Afghanistan Is Facing a Total Economic Meltdown

Mr. Egeland is secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and has 30 years experience working as a humanitarian.

The New York Times

Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

When I was traveling around Kabul a few weeks ago, the city felt worlds apart from my last visit in 2019 — and not just because a 20-year war had finally ended. The economy is spiraling out of control. And unless money starts flowing soon, a total economic collapse will plunge Afghans into a humanitarian catastrophe.

The desperation is everywhere. Mothers I sat down with in makeshift tents told me their families have no income and no reserves, and they’re worried that their children will starve and freeze to death this winter.

I met teachers, health workers and water engineers who have not been paid since May. They can no longer support their extended families or keep vital public services afloat. Without functioning banks and liquidity, ordinary Afghans are cut off from their life savings and have no way of surviving.

When the Taliban toppled Afghanistan’s government in August, the country suddenly lost access to more than $9 billion in central bank reserves, frozen by the Biden administration. This sent shock waves through the banking system and prompted capital control measures by the new Taliban leaders, leading to bank closures and halting the economy.

The political conflict with the Taliban must not punish the civilian population. The international community must urgently broker multilateral agreements to stabilize the economy and fund public services. This means finding safe payment channels to get aid flowing and safeguarding humanitarian action from international sanctions and other counterterrorism financing measures.

Our organization, the Norwegian Refugee Council, is one of many trying to provide assistance in this new and challenging environment. We have been unable to securely move aid money into the country to buy emergency supplies for families who face homelessness and hunger this winter. The banking crisis has left several Afghan banks closed and others operating at limited capacity. This has left us struggling to pay our staff and suppliers in Afghanistan. Instead, we are forced to purchase tents, blankets and food in neighboring Pakistan.

Now imagine this dilemma multiplied for every employer across Afghanistan.

In addition to the liquidity emergency, a donor funding freeze has contributed to crippling public services. Some 75 percent of Afghanistan’s public expenditure had in recent years been funded by foreign aid. This lifeline has been largely cut off because the international community is grappling with how to work with a Taliban-run government — including ministers on international sanctions lists.

Even before the latest seismic political shift, Afghanistan faced a dire humanitarian crisis. More than 18 million people urgently needed aid.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

New mechanisms need to be urgently launched to directly pay hundreds of thousands of municipal and state public servants by channeling the frozen World Bank money through United Nations agencies. This is what I raised in a letter to the heads of the United Nations and the World Bank urging action — suggesting that U.N.-administered trust funds be set up to pay public workers directly. Since the resources already exist within the World Bank and the trusted U.N. channels already are available in the country, these types of transfers can be established quickly.

We need more out-of-the-box thinking, so that banks can reopen and social services can restart.

The World Bank suspended $600 million in funds that form the backbone of the country’s health system. If doctors and nurses are not paid, hospitals will be forced to shut their doors. The alliance recently formed by key aid groups to address the health crisis is a step in the right direction. A special agreement was signed by four agencies to set up mechanisms that would allow direct funding to hospitals and clinics in Afghanistan — but that won’t be enough. Aid groups have nowhere near the capacity to plug the enormous gaps that remain in the health system.

We also need financial instruments that enable donors to pool large sums of relief money, to help us navigate the complexity of international sanctions and restrictions that make it hard for our aid to reach those who need it most.

Even before the latest seismic political shift in Afghanistan, the country faced a dire humanitarian crisis. More than 18 million people urgently needed humanitarian aid. Some 3.5 million Afghans were internally displaced. Failed rains drove hunger levels up — one-third of the people did not know where their next meal would come from.

Some countries and individual actors have suggested that the Taliban must meet certain conditions in exchange for funds. As a humanitarian organization, we do not advocate the conditionality of aid. We are not here to weigh in on political issues or political solutions to the current crisis. We need the international community to realize the urgency here: The economic crisis will only exacerbate humanitarian needs.

I told Taliban leaders I met with in Kabul that for humanitarian action to be most effective, we need both our female and male colleagues to have equal rights, just as it’s important for both girls and boys to be able to go to school. We have been given verbal assurances on these issues in most parts of the country — and will continue to press the Taliban to adhere to humanitarian principles and ensure we can reach those in greatest need.

Whether we will succeed in our race against time to scale up before winter will depend not only on the Taliban’s willingness to turn their words into action, but also on the international community.

Trillions of dollars were spent over the past two decades on the war in Afghanistan that ended so monumentally when the United States evacuated, leaving some 40 million people to fend for themselves. While many were caught off guard by the rapid change of power, the international community cannot continue to stand idly by and watch the country’s free fall.

We must avert Afghanistan’s full economic meltdown, regardless of who controls its territory. Otherwise millions of Afghan children, women and men will pay the heaviest price.

Jan Egeland (@NRC_Egeland) has 30 years of experience in human rights, humanitarian crises and conflict resolution. Currently the Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, he previously served as a United Nations Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs.

Afghanistan Is Facing a Total Economic Meltdown
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The Last Days of Intervention

Leaving Kunduz, Afghanistan, March 2011
Damon Winter / The New York Times / Redux

The extravagant lurches of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan—from a $1 trillion surge to total withdrawal, culminating in the reestablishment of a Taliban government 20 years after the 9/11 attacks—must rank among the most surreal and disturbing episodes in modern foreign policy. At the heart of the tragedy was an obsession with universal plans and extensive resources, which stymied the modest but meaningful progress that could have been achieved with far fewer troops and at a lower cost. Yet this failure to chart a middle path between ruinous overinvestment and complete neglect says less about what was possible in Afghanistan than it does about the fantasies of those who intervened there.

The age of intervention began in Bosnia in 1995 and accelerated with the missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Over this period, the United States and its allies developed a vision of themselves as turnaround CEOs: they had the strategy and resources to fix things, collect their bonuses, and get out as soon as possible. The symbol of the age was the American general up at 4 am to run eight miles before mending the failed state.

Had the same U.S. and European officials been seeking to improve the lives of people in a poor ex-coal town in eastern Kentucky or to work with Native American tribes in South Dakota, they might have been more skeptical of universal blueprints for societal transformation, paid more attention to the history and trauma of local communities, and been more modest about their own status as outsiders. They might have understood that messiness was inevitable, failure possible, and patience essential. They might even have grasped why humility was better than a heavy footprint and why listening was better than lecturing.

Yet in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq—places far more traumatized, impoverished, and damaged than anywhere at home—U.S. and European officials insisted that there could be a formula for success, a “clearly defined mission,” and an “exit strategy.” Any setback, they reasoned, could be blamed only on a lack of international planning or resources.

These ideas were damaging in Bosnia and Kosovo. But in the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq—unstable hybrids of humanitarianism and counterterrorism that soon became even more unstable hybrids of state building and counterinsurgency—they proved fatal. From the very beginning, the international plans were surreally detached from the local reality. The first draft of the development strategy for Afghanistan, written by international consultants in 2002, described the Afghans as committed to “an accountable, broad-based, multi-ethnic, representative government” based on “respect for human rights.” That same year, then U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice claimed that terrorism from Afghanistan posed “an existential threat to our security.”

Such hyperbolic untruths, which multiplied with each new strategy or plan, were designed to win resources and defend the intervention at home. By exaggerating both the potential for success and the risks of failure in Afghanistan, they made it difficult to resist calls for more troops. And when troops were killed (and more of them were killed than at any time since the Vietnam War), domestic politics dictated ever more strident mission statements, increasingly inflated plans, and additional troop deployments.

Eventually, the rhetorical Ponzi scheme collapsed. But having failed to fulfill their fantasies and realize their power as saviors, the United States and its allies now seemed unable to recognize or value the progress that was actually occurring on the ground—in part, because it was slow, unfamiliar, and often not in line with their plans. Political leaders had so overstated their case that once they were revealed to be wrong, they could not return to the moderate position of a light footprint and instead lurched from extreme overreach to denial, isolationism, and withdrawal. In the end, they walked out, blaming the chaos that followed on the corruption, ingratitude, and the supposed cowardice of their former partners.

THE AGE OF INTERVENTION

The obsession with universal plans backed by heavy resources that led to the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq stemmed in part from a misunderstanding of an earlier success. The first act in the 20-year age of intervention, the NATO operation in Bosnia, was largely effective. Not only did it end the war and preserve the peace for decades at almost no cost to the United States and its NATO allies, but it achieved things that not long before had seemed impossible: the protection of civilians, the demobilization of vicious militias, the safe return of refugees to ethnically cleansed areas, and the imprisonment of war criminals. Today, the Bosnian state remains fragile, ethnically divided, and corrupt—but also peaceful.

This success, which emerged from a large but very restrained international presence, was misinterpreted as an argument for bold international interventions grounded in universal state-building templates and backed by overwhelming resources. Paddy Ashdown, the British politician who was the senior international representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, asserted that Bosnia demonstrated seven “pillars of peace-making” that “apply more or less universally” and provided a plan to create everything from security to water supplies, prisons, and an efficient market-based economy. In his view, an international administration with absolute executive power was needed to achieve these things. Local elections or consultations should be avoided. The intervening powers should, he said, “go in hard from the start,” establishing the rule of law as quickly and decisively as possible, “even if you have to do that quite brutally.”

Many embraced Ashdown’s vision and developed similar blueprints. James Dobbins, a former U.S. special envoy to Bosnia and a future special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, co-authored The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building, published by the RAND Corporation, which asserted that “heavy” peace-enforcement operations required 13 soldiers for every 1,000 inhabitants and “light” peacekeeping operations required two. The future president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, matched this with a co-authored textbook titled Fixing Failed States that defined ten functions of a state and laid out a universal state construction scheme that could be applied from the Horn of Africa to the Urals.

At the heart of the tragedy in Afghanistan was an obsession with universal plans and extensive resources.

In Kosovo and Iraq, ever-greater power was deployed to advance such plans. In Kosovo, the UN administration assumed the authority to jail anyone, change the constitution, appoint officials, and approve the government’s budget (although it used these powers relatively cautiously). In Iraq, Paul Bremer, the American administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, assumed full executive power and sent American and British officials—I was one of them—to govern the Iraqi provinces. They rewrote university curricula, remade the army, and fired hundreds of thousands of members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and detained tens of thousands more.

Afghanistan—the third of the four great interventions of the age—was the exception. There, the senior UN official, Lakhdar Brahimi, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld proposed a light footprint. Although they came from very different political traditions (Brahimi was an anticolonial independence leader in Algeria), they both mocked Kosovo as a neocolonial farce. Both feared that a heavy footprint in Afghanistan would make the government too dependent on foreign money and troops and provoke an insurgency. Rumsfeld initially authorized only 2,000 U.S. troops and forbade any nation building. No attempt was made to create anything comparable to the mission in Kosovo or, later, that in Iraq. And in order to ensure that his idealistic UN staff was not tempted into running Afghanistan, Brahimi blocked the opening of UN field offices in many of the provinces. Instead, the lead was given to the Afghan transitional government under President Hamid Karzai.

By 2004, three years into the intervention, most of Afghanistan was safer, freer, and more prosperous, with better services and opportunities than it had had in 30 years. But there was a dark side to this story: the corruption was far worse than during the Soviet occupation or Taliban rule, the police were brutal, and the judicial system worked only for those who could afford the bribes. The production of opium poppies—which had been nearly eliminated by the Taliban by 2000—soared, with profits flowing to the most senior government officials.

Securing Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 2021
U.S. Marines / Reuters

Helmand Province was perhaps the most extreme failure. It was controlled by local strongmen—confirmed in government positions by Karzai—whose families had run the province in the 1980s and early 1990s and who used their newfound power to reignite a decades-long civil war over land and drugs. (Helmand was then producing 90 percent of Afghanistan’s opium and much of the heroin that found its way to Europe.) Regularly robbed and tortured by these commanders, Afghans in some parts of the province became nostalgic for the Taliban.

Many commentators blamed these setbacks on the light footprint, arguing that the United States had been distracted by Iraq, had failed to plan properly, and had not deployed enough resources or troops. UN officials, counternarcotics agents, journalists, and human rights and anticorruption campaigners all called for the toppling of the warlords. Academics warned that the lack of good governance would alienate the local population and undermine the credibility of the Afghan government. Practically everyone assumed that there was a realistic plan to fix governance in Afghanistan—and that the missing ingredients were more resources and international troops. As one 2003 RAND report on nation building argued: “The United States and its allies have put 25 times more money and 50 times more troops, on a per capita basis, into post-conflict Kosovo than into post-conflict Afghanistan. This higher level of input accounts in significant measure for the higher level of output measured in terms of democratic institutions and economic growth.”

These ideas led NATO to launch what was in effect a second, heavier intervention: a regime-change operation aimed this time not at the Taliban but at the power structures that had been established by the coalition’s ally Karzai. By 2005, NATO “provincial reconstruction teams” had sprouted up across the country, the UN had begun to disarm and demobilize the warlords and their militias, and the number of NATO troops had begun to climb. General John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command, predicted that 2005 would be “the decisive year.”

As the troop counts rose, the problem of good governance became a problem of insurgency.

By 2006, the most powerful warlords had been stripped of their posts in Helmand, and the United Kingdom had deployed thousands of troops to the province. Their aim was not to fight the Taliban, perceived at the time as a weak force. Rather, the troops focused on improving governance and justice and on stamping out corruption and drugs. This plan, dubbed “the comprehensive approach,” demanded an ever-heavier international footprint. Few seemed to doubt its feasibility. The commander of the NATO-led operation, British General David Richards, insisted that the mission was “doable if we get the formula right, and it is properly resourced.” He increased the number of troops under his command from 9,000 to 33,000 and claimed that 2006 would be “the crunch year.”

