security and the types of support each is best suited to provide. The United States shores up external security, protecting its partners militarily against regional threats. China, meanwhile, provides internal security, giving governments the tools to combat social disorder and political opposition.

Even though their engagement takes different forms, the United States and China are both using security relationships to compete for influence, intensifying the U.S.-Chinese rivalry and increasing the risk of miscalculation. Through the types of support they provide to third countries, Washington and Beijing also impart their own ideas about the appropriate role of security in a society. U.S. policymakers must learn to manage this new competition—and use U.S. security partnerships to advance forms of security that do not impinge on democracy or human rights.


It may seem risky for a country to pursue security cooperation with two great powers that are directly competing with each other. If the country already receives reliable security assistance from one great power, exploring a partnership with the other could throw the existing relationship into jeopardy. Yet many countries are appealing to both the United States and China, rather than choosing just one. And so far, Washington and Beijing are allowing it.

Countries have been able to pursue these dual relationships because they are often not in direct competition. The United States’ primary offering is regional security: it defends allies and partners against threatening neighbors, provides extended nuclear deterrence, and combats transnational terrorist groups, leaning heavily on U.S. advantages in high-end military capabilities. Washington has built up a network of allies with mutual defense treaties and other bilateral security partnerships to address challenges to peace and stability, including threats posed by China and North Korea in East Asia, Iran in the Middle East, and Russia in Europe.

The Department of Defense usually leads U.S. international security efforts. It establishes partnerships with other countries’ defense ministries and armed forces, and uses these relationships to project U.S. military power in priority regions. Where law enforcement and intelligence cooperation factor into U.S. security partnerships, the focus is still on external threats, such as transnational terrorist organizations or drug cartels.

Many countries are appealing to both the United States and China, rather than choosing just one.

China, meanwhile, offers foreign governments domestic and regime security. Through cooperation on law enforcement and public security measures such as digital surveillance, police training, and riot management, Beijing helps its partners maintain control at home. China is not trying to replicate the United States’ network of military alliances; in the Middle East, for instance, Beijing has largely deferred to Washington’s position as a regional security leader. In its recent outreach to Hungary, too, China is not positioning itself as a substitute for U.S. military power in Europe. Instead, China’s domestic security agencies have established their own channels of bilateral cooperation focused on internal stability and political control.

There is some overlap in U.S. and Chinese security cooperation with foreign partners. Beijing does engage in traditional military outreach, selling arms to and participating in joint military exercises and training with countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Iran, Myanmar, and Russia. Like the United States, China conducts regular naval diplomacy to signal its military presence and capabilities. Some countries, including Pakistan and Thailand, have received substantial military aid from both Beijing and Washington. China and the United States also both devote considerable attention to helping partner militaries develop their capacity for disaster relief and humanitarian assistance operations.

But this overlap is a small piece of a larger picture in which the United States and China operate under starkly different security paradigms. Washington and Beijing have both articulated expansive national security objectives driven in part by their perception of the other as a threat, but each country puts forward its own ideas about what security is and how to achieve it.

The United States is focused on regional security, developing and deploying military power to help its partners balance against, deter, and combat external threats such as Russian aggression in Ukraine and Pyongyang’s advancing nuclear and conventional military capabilities on the Korean Peninsula. The 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy emphasizes the importance of “America’s unmatched network of alliances and partnerships” and the role of its armed forces in “backstopping diplomacy, confronting aggression, deterring conflict, projecting strength, and protecting the American people and their economic interests.” It is less focused on domestic security issues, such as threats to public safety from violent crime, and—unlike U.S. strategy during the Cold War—does not promote aid to repressive internal security forces that might keep “friendly” dictators in power.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s concept of national security, however, is based on “political security”—the protection of China’s socialist system, Chinese Communist Party leadership, and Xi himself. For Xi, security requires what he has called a “comprehensive” approach that gives priority to internal threats and the security of the regime. The international dimension, which dominates U.S. national security thinking, in China serves only as “a support” for what is primarily a domestic project, according to Xi’s report to the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Party Congress in 2022. Both at home and abroad, China relies much more heavily than the United States does on its law enforcement, paramilitary, and secret police agencies to carry out security policy. And Beijing is increasingly ready and willing to work with partners who voice similar regime security demands.


Astute middle and small powers can take advantage of this uneven U.S.-Chinese security competition. As long as both great powers provide security goods without demanding an exclusive arrangement, third countries can reap the benefits.

Hungary is an illustrative case. Its China policy has long diverged from those of its European partners; Hungary was the first EU participant in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. By obstructing European aid to Ukraine and delaying Sweden’s NATO accession in tacit support of Russian objectives, Hungary has shown it is willing to play major powers off one another in order to extract concessions.

So far, Budapest has managed to maintain this balance. As a NATO ally, Hungary enjoys the external security provided by the United States. But as Orban’s government works to undermine Hungary’s democratic institutions, Budapest also benefits from a domestic security partnership with Beijing that will soon see Chinese police patrols on Hungarian streets.

It is telling that Beijing sent its domestic police chief to Budapest, not the defense or foreign minister, to discuss security cooperation. In a meeting with Wang, the Chinese public security minister, Hungary’s interior minister, Sandor Pinter, echoed Chinese official rhetoric by emphasizing “the guarantee of security and stability” as a prerequisite for good relations. At least in part, this reflects Orban’s concern that Hungary’s engagement with the United States empowers a liberal opposition that could challenge his regime. Although Budapest’s partnerships with Beijing and Washington overlap on certain issues, such as counterterrorism, Hungary generally has different reasons for maintaining each relationship and different expectations of what each security patron will provide.

Orban may be more brazen than most world leaders in flaunting Hungary’s dual security ties, but his is hardly the only country that is drawing attention and resources from both China and the United States. Vietnam is, too. Last September, while U.S. President Joe Biden was in Hanoi, the United States and Vietnam announced that they would upgrade their relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” that includes close collaboration between U.S. and Vietnamese defense institutions.

Hanoi and Washington have been steadily stepping up their security cooperation over the past decade in direct response to the security threat that China poses in Vietnam’s neighborhood. Driven by Vietnam’s disputes with China over territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, U.S.-Vietnamese defense cooperation has developed most robustly in the maritime domain. Vietnam has become a frequent port of call in recent years for U.S. aircraft carriers operating in the region.

Three months after Biden’s visit to Hanoi, it was Xi’s turn. In December, Xi made his way to the Vietnamese capital to reinforce Beijing’s own comprehensive strategic partnership with Hanoi. This time, however, the conversation focused on bolstering communist rule in both countries. Xi declared that, together, Beijing and Hanoi would “spare no effort to prevent, defuse, and contain all kinds of political and security risks,” referring not only to national security threats but also to threats to the two countries’ Communist Parties and leadership.