But as the troop counts rose, the problem of good governance became a problem of insurgency. In 2006, the number of Taliban bomb attacks increased fivefold, and the number of British casualties increased tenfold. This, too, was blamed on an imperfect plan and insufficient resources. In 2007, a new general announced another strategy, requiring still more resources. The same thing happened in 2008. NATO troop increases were followed by U.S. troop increases. In 2009, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal announced a new plan for 130,000 U.S. and NATO soldiers, claiming he was “knee-deep in the decisive year.”

FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION

By this point, tens of thousands of Afghans and thousands of international troops had been killed, and Afghanistan was considerably less safe than it had been in 2005. But the interveners still insisted that somewhere out there was a formula for state building and counterinsurgency that could succeed. Counterinsurgency experts began to suggest that perhaps 700,000 troops would do it.

As the U.S. presence in Afghanistan increased, so did the temperature of the political rhetoric in Washington. In 2003, when 30 U.S. service members were killed in Afghanistan, it was possible to justify the mission as one of a number of small U.S. operations stretching from Asia to the Horn of Africa. But by 2008, with five times as many U.S. soldiers dying per year and tens of billions of dollars being spent, more extreme justifications were demanded. Officials now argued that if Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Pakistan would, too, and extremists would get their hands on nuclear weapons. Catching Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama insisted, required “winning” in Afghanistan. Failure was not an option.

None of this was true, of course. Pakistan and much of the Middle East were more important threats in terms of terrorism and regional instability. Catching bin Laden required only catching bin Laden. But the savage and changeable winds of public opinion demanded ever more paranoid and grandiose statements. U.S. plans for state building and counterinsurgency became tissues of evasion and euphemism, justified with contorted logic, dressed in partial statistics, and decorated with false analogies. They were inflexible, simplistic, overly optimistic, and shrilly confident. And because these plans remained obsessed with fixing the Taliban-dominated areas of southern Afghanistan, they diverted investment from the stable, welcoming areas of central and northern Afghanistan, where significant development progress was still possible.

McChrystal in Nakhonay, Afghanistan, June 2010
Denis Sinyakov / Reuters

Many of these optimistic plans contained barely concealed prophecies of failure. McChrystal, for example, maintained that no amount of U.S. military power could stabilize Afghanistan “as long as pervasive corruption and preying upon the people continue to characterize governance.” Obama himself acknowledged that such misconduct was unlikely to change—but he nonetheless authorized a slightly pared-down version of McChrystal’s request for almost 40,000 additional troops.

While the United States continued to refine its plans, the Taliban implemented their own vision for how to establish security, governance, and the rule of law. They called it sharia, and they sold it not from a military fort but from within tribal structures, appealing to rural habits and using Islamic references, in Pashto. And the more military power the interveners deployed against them, the more they could present themselves as leading a jihad for Afghanistan and Islam against a foreign military occupation.

To the Americans and their allies, it seemed impossible that the U.S. military, with its fleets of gunships and cyberwarfare capabilities, its cutting-edge plans for counterinsurgency and state building, and its billions of dollars in aid and investment, could be held off by a medieval group that lived in mud huts, carried guns designed in the 1940s, and rode ponies. The interveners continued to believe that the international community could succeed in nation building anywhere in the world, provided that it had the right plan and enough resources.

THE FALSE LESSONS OF BOSNIA

This view reflected a tragic misreading of the experience in Bosnia, which was a much more cautious and constrained intervention than many recall. The number of international troops was higher there than in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, but both foreign soldiers and foreign civilians in Bosnia were severely limited in what they could do. (Ashdown’s vision of an omnipotent international state builder, overruling local voices and implementing the perfect plan, was what he wished for, not what he found.)

Scarred by memories of Vietnam and the more recent failed intervention in Somalia, senior U.S. and European officials did not wish to be drawn into the long history of ethnic strife in the Balkans and so approached the conflict with immense caution. When the United States belatedly mounted a military intervention, it was focused on air operations to bomb the Bosnian Serb artillery around Sarajevo. The ground fighting was conducted by the Sarajevo-based Bosnia authority and by Croatian soldiers, who received their training from U.S. contractors. When international troops were deployed after the Dayton peace accords, they spent most of their time on their bases. More U.S. soldiers were injured playing sports than in action.

The Office of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina had much less power than its equivalent would be given in Kosovo and could not order military or police officers to enforce its decrees. The Dayton agreement handed 49 percent of the country’s territory to the Bosnian Serb aggressors and enshrined their power in areas that they had ethnically cleansed. The cautious international presence also initially left the Croatian and Serbian paramilitaries, special police forces, and intelligence services in place and did not disarm them. Instead of doing the equivalent of “de-Baathifying,” as Bremer did in Iraq, or toppling the warlords, as U.S. and coalition forces did later in southern Afghanistan, the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina was required to work with the war criminals. The party of the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who was responsible for the massacre in Srebrenica, was allowed to participate in elections (and won the first postwar one, in 1996).

Success in Bosnia was due not to the strength of the international presence but to its comparative weakness.

Bosnia was ultimately transformed not by foreign hands but by messy and often unexpected local solutions that were supported by international diplomacy. The first breakthrough came when Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic split from her mentor, the war criminal Karadzic, and then requested international support. Plavsic was herself a war criminal who had described Bosnian Muslims as “genetically deformed material.” But the international forces worked with her to disarm the special police forces, Bosnian Serb units that acted as de facto militias. Later, the death of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and the toppling of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic fatally weakened their proxies in Bosnia. Neither of these events was part of a planned strategy by the international community, but both helped what had initially been a tiny and apparently toothless war crimes tribunal in The Hague expand its operations, leading eventually to the capture and prosecution not only of Karadzic but also of Plavsic herself. Cautious compromises ultimately led not to appeasement but to justice.

The reversal of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia also owed very little to international plans. Despite the Dayton agreement’s commitment to refugee return, many international experts considered it reckless to allow refugees to go back to villages that had been burned to the ground and occupied by hostile militias. Nonetheless, small groups of Bosnians tried to move back to their homes. Some were ejected immediately by armed groups, but others held on and persuaded international troops to follow and protect them. These small Bosnian-led initiatives—improvised, incremental, and following no international plan—opened the door for the return of over a million refugees.

Within a decade of the intervention, more than 200,000 homes had been given back to their owners, over 400,000 soldiers from three armies had been disarmed, and Bosnia had built a unified army of 15,000 soldiers. All the major war criminals were caught and tried, and Bosnia’s homicide rate fell below that of Sweden. All of this was achieved at a cost of almost zero American and NATO lives. And as Gerald Knaus, the chair of the European Stability Initiative, a European think tank specializing in the Balkans, has argued, such successes were due not to the strength of the international presence but to its comparative weakness: a relatively restrained intervention forced local politicians to take the lead, necessitated often uncomfortable compromises, and made foreign civilians and troops act cautiously to reinforce unexpected and improvised local initiatives.

THE VANISHING MIDDLE GROUND

Could a light footprint in Afghanistan have eventually led to similar successes? Perhaps, but with greater difficulty. Afghanistan was much poorer when the United States invaded than Bosnia was at the time of the NATO intervention: adult life expectancy was about 48, one in seven children died before the age of five, and most men (and almost all women) were unable to read or write. Afghan communities were far more conservative, religious, and suspicious of foreigners than Bosnian communities had been (thanks in part to CIA efforts to develop their identity as heroic resisters of foreign occupation during the Soviet period). But the initially limited and restrained international presence in Afghanistan still enabled far more progress than most critics of the war have acknowledged.

The violence and poor governance—particularly in Helmand, elsewhere in southern Afghanistan, and in eastern Afghanistan—that were used to discredit the light-footprint approach were not representative of all of rural Afghanistan. In Bamiyan, for example, a province of three million people in the center of the country, military strongmen retained power, but there was peace. Between 2001 and 2004, locals established excellent schools, even in outlying settlements, providing most girls with their first experience of formal education and laying the foundation for some of them to attend college. The people of Bamiyan—long a marginalized community—began to take senior positions in universities, the media, ministries, and other government agencies. The government extended paved roads and electricity to villages that had never seen them before. Life was much better than it had been under the Taliban, which had led genocidal attacks against Bamiyan communities. (In the winter of 2001–2, I walked through village after village that had been burned to the ground by the Taliban.) All this progress occurred with only a few dozen foreign soldiers in the province and no international civilian administrators.

There also was progress in other central regions and in areas to the north, including in Herat, much of Mazar-e Sharif, the Panjshir Valley, the Shomali Plain, and Kabul. In all these places, a light international footprint meant fewer international casualties, which in turn reduced the pressure on American and European politicians and generals to make exaggerated claims. It also compelled the international community to engage in a more modest discussion with the Afghan people about what kind of society they themselves desired and to accept ideas and values that Americans and Europeans did not always share. In short, it forced a partnership.

By 2005, the Afghan economy was almost twice as big as it had been in 2001. The population of Kabul had quadrupled in size, and new buildings were shooting up. On television, young female and male presenters had the confidence to satirize their rulers. And the progress was not confined to the capital: across the country, 1.5 million girls went to school for the first time. Mobile phones spread like wildfire. Health and life expectancy improved. There was less violence than at any point in the previous 40 years, and no insurgency remotely comparable to what had exploded in Iraq. Perhaps most encouraging of all was that although millions of people had fled in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, millions of Afghan refugees were choosing to return home during this period.

A light and sustained footprint modeled on the Bosnian intervention should have been the approach for Afghanistan.

What would have happened if the United States and NATO had tried to retain a light footprint and a restrained approach beyond 2005? What if they had deployed fewer troops, invested in generous development aid, and resisted fighting the drug trade, toppling warlords, and pursuing a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban? The answer would have depended to a great extent on the initiatives of local actors and the competition among them, the developments in neighboring countries, and luck—just as the outcome in Bosnia did. In many parts of Afghanistan, there would have been poverty, a lack of democratic representation, and strongman rule. In regions controlled by drug lords and racked by Pashtun infighting and Pakistani meddling, there probably would have been continued horror, especially if U.S. special operations forces and their proxies had continued to hunt for terrorists. But across much of the country, from Bamiyan to Panjshir, there could have been continued improvements in health, education, and employment—particularly if an overambitious surge had not diverted development funds away from these regions and to the insurgency areas. And for millions of people in Herat and Kabul, this progress could have been combined with an increasingly open and democratic civil society.

Most important, however, many of the problems caused by the heavier international presence and the surge would have been avoided. Well meaning though they were, the attempts to depose local warlords in the name of good governance created power vacuums in some of the most ungovernable regions of the country, alienated and undermined the elected government, and drove the warlords and their militias to ally with the Taliban. The counternarcotics campaigns alienated many others who lost their livelihoods.

The United States did attempt to return to a lighter footprint in 2014, but by then, immense damage had been done. The surge had formed an Afghan army that was entirely reliant on expensive U.S. aircraft and technology, created a new group of gangster capitalists fed from foreign military contracts, and supercharged corruption. Military operations had killed thousands of people, including many civilians, deepening hatred. And the presence of more than 100,000 international troops in rural villages had allowed the Taliban—which had been a weak and fragile group—to present themselves as fighting for Afghanistan and Islam against a foreign occupation. In 2005, under the light footprint, a British intelligence analyst told me there were between 2,000 and 3,000 Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Six years later, after tens of thousands of Afghans had been killed and half a trillion dollars had been spent, General Richard Barrons of the British army estimated that there were 36,000 Taliban fighters in the country.

But just as the initial light footprint was better than the surge, so the later light footprint was better than a total withdrawal. A few thousand international troops, supporting air operations, were still capable of preventing the Taliban from holding any district capital—much less marching on Kabul. And by preventing a Taliban takeover, the troops were able to buy valuable time for health and educational outcomes to improve, development assistance to continue, income and opportunity to grow, and rights to be more firmly established for millions of Afghans.

Although the cost of the surge had been immense, the cost of remaining beyond 2021 would have been minimal. The United States could have supported 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan almost indefinitely—and with little risk. So long as U.S. airpower and support for the Afghan air force remained in place, the Taliban would have posed a minimal threat to U.S. troops in their heavily defended air bases. (Eighteen U.S. service members were killed in 2019, perhaps the fiercest year of the fighting, before the cease-fire agreement.) The Taliban were not on the verge of victory; they won because the United States withdrew, crippled the Afghan air force on its way out, and left Afghan troops without air support or resupply lines. In other words, the decision to withdraw was driven not by military necessity, the interests of the Afghans, or even larger U.S. foreign policy objectives but by U.S. domestic politics.

Yet many Americans welcomed the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan because their leaders had not properly explained to them how light the U.S. presence had become or what it was protecting. Politics in the West seems to abhor the middle ground, swinging inexorably from overreach and overstatement to isolationism and withdrawal. A light and sustained footprint modeled on the Bosnian intervention should have been the approach for Afghanistan—and, indeed, for interventions elsewhere in the world. Yet instead of arguing that failure in Afghanistan was not an option, former U.S. President Donald Trump behaved as though failure had no consequences. He showed no concern for how a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would affect the United States’ reputation and alliances, regional stability, terrorism, or the lives of ordinary Afghans. And he responded to exaggerated claims about Afghanistan’s importance not with moderate claims but with a refusal to maintain even the smallest presence there or to bear the slightest cost.

President Joe Biden has followed Trump’s Afghan policy in every detail, despite having famously advocated a light footprint—and argued against the surge—when he was Obama’s vice president. Somehow, over the years, he seems to have convinced himself that such an approach had failed. But the light footprint did not fail. What failed was the political culture of the West and the imagination of Western bureaucrats. The United States and its allies lacked the patience, realism, and moderation needed to find the middle path.

  • RORY STEWART is a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University and a co-author, with Gerald Knaus, of Can Intervention Work? He is former British Secretary of State for International Development, served as a coalition official in Iraq, and ran a development organization in Afghanistan.
The Last Days of Intervention
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The West and the Taliban can find common ground on aid

Sultan Barakat

Director of the Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute.

While Afghans have finally seen a glimpse of stability for the first time in decades, they now face a major humanitarian and developmental catastrophe. In order to prevent this outcome, it is essential that all stakeholders in Afghanistan and within the international community open a dialogue on how to get aid to the struggling Afghan population.

Though the country made significant strides in development over the last 20 years, its humanitarian situation was dire even before the Taliban takeover in August. In its aftermath, the majority of humanitarian activities ceased, which brought Afghanistan closer to the edge.

In recent weeks, the Afghan healthcare system has been described as “on the brink of collapse”. The World Food Programme has warned that only 5 percent of households in Afghanistan have enough to eat. The UN forecasts that, during the next fiscal year, its GDP will shrink by somewhere in the range of 3.6 percent to 13.2 percent. If no action is taken, the country will face near-“universal poverty”, with poverty rates rising to 97-98 percent.

In response to these multi-dimensional challenges, at the September 13 Geneva conference, donors pledged more than $1bn to help Afghanistan. Although this is 30-percent higher than what the UN requested for emergency assistance, it pales in comparison to US military expenditure of $300m per day over the past two decades. In spite of the pledges, much of what has been committed cannot be utilised because of the gridlock between the Taliban and the international community.

Since mid-August, Afghanistan has been cut off from critically needed resources that would enable it to deal with pressing humanitarian and development challenges. Presently, Afghan state institutions are facing a financial crisis due to the US government’s decision to freeze nearly $9.5bn of central bank assets in US-based financial institutions.

Due to the destabilising effect this move has had on the banking system and the lack of funds, the country may be forced to rely on money transfers via the Hawala system and traditional forms of money lending and bartering in order to survive. These forms of informal transactions have often been associated with criminal activities, money laundering, and terrorism financing.

Back in August, just as Kabul fell, I argued that a disaster in Afghanistan can be averted. This required both the Taliban and the West to convey their expectations and set clear, measurable targets moving forward – and this remains true today. In charting a way forward towards international cooperation to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, all concerned stakeholders should heed the following important messages.

First, the Taliban must overcome its instinctive rejection of the West. Despite the tremendous temptation and desire for vengeance, its leadership must also ensure that humanitarian aid is not siphoned off to its fighters and is not used to exert pressure on the international community at any time.

The Taliban may perceive non-recognition as a snub, but it should be aware that Western governments are constrained by their own electorates appalled by media reporting on human rights abuses and mistreatment of women and minorities.

Second, leading Western donors should recognise that a business-as-usual approach will not work in Afghanistan today. The country under a Taliban government is very different from post-disaster or state collapse zones in which the UN and others can step in to provide aid outside of the framework of the state.

Whether or not it is recognised internationally, the Afghan government is functioning within the Afghan state and its national institutions, which have been built up at a great cost in resources and effort over the past 20 years. They may have some deficiencies and suffer from corruption, but they work.

Yet large-scale development without engaging state institutions is unlikely to go ahead. There is an urgent need to explore potential means of coordination that would allow some form of development assistance to proceed short of full recognition of the de facto Taliban government.

Education and health are two sectors in which Western aid can open channels of communication and coordination with the Taliban without the need for formal recognition. National institutions with a demonstrated record of effective collaboration are already in place with a wide network of community-based governance structures, non-governmental organisations, and private firms able to lead a whole-of-society approach to development. One example is the Citizen’s Charter, which replaced the National Solidarity Programme, one of the largest and most successful community-based reconstruction schemes globally.

It is crucial that international aid builds up rather than replaces local capacities. The Taliban lacks the resources, knowledge, and skills to effectively govern Afghanistan on its own. Financing local priorities, utilising untapped resources, and investing in developing local capacity and public administration would build confidence and make the Taliban more cooperative.

Despite the fact that 120,000 people have fled Afghanistan, including many highly skilled and educated individuals, there is still a large pool of specialists and workers there that can be mobilised for development projects. The recent post-evacuation “brain drain” should not be used as an excuse by internationals for continuing longstanding and harmful practices of importing human resources.

Third, life-saving humanitarian aid should not be used as a bargaining chip to win political concessions. The West has often tried to utilise humanitarian aid as leverage against the Taliban. This counterproductive approach must be avoided at all costs, to prevent the Taliban from taking desperate measures to pursue close relations with non-traditional donors not equipped to effectively support development in Afghanistan.

Western donors should recognise that there are important political dynamics within the Taliban that affect its decision-making. In particular, there is a split between military leaders and the political or peace wing that negotiated with the US in Doha. Over time, lack of engagement with the Taliban will only reinforce the position of the hardline military elements. If the West does not revise its approaches, Afghanistan could easily become a breeding ground for insecurity and a thriving narcotics trade, regionally and globally.

In conclusion, humanitarian assistance is one of the only common languages shared by Kabul and the West today. On all sides there is a strong will to communicate yet what is missing is an effective medium for dialogue. One immediate step in the right direction would be to establish an independent council of nationally-respected Afghans who could act as an intermediary and facilitate communication between the Taliban and outside parties. At first, this would enable a shared understanding on lifesaving aid delivery and over time, it could open up the potential for the West to constructively engage the Taliban on a range of other issues.

Direct or indirect dialogue is vital to not just preventing a humanitarian crisis but also enhancing opportunities for more effective ways of working across the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus.

The West and the Taliban can find common ground on aid
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AVERTING AFGHANISTAN’S ECONOMIC AND FOOD CRISES

By 

Foreign Policy in Focus

October 6, 2021

Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation is spiraling into catastrophe.

Millions of Afghans are now facing severe economic stress and food insecurity in the wake of the Taliban’s August takeover, set off by widespread lost income, cash shortages, and rising food costsOfficials with the UN and several foreign governments are warning of an economic collapse and risks of worsening acute malnutrition and outright famine.

Surveys by the World Food Program (WFP) reveal over nine in ten Afghan families have insufficient food for daily consumption, half stating they have run out of food at least once in the last two weeks. One in three Afghans is already acutely hungry. Other United Nations reports warn that over 1 million more children could face acute malnutrition in the coming year.

One main cause of the crisis is that governments in August stopped payments from the World Bank-administered Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, previously used to pay salaries to millions of civil servants, doctors, nurses, teachers, and other essential workers. Afghanistan’s health and education systems, among other sectors, are collapsing. Millions of Afghan families have lost their incomes.

At the same time, Afghan banks and global financial institutions, including Western Union, MoneyGram, and the Central Bank of Afghanistan, now lack enough paper currency to cover withdrawals. Account holders receiving foreign transfers or with “money in the bank” — ordinary Afghans, companies, UN agencies, humanitarian aid organizations — can’t access their money.

Donor governments are understandably concerned about actions that would bolster or appear to legitimate Taliban authorities who are arbitrarily arresting and attacking activists, journalists, and former government workers and adopting policies and practices that violate the rights of women and girls to education, employment, and freedom of movement. They have already imposed severe restraints on activists, women, and the media and resumed executions.

But Afghanistan’s underlying economic and humanitarian problems, which disproportionately affect women and girls, cannot simply be ignored because of the Taliban’s record.

The U.S. Treasury on September 24 did issue new guidance and licenses that authorize electronic transfers with Afghanistan banks and other entities for humanitarian purposes. The problem is that electronic transactions alone cannot address the crisis. The Afghan Central Bank needs to be able to supply physical dollars and afghanis.

But after the Taliban takeover, the New York Federal Reserve cut off the Central Bank’s access to its U.S. dollar assets and capacity to settle U.S. dollar transactions with other banks — and its capacity to purchase paper dollars from the Federal Reserve to ensure liquidity and currency stability. The World Bank also stopped the bank from accessing its assets held by the International Monetary Fund.

U.S. dollar transactions, including paper transactions, are integral to Afghanistan’s economy. Most of the country’s gross domestic product comes from outside the country in the form of dollars — donor money, remittances, export income. If the Afghan Central Bank isn’t provided with a method of settling dollar accounts and obtaining new paper currency in dollars, liquidity problems and cash shortages will only grow worse. Local currency issues also need to be addressed. Companies that print Afghan currency in Europe, concerned about sanctions, still cannot ship new bills to Kabul. Taliban authorities have no capacity to print money.

Afghanistan’s economy has a limited capacity for resilience. The new Taliban authorities, like the previous government, do not possess adequate revenue sources to fund basic government services. This is a country that has relied on outside donors to help with such services for most of its modern existence.

The UN has announced a plan to send $45 million to support the health sector via UN agencies — but this will not solve the paper and liquidity crises. It’s not the UN’s role to fly millions of physical U.S. dollars into Afghanistan. Foreign governments need to figure out how to restore funding to public services, not only health but also education, using the country’s banks and without enriching the Taliban or facilitating their abuses.

In doing so, the U.S. government and other main donors to Afghanistan will need to adjust sanctions policies and reach agreements allowing the Central Bank to process selected transactions and obtain paper currency. Donors and the Taliban will also need to agree on methods for supporting vital services through independent organizations such as the UN or non-governmental organizations.

The Taliban will have to accept that concerns about providing direct budgetary support, and preventing corruption, will require independent financial oversight of transactions — something UN and international financial authorities already do. The Taliban will also need to accept that donors will only support assistance and services that are equitably distributed to women and men, girls and boys, and allow systems to monitor and ensure that services benefit all Afghans.

Inaction is untenable. The Taliban’s cruelties are horrendous, but walking away from past support for vital services, politically and economically isolating the country, and maintaining overbroad, blanket financial restrictions, won’t mitigate the abuses, but only hurt the Afghan people more.

John Sifton is the Asia Advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

AVERTING AFGHANISTAN’S ECONOMIC AND FOOD CRISES
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Why the Taliban’s Repression of Women May Be More Tactical Than Ideological

The New York Times

October 4, 2021

For Afghanistan’s new rulers, keeping the clamps on women is a kind of marketing. But it may still cost them dearly.

The defaced windows of a beauty shop in Kabul in August.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Why are the Taliban stripping away so many of Afghan women’s hard-won freedoms?

That may seem like a facetious question. When the Taliban ruled the country in the 1990s, after all, their regime was known for having some of the world’s harshest restrictions on women. The group still adheres to a fundamentalist vision of Islamic society.

But ideology is only part of the story.

Every group has a range of beliefs, and not all of them become priorities for governance. Some Taliban officials, particularly those who conducted peace negotiations and favored international engagement, have suggested that this iteration of Taliban governance might be less restrictive toward women. And there are certainly economic incentives, as the resumption of international aid would be based at least in part on human rights considerations.

None of that has seemed to make a difference thus far. Though some Taliban officials continue to say that conditions will improve, women are still being kept from workplaces and schools. Each week seems to bring a new report of restrictions.

In that light, the Taliban’s decision to restrict women’s freedom begins to look like a political choice as much as it is a matter of ideology. Understanding why the Taliban might see that choice as rewarding, experts say, offers insight into the group’s state-building efforts, and to the nature of the society they now rule again.

On the walls outside the former Ministry for Women's Affairs in Kabul, women’s faces were erased from murals last month.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

“I did not for a minute believe that the Taliban had changed,” said Muqaddesa Yourish, a former deputy minister of commerce who fled to the United States with her family when the Taliban took power. “If anything has changed about them, it is that they know how to deal with the West.”

Less than two months after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, their promised allowances for women in the workplace and schools have yet to appear. Most women are still banned from going to work, a supposedly temporary measure the Taliban claim is necessary for security.

The leadership is using the same wording in describing when women might be allowed to attend public universities. And when secondary schools reopened this month, the Taliban directed boys to return to the classroom but said nothing about girls, which families across the country understood as a directive that girls should stay home.

Groups like the Taliban often struggle to make the transition from violent insurgency to actual governance, said Dipali Mukhopadhyay, a researcher at the University of Minnesota who studies rebel governance in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere.

A march by women in support of the Taliban last month in Kabul. The Taliban’s main strength is controlling security.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

“We shouldn’t buy this narrative that they are an alternative to the previous government because they are providing security,” said Metra Mehran, the co-founder of the Feminine Perspectives Campaign, which sought to bring women’s voices into peace negotiations. “They’re not providing security; they’ve just stopped killing us.”

Dr. Mukhopadhyay echoed that sentiment. “That’s the cornerstone of understanding what the Taliban is offering: security and also the threat of force,” she said. “But people, particularly women, know that form of security comes with an ideology attached to it.”

Viewed through that lens, restricting women’s freedom serves as a powerful demonstration of the Taliban’s power. When women and girls vanish from offices and schools, it shows that the Taliban have enough power — and implicitly, enough capacity and willingness to use violence — to dramatically re-engineer public spaces.