To address these risks, Beijing pledged to assist Hanoi with practical internal security measures, including intelligence sharing by China’s Ministry of State Security and enhanced police cooperation. The two countries agreed to joint efforts to prevent domestic instability, separatism, and “color revolution”—a term that evokes China and Vietnam’s mutual fear of foreign interference and opposition activity that could topple the ruling party and bring about democratization. In a way, Vietnam’s two security partnerships are set up to balance each other: Hanoi seeks U.S. assistance to counter an external security threat from China, and it seeks Chinese assistance to counter a threat to regime security it attributes, at least in part, to U.S. efforts to promote democracy.

Other countries also see upsides in receiving security assistance from two competing powers. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has courted Chinese support for its internal security organs, sometimes at the expense of U.S. military assistance. Djibouti has agreed to host bases for both the U.S. and Chinese militaries. Singapore has positioned itself as a security partner and valued intermediary for Washington and Beijing. Papua New Guinea recently signed security agreements with the United States and Australia but is nonetheless considering additional assistance from Beijing. The types of support each country gets from China and the United States vary, allowing them to pick and choose among great-power security offerings and settle on those that best suit their perceptions of the threats they face.


The conventional wisdom is that countries do not want to choose between the United States and China because the United States provides security, China provides economic prosperity, and no country wants to give up one for the other. But there is no such clear tradeoff today. In the past several years, China has boosted its outreach to prospective security partners, and many foreign governments have accepted or are actively considering Beijing’s overtures, especially on matters of internal security. If these countries already have security relationships with the United States, they are usually not throwing out those commitments as they consolidate ties with China. Rather, their security relationships with Beijing and Washington are evolving in tandem as they address different concerns.

During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow provided both internal and external security assistance to their client states, and few if any countries maintained security relationships with both superpowers. In the Cold War’s later years, the United States cut back its (often unsuccessful) efforts to shore up regimes that were, in many cases, repressive dictatorships. Although Washington has not entirely withdrawn from providing internal security assistance in the decades since, it nonetheless left a gap that a rising China has gradually moved to fill.

Beijing portrays Washington’s current externally focused approach as inadequate for addressing the domestic and nontraditional security challenges that many countries face today. It offers alternative solutions under the banner of its Global Security Initiative as a way to make up for the shortfall.

In countries troubled by weak governance, Chinese security assistance may solve legitimate problems—improvements to public order and enforcement of the rule of law often benefit citizens as well as rulers. But that same aid can also enable repression and entrench nondemocratic rule. China’s police training programs, for example, might teach local law enforcement useful tactics, but they also disseminate an expansive view of political policing that can normalize and encourage repression. Similarly, a Chinese “safe city” project might contribute to urban crime control and public safety but can also provide tools to track dissidents and subdue political opposition.

As Washington and Beijing increasingly work with the same partners, their interests may clash.

Authoritarian leaders, in particular, tend to fear that U.S. regional security assistance comes with unwelcome side effects. In their view, a partnership with the United States can be a conduit for promoting human rights and political liberties, which could make their rule less secure. Leaders in countries such as Vietnam try to offset that threat by turning to China for assistance with domestic security and political control. For its part, Beijing empathizes with Hanoi’s regime security concerns and uses this opening to advance bilateral cooperation. Indirectly, U.S. defense cooperation with autocratic countries may encourage those countries to pursue deeper internal security cooperation with China and open new avenues for Chinese influence.

U.S. and Chinese security cooperation initiatives can interact in other ways that intensify rivalry between the two countries. Strategists who argue that economic interdependence between the United States and China will make their rivalry less conflictual than the Cold War are overlooking the fundamental difference between today’s overlapping security relationships and the security blocs of the twentieth century. As Washington and Beijing increasingly provide security goods to the same partners, their interests may clash at the local level.

This overlapping presence can raise the risk of miscalculation. U.S. defense officials may be confident in their relationship with interlocutors in Hanoi, for instance, because Vietnamese defense officials may genuinely prioritize a regional security strategy to counter China’s territorial encroachment in the South China Sea. But other parts of the government in Hanoi—such as the prime minister, whose background is in domestic intelligence and security—are working closely with Beijing to ensure the survival of Vietnam’s communist regime. Washington could, as a result, overestimate its leverage: when push comes to shove, Vietnamese leaders may not choose the partner that helps them protect remote islands over the one that helps them avoid being overthrown or killed by domestic opposition.

This uneven, uncertain, and potentially volatile mix of competition and complementarity in U.S. and Chinese security partnerships presents a challenge for American policymakers. Where countries are using Chinese national security concepts, tactics, and technologies to suppress human rights and tighten authoritarian control, Washington cannot and should not compete to advance the same goals.

Where Beijing is helping countries tackle legitimate security problems—such as high levels of violent crime—Washington should develop and offer alternative solutions that address these problems without enabling democratic erosion or increasing opportunities for repression. If these countries choose to continue receiving internal security assistance from China, as some probably will, the United States and its partners should work with them to establish safeguards, such as oversight bodies, to protect democracy and human rights.

First, however, the United States should do a country-by-country review to identify the countries that fall into each category. Each country will have its own set of security requirements, and each will require an individualized solution. Washington and its partners need a better understanding of how China’s security provisions meet individual countries’ demands before they can offer appropriate alternatives.

Ultimately, the United States must decide where and how to compete—and craft its partnerships in ways that both stabilize international security and protect democracy and human rights. Washington will need to get much more comfortable navigating these complex and overlapping security relationships, because this form of global competition is here to stay.

SHEENA CHESTNUT GREITENS is a Visiting Associate Professor at the U.S. Army War College’s China Landpower Studies Center, an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and a Nonresident Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

ISAAC KARDON is a Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an Adjunct Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.


Afghanistan: Playing Both Sides of the U.S.-Chinese Rivalry
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Opium Ban: How has it impacted landless and labourers in Helmand province?

In what used to be Afghanistan’s largest poppy-growing province, Helmand, cultivation plummeted by 99 per cent in 2023 following the Islamic Emirate’s ban on the crop in April 2022. Although opium trading largely continued, which brought windfall profits to anyone with opium stocks to sell, the ban on cultivation has caused unemployment and an economic crisis among many small farmers, labourers, and small business owners who depended on farmers spending money. AAN’s Ali Mohammad Sabawoon and Jelena Bjelica have been hearing from men in the Marja, Nad Ali, Greshk and Musa Qala districts of Helmand who have lost work and are now struggling to make ends meet. Many said they have sent men in the family abroad to try to find work. 


For twenty years, between 2002 and 2022, Helmand province ranked number one in poppy cultivation. A favourable climate allows for up to three harvests of opium poppy annually: the winter crop is usually planted in October/November and harvested in April/May, while the spring and summer crop seasons are far shorter and give poorer yields – April to July and July to September, respectively. During these two decades, each year Helmand accounted for more than half of Afghanistan’s total annual poppy cultivation (see graphs 1 and 2 in this AAN report).