Dr. Mukhopadhyay noted that the Taliban had not only dismantled the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, but had also replaced it with the Ministry for Vice and Virtue, the feared religious police known for their public beatings of women who went out without a male relative or were dressed in something other than a burqa.
“That’s a very potent symbol of who’s winning within the Taliban right now,” she said.
Taliban fighters on patrol in Kabul last month. When women and girls vanish from offices and schools, it shows that the Taliban have enough power to dramatically re-engineer public spaces.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

But marketing is only part of the story. Despite support and funding for gender-equality efforts during 20 years of U.S.-backed governments, Afghan women’s freedoms have always been fragile.

Ms. Yourish said she has always sensed that many Afghan men were uncomfortable with women in public life. Although her own father and husband were supportive of her career, she said, they often seemed like outliers.

In the final days before the Taliban took power, Ms. Yourish said, she and her friends traded stories of how “the Talib in every man is coming out,” she said. Male strangers approached her and other women on the street, shouting cryptic threats like “your days will be over soon,” she said. She could sense women’s progress crumbling, she said, even before the previous government fell.

On paper and in the tables of foreign aid budgets, gender equality was a priority for two decades. And there were substantial improvements for many women, especially those who were educated and lived in more urban areas.

But Afghanistan remains a deeply patriarchal society. The Taliban’s promise to return to “traditional” values, in which women are subordinate to their male relatives, is an attractive offer to many Afghan men.

Alice Evans, a researcher at King’s College London who studies women’s economic and social progress, said women’s rights were caught in a “patrilineal trap.”

Societies where family wealth passes through the male line traditionally place a high value on brides’ chastity, Dr. Evans said. “Girls are then closely policed to improve their marriage prospects and family honor,” she said, and norms develop that keep women out of public life.

Women in Ghazni, Afghanistan, last month.

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The dynamic is self-reinforcing: Families do not want to risk deviating from social norms on their own, so everyone ends up stuck in a system in which women have to stay close to home.

To get out of that trap, women’s wages have to become high enough that the benefits of working outweigh the risks to family honor, Dr. Evans said. In East Asia, for instance, rapid industrialization raised women’s potential earnings, effectively buying them out of the honor-based rules that constrained them to the home.

That did not happen in Afghanistan, where economic productivity and employment languished despite the influx of aid. Women’s wages did not rise enough, in enough places, to outweigh their families’ honor-based concerns, or to transform social norms.

That may strengthen the Taliban. Rebel groups that are seen as grounded in local communities and values tend to be more successful, Dr. Mukhopadhyay said. For conservative Afghans, particularly men, restricting women’s freedom may be a way for the Taliban to claim they support local values.

But it could still backfire, Dr. Mukhopadhyay said, if restrictions are so extreme that Afghans see them as overreach by leaders who do not understand how the country has changed. For decades, “the Talibs were living across the border in Pakistan,” she said. “Their perceptions of Islam, and modernity, are not the same as those of people in Afghanistan.”

Women’s employment did become widespread enough that many families relied, at least partly, on their income, said Manizha Wafeq, the co-founder and president of the Afghanistan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Their earnings have vanished in recent weeks as a result of Taliban restrictions, and that could cut into the public’s acceptance of their rule.

“It’s already an economic crisis for the whole country,” Ms. Wafeq said. “People are already trying to figure out how to feed their families.”

Why the Taliban’s Repression of Women May Be More Tactical Than Ideological
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 Imran Khan: Don’t blame Pakistan for the outcome of the war in Afghanistan

Opinion by Imran Khan

Imran Khan is the prime minister of Pakistan.

A man surveys the site of the blast targeting the government girls school in Tank, Pakistan, on Sept. 22. (Saood Rehman/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Watching the recent Congressional hearings on Afghanistan, I was surprised to see that no mention was made of Pakistan’s sacrifices as a U.S. ally in the war on terror for more than two decades. Instead, we were blamed for America’s loss.

Let me put it plainly. Since 2001, I have repeatedly warned that the Afghan war was unwinnable. Given their history, Afghans would never accept a protracted foreign military presence, and no outsider, including Pakistan, could change this reality.

Unfortunately, successive Pakistani governments after 9/11 sought to please the United States instead of pointing out the error of a military-dominated approach. Desperate for global relevance and domestic legitimacy, Pakistan’s military dictator Pervez Musharraf agreed to every American demand for military support after 9/11. This cost Pakistan, and the United States, dearly.

Those the United States asked Pakistan to target included groups trained jointly by the CIA and our intelligence agency, the ISI, to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Back then, these Afghans were hailed as freedom fighters performing a sacred duty. President Ronald Reagan even entertained the mujahideen at the White House.

Once the Soviets were defeated, the United States abandoned Afghanistan and sanctioned my country, leaving behind over 4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and a bloody civil war in Afghanistan. From this security vacuum emerged the Taliban, many born and educated in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.

Fast forward to 9/11, when the United States needed us again — but this time against the very actors we had jointly supported to fight foreign occupation. Musharraf offered Washington logistics and air bases, allowed a CIA footprint in Pakistan and even turned a blind eye to American drones bombing Pakistanis on our soil. For the first time ever, our army swept into the semiautonomous tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which had earlier been used as the staging ground for the anti-Soviet jihad. The fiercely independent Pashtun tribes in these areas had deep ethnic ties with the Taliban and other Islamist militants.

For these people, the United States was an “occupier” of Afghanistan just like the Soviets, deserving of the same treatment. As Pakistan was now America’s collaborator, we too were deemed guilty and attacked. This was made much worse by over 450 U.S. drone strikes on our territory, making us the only country in history to be so bombed by an ally. These strikes caused immense civilian casualties, riling up anti-American (and anti-Pakistan army) sentiment further.

The die was cast. Between 2006 and 2015, nearly 50 militant groups declared jihad on the Pakistani state, conducting over 16,000 terrorist attacks on us. We suffered more than 80,000 casualties and lost over $150 billion in the economy. The conflict drove 3.5 million of our citizens from their homes. The militants escaping from Pakistani counterterrorism efforts entered Afghanistan and were then supported and financed by Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies, launching even more attacks against us.

Pakistan had to fight for its survival. As a former CIA station chief in Kabul wrote in 2009, the country was “beginning to crack under the relentless pressure directly exerted by the US.” Yet the United States continued to ask us to do more for the war in Afghanistan.

A year earlier, in 2008, I met then-Sens. Joe Biden, John F. Kerry and Harry M. Reid (among others) to explain this dangerous dynamic and stress the futility of continuing a military campaign in Afghanistan.

Even so, political expediency prevailed in Islamabad throughout the post-9/11 period. President Asif Zardari, undoubtedly the most corrupt man to have led my country, told the Americans to continue targeting Pakistanis because “collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.” Nawaz Sharif, our next prime minister, was no different.

While Pakistan had mostly defeated the terrorist onslaught by 2016, the Afghan situation continued to deteriorate, as we had warned. Why the difference? Pakistan had a disciplined army and intelligence agency, both of which enjoyed popular support. In Afghanistan, the lack of legitimacy for an outsider’s protracted war was compounded by a corrupt and inept Afghan government, seen as a puppet regime without credibility, especially by rural Afghans.

Tragically, instead of facing this reality, the Afghan and Western governments created a convenient scapegoat by blaming Pakistan, wrongly accusing us of providing safe havens to the Taliban and allowing its free movement across our border. If it had been so, would the United States not have used some of the 450-plus drone strikes to target these supposed sanctuaries?

Still, to satisfy Kabul, Pakistan offered a joint border visibility mechanism, suggested biometric border controls, advocated fencing the border (which we have now largely done on our own) and other measures. Each idea was rejected. Instead, the Afghan government intensified the “blame Pakistan” narrative, aided by Indian-run fake news networks operating hundreds of propaganda outlets in multiple countries.

A more realistic approach would have been to negotiate with the Taliban much earlier, avoiding the embarrassment of the collapse of the Afghan army and the Ashraf Ghani government. Surely Pakistan is not to blame for the fact that 300,000-plus well-trained and well-equipped Afghan security forces saw no reason to fight the lightly armed Taliban. The underlying problem was an Afghan government structure lacking legitimacy in the eyes of the average Afghan.

Today, with Afghanistan at another crossroads, we must look to the future to prevent another violent conflict in that country rather than perpetuating the blame game of the past.

I am convinced the right thing for the world now is to engage with the new Afghan government to ensure peace and stability. The international community will want to see the inclusion of major ethnic groups in government, respect for the rights of all Afghans and commitments that Afghan soil shall never again be used for terrorism against any country. Taliban leaders will have greater reason and ability to stick to their promises if they are assured of the consistent humanitarian and developmental assistance they need to run the government effectively. Providing such incentives will also give the outside world additional leverage to continue persuading the Taliban to honor its commitments.

If we do this right, we could achieve what the Doha peace process aimed at all along: an Afghanistan that is no longer a threat to the world, where Afghans can finally dream of peace after four decades of conflict. The alternative — abandoning Afghanistan — has been tried before. As in the 1990s, it will inevitably lead to a meltdown. Chaos, mass migration and a revived threat of international terror will be natural corollaries. Avoiding this must surely be our global imperative.

 Imran Khan: Don’t blame Pakistan for the outcome of the war in Afghanistan
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The Khalid Payenda Interview (1): An insider’s view of politicking, graft and the fall of the Republic

Kate Clark • Roxanna Shapour

Afghanistan Analysts Network

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What was it like to be a reformer at the heart of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan? The Republic’s last finance minister, Khalid Payenda, has given AAN an insider’s perspective. It is a sobering account of the obstacles that prevented him and other reformers ending government corruption and holding wrongdoers to account. Payenda discussed with AAN’s Kate Clark and Roxanna Shapour his plans to get Afghanistan’s economic reforms on track, his efforts to tackle graft, and, ultimately, why he resigned. He provides a critical insight into the dissonance, nepotism, rampant corruption and failures of leadership that were a major cause of the collapse of the Republic – and the Taleban capturing power.

A Hawaladar counts banknotes at Sarai Shahzada exchange market in Kabul. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP, 21 June 2021.

Khalid Payenda announced that he was stepping down as minister of finance after only seven months on the job in a series of tweets on 10 August 2021, in what turned out to be the dying days of the Republic. While he was criticised at the time for abandoning the government at such a critical time, he told AAN he had no idea that the government was about to fall.

Payenda had first worked at the Ministry of Finance in 2010 after spending the previous seven years at the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development and the World Bank in Kabul, and gaining a Masters from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the United States. Payenda spearheaded an ambitious portfolio of economic reforms and anti-corruption initiatives at the Ministry of Finance. [1] Payenda contributed to AAN’s reporting on the Afghan economy, writing two reports in 2016 and 2017, (see here and here), on government revenues. In his interview for AAN, he explains why, in 2018, by which time he was a deputy minister, he resigned from government; it was an election year and he feared the ministry would be asked to make ‘compromises’ that he could not stomach. He also explains why he decided to accept an offer to come back as minister of finance in January 2021.

Payenda was not the only dedicated, brave, thoughtful individual trying to steer the Afghan government into being effective, efficient and accountable, but as minister of finance his insider’s view of politicking at the most senior level is significant. The experiences of reformers like him are a cornerstone in any effort to understand what went wrong with the Republic. His account is important not just for his compatriots but also Afghanistan’s international donors, who spent so much money helping to build and support a state which ultimately collapsed in a matter of weeks. Also, as the Taleban form a new administration, revive state institutions, create new ones, and face an economy now in free fall (see AAN’s recent report), there may also be lessons for Afghanistan’s newest leaders.

This is part one of Khalid Payenda’s extensive interview with AAN. Part two will be published in the coming days. [2]

AAN

Could you start by giving us the background to your return to Afghanistan and the Ministry of Finance?

Khalid Payenda

I’ll go back a little further to when the president’s friend [Mohammad Humayon Qayoumi] [3]) was appointed minister of finance in 2018. I left my job as deputy minister a few months later, after concluding that I could not work with him. He was not listening to anyone. He had grand ideas, like bringing Oracle [a computer software programme] to the ministry. He lived in a different bubble and wasn’t interested in the job. I think he was travelling 260 days in a calendar year. [4] The Ministry of Finance requires a lot of hands-on attention and knowing the president, I thought he wouldn’t listen, so, I made a graceful exit. Also, it was going to be an election year, the Ministry of Finance would have had to make some ‘compromises’ and I did not want to be part of it.

I was settling into a good family life here [in the US]. In November 2020, I went back at the president’s request, with [the economist] Andrew [Laing], to do an assessment. I think this was when the president wanted me to come back. I say I think because I’d been there for two days when my parents got sick with Covid and I was in hospital with them for another 13 days. We worked the rest of the month and then I left. I thought it was over and I was relieved that he did not ask me to come back. But then, a couple of months later, he contacted me. This time it was [National Security Advisor Hamdullah] Mohib who asked me to come back. He said the Ministry of Finance needs good deputies. I told him that a deputy minister could not fix the mess that had been created. There was silence for a couple of weeks and then, he called back and said [Head of the Administrative Office of the president, Fazel] Fazly would be in touch and asked me to please accept [the position]. When the text message finally came from Mohib, without even looking at it, I told my wife, this is the offer for the minister of finance: Should I accept it or do you want me to delete this message and block the number? She reluctantly said yes. I took the job with three hours’ notice, not because I wanted it, but because I wanted to help. The advice I got from friends, including the previous Minister of Finance Eklil Hakimi, not then but earlier, was not to accept the job as it would come at the risk of my reputation.