Helmand is poppy-friendly not only because of its climate and vast agricultural lands, but because it has also served as the most important centre for Afghanistan’s opium trade: it is close to the rural areas of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province through which large amounts of opiates are smuggled out to the rest of the world. The Musa Qala bazaar, in particular, has been one of the biggest drug markets nationwide, attracting key drug traders and smugglers.

Additionally, before the takeover of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) in August 2021, Helmand was one of the most insecure provinces of the country. Insecurity fuelled poppy cultivation: as an annual crop whose buyers come to your farm (no need to pay bribes to get this crop to market) and which does not decay, if dried and stored properly, indeed keeps its value and can be used as savings, credit or to loan, it was the perfect crop for people living in insecure times. The former government and its international backers pursued efforts to stop it, but state corruption and ‘poppy interests’ in both the government and insurgency doomed these attempts to failure.

Opium poppy cultivation had, until last year, dominated agriculture in Helmand. For decades, other crops, such as wheat and maize, were negligible. Those districts of Helmand with a warm climate, such as Nad Ali, could grow poppy all year round. The main harvesting season, between April and May, attracted seasonal workers from other provinces like Ghazni, Zabul, Wardak, Paktia and Paktika. One of the authors even observed in spring 2019, Afghan refugees and Pakistanis coming to Helmand, especially to Nad Ali, to labour in the poppy fields (see this AAN report).

The United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) estimated in 2022 that opium poppy was cultivated on a fifth of the arable land in the province (see UNODC survey here). However, in 2023 – a year after the Emirate’s ban – Helmand had slipped to 7th place in the rankings (behind Badakhshan, Kandahar, Daikundi, Uruzgan, Baghlan and Nangrahar). (A table showing provincial rankings and the percentage change in area under cultivation compared to 2022, based on data from David Mansfield and Alcis, can be seen in this AAN report from November 2023). It was a repeat of the first Emirate’s ban, when previously dominant Helmand was forced to stop cultivating, whereas Badakhshan, then under Northern Alliance control, kept growing opium poppies. This time, both provinces are under IEA control.

The ban was expected to hit particular segments of the population very hard: small farmers whose holdings are too small for a crop like wheat to provide enough income to support a family,[1] farmers who are landless and either rent land or work as sharecroppers and daily labourers. It was also expected to have a depressive effect on the local economy on businesses indirectly dependent on income from poppy. To better understand how the ban has affected these people, AAN conducted ten interviews in four districts of Helmand province – Marja, Nad Ali, Greshk and Musa Qala. The interviewees were: six farmers, two shopkeepers, a tailor and a mechanic (all male). AAN targeted people from households who were struggling to find employment, as well as farmers who had tried to switch to alternative crops.

The report is structured in five sections, each corresponding to a question. The first section offers the background information collected from various sources and descriptive accounts from our interviewees about how the ban has been implemented. The second deals with the implications of the ban on opium prices; it includes background information collected from various sources and the first-hand accounts from our interviews. The third and fourth questions asked our interviewees how they personally had been affected by the ban, either as farmers and sharecroppers or as small business owners. The final question found out from farmers if they had sown alternative crops and how this had worked out.

How has the ban been implemented?

The ban on the cultivation and production of opium and the use, trade and transport of all illegal narcotics was announced in April 2022, at the beginning of the main opium harvest season. The IEA allowed farmers to harvest the ‘standing’ opium crop, that was already in the ground, but then launched initial eradication efforts targeting the second and third harvests  in Helmand, as illegal narcotics expert David Mansfield explained in this AAN report from June 2022:

The authorities didn’t touch the standing crop – the one planted in the fall of 2021 – that was only a week or two from harvest as that would have provoked widespread unrest so close to the harvest season and after farmers had invested considerable time and resources in their poppy fields. … Rather it was the second and even third crops of the season that was the focus of the Taliban’s eradication efforts over the spring and summer of 2022. Typically, small and poor yielding, these crops were not well established and were a much easier target for the authorities. Much was made of these efforts with videos of crop destruction posted on social media by the Ministry of Interior as well as by individual commanders and farmers.

The IEA then began to enforce the ban nationwide in the autumn of 2022 when farmers normally sow the seeds to harvest in the following spring. Just how severely became evident from satellite imagery analysis released in 2023. In Helmand, Mansfield and Alcis found, poppy cultivation had plummeted from 129,000 hectares in 2022 to 740 hectares in April 2023. However, other provinces managed to at least partially escape the worst of the authorities’ eradication efforts and, as mentioned earlier, in Badakhshan, farmers had been allowed/able to increase their cultivation (see AAN reporting here). UNAMA reported on 28 February 2024 in its regular quarterly report to the UN Secretary-General that “available evidence from the field indicates that some farmers in Badakhshan are cultivating opium, in particular in remote areas.” It also said that, “similar reports were received from northern Kandahar and Nangarhar.”

The owner of a small landholding in Greshk district who used to cultivate poppy on a part of it told AAN in early December 2023 that a group of IEA police, along with the district head of police, had come to the area to make sure poppy was not being grown in his village. He said they were even going inside residential compounds in search of poppy. The inspection was widespread and as a result, he said farmers switched to alternative crops:

The people in Greshk switched to other crops. But, for example, cumin, we didn’t [switch to] that because we’re unfamiliar with it. We were also cultivating cotton in the past, but we don’t have that much water now. The water table has fallen almost to 70 or 80 metres and we can’t draw water up with the solar panels, because when the water is that deep you need more energy than the solar panels supply. The panels we leased out are not enough for pulling water from a deep level.

A small landowner from Marja district said they began cultivating other crops, but because of the drought and lack of water, they had not yielded enough profit to cover household expenses.

Just after the announcement of the ban on poppy cultivation, we switched to cultivating other crops, like wheat, cumin, coriander and cotton. But none of those can make the money we were making out of poppy. [Money we had saved from previous opium harvests] was enough, though, for us to run our household on, even though the opium price [when I sold that opium] was much lower before the ban.

A 42-year old farmer from Musa Qala district said he had also switched to other crops, but the drought had affected his harvest. Without rain, he said, the wheat yield was poor. In a sign of absolute desperation – no one sells their means of work unless they absolutely have to – he had sold his solar panels because he could not get a loan:

When the ban was announced, I didn’t sow poppies. Instead I sowed wheat. The wheat didn’t grow well because there was no rain and when there’s no rain you can’t get a good harvest of wheat from your field. In that year, I was only able to feed my children for nine months. I had to feed them, so I sold my solar panels. I was obliged to do this, because there was no alternative. In the years when the poppy crop wasn’t banned, you could get a loan from shopkeepers and others, but now everyone thinks that the source of income has dried up and the shopkeepers won’t sell on credit.