I also had a Skype call with the president, he told me that this was a call from the heart. So I responded from the heart, I took the job and went to serve [Afghanistan] at a critical time.

When I arrived, it was chaos at the finance ministry, internally as an institution and with the parliament concerning the [2021] budget. Many key positions were vacant. There were many vacancies at key positions. It took a couple of months to put the right people in place. I had a list of demands for the president, which I had not wanted to put [forward] before going; I thought it would be rude. But he pre-empted me with literally every single one. He told me: You will have complete authority; I want a professional finance ministry and not a political one. So it was a very good start. It enabled me to bring a lot of people back to the Ministry of Finance. it was a tough environment because of security reasons, the customs [reforms] and corruption [which] always increases when you have instability and insecurity.

Also, MPs felt the president had insulted them [because] he said they don’t have any authority to change the budget and repairing that [relationship] meant a lot of bridge-building. Afterwards, I focused on customs. The more I dived in, the more it became a quagmire and I was drowning in it. Over a six to seven-month period, I had a completely different understanding of the ugliness and the underbelly of the political dealings that I had not been exposed to when I was the deputy minister of finance. It was extremely disappointing because the corruption level was mind-boggling; almost everyone was corrupt, absolutely. Even in the last few days when we were fighting for the survival of the state, a few people saw an opportunity to make money, especially in the security sector.

That’s how it started, with a few reforms. The people close to the president probably did not like it. There was a misinformation campaign to damage my reputation in the last few days and [I knew] that I would be scapegoated.

A week before I left [the ministry and Kabul], I came here [the US] for Eid to bring my family back and I heard my father crying on the phone to my wife. I’ve never seen my father cry except when my mom passed away last year. He was saying that he thinks the only reason he survived Covid and my mom didn’t, was because God wanted him to go through the torture of worrying for my security, day in and day out. He was telling my wife: If he’s decided to come back, give him his papers –  meaning divorce him, I took those risks; I took the risk of upsetting my wife and my dad.

But my first day back [in Afghanistan after Eid], we had a cabinet meeting and it was [broadcast] live. The president talked about what an eftezah [debacle] the budget is and everyone thought I was the issue. Actually, I had told him that the budget was disastrous – this was our analysis. He talked about the last seven [annual budgets] and it wasn’t good, bashing me on live TV. [5] Then it got worse. In the last few days, he was not in the right frame of mind; frankly, it worried me. I was worried about my personal security. The more defeats he had on the military front, the deeper he dug at the Ministry of Finance and interfered in my job. I think being the minister of finance was his comfort zone. He never grew into being a president.

So that’s why I left — this is my side of the story. I honestly did not have any foresight into the tragic collapse that would happen a week later. Unfortunately, people see me as the first to abandon the Republic, which is not the true story. The true story is that I left because of president Ghani and his cronies.

AAN

Could you tell us about the state of the Ministry of Finance when you first arrived back in Kabul in December 2019?

Khalid Payenda

There was a lot of intervention [from the Palace] and the AoP [the Administrative Office of the President – its bland-sounding name belies the immense ‘gate-keeper’ power of its director, a cabinet-level post] had de facto taken over the ministry as they had issues with my predecessor. A lot of good people had left. [6] Many key positions were vacant – deputy ministers, DGs [director general] – and there was a lot of chaos. There was pressure from the president, but no support and no leadership to shield them [the staff] from political interference and give them a conducive environment to work. So the immediate issues were building the morale of the remaining people and filling key positions because otherwise, it was not going to be possible [to carry on].

I saw it as a precondition for the ministry to restore its position. First, I had to bring back good people. In the first two weeks, I think I hired a chief of staff, deputy minister for policy, DGs for fiscal policy, aid management and a few other key positions, but these were the key ones I appointed in the first week. Next came the second batch, starting with the spokesperson. We did not have a spokesperson at that critical time. I did not want [anyone from the] AoP to come [to the ministry] and do the traditional introduction [for me to the staff]; I forbad it. I did not want to be associated with anybody [from the AoP]. I told them I knew my own people. I met the staff immediately, starting with a 9 am all-staff meeting. I gave them confidence. I told them I’m back and I’m here to help you. You’re some of Afghanistan’s finest and it’s my honour to be back and work with you and provide you the environment to do your jobs. I said I don’t have any favourites and I’m not bringing people to replace any of you. I could see that they’d gone through a lot in the eight to nine months [Hadi] Arghandiwal was there. He had hired 1,300 people, many associated with Hezb-e Islami and [others] to appease the parliamentarians.

The [2021] budget was already rejected twice, so I did not have to go immediately to parliament in the first week. In the second week, I had a lot of consultations on the budget with parliamentarians to understand [what had happened], but also to understand the technicalities.

It was a horrible budget and it remained so until the mid-year review. I told the president as well [that it was] completely unrealistic. Most of the reforms we started in 2018 had been undone. [7] I remember one of the first few messages I got after accepting the job was from a guy introducing himself as Chief of Mission for Afghanistan for IMF [International Monetary Fund]. He said we need to talk and that he’s concerned about the unrealism in the budget.

It was too difficult and too late to change [the budget] to bring down the revenue targets and cut expenditures. It had been rejected by the parliament two times. I told the president as well that it was a really bad budget. So, in the first week, I focused on mostly internal things, and then had discussions with the parliament in the second week. Their main points were: We’re glad you’re back and we’re glad we can have technical discussions with the Ministry of Finance. Because the NDS [National Directorate of Security], National Security Council [NSC], and the AoP were assigned [by the president] to negotiate the budget with parliament and they had done a disastrous job because they did not understand budgeting and finance.

Even when we got the budget approved, it was the worst deal for the government. We literally lost everything against the parliament – we [had to give in] on every single point. But getting it out of the way was important. Most parliamentarians saw this as a status issue. The president in a Nangrahar rally had bashed parliamentarians and said they don’t have any authority on the budget. And they wanted to show the president that the budget cannot pass without them having a say in it. That was the first two weeks. It required a lot of work, a lot of teamwork. A lot of steep learning or re-learning, for me and my team. The people who worked [with me] and already knew me were relieved. Because they’d had a warlord as the minister of finance for almost a year and they had had enough. There’d been no discussion, no guidance from the leadership. I was told they would have two to three-hour meetings and then the minister would get up and say: OK, thank you and everybody would go off and scratch their heads – what happened? What did we decide?

From a ministry of finance that was, despite its shortcomings, still the best institution in the country, it had gone down a lot in capacity, calibre and prestige. A lot of things had been taken over by the Palace. [There was] a lot of interference. I stopped some of it, but some remained until the collapse, unfortunately. But I wanted to focus on the Ministry of Finance’s tasks and not get carried away by other stuff. I was choosing [my] battles. I could not fight everybody at the same time.

AAN

You touched on how so much of the Ministry of Finance’s portfolio had been taken over by the Palace. From the outside, it looked like there was a plan to, more or less, gut the Ministry of Finance and shift all its functions to the Palace. What did you find? How did you stop it? Or did you?

Khalid Payenda

Yes, I stopped some of the key ones – much of the interference in the core functions – the budgeting, treasury management, [economic] policy to a very good extent, and revenue and customs – I stopped. I was not going to let anyone interfere. In the meetings on the budget, with Mohib, Fazly and others, my point was: I’m here. You don’t need to Intervene anymore. Thank you very much for all the help, leave us and let us do our work. They sort of listened. But then, I heard there was a lot of interference from the AoP on customs appointments. This was one of the previous minister’s issues; the deputy minister for customs and revenue was reporting to the AoP. [The deputy minister] was not listening to him [the minister]. He was giving lists of people to be fired and to be put on the no-fly list. [8] I stopped that. I did not allow anybody from the AoP to interfere. But I also stopped my staff; I told them to focus on their technical work and leave the politics and the Palace to me. With some people, I was very frank. Some key people did report to the president and AoP. I heard that they had their own people appointed as customs directors and were getting monthly shares. I told them what I had heard and said if they continued, I’d tell the president. I told the president that I was looking into this and he was very clear and said: If anybody from my office interferes, let me know.

I also had a deal with the president that I would take my pishnehads [proposed appointments] directly to him and not process them through the AoP. So I wasn’t subject to the same meddling as other ministers. I would take it to him and he would sign it and sent it to the AoP and say: Process this decree.

But in other areas, like the PPP [public private partnerships] projects, something that was a sticking point for the World Bank and the IMF, [that] wasn’t completely resolved until I left. The IFU[Investment Facilitation Unit] [9] used to be a directorate general at the Ministry of Finance, but they took it to the Palace. They amended the law by presidential decree. The IMF and World Bank made the point that PPPs have a lot of fiscal risks: What if a project goes wrong? The Ministry of Finance should have the final say on which projects go ahead and which don’t. This was all taken out from the Ministry of Finance and it was a mess. It was a benchmark for the IMF and the ARTF IP [Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund Incentive Programme]: they wanted the law reversed and the fiscal risk portions brought back to the Ministry of Finance.

There was interference from one of the president’s advisers, [who was] later [appointed] the director for policy and state-owned enterprises. He would directly intervene in these state-owned enterprises and hire people. Then I heard a lot of issues about corruption with his office. But then, I said: We’ll leave some fights for later; if SOEs [State-Owned Enterprises] have been mismanaged for fifty to sixty years, they can wait one more year. That was my plan for next year. It did not materialise.

AAN

What were the main obstacles and who interfered?

Khalid Payenda

The best advice I got on this was one sentence from the second VP [Sarwar Danish]. We were going to get political consensus on corruption and launch this accountability and transparency initiative. He said political consensus is impossible in this country. It all depends on your relationship with the president. As long as you have good relations with him, it’s going to work. Don’t worry about other people. I’m saying this because there was active resistance. They feared me because they saw I was close to the president. I was meeting [him] twice a week. I didn’t have anything to hide and I was blunt. But there were a lot of memos sent to the president [accusing] the Ministry of Finance – all lies. Unfortunately, with the president, [it was all about] whoever got to him first. He would write orders, asking why did this happen and order things to be investigated. He wouldn’t ask the other party what their side of the story was.

When I left for Eid, my first break in six months, to bring my family back [from Afghanistan] to the US, the rumours that I was not coming back started immediately. Actually, a week before, rumours started from the National Security Council, I don’t know who exactly, that he is being replaced, he is being sent as an ambassador to the UK and somebody else will come [as minister]. One of my advisors said that on the same evening my flight took off to Dubai, he got calls from his friends in the Presidential Palace telling him: Your minister is not coming back.

I saw the extent of the problem when I fired [one of] my deputy minister [name redacted]. [10] I fired him because the president asked me to check [into reports] that he’d demanded bribes from a prominent businessman. I talked to the businessman. It was funny he said I cannot talk in your office because everything is bugged there. We met at a place he chose. Even then, he said: Can we put your mobile there, even your Apple Watch. I asked him to cooperate. I said I’d talk with the Major Crimes Task Force: Let’s go catch this guy red-handed. He was reluctant. He said it was not good for his reputation. First, he said: I cannot do it in my house, then he reluctantly said: I’ll go to Dubai for Eid and I’ll send one of my guys over with the money. Then later, he called back and said: Never mind, I tried this before with the Attorney General’s chief of staff [on another case]. The moment we made the plan, [the person who was asking for a bribe] knew and was already in the US. He said: There is a corruption network and no matter who you tell and trust, they’re all linked. He told me: Just fire him or demand his resignation. That’s what I told the president and he said: Yes, fine, let’s do that.

I demanded his resignation. He started resisting and there was a lot of push back from the AoP. I’m not sure what they were telling the president. He had links at the first VP’s office and, according to him, he had talked repeatedly to the first VP [Amrullah Saleh] who had told him he could stay [on the job]. It dragged on for a month or so and, by the end of it, I knew the networks at the AoP. Eventually, I removed him and when I did, a lot of people came forward, some of them in my Thursday meetings with people who had complaints. They told me he had demanded millions of dollars. He had asked this prominent businessman for one million [dollars] to clear his previous invoices for payment.

Some payments for work [already] done for the defence and interior ministries in the past few years were vetted by the first VP’s office and then the invoices would be sent to the Ministry of Finance for payment. So there was a network in the first VP’s office and his office was involved. It’s difficult to see how he did not know what was happening in his own office. One guy who said the government owed him 24 million dollars [told me] that [name redacted] had asked for 20 per cent of it. He said: I agreed. I was going to pay. But then there was a demand for an additional 10 percent from the first VP’s office and when I calculated all of it, I owed people more money than I was going to get paid. To pay my subcontractors, I [would have had to] add more money from my pocket. That’s why I did not pay [the bribe]. Five different people, reputable people, came [forward].

A week after I fired [name redacted], my chief of staff got a call from the president’s office asking him to hire this guy as the CEO of Ariana. I wanted to double-check with the president. I said: This is the guy we fired for corruption. He said: Can you please do it? There’s a lot of pressure on me. I said, OK. I came back and forgot about it for a day, then follow up calls started from the AoP about the president’s order. I sent another note to the president and said: This guy is corrupt. You told me he’s corrupt and I investigated. He’s corrupt. Why would we put him in Ariana? But he said: Send us this pishnehads [ie make the appointment] now. I didn’t do it; I asked a deputy minister to do it. It was my biggest disappointment.

I don’t know; honestly, maybe I’m a bit angry now and cannot analyse things unbiasedly. I don’t know whether it was the president’s ethnic bias, or whether he was really under pressure, or whether it was his cronies who had a lot of secrets with [name redacted] and they had to save him to save themselves. But if we could not remove one corrupt person, this whole thing about corruption was just a show. I lost belief in the president.

There was a lot of noise in the parliament, [they were] asking why I [removed him]. Actually, I didn’t just remove him, I abolished the DM [deputy minister] finance position. [11] Because with having to sign on allotments and also on payments, this was an incredibly powerful position if somebody wanted to misuse it. To ring-fence budget management from the treasury, they should not have been reporting to the same person.

This was part of my learning who around the president [was corrupt]. Some of them were very passive. But I still don’t know whether Dr Fazly was truly a good guy. My interactions with him were extremely supportive and I found him very genuine. He did not interfere in anything. But was he doing his business through his cronies, his deputies and others? Was he involved [in corruption]? I still don’t know that, honestly. But there was a lot of it and if he wasn’t aware, it was sheer incompetence. [12]

AAN

You have spoken about corruption and your plans to fight it, particularly with customs and revenues. You were pretty active in reporting on what you were doing on social media. You talked extensively about your plans and what you had already found. I specifically remember you saying that you had no idea how deep the corruption ran. What did you find, what did you try to do and in the end, why did it fail?

Khalid Payenda

Actually, it did not fail. I’ll tell you why, if you look at the revenues we gathered before customs fell to the Taleban, there were gradual improvements, month on month, in revenue collections. Despite all the challenges, despite Covid, despite extreme poverty, despite the reduced donor grants. At first, I did not know much about customs. I spent ten years at the Ministry of Finance, first as an advisor, then DG and DM. I did not get into customs because of the stigma attached to it. But this time, as a minister, I could not avoid it. I was the minister for customs as well. I took a week to deep dive into understanding the technicalities. By the end of the week, my team and I prepared a 15-point plan on customs reforms. A very, what we call a watani [indigenous] plan. [There were] already strategies by ASI [Adam Smith International], Chemonics and others, but [the one we developed] came from our understanding and experience of the people who worked in customs. Creating political consensus was the first point, also improving tariffs and valuations and many other things. By the time it all fell apart, I think we had implemented most of it. I went on field visits [with my customs team], during these visits, we addressed institutional issues. First of all, customs, with its magnitude and with 2,000 people [staff], was just a directorate within a DG [directorate general]. MFPD [Macro-Fiscal Policy Department] with 26 people was [a DG] too. It [customs] needed to be expanded.

Some areas were kept intentionally weak, for example, the two backbones of customs – tariff rates and valuation. How much, for example, is this glass valued, and how would you calculate the tax [tariff]? They were sub-directorates, ameriyats, not even a riasat [directorate]. I made them into riasats. I brought technical people, good economists from other areas, to lead them. Then [there were] these institutional issues that needed restructuring. Some areas were overexpanded. Some areas needed a lot more people. For example, in Hairatan with, I think five ports, we had only six or seven people who would look at items, descriptions and declarations of value. I did a lot of work on that, but then I also needed to fire people.

The biggest issue with customs was that every customs house and every director had their own rates. They did not care about the official rates. They would lobby the traders. If you were importing, for example, from Pakistan and I were Nangrahar’s custom director, I would say: Don’t go through Kandahar, come to us. If he’s charging you 250,000 afghanis, I’ll charge you 210,000, then Kandahar would say: No, don’t go to them, I’ll charge you 200,000. This meant they still made their money, but the treasury was losing. My point to all customs directors was that I want 100 per cent implementation of the tariffs, whatever is on the books, whether it’s good or not, we’ll take care of it later. We will adjust them [the rates], but you have to implement this. I said: I’ll do raids and if I see that there are misdeclarations, I’ll fire people immediately.

I started with Nangrahar. I sent an advance team that arrived around 10 or 11 am, just about when the vehicles that were declared were coming out of the customs. They locked them in and stopped everything. I drove from Kabul to Nangrahar [to join the raid]. For example, almonds that should have been declared at 1.2 million Afs were declared at 120,000 [Afs], one-tenth [of their value]. I fired the two deputies. I demanded the director’s [Hashmatullah Alizai] resignation. [13] He is [Brigadier General Haibatullah] Alizai’s brother, the commander who was appointed Army Chief of Staff in the last few days of the Republic.

Khalid Payenda at the Torkham customs office in Nangrahar province.
Photo: Ministry of Finance website, 5 April 2021.

Unfortunately, with our legal system, when you try to fire somebody, they will go to court and you cannot fire them. They are still innocent until proven guilty. They pay [people] off and come back with a stamp from the court that says you cannot remove this guy. Then you’re stuck with them forever. Actually, the minister could not hire or fire a director, only the president [could]. But I told him: You’re fired right now, nobody in this country has the authority to overrule it, don’t even try it. This is a good graceful exit. He went into his room. He was there for half an hour. I sent my chief of staff and he brought me his resignation. Then he came out and wanted to talk. He said: I’m not a bad person, but this environment is bad. He said: I have to pay the governor of Nangrahar, [name redacted] 40,000 dollars a month. [14] I have to pay reporters from major Afghan news outlets, because they come and they have footage, they say: Give us money or we’ll report this. I have to pay the Major Crimes Task Force. And he was right.

I confronted the governor. I didn’t do it that day because I was staying in his guesthouse overnight. I did it at breakfast the next morning. I said: My director told me he paid you 40,000 dollars a month. The guy lost it. He was shattered. He forgot to eat and lost his train of thought. He had a trip to a district and I went back to Kabul. He was constantly calling me, asking me not to tell the president. He said it was a lie and shaksiyat koshi [character assassination]. This was a part of my strategy and I did it until a few days before Herat fell. There were a lot of powerful people in Herat [customs]. The moment I removed them, the pressure would start, mostly from parliament. The deputy customs director for Nimruz was the nephew of a prominent member of the Mishrano Jirga [named redacted]. I fired him and his uncle was furious. I did not answer his calls, did not receive his chief of staff and when the midyear budget was sent [to parliament], he tried to create problems.

Almost all governors, actually all of them, I did not know of a clean governor, every custom director would tell me after I made these raids. I would say: Come clean now. When you’re caught red-handed, it’s no use telling me that this guy is getting this much money and that guy is getting that much money. Almost all of them are corrupt. They [the customs directors] had to pay the police, they had to pay the provincial councils and they had to pay the MPs. And then, they had to pay the Taleban as well, for protection. It was hopeless.

Then a few appointments made it worse. There is a state-owned company that provides protection, APPF [Afghan Public Protection Force]. They had a new chief [name redacted]. They also give security to customs. In his first week on the job, [the new chief/General Wali] removed the [overall] customs protection commander without consulting me. He also removed the commander in Islam Qala. He appointed two people, one from the Arg [Presidential Palace], [name redacted], who used to be in customs and everybody told me was extremely corrupt. He also brought an MP’s nephew as a commander for Herat – Islam Qala – the most lucrative one. I protested and I said it was not acceptable. The guy’s uncle [name redacted] came to see me. I told him: You know my policy – nobody from MPs’ families can work in customs. I’m sorry, this is a red line. I warned the National Security Council that I was not going to allow it. I said I would go to the president. Mohib assured me that he would take care of it and he did. He told the president and the president fired him [Ahmadzai]. He was fired from the protection force but was made the chief of army, until he was fired from that job too, a few days after I left. [15]

[Name redacted] who used to be a DG at the Ministry of Finance a few years ago, replaced him at APPF. He was educated in Russia and at the time [he was that the finance ministry], people would say that he had 34 million dollars invested in Russia. Then he went to Logistics at the Ministry of Defence and other lucrative positions, and then the finance director for the Independent Election Commission. He one of those who were charged and later acquitted. [16] Then he came back and was hired at APPF.

The sort of corruption at this high level, or even if not corruption, just negligence in doing proper background checks was, at this critical moment for the Republic, just tragic, to say the least.

ANN

I’m always amazed at these people that they didn’t see the danger to themselves. They didn’t see that the wolf was at the door, there was an existential threat to the Republic and they were weakening it from inside. Had they known there was no sense of urgency that the Americans were leaving and the Republic had to do better to withstand the Taliban? It seems like a disconnect to me.

Khalid Payenda

An absolute disconnect. I sat on these security council meetings these last few days, I urged them. I had better intel than many of them. I said in Shirkhan Bandar [the port on the Tajik border in Kunduz province], there are literally only five Talebs. They are afraid. They don’t go into the premises, they hide under the trees because [they] fear air raids. There are 12 [talebs] in Farah. Why are you not moving? Nothing happened. It was like business as usual. I don’t know why they did not get it.

For some of them, it was like a feast. When there were emergencies, the rules would be relaxed and we would give them black ops money. The [people in] the provinces – the governors and these commanders, the ministers –  they loved it. Most of the money did not actually go to the people involved in the uprising [forces]. In the last week, I remember they gave just 6,000,000 Afs, around 100,000 USD, to Ismael Khan, who was fighting in Herat. I was amazed. Where did the rest of the money go?

They did not have an understanding of their inventory. An MP told me: I know a guy who works at Herat airport. He’s the inventory guy for the ammunition. He gave a huge list and said we have tons of ammunition here. The Taliban have intel and they have attacked the airport to get the ammunition. We have an uprising [force] of thousands of people. They don’t have ammunition. So why aren’t we giving it to them?

Many of us found out that we never had 120,000 soldiers. We did not have police and army that amounted to over 300,000. That was all a lie; we never reached those levels. My conclusion right now, [is that] at best, [there were] maybe 40 to 50 thousand. The rest were all ghosts. The commanders had a list of names, maybe some of them left, deserted or were killed, but he would get paid the money for all their salaries and meals. The budgeting at the ministries of defence and interior was done bottom-up. The commanders would say how many people they had [under their command]. In places where there should have been 1,000 [soldiers], there were 35. They colluded with the contractors on the payments for food and other stuff and divided the extra money [among themselves]. It ran all the way to the top. Unfortunately, they did not see the urgency.

I’ve been on a couple of provincial trips [with the president] to military bases. I’ll tell you now; they did not see the provinces or meet the people. The people they saw were vetted, so obviously, you had a selected audience. I went to Kandahar with the president. I stayed with him on this compound when he was engaging with people until lunch. After lunch, he went to the military compound and I drove with my deputy minister for customs to the outskirts of Kandahar where Tadin Khan [Kandahar’s former police chief, the less famous brother of the late General Abdul Razeq and a member of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR)] had his ‘informal’customs office.

There was this huge parking lot with literally hundreds of vehicles, maybe 1,000 or more that day. I asked these people: Why are you stopping here? They told me: It’s the customs. What customs, I asked. The Ministry of Finance’s customs, they said. We are not allowed to go to the city and at night, the customs people come here. They pointed to the office on the roadside. They give us these stickers and we pay from 3,000 to 60 or 70 thousand [afghanis] for fuel tankers. It all went into private pockets. I dragged these guys out and this police guy flatly refused, then his commander came; they almost opened fire. We had to run away.

He [the president] did not see the real issues. They did not, I don’t think, meet the people. They were in a bubble and they kept the president in a bubble. The president’s issue was his attitude; he humiliated people. All the good people left and those who were corrupt and those who flattered him stayed around and controlled everything.

As I said earlier, his version of Afghanistan was based on the briefs he got, most of them fabricated. The savvy ones knew how to play the president. They would literally do nothing and focus almost all their efforts on reporting to the president and formatting documents. The president was a John Hopkins professor; unfortunately, he would ‘grade papers’. People like me tried to do the work without reporting minor progress to the president. Now that I look back, maybe it wasn’t the right strategy. It was more important to portray a picture that did not exist than actually doing the job.

The corruption in the security sector was [another] tragedy. Poor soldiers from Nangrahar or Badakhshan or other deprived places would fight literally for two or two and half years on the frontline in Helmand with no change [rotation], and other people who had connections would be stationed in Kabul. [The poor soldiers] did not get paid; their salary went somewhere else. They were killed and their families did not get anything. There was a big mismatch between what was happening in the centre and the provinces. A major in our army, and even people with lower ranks, would have six or seven people looking after him, including an army vehicle and a driver. How would you expect them to fight? They had luxury lives financed by CSTC-A [Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan], without accountability.

The people in leadership positions were in a different mood. A one-time army chief [name redacted], was seen more in Dubai hookah bars than in Kabul or the provinces. They were completely detached. I heard that on [name redacted] last day [as minister], he asked his finance guy about his portion of the black ops money –  operatifida, operative money – which according to his calculations was 900 million Afs. They did not see it as money to fight. They saw it as their portions. The president’s leadership [was a problem] – how he would lose his temper and humiliate people and how he would make up his mind before people entered the meetings. Even if he was right, humiliating people in meetings meant that no one spoke.

Cabinet meetings were extremely silent. Only a couple of people spoke. First, Amrullah Saleh would speak, fanning the president’s ego and flattering him. Then, the president would give a 90-minute lecture. There were no Q&As, no discussions on the agenda and then [the meeting] closed. The only time I saw [any] discussions] was in the last week on a WhatsApp cabinet group I’m still part of. Once the president fled, there was discussion, open discussion, with people showing their frustration. It was ironic and tragic, but that was the only time I saw the cabinet speaking out without fear of getting somebody angry.