The IEA tightened its grip even more in October 2023, just ahead of the new sowing season, when it issued a new penal code on the cultivation, trafficking, trade, collection, etc of drugs and other psychoactive substances such as alcohol (see here for the Pashto original and an English translation of the law by Alcis). Under this law, opium and cannabis farmers are also subjected to punishment – six months in prison for cultivating these plants on less than half a jerib of land, nine months for half a jerib and one year for more than one jerib.

Regardless of the new law, some farmers decided to sow opium, especially where the growing plants are hidden from passers-by, for example, sowing opium poppy in amongst wheat, cumin, or hidden inside the confines of their own compounds.

AAN interviews indicated that a small number of opium farmers in some districts had been imprisoned for short periods of time, albeit less than allowed for by the October 2023 law. A 28-year-old small landowner and sharecropper from Nad Ali district described how the authorities had searched people’s compounds to make sure poppy was not cultivated. “When they find poppy, they plough the crop into the soil or eradicate it with herbicides and put the owner in prison for a few days.”

Another farmer in Nad Ali district said that he, himself, had been detained by the authorities in February 2024 after his children had sowed some poppy on the borders of the family’s barley crop. He was held for a day. The primary court had asked him if he was aware of the decree of the amir. He said he told them he was aware of it, but unaware that his children had sown poppy in his barely field. The judge told him that for a half jerib of poppy he could be imprisoned for six months. The farmer was released, he said, thanks to a guarantee from the elders. The IEA sprayed his poppy, destroying it.

An interviewee in Greshk district said that, last November, during the poppy sowing, the IEA had arrested some people and imprisoned them for between one and three months. He thought this was intended to frighten other farmers into not growing poppy. Lately, he said, no one had been arrested. Another man, from Musa Qala, said that there, opium had been sown inside compounds, but that officials had eradicated it as soon as they found out about it.

From what sources in the province told AAN, enforcement of the new law and eradication have taken place, but it has been sporadic and spotty and not evenly applied in all districts.[2] However, it is evident that it had worried farmers that enforcement might become very serious in the near future and that was enough, it seems, to curb their flouting the ban.

What effect has the ban had on prices?

UNODC estimated that the total income made by farmers selling the 2023 opium harvest declined by more than 92 per cent compared with 2022, from more than 1 USD billion to just over 100 USD million. However, anyone possessing an inventory of opium paste who had been able to afford to keep it, could now sell it for windfall profits (see this AAN report) because of the price rise since the IEA takeover. Prices began to shift upwards in August 2021 and by the following spring were significantly higher, UNODC said. In November 2022, Mansfield said, “opium prices had risen to almost 360 USD per kilogram in the south and southwest, and 475 USD per kilogram in the east – triple what it had been in November 2021.” By August 2023, they were as high as 408 USD a kilogramme and this, said UNODC, was a “a twenty-year peak.” It surpassed even the price hike that followed the first IEA ban when by 2003, a kilogramme of opium paste was selling for 383 USD.

Prices only continued to rise. In December 2023, Mansfield reported, opium prices had reached as much as 1,112 USD per kilogramme in the south and 1,088 USD per kilogramme in Nangrahar (see this tweet). An interviewee from Nad Ali district told AAN that, in December 2023, one man (4.5 kilogrammes) of opium was worth 1.4 million Pakistani rupees (4,830 USD) in the local market. This is a three-fold increase in value in only one year; a man of opium had been selling for 1,620 USD in November 2022.

However, it seems that prices have begun correcting themselves. In early February 2024, an opium trader from Nad Ali told AAN that one man of good quality opium was worth 900,000 Pakistani rupees (3,220 USD). He said a fall in prices had been triggered by the Iranian currency depreciation. He also said that poppy grown in some provinces of Afghanistan in 2023, as well as in Baluchistan province of Pakistan, had eased supply, also reducing the price.

The hike in prices undoubtedly profited traders and those farmers who had an inventory to sell. One farmer from Nad Ali, who had been able to afford to wait to sell his standing harvest from the crop planted before the ban came into force, described his good fortune:

My life is good. Poppy was fulfilling 80 per cent of my yearly expenses before the ban. After the ban, an extraordinary change came in my life. I’d kept the poppy paste and its price hiked dramatically. Believe me, if I’d cultivated poppy for 20 years, I wouldn’t have made as much money as I made after getting only that one harvest of poppy following the ban. I kept that [paste] and when it soared in value, I sold it.

It has also become clear that, while the IEA has focused on preventing the cultivation of opium in Helmand, trade in opium and its products, especially in major markets like Musa Qala, has continued uninterrupted. In their June 2023 report, Mansfield and Alcis said there were few restrictions on trade nationwide (see also this video of opium paste production that was widely shared on Twitter in February 2024 and was reported as recorded in summer 2023). In September that year, an eye-witness in Helmand told AAN, it was still “business as usual” there. However, by November, Mansfield and Alcis reported “growing evidence that the Taliban are ratcheting up the pressure on those involved in the opium trade,” although, they also said the only route that had not experienced a rise in smuggling costs is the journey via Bahramchah “possibly reflecting continued privileges afforded to those in Helmand.” It was a “dynamic environment,” they warned, and “like the ban on cultivation … reflects the uneven nature of Taliban rule in which some groups are favoured over others.” AAN tried to find out more about the situation currently: several people, in Marja, Nad Ali and Musa Qala districts, all confirmed that opium continues to be freely sold in local markets.

How has the ban affected farmers and daily wage labourers?

Poppy cultivation was a major employer in Helmand; it provided almost 21 million days of work for those weeding and harvesting and 61 USD million in wages in 2022, according to Mansfield (cited in this AAN report). This is why the ban has so bitterly affected poor farmers and daily wage earners, as the interviews that AAN conducted with farmers and sharecroppers show.

Many, such as the 28-year-old small landowner and sharecropper from Nad Ali, have found themselves unable to provide the basics for their families.

My brother and I are now jobless. We were both working on our land as well as on other people’s at weeding or harvest time. Poppy was our life. Even in a year that was bad for poppy, and it suffered from diseases, we could still at least meet our basic expenses. In good years, for example, a rainy year, we could meet 100 per cent of our family expenses from our own poppy harvest. We could even save some money. Now, we don’t know how to feed our family. … In the past, sometimes, if we made good money, we’d buy a car or a motorbike. Believe me, last summer, we sold our car because we couldn’t afford food and couldn’t make any money from our land.

Around 17 people from his village, he said, had left for Iran. If the situation continued, some men from his family would also have no other choice but to leave for Iran or other country.

A similar story was shared by a 32-year-old landless farmer from Greshk district, who used to rent land. His family, he said, could make around 70 per cent of their yearly household expenses from selling their poppy harvest, growing some wheat as well, just enough to feed the family. They also worked in other people’s poppy fields to meet their needs. Now all that is gone. The farmer said he had been able to keep going with a nursing course – he was due to take his last semester and a classmate had paid the 6,000 afghani fee. He should start to be able to earn an income as a nurse soon, but other than that, he said the family was in economic distress. Some relatives were hoping to migrate to Pakistan or Iran.

For the last six months my elder brother has been trying to convince my parents to let him travel to Iran, but my parents, especially my father, insists we should wait: he keeps telling us the situation for Afghans in Iran is also not good and the route is extremely risky. 

Another man, a 40-year-old Greshk district, who had a small amount of land, but no water on it, so had rented land, said he and all his brothers were now jobless. His brother, he said, had “travelled to Iran with the help of a human trafficker” and that after he arrived, had first to earn money to pay back what he had borrowed for the trip and after that, would be able to send money home:

We sent our brother around five months ago. After spending three months there, he sent us some money, which helped us a lot with food for the household. But we don’t want him to be too long away from his family – he has a wife and two children. We wish there were jobs in our country and those who are dear to us could come back home and work here.

The ban on growing poppy, he said, had “paralysed his family”:

Poppy was the main crop we were cultivating. Sometimes we’d cultivate wheat on two jeribs (around half a hectare) and sometimes only poppy. The poppy harvest was more than enough for our annual household expenses. It also provided us with savings. 

A small landowner from Marja district, who is 31 years old, told AAN that the ban had had severe consequences for his community, as well as himself: “Only this year, 37 individuals who were daily wage earners or farmers in our village left for Iran to work there in order to feed their families.” Before the ban, only a few men from his village had had to travel to Iran. His brother, he said, had been trying to get to Turkey from Iran, so far, unsuccessfully:

There are no jobs in our province since the ban. My elder brother went to Kandahar and then to Kabul to work there, but he didn’t find any work. He returned home disappointed. Finally, last spring, he went to Iran. After four months, he called me to say he wanted to travel on to Turkey. He’d heard from his friends that there were good jobs there and a good chance to travel further, on to Europe. Though, I didn’t agree, he was insisting. Finally, he started the journey with two friends. After around 40 days, he called me from Iran saying he’d been arrested by Turkish police and had been in prison for 28 days. He’s begun working in Iran again. He told me that when he earns some money, he’d try again for Turkey.

In other districts, too, interviewees told us about labourers and farmers who had travelled illegally to Iran, with some also attempting the journey onwards, west to Turkey.

The ban has also taken toll in other ways. A resident of Nad Ali said some people in his district faced “mental problems” because they were so worried about how to feed their families. One interviewee, a 42-year-old farmer from Musa Qala district was quite open about his depression and worries:

I am very depressed. I don’t know how I could feed my children. I have 30 jeribs [six hectares] of land. I had dug two tube wells. One is dried up, the other still has water in it – I’d installed solar panels on it – and was cultivating poppies on my land, and some wheat as well. The poppy was fulfilling all the yearly expenses of my family. My life was comparatively good.

Now, I’ve rented some land along with solar panels installed on a tube well. There’s a rule here, when you rent some land, you don’t have to pay the owner of the land money. In my case, I grew wheat and cumin, and I give them the wheat once it’s harvested. But there’s not much water in the well, not enough for both crops. I’m lost in my worries… how I will feed my children? I don’t have sons old enough to send to Iran or Pakistan to work.

How has the ban affected small businesses? 

We also interviewed four small business owners, one in each of our targeted districts, who pointed out that the ban had also had a knock-on effect on them. Three reported a significant loss of income since the ban. A 28-year-old small grocer from Marja said his daily turnover had fallen almost threefold, from around 100,000 Pakistani rupees (360 USD) before the ban to about Afs 10,000 (135 USD) now.[3] He had lost far more by giving customers credit.

I’m really badly affected. I used to give my customers food and non-food items on credit one season [for them to pay me] the next. The year before last, they paid me back, but last year they didn’t. I was thinking my customers would receive the money after the harvest of wheat, cumin and other crops, but unfortunately, they didn’t make enough to pay me back. The harvest was bad because of the lack of water. The water level is now very low. It’s gone down to 100 meters. I had 50 customers and they were buying their household requirements from my shop on credit. I lent around Afs 2.5 million (USD 34,450). They were good customers and my shop was running well because of their custom. Now, they don’t have money to pay me. Some of them have even travelled to Iran and Pakistan for work. From around 50 households in our village, around 35 people have travelled to Iran and Pakistan for work.

A tailor in Nad Ali district said the ban had cost him many customers. Nowadays, he only sells new clothes around Eid:

We used to make clothes for those working in the poppy fields at different times, for example, at weeding and harvesting times. Now, they don’t come for new clothes because they don’t have the money. 

One man, however, found the ban has created opportunities. A 35-year-old mechanic from Musa Qala district reported:

Personally speaking, my work has flourished. Because, in the past, when people got their harvest, they’d buy new motorbikes and the new motorbikes didn’t need repairing, but now they’re repairing their old ones, and that’s increased work for me and I’m earning more than before. 

Are there alternatives to growing poppy?

Many farmers said they had tried to switch to other crops in 2022, but faced many problems because they were unfamiliar with new crops, like cumin. None mentioned support from the government. Some said they had had some support from NGOs and UN agencies to help with the transition to new crops, although it was not really sufficient. One small landowner from Marja district said an unnamed NGO had given him some chemical fertilizers and wheat seeds – two sacks of wheat, 100 kilogrammes in total, and two sacks of ‘black’ and ‘white’ chemical fertilizer, each weighing 50 kilogrammes.[4]

In Greshk district, a 32-year-old farmer received a similar amount of aid, which according to him, was far from enough:

There’s an NGO which is providing people with wheat and chemical fertilizer, but that’s not for all. For example, they gave some 50 kilogrammes of wheat and 100 kilogrammes of chemical fertilizer to our village. The NGO had merged three households and the households then needed to divide aid among themselves. Actually, this aid didn’t fulfil the requirements of a single family. This kind of assistance isn’t working at all.

The 28-year-old former opium farmer from Nad Ali district whose family had switched to cultivating wheat and cumin and cotton and some vegetables in the spring, said:

We were given an aid card, valid for six months. An NGO was providing food aid to the people. We received the food for four months and for the other two months we weren’t given that aid. We didn’t know the reason.We were also provided with two sacks of chemical fertilizer and a sack of seeds (wheat). The aid wasn’t given to all people in the district. It wasn’t helping, because we usually grow on more land, and this wasn’t enough. The seeds the NGO gave to the people also weren’t suited to the climate of Helmand and didn’t give a good harvest.

Some farmers bought seeds on loan, like a 40-year-old farmer from Greshk district, who had to pay double the going price of cumin seeds because he bought them on credit:

We switched to other crops like wheat and cumin. But we’ll have to pay the money back for the seeds after the harvest. For a man of cumin, we had to pay 4,000 (56 USD) because we bought them on credit, instead of the normal, market price of Afs 2,000 (28 USD). … The cumin and wheat won’t be enough to meet our expenses.

He said that in his district an NGO employs people to clean water canals in irrigated areas or to repair unpaved roads in desert areas, paying them 9,000 Afghani around (USD 125) per twenty working days.