AAN

You’ve painted a picture of the president as someone who was out of touch with the realities on the ground. You said that his knowledge about what was going on was limited to the reports and briefings he received. I wonder if you could speak to this idea that he had no realistic picture of what was happening.

Khalid Payenda

It’s how he got the briefings. First of all, nobody wanted to anger him, even if it was with the truth, nobody. In his last days, he was very much aware of this. He was even sort of paranoid. He doubted everything he received, but unfortunately, it was too late. So first of all, people wouldn’t report problems to him. They hoped to fix things before they were reported to him.

The second [issue was] how the reporting was channelled [to the president]. Most people had to send [their reports] to the [Administrative] Office of the President. The reports would not be taken to the president [directly]. They [the AoP] would put them in their own format, omit some things and add other things. If you wanted to destroy a minister, it was very easy. You would add something or send someone to do a bogus investigation to show that this minister had done something [wrong] or mention it to the president when you briefed him. Most ministers did not have a direct line [of communication] to the president. So the way he got the reports was part of the problem, and [it was] how he was controlled. [17]

My DG for administration had worked in the media [department of] the Arg, and he told me that the president had asked for a daily media monitoring brief. For a few days, they sent a morning media brief and he would read and comment on them. But then they were told by the national security council to stop upsetting the president with the briefings. So it stopped. [After that] they [the NSC] would prepare them and send him selective feedback – out of thousands of comments, they would [choose] a comment [that was favourable to] the president and say this is what the public thinks. Unfortunately, most were [taken] from Facebook [and did not show] the realities on the ground. Facebook was the Kabul bubble. That’s how he was played. [18]

He read most of his briefings in the morning before work. He would read [them] and get frustrated. He would write harsh comments without asking [any questions]. Some people misused it to say something [bad about a] minister – all lies. You could send [the report] and [the next thing] you would have a decree by the president, [ordering] the Attorney General to investigate, or firing the person [mentioned in the report]. Even if he did get the right information, it was also important for him to know what information he should deal with and what he should ignore.

His tendency to get involved in the weeds and micromanage also meant that many people did not do their job. Issues that should have been solved at the director-general level would be escalated to the president. It was easy for people not to take responsibility and shoot everything upward. For people like me who wanted to do things without interference and who just wanted to report results to the president, I assume he thought that not a lot was happening at the Ministry of Finance, [he thought:] That’s why I’m not getting reports. I never reported on my Thursday meetings with the public or the live sessions on Facebook, which the people really appreciated, to the president. I saw it as doing my job.

ANN

Could you give us a bit more detail about what you saw in terms of money going out? You talked about black ops money and funds for the resistance that you didn’t see actually going to them. Do you have any more detail on that?

Khalid Payenda

In the last few weeks, the discussion was that the army needs six months to recuperate and re-establish itself, so it cannot fight [now]. This actually meant that they found out there were no soldiers. There were no new recruits, and casualties – including those killed or seriously injured – were around 350 people a day – that’s 10,000 soldiers a month. So, there was no army. The police were taken out of this fight as they were focused on law enforcement. There was also a lot of interference from the National Security Council. The [defence] minister and the army [leadership] did not have the authority to hire or fire anyone. They would send everything to the NSA [national security advisor] and [he] would do it.

This deterioration of [state] institutions meant that they could not fight. The solution was to ask local militias or resistance [forces] to rise against the Taleban and fight. Obviously, they needed to be paid, and they needed ammunition. There were decrees by the president to give them almost 12 billion Afs, 150 million dollars, mostly for salaries and ammunition. And who was going to do this? It was the governors who would mobilise people, and the NDS would manage security.

This was all weird and convoluted. The governors did not have anything to do with the NDS. They reported to IDLG [Independent Directorate of Local Governance], which is a civilian [entity]. This money was mostly misused, from what I heard from a senior NDS official [name redacted], who was very concerned. He told me: This is not my job. Our job is intelligence. They’re asking us to fight. This money is channelled through us to the governors, but we don’t have oversight [authority], and we see a lot of misuse.

It was very easy, with no documentation [required]. You’d gather a few of your men, or thugs, with Kalashnikovs and send a photo to the governor and say: We are the resistance against Taleban in this area, we have 300 people and we need money. The governor would give you money, or he would divide the money – 100 million goes to you, but I’ll keep 50 [million].

I heard that the Taleban were spending a lot of money, maybe you have as well, through your reporting. They did not get everything militarily. They made deals with commanders. I heard of commanders [who were] offered evacuations to Islamabad for their families. They were told: This is the key to your new house in Islamabad. You just have to surrender. Once we re-capture [Afghanistan], we assure you that you will retain your job. So, these people would double dip, with the photos to get money from the government, and the Taleban. The deputy NSC told me that we re-captured a few districts, but he said: Nothing was done militarily. We just paid off the Taleban and others. [He said] it was going to be very dangerous – and costly if it had lasted a few more months or a year because it was not sustainable and meant that you needed to have more security issues to justify these payments. In some places that I mentioned earlier, like in Ismael Khan’s case, I heard that he was willing to fight, but he was only given 6 million Afs for all his people. For a key place like Herat, that was not the right thing [to do]. So, unfortunately, there was no accountability and there was misuse.

AAN

The big players, the bigger people than the governors, like Ismael Khan, Dostum, Atta, felt that they hadn’t got funding from the Palace. They blamed the Palace. But do you think there’s something else going on?

Khalid Payenda

They did not get the funding but they also exaggerated their influence and forces in their regions. They [the Palace] were also wary of involving them too much. They did not want these big players to be involved, maybe for good reasons, or maybe they did not want to share power. The president was appealing for national unity and [for] all these jihadis [to join the uprising], but in reality, I think first of all it was a bit too late. Second, his history with how he treated, for example Dostum and others, [meant] it was never going to be an easy make up. I know that they did not get the support on time. But they also exaggerated their forces and how much influence they had on these people to fight. Nobody fought and the promises that were made by the MPs, and others, did not materialise.

Part 2 of this interview will be published in the coming days.

References

References
1 For an analysis of the 2018 budget reforms that he led on, how ambitious and hopeful they were, and what opposition they ran into, see AAN reporting here and here).
2 AAN interviewed Payenda on 19 August 2021 and 21 September 2021 on Zoom. Over the course of five weeks, follow up questions and clarifications were asked by email and WhatsApp. The published interview has been edited for clarity and flow. It is, otherwise, a direct transcript of the interview.
3 In their 2005 paper, Conrad Schetter and Bernd Kuzmits refer to a group of men who emigrated to the US after finishing their studies at the American University of Beirut (AUB). According to the paper, these “so-called Beiruti Boys,” included Ashraf Ghani, Zalmay Khalilzad, Anwar-ul-Haq Ahady and Akbar Popal. According to Schetter and Kuzmits, these men, along with others “who had studied at American universities or worked for U.S. companies, notably Unocal,” were favoured by the US government for top jobs and senior advisory positions in the Afghanistan Transitional Administration. While Qayoumi is not mentioned by name, it is noteworthy that he was a student at the AUB during the same time period. This was confirmed to AAN by a source close to Ghani and Qayoumi. (See Schetter, Conrad, Bernd Kuzmits, Jürgen Rüland, and Theodor Hanf. “The Revival of Geopolitics: U.S. Politics in Afghanistan and Central Asia.” Chapter. In U.S. Foreign Policy Toward the Third World: A Post-Cold War Assessment, edited by Eva Manske, pp 171-2 and 188. Routledge, 2005.
4 See Tolo News reporting here and here.
5 See then president Ashraf Ghani addressing the first televised cabinet meeting on 1 August 2021 here.
6 See William Byrd’s “Dismembering Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance,” United States Institute of Peace (USIP) here.
7 See AAN’s reporting of the reforms introduced by the Ministry of Finance in 2018 here and here.
8 On 12 June 2020, in what was termed an “unprecedented move” by the Afghan media, Ghani banned 68 employees of the Ministry of Finance from leaving the country without prior permission from the president (see here and here). The announcement drew strong reactions from the Wolesi Jirga which called the inclusion of the finance ministry’s staff of the exit control list (no-fly list) spurious and politically motivated (see Tolo News here and here). Speaking to Arianna news, Integrity Watch’s Naser Timory called it an “ill-considered and random” act designed to appease the donors in advance of the November 2020 Geneva Conference on Afghanistan (see Ariana New’s discussion programme Tahawol here).
9 The Investment Facilitation Unit was established in December 2019 by presidential decree to identify and facilitate investment in Afghanistan (see the IFU website here).
10 Payenda did name several individuals who were implicated in corruption. However, where no second sources were available the AAN editorial team has redacted the names.
11 See this Etilaatroz report.
12 There have been persistent rumours of corruption levelled against Ghani’s top aid Fazel Mahmoud Fazly. For example, in a May 2019 interview with Khorsid TV, former presidential advisor General Habbbiullah Ahmadzai accused Fazly of running a corruption ring inside the Palace. Ahmadzai accused Fazly of influence peddling, electoral fraud, financial wrongdoing, and sexual misconduct. (See the interview in Pashto here and Hasth-e Sobh report in Dari here.) Ahmadzai was later summoned by the Attorney General’s office to answer questions related to the “sexual abuse allegations which he recently leveled against certain people inside the Presidential Palace” (see Tolo New here). While he later apologised to the president and first lady, he maintained that “certain groups within the government have continued with “sexual favors from women” in return for key posts” (see Tolo News here).
13 Alizai’s dismissal was reported by Pajhwok news on 5 April 2021 (see here, see also Reporterly here).
14 In June 2014, Amarkhel resigned from his position as the head of Afghanistan’s Independent Elections Commission (IEC) amidst allegations of election fraud in the controversial 2014 presidential election (see AAN report here). In 2018, Ghani appointed Amarkhel senior advisor on public and political affairs. He was named state minister for parliamentary affairs in May 2020 and governor of Nangrahar in August 2020.
15 See here and here.
16 The abuse of power charges related to when Zamanzai was the head of the Independent Electoral commission’s (IEC) secretariat. He was found innocent of all charges on 3 September 2019 (see here and here).
17 The influence exerted by Ghani’s inner circle, particularly the national security advisor Hamdullah Mohib and AoP director Fazel Mahmood Fazly was the subject of much consternation and ridicule. For example, in this satirical piece published by Etilaatroz, Essa Qalandar, a fictional reporter, interviews Fazly: 

Qalandar: Mr Fazli, you are the Senior Advisor to the president. What does a Senior Advisor do?

Fazly: Anything he likes. He can interfere in the elections, make losers of winners and winners of losers. He can lock up [independent] elections commissioners on street 39 of Wazir Akbar Khan. He can interfere in government recruitments. He can hire an illiterate person in a high-ranking position. He can conjure evidence of incompetence for an expert and fire him. A senior adviser can censor reports that must be submitted to the president. If he does not do these things, he will no longer be a senior advisor; he will be like Mr Abdullah and Mr Danesh.

18 An 18 August 2021 op-ed piece published by Etilaatroz mentioned a “triangle of illusions in the Palace,” and said: 

These days in Afghanistan, there is talk of a “three-person Republic” – the president, the national security adviser, and the head of the administrative office of the president. It seems that due to his academic background, the President of Afghanistan Mohammad Ashraf Ghani has a very inflated idea of his scientific and managerial abilities and thinks that his single-person knowledge can replace the understandings of thirty-five million citizens. Therefore, he does not see the need to check the veracity of his findings and analyses against the [collective] knowledge and cognizance dispersed among the thirty-five million people in this country. It is enough for his two young confidants, Hamdullah Mohib and Fazel Mahmoud Fazly, to validate of his plans or – to put it better – give him the feeling that everything is going well under the radiant wisdom of this astute and capable leader.

The Khalid Payenda Interview (1): An insider’s view of politicking, graft and the fall of the Republic
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The Guardian view on Afghanistan: the dilemma for donors

The Guardian

28 September 2021

The Taliban are showing their true colours. The people face a desperate struggle for basic rights – and for survival

A Taliban patrol in Kabul, 28 September 2021
‘Supporting Afghans while doing the utmost to avoid bolstering the Taliban will be an extraordinarily difficult and painful process.’ A Taliban patrol in Kabul, 28 September. Photograph: EPA

Even as the Taliban swept into Kabul in August – and even given their record in other parts of Afghanistan – some clung to hope, suggesting that the militants’ milder rhetoric was evidence that they might have changed substantially since they last held the country. As many warned, that was wishful thinking.

The country now faces two catastrophes, of basic rights and the economy. A population with higher expectations in every regard, better educated and better connected to the outside world, is faced by the same Taliban: brutal rulers who have never met the basic needs of those they have controlled.

A senior official has said they will resume executions and amputations for criminals. Girls are barred from secondary education; women pushed out of work. Women in Herat report being stopped for going out without a male guardian. Almost all shelters have closed. It is true that some in Afghanistan, including women, have welcomed the Taliban victory, hoping that there will at least be peace. But that is a verdict on the last Afghan government, the US and its allies, not on the Taliban’s merits, and they are opposed not only by women in cities but in poorer rural areas, and by men and boys.

Their ascent has also delivered a devastating blow to an economy already on its knees. A rentier state – dependent on aid for 75% of spending, and ravaged by corruption – was further assailed by the pandemic, droughts, and intensified fighting. Earlier this year, a third of Afghans were malnourished. Now, with cash flows cut off, the banking system reportedly on the verge of collapse, and humanitarian aid halted, the United Nations’ World Food Programme has warned that only 5% of households have enough to eat each day.