Alternative livelihoods projects, ie projects that support farmers and communities to transition to licit crops and improve food security and household income, what has come so far is evidently not enough. There has been no government support and as many interviewees said, NGO assistance in the form of seeds, chemical fertilizer or free food is also not enough to change the fundamental economics of the ban: there is no short-term alternative to poppy, that brings in the same income for the same area of land and provides labouring jobs for the poorest.

The idea that donors might restart alternative livelihood projects, given the multiple and multi-year failures of this concept under the Islamic Republic, has worried many, among them United States Institute of Peace (USIP) economist, William Byrd, who was also critical with the way the IEA introduced the ban, calling it bad for Afghanistan and bad for the world. He wrote:

Phasing out Afghanistan’s problematic drug economy will be essential over the longer term — not least to contain widespread addiction within the country. But this ban, lacking any development strategy and especially at a time when the economy is so weak that displaced opium poppy farmers and workers have no viable alternative sources of income, is not the right way to start on that path.

Byrd’s report, published in June 2023, also correctly forecast that:

There will probably be a counter narcotics-driven, knee-jerk response that the effectively implemented Taliban opium ban is a good thing. However, history amply demonstrates that banning opium in Afghanistan by itself is not sustainable, nor does it address the drug problem in Europe and elsewhere. And it won’t stop rampant drug use within Afghanistan.

More short-term humanitarian assistance may be needed, he wrote, but that should be recognised as a ‘band-aid’ measure. Rather, [s]ome forms of basic needs rural development aid could be helpful – agricultural support, small-scale rural infrastructure, income generation, small water projects, investments in agro-processing and marketing, and the like.” However,  “[c]ustom-made, standalone ‘alternative livelihoods’ projects should be avoided, especially if designed, overseen or implemented by counter-narcotics agencies, which lack development expertise.” It is broader rural development, he insists, “that will over time make a difference, as part of a healthy, growing economy that generates licit jobs and livelihoods opportunities.”

It is also worth noting that for Afghanistan, as a whole, there is no viable alternative to poppy. Opiates have generally brought in the equivalent of around 10 to 15 per cent of Afghanistan’s licit Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the value of all the goods and services produced in the country in any one year. Illegal narcotic production is one of the very few sectors where Afghanistan has a comparative advantage. Given that the economy contracted by a fifth in 2021 and has continued to contract since, albeit at a lower rate, poppy cultivation will be sorely missed at the macro-economic level, as well (see World Bank reporting from October 2023 and AAN analysis for discussion of the wider economic travails facing Afghanistan).

The way ahead? 

Afghans, nationwide, have been struggling immensely, because of food insecurity, lack of jobs and living in an internationally isolated country. The ban on poppy cultivation has only exacerbated the crisis for many of those who were directly or indirectly dependent on the opium economy, who previously had enjoyed a far more secure life. Many are now facing poverty, debt and feeling they need to migrate. Many are faced with depression and anxiety and are at their wits end.

The government did nothing to prepare farmers and communities for the harm the ban on cultivation would do to them. It announced the ban without any planning or consultation with experts or potential donors who might have been able to help manage the transition from illicit to licit crops. In recent months, however, calls from ministers and others for international attention and support became more frequent, for example, at a meeting between the IEA and EU held on 7 February 2024, the acting Deputy Minister of Interior for Counter-Narcotics Abdul Haq Akhund asked EU Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas Nicholson “to cooperate with Afghanistan in supporting and treating drug addicts and farmers” (see media reporting here).

IEA efforts to curb illicit drugs have not been publicly praised, but they have been recognised, for example, in the UN’s Independent Assessment on Afghanistan. The IEA, it said, had “demonstrated significant progress in their announced campaign to reduce and eventually eliminate the cultivation, processing and trafficking of narcotics.” (see this AAN report). The US State Department was more terse in its statement from 31 July 2023. It only “took note of reporting indicating that the Taliban’s ban on opium poppy cultivation resulted in a significant decrease in cultivation” and “voiced openness to continue dialogue on counternarcotics.”[5]

As yet, there has been no significant international aid given to Afghanistan to mitigate or, at least, soften the economic blow the ban has caused, although the UN’s Independent Assessment did say that “many stakeholders expressed interest in exploring greater international cooperation in this area [counter-narcotics], in particular on alternative crops and livelihoods for the hundreds of thousands of Afghans that have relied on the production and trade of narcotics for income.”

There have started to be higher-level moves to get a conversation going between the IEA and international donors and neighbours. For example, the Working Group on Counter-Narcotics, established in the mid-September 2023 and co-chaired by UNAMA and UNODC, had met the Kabul-based diplomatic corps (among other with Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, the EU) and the acting Deputy Ministers of Interior for Counter-Narcotics, and for Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock twice, on 13 November 2023 and 31 January 2024 (as reported by UNAMA in its February 2024 UN Secretary General). “At the meetings,” UNAMA’s report said, “the de facto authorities shared their achievements and challenges including the lack of resources, asking for international attention and support.”

In that light, there has been another interesting recent meeting. Acting Deputy Prime minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Akhund and former Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Pino Arlacchi met in Kabul on 4 March, reported IEA’s Ministry of EconomyArlacchi was head of UNDCP, a predecessor of UNODC, from 1997 to 2002. According to ToloNews, quoting Baradar’s office, Arlacchi had said that “an international conference in Kabul” was going to be organised “soon, aiming to garner financial support for implementing alternative crop programs in Afghanistan through international cooperation.”[6] He also asserted that “the international community has responsibility to assist in providing alternative livelihoods for Afghan farmers.”

It remains unclear who Arlacchi actually was representing at the meeting, or whether it was just his own personal initiative. The current UNODC Director of the Division for Policy Analysis and Public Affairs, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, said they had known nothing about the planned visit: “We were surprised too,” he told AAN. “And I can confirm that he has no formal links with UNODC since leaving the organisation in 2002, and to my knowledge, none to the UN at large.”

Donor support for Afghans hurt by the ban on opium cultivation may come, but it will come late for those farmers already hard hit and probably not at all for day labourers. The ban on opium cultivation has created a huge hole in the economy of a province like Helmand that will not easily or quickly be filled.

Edited by Kate Clark


1 In Afghanistan, wheat is generally grown as a subsistence staple, not a cash crop. The comparative price with poppy shows why it is not an alternative, especially for small farmers: UNODC figures for 2023 suggested farmers could make USD 770 per hectare for wheat, compared to USD 10,000 for poppy.
2 The IEA official narrative is of a strong and determined counter-narcotic effort. The acting Deputy Minister of Interior for Counter-Narcotics boasted, on 2 February, that during the past two years more than 2,000 counter-narcotics operations were conducted across the country, with over 1,100 drug production factories destroyed and more than 13,000 individuals arrested on charges of the production, sale and trafficking of illegal drugs. See the UNAMA regular quarterly report to the Secretary General from 28 February 2024.
3 The IEA banned trading in Pakistani rupees and this is why the interviewee expressed his earnings after the ban in afghanis.
4 He did not know the NGO’s name, but this UNODC report said that since March 2022, it had been implementing an alternative livelihoods and food security project in Lashkargah, Nad-e Ali and Nahr-e Siraj districts in partnership with the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees (DACAAR). 

UNAMA also reported in its last report to the UN Secretary General, published on 28 February 2024, that UNODC alternative livelihoods support provided to former opium farmers “led to income generation for farmers of 129 USD per month from dairy products and 1,029 USD per season from pistachio nurseries.” The report does not specify geographical location for these farmers, nor does it give the exact number of farmers who benefitted. It is also not clear over which period of time these famers received the income.

5 See here about technical talks on counter-narcotics between the IEA representatives and the US held on 21 September 2023 in Doha.
6 Tolo news reported that “”They [the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan] plan to hold an international conference in Kabul in the near future and attract international financial support for the alternative cultivation of poppies to Afghan farmers through this conference.” (brackets in original). Mullah Baradar’s office reported that Arlacchi had “expressed the intention to organize an international conference in Kabul soon, aiming to garner financial support for implementing alternative crop programs in Afghanistan through international cooperation.”

Opium Ban: How has it impacted landless and labourers in Helmand province?
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What the explosive testimony of a minister reveals about Britain’s war in Afghanistan – and its rogue special forces

Frank Ledwidge

The Guardian

Tue 12 Mar 2024 09.00 EDT

The Afghanistan inquiry is getting into gear at the Royal Courts of Justice. Led by the judge Charles Haddon-Cave, this public inquiry was convened to investigate about 80 killings allegedly committed by the SAS in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013. Proceedings took a dramatic turn last month when the minister for veterans’ affairs, Johnny Mercer, gave evidence.

It was astonishing to watch. Mercer stated that he had heard from “trusted sources” shocking accounts of serial murder and attempted cover-ups by SAS personnel in Afghanistan. Once he became the minister for veterans (part of the Cabinet Office), he expressed his deep concerns about them to the then defence secretary, Ben Wallace, who asked him to get to the bottom of these well-publicised allegations. Mercer made great efforts to do so.

Mercer didn’t want the allegations to be true; he said that he tried to find evidence to disprove what he had been told. But after extensive discussions with senior officers, he was forced to conclude that information was being withheld from him (the counsel to the inquiry, Oliver Glasgow KC, suggested he was being lied to) and that there was “something not right here”. “I don’t want to believe it,” he said, “but at every stage I have tried to find something to disprove these allegations but I have been unable to.” Mercer painted a picture of a combination of offhand arrogance from senior officers and a lack of interest and accountability on the part of ministers. When a serving minister states under oath – as Mercer did – that he had “very little faith that the MoD had the ability to hold itself to account”, we have a serious problem, whether the reason for it is dishonesty, ignorance or incompetence.

One major problem is that special forces are seen, and see themselves, as untouchable. It was the same in Australia. Until, that is, the 2020 Brereton inquiry, in which Australian special forces soldiers were found to have committed dozens of murders of unarmed Afghan detainees and civilians. After publication of the report, the head of Australia’s special forces, general Adam Findlay, summoned his troops and delivered an address. In it he blamed the many war crimes committed by his units on “poor moral leadership” and “self-righteous entitled prick[s]” who believed the rules of the regular army didn’t apply to them. In other words, a culture of impunity.

This culture goes right to the top. Mercer’s evidence indicated that if senior military officers don’t want ministers to know something about special forces because it is embarrassing or reflects badly upon them, they can stonewall or gaslight and expect no further action or scrutiny. All of this demonstrates with crystal clarity the dangers of having an important part of our armed forces acting without continuous and effective democratic oversight.

UK special forces, including the SAS, claim a unique position in Britain’s defence and security structures. They are accountable only to two people: the defence secretary and the prime minister. This is unlike GCHQ, MI6 and MI5, which are all subject to some degree of scrutiny by the elected members of the intelligence and security committee of parliament (ISC) – composed of nine security-cleared members drawn from both houses of parliament. All of those organisations deal with matters at least as sensitive as the SAS and similar units. The ISC is a largely trusted and respected component of the national security framework. The army, navy and air force, including highly secret and sensitive strategic capabilities such as the nuclear deterrent, receive effective and often robust supervision from the House of Commons defence select committee.

Most of our major allies, such as Denmark, Norway and France, place their special forces under some form of oversight. The US firmly places them under congressional and government accounting office supervision. Reports on accountability in Britain, including one in 2023 commissioned by a cross-party group, have urged action. In 2018, Malcolm Rifkind, the former defence secretary and chairman of the ISC, echoed the view of many when he said: “It is unanswerable that there should be some form of oversight of special forces.” No remotely convincing reason for the UK’s uniqueness in this respect has been presented in parliament or elsewhere. As always, the answer is “no comment”.

The SAS are reported to be operating in 19 countries including Syria, from where a murder allegation emerged on Tuesday. Up to 50 of them are said to be operating in Ukraine. It is clear that this small force of only a few hundred are overcommitted and overstretched, and often given inappropriate tasks that other troops could do as well or better, such as certain forms of intelligence gathering, training or advising on planning and strategy. Of course, without democratic oversight, prime ministers or the ministry of defence can commit special forces as much as they like without debate, scrutiny or control. This is now becoming dangerous. Any renegade behaviour in Ukraine – against nuclear Russia – could have disastrous consequences for us all. Effective oversight mechanisms are vital. Right now, we don’t have them.

Frank Ledwidge is a barrister and former military officer who served in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the author of Losing Small Wars and Investment in Blood

What the explosive testimony of a minister reveals about Britain’s war in Afghanistan – and its rogue special forces
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The Daily Hustle: Waiting in Islamabad for evacuation

When the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan returned to power in August 2021, thousands of Afghans who were working for NGOs left Afghanistan, fearing harassment by Afghanistan’s new rulers, or just taking an opportunity to start a new life elsewhere. Many have already found their way to Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. Others are still waiting in third countries, such as Pakistan, for their asylum applications to be reviewed and the next chapter of their lives to begin. In the latest instalment of The Daily Hustle, AAN’s Rohullah Sorush hears from an Afghan man who has been living in Islamabad with his young family for nearly two years. He told us how they are coping with the wait by studying, improving their skills and cherishing the small joys life has to offer. 
In February 2022, I got an email from the US State Department telling me that my family and I should go to a third country so that they could process our evacuation applications, which would take 12 to 14 months. It was one of those cold winter days in Kabul. My wife was sitting near the bukhari (woodburning stove) reading a story to my two daughters. I handed her my phone so she could read the email. She took a deep breath and nodded in the direction of our already-packed bags. They’d been carefully packed and waiting for the past six months – four suitcases, one for each of us, with all the things we’d need to start our new life in America. There was also a backpack with our documents – passports, marriage and birth certificates, degree certificates, employment records and, most important of all, family photographs and keepsakes. Tomorrow, we’d say our goodbyes to the few family members and friends still living in Kabul and begin making arrangements for the overland journey to Islamabad. A month after the letter came, we joined the hundreds of other Afghan families waiting in Islamabad to be evacuated to the United States.