The result of this dual catastrophe is an unbearable dilemma: how to save lives without strengthening and even enriching a vile and repressive government. The US has issued licences to ease the provision of humanitarian aid without removing its sanctions. This is an essential step. But even if donors provide the $1bn they have promised to agencies, food is not enough. Without development aid to support agriculture, supplies will dwindle even further.

Delivering aid will also be impossible without female workers. Without them, access will be restricted to half the population – in many cases, missing children too. In some provinces, the Taliban have allowed women to continue to work in some of these vital roles. Will they be willing to make similar decisions at a national level? So far, they have made no concession to international opinion, as their hardline cabinet demonstrates. Some fear that the Taliban simply do not realise how severe the crisis is, further reducing any leverage on them. China and others could step in to some degree, with fewer constraints upon the support they are already giving, though few believe they will do enough to fill the gap.

Supporting Afghans while doing the utmost to avoid bolstering the Taliban will be an extraordinarily difficult and painful process. It will require the closest attention to each area: healthcare, mostly carried out through NGOs, is more straightforward than education, which is primarily state-run. It will require systematic coordination by donors, consulting extensively and repeatedly with NGOs and Afghans. Above all, it demands absolute realism on the need for and possibility of conditionality. There can be no more wishful thinking.

 

The Guardian view on Afghanistan: the dilemma for donors
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Zahra Joya: the Afghan reporter who fled the Taliban – and kept telling the truth about women

The Guardian
Wed 22 Sep 2021 05.00 EDT
Zahra Joya: ‘It just seemed impossible that the Taliban could come to power so quickly, wipe away 20 years and drag us all back to the past.’
Zahra Joya: ‘It just seemed impossible that the Taliban could come to power so quickly, wipe away 20 years and drag us all back to the past.’ Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

As a child in Afghanistan, she pretended to be a boy in order to get an education, before starting her own women’s news agency. Now living in Britain, her fight continues

Just over a month ago, Zahra Joya left her house in Kabul to walk to her office, as she had been doing every day. From this small office, Joya, a journalist, ran Rukhshana Media, the news agency she founded last year to report on the stories of women and girls across Afghanistan. By the time she returned home in the afternoon, however, men with guns were on street corners and her sisters were shut inside their house, shaking with fear. In just a few hours, normal life had been obliterated.

“Right to the end, on that afternoon of 15 August, I couldn’t believe what was happening,” she says. “It was like a bad dream. Even on that day, it just seemed impossible that the Taliban could come to power so quickly, wipe away 20 years and drag us all back to the past.”

Joya was airlifted out of Kabul by the UK government in the last frantic and terrifying days of the evacuation, along with other family members. Although she is in a place of safety, her world, once alive with possibilities, has been reduced to a hotel room with sealed windows and beige walls.

“All my life, I thought I was part of creating a new Afghanistan,” she says. “I never in my life imagined I’d end up a refugee.” It is just over two weeks since she arrived in the UK and she is still numb with the shock and trauma of what has happened.

She feels a deep grief over the eradication of women from public life in Afghanistan. Last week, the Taliban announced that only boys would be in the classrooms when secondary schools reopened, making Afghanistan the only country in the world to deny 50% of its population the basic right to education. In Kabul, it has also been announced that women will not be allowed to occupy any public sector jobs that could be done by men.

“To believe the Taliban’s propaganda, that they are somehow different this time around, is to betray the millions of Afghan women and girls who have lost their chance to have anything but a life of domestic servitude and illiteracy,” she says. “I think of everything that I and so many other women fought so hard to achieve and it has all disappeared. We lost everything.”

Rukhshana Media has not quite been wiped away: Joya is still running it, albeit from a tiny desk in her hotel room. It is, she says, the only thing that is keeping her going. “Some mornings, I wake up and I feel like I just can’t do this, but then I open my laptop and I am a journalist again; I have a purpose.”

Joya has been a journalist for nearly a decade, in local news agencies and then as an investigative reporter for newspapers in Kabul. She originally wanted to be a prosecutor, but a university friend suggested she do a few days’ work on a local newspaper. She was hooked immediately.

Life for a female reporter was not easy. Afghanistan has long been one of the most dangerous places in the world for female journalists and she was often the only woman in the newsroom. “I would have to argue with colleagues and people on the street, who would be telling me to go home and that I should be ashamed for being out in public asking questions. I would always say: ‘I am a journalist and I have the right to be here.’”

By the time she founded Rukshana, with her own money, in December 2020, she was also working as the deputy director of communications at the Kabul municipal government. “I wanted to show that women – especially women from an ethnic minority like me – could be active in public life,” she says. Joya is from the Hazara community, the majority of whom are from the Shia sect of Islam and who have long been persecuted by the Taliban.

Born amid icy mountains and bright blue lakes in a small rural village in Bamyan province in 1992, Joya has never accepted that she must play by the rules imposed on her from birth.

“When I was born, the elders in my family were so sad and ashamed that my parents had a daughter,” says Joya, throwing up her hands in mock alarm and shame. “They didn’t think I had any value at all. This is a reality for women all over Afghanistan. We are born unwanted. Yet I have never, ever felt sad or ashamed of who I am. All my life, I have believed I could be whoever I wanted to be.”

The first time I visit Joya in the hotel where she is staying, along with hundreds of other Afghan evacuees, her family crowd around her and laugh as they tell me that, as a child, Joya would fight anyone who told her that she couldn’t do something because she was a girl. It is not hard to imagine. In person, she is warm and charismatic, but there is a toughness that matches up with the stories of the scrappy child ready to fight for the life she wanted.

When Joya was a child, there was no school for girls anywhere near her village, so for five years Joya dressed as a boy to get her education. “I’d walk two hours there and two hours back every day,” she says. “I was lucky, because my parents supported me. They made me boys’ clothes and I made everyone call me Mohammad. I don’t think I was especially brave, because I know there are so many other girls who would never, ever get the chance to do something like this.”

Joya, aged 8, dressed as a boy to go to school.
Joya, aged 8, dressed as a boy to go to school.

From a young age, she believed her generation of women were pathfinders – forging the way for others to follow. “Despite all the difficulties and dangers we faced, me and my friends believed that we were the future of our country, we were the ones who would change things and change the course of history,” she says. “I believed we were building a new Afghanistan.”

Although Afghanistan was a fledgling democracy, the guns and bombs of the Taliban have been a constant presence in her life. “They were people who wanted you to fear them, but our job was to resist,” she says. “I lost my best friend to a Taliban attack. Everything I stood for was in opposition to their ideology. To me, they had nothing to do with the Afghanistan that we were building.”

She founded Rukhshana as Afghanistan’s first feminist news agency, where local female journalists reported on the reality of life for women and girls across the country. The purpose was to provide a counternarrative to the wider Afghan media. There were radio stations and TV channels run by, or for, women in various parts of the country, but her ambition was that Rukhshana would be the first national news source where an Afghan woman in any region could see her own life reflected in the stories published every day.

“I was saying to Afghan women: this is your space, a place where we will tell your stories and the stories of all our sisters across Afghanistan,” she says. “For Rukhshana reporters, it was an opportunity to tell the stories male editors would never consider newsworthy.”

Rukhshana was openly critical of the Taliban militants and documented their campaign of murders and attacks on women in public life in the months before the US and UK troop withdrawal. Scores of women – police officers, judges, journalists, activists and politicians – were assassinated in shootings and car bombings.

In the week the country fell to the militants, Rukhshana partnered with the Guardian to publish the Women Report Afghanistan project, where Joya’s team of female journalists across the country told the world what was happening there. Like everything on Rukhshana, the articles were unflinching, telling of the plight of single and divorced women under the Taliban; the intergenerational conflict within families over the burqa; and the women and their children forced out of their homes into a life of displacement.

“My team at Rukhshana are all young women – most are 22 or 23 years old, all of them are so brave and so fearless, all of them put themselves at risk because of the work they were doing,” Joya says. They all worked for local radio and newspapers in their own provinces, too, and published stories with Rukhshana on issues such as domestic violence, rape, corruption and forced marriage, which led to death threats and intimidation. Joya received anonymous threats from suspected Taliban fighters because of her journalism. “It only made us more resolute to keep going,” she says.

But on the day that Kabul fell to the Taliban, Joya and her reporters suddenly became moving targets. Three had already gone into hiding the week before, as their provinces fell. Joya’s work for the government in Kabul, and her ethnicity, put her further at risk.

Joya with her sisters and niece
Joya with her sisters and niece. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

“If I stayed in Afghanistan, I really believe they would have killed me,” she says. “Maybe not straight away, but eventually.”

In the two weeks before she was evacuated from Kabul, she was overtaken by an “overwhelming fear … it was so intense that none of the Rukhshana team dared report on what was actually happening. I felt suffocated,” she says.

She hid at home. “As someone who had been out of the house all day, every day, I felt like a bird who was trapped in a cage.” After days of pacing her house and small courtyard, she resolved to leave and report on what was happening on the streets.

“I realised I didn’t know what to wear,” she says. “In the 28 years of my life, I never once thought of buying those long black robes; I didn’t have one at home. So I left my house in my normal clothes. When I got outside, I could see the Taliban’s white flags everywhere. There were no women on the streets; it was like we’d all just been wiped out. For me, as a person who struggled and worked so hard in a patriarchal society to get where I am, it was so distressing.

“Suddenly, it didn’t matter if I was a young woman in 2021. My fate was no different from the fate of a woman who lived in Kabul in 1996. For many years, my eyes freely looked at the hills of Kabul, taking in its mud houses and wildflowers. I could not accept having to see the world through the prison bars of a burqa.”

In her final days in Afghanistan, she heard that the Taliban had come looking for her and so went into hiding. “When we got the [British government’s] evacuation notice, we just shut the door of our house and ran,” she says. “We left our whole lives behind.”

For two days, Joya and her family were trapped among panicked crowds outside the airport, struggling to get to the safety of the departure gate. “The Taliban were at the front, with long hair and loose robes, beating people – women, children and old men – with sticks and rubber pipes and shooting bullets in the air, screaming that we shouldn’t be trying to leave our country. It didn’t seem real, like it was happening to someone else,” she says.

At night, the panic and terror of the people around her grew overwhelming. “Seeing that level of helplessness and humiliation, I burst into tears. I began screaming in pain,” she says.

Eventually, they managed to get near a British soldier, who looked at their evacuation notice and let them through. “When we finally got on the plane, there were no windows,” says Joya. “I didn’t get to see my beautiful Kabul for the last time. From where I was sitting, I could only see the faces of the other evacuees.”

Since arriving in London, the shock has been difficult to bear. “It is like I’m drowning,” she says. “But I have to stay strong for my family. I just have to make sure that they are all OK. I know that we have a lot of hard times ahead of us.”

While she is talking, her hand strays to her laptop and the Rukhshana website springs to life on the screen. She is launching an English-language version this week and is continuing to report for the Guardian on life for women under Taliban rule. In the past week, she has covered the murders of female police officers across the country and how single mothers face losing custody of their children under Taliban rule. Her reporters in Afghanistan have either been evacuated or are in hiding. A recent analysis found that fewer than 100 of the 700 Afghan women who were working as journalists remain in their jobs. But Joya says that, even though her heart is breaking every day, she will never stop her work trying to keep the voices of Afghan women alive.

“The Taliban can use their guns and their rules to try to break the spirit of Afghan women, but they cannot silence us all,” she says. “I will never stop resisting.”

 

Zahra Joya: the Afghan reporter who fled the Taliban – and kept telling the truth about women
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Why the Taliban Won And What Washington Can Do About It Now

At a Taliban checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 2021
Stringer / Reuters
In the end, it took astoundingly little time after U.S. forces left Afghanistan for the Taliban to bring down its government: ten days. On Friday and Saturday, hour by hour, some of Afghanistan’s biggest provinces surrendered to the Taliban as the Islamist insurgent group carried out a terrifying blitz. And on Sunday, as the Taliban entered Kabul, the U.S.-backed government fled, leaving the Taliban in charge of the entire country.

Perhaps no one predicted that the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces would fold so quickly. But for several years, there had been signs that the Taliban were becoming militarily ascendant and that the ANDSF suffered from critical deficiencies that the Afghan government ignored and was itself exacerbating. All the problems that allowed the Taliban to defeat the army so quickly in 2021 were on display in 2015, when the group temporarily seized Kunduz, a provincial capital in northern Afghanistan: poor morale, desertion, attrition, corruption, ethnic factionalism, bad logistics, and an overreliance on backup from Afghan special operations forces. And for years, it was no secret that ANDSF units were making deals with their supposed enemy—warning the Taliban of forthcoming offenses, refusing to fight, and selling the group weapons and equipment.

In other words, the dramatic meltdown of Afghanistan’s army only exposes the rot that had been festering in Kabul’s halls of power for years. No wonder the Afghan population trusted its government so little, and no wonder one Afghan city after another surrendered to the Taliban this week.

The United States and other countries made plenty of mistakes in Afghanistan. Pakistan duplicitously enabled the Taliban. But the principal responsibility for this tragic end to 20 years of state-building efforts in Afghanistan lies squarely with the Afghan leadership. The Taliban’s victory is thus a cautionary tale about the difficulties of stabilization: unless the United States exercises tough love toward