The old life in Kabul

I was born in Kabul, near the military high school in Pul-e Sukhta, in 1996. I grew up in a rented house in the same neighbourhood with three brothers and two sisters. Ours was a happy middle-class family. My parents put a lot of stock in education and pushed us not to settle for a mere high school diploma, but to strive for a university degree. They also made sure we learned English and how to work with computers, the skills that, they said, would stand us in good stead when we entered the workforce and started our professional careers. They were wise indeed. The English and computer skills my parents insisted on helped me pay for my university education. I taught at a private institute and did some tutoring on the side to earn enough money for the tuition at the private university where I studied for a Bachelor in Business Administration degree. In 2012, with my degree in hand, I started working as a finance officer for an NGO that offered English classes to university lecturers and students; it had funding from the United States.

Those were happy days. I used to wake up early and have breakfast with my family before heading to work. I had a deal with a taxi driver who’d pick me up every morning and drive me to the office. In the evenings, after work, I used to walk home with a colleague who lived in the same neighbourhood. We wanted to get a bit of exercise after sitting behind a desk all day to stay healthy and keep our weight in check. During those long walks through the streets of Kabul, we’d share a piece of warm bread and talk about our plans for the future.

I had a good salary and my brothers worked too, so we were able to increase our savings. Soon, there was enough money for each of us, brothers and sisters, to get married, one after another. I got married in 2015 to an educated woman who taught at a private primary school. My wife loved teaching young kids. She worked at the school during the day. In the afternoons, working at home, she prepared the next day’s lesson plans and marked her students’ homework. When she had time, she helped my brothers’ wives with chores around the house. In time, my brothers and I saved enough to realise my parents’ long-held dream – we bought our own house, although sadly, it was too late for them to see it.

But they did get to meet my two beautiful and intelligent daughters – one is seven years old and the other is five. Like my parents, I had a lot of plans for my children’s future. I wanted them to study, excel in school and have their own families. Most importantly, I hoped they’d become successful career women and serve our people. But the best-laid plans are often at the mercy of forces beyond our control and decisions made by men in faraway rooms can scatter even the tightest-knit of families to the four corners of the earth. This is what happened to my family. All my siblings have already left Afghanistan with their families. I am the youngest and was the last one to remain in Afghanistan, hanging on to the hope that one day we’ll all be together again living in our house in Kabul. But all that is in the past now. Today, I wait with my family in Islamabad for an aeroplane to take us to a new life in America, far from everyone and everything we know.

Time to leave Kabul 

By the time the Taleban entered Kabul, I was already worried for our safety. Even before the fall of the Republic, my brothers and I had received threats because we worked on US-funded projects. It wasn’t long before we started hearing rumours about people being detained [by the new authorities]. Then, one day, armed men came to our house looking for me and my brothers. Luckily, I wasn’t home and both my brothers had already left Kabul before the fall. Living in Kabul had become risky not only for me but also for my family. So, like many others, I applied for the US government programme to be evacuated. We sold our family home and moved in with some relatives who had a spare room. We started selling all our belongings in preparation for our departure from Afghanistan. We kept some money to live on and sent the rest to my brother in Europe.

The six months we spent waiting to hear about our application were tense and gloomy. The NGO I worked for had closed down, so I had no job to go to and nothing to distract me from my perilous situation. We spent our days at home, helping around the house, tending to the children and trying not to draw too much attention to ourselves in the neighbourhood where we were staying with family.

Waiting for the future to begin

Life here in Pakistan hasn’t been easy. I have no job here, and we must make do with what little money my brothers can send us. It has taken far longer than 12 to 14 months for the US government to process our application. In fact, we‘ve only just received our case numbers – 21 months after we arrived in Islamabad. Time passes slowly when you’re waiting for the future to start, and the uncertainty takes an emotional toll on the whole family. But we can’t go back to Kabul.

For one thing, there’s no one left in Kabul to go back to. All my siblings and their families have already left Afghanistan. There’s also my wife’s well-being and my daughters’ future to consider. In Afghanistan, my wife can’t work and my girls can’t go to school after they finish primary school. In Islamabad, the girls are in school and my wife is taking English and computer courses. But we’re living here on expired visas and the Pakistani government has started a campaign of rounding up Afghans and deporting those without visas – and sometimes even those with valid visas. In November, the US embassy gave us letters to show to the Pakistani police if we’re stopped on the street, so they do not deport us.

Making lemonade in Islamabad 

They say when life gives you lemons you should make lemonade. That’s exactly what my family and I have been doing in Islamabad. We’re trying our best to take advantage of the opportunities available here so we don’t spend our time in idleness. We enrolled the girls in a local private school, where they also have two hours of English instruction every day, and my wife is taking English and computer classes. But there isn’t enough money for me to also take courses, so I spend my time improving my English and learning new skills online. It’s important for my wife and daughters to be proficient in English when we arrive in America so they can hit the ground running.

We live in a pleasant neighbourhood in Islamabad, where many other Afghan families also live. It feels like home having so many Afghan neighbours; most of them are in the same boat we’re in. In the mornings, I walk my daughters to school through the bustling streets, which are full of people on their way to work. I enjoy my morning walks, especially through the park after the rain, where the air is delicate and smells of wet grass. On my way home, I usually stop at one or two of the shops that cater to an Afghan clientele to pick up some provisions for my wife and catch up on the neighbourhood gossip and news from home. This morning ritual makes life interesting and keeps me connected to something outside our stagnant life – thriving, lively and filled with possibilities.

We live on a very tight budget and must be careful with money. I can’t work here in Pakistan, so we rely on the generosity of my siblings, and we can’t take that for granted. It’s enough to pay the rent, my daughters’ school fees, my wife’s courses and our living expenses, but there isn’t much money for entertainment. Sometimes, when we have the time and some spare cash, we visit one of the many beautiful religious, cultural or historical sites in Islamabad, but mostly, we spend our free time in the park near our house. The important thing is that we’re all together in a safe place. We have a roof over our heads and the girls can go to school.

For now, this should be enough. It has to be. There’s nothing else to do but wait. And while we wait, life goes on and there are precious days and moments we’ll never get back – time passes and children grow up. We can’t give in to despair. The only thing to do is to make the best of the hand we’ve been dealt, make good use of our time and plan for the future. Our children will learn by our example that no misfortune is insurmountable and that the taste of lemonade – sour and sweet – is an inescapable part of life.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour 


The Daily Hustle: Waiting in Islamabad for evacuation
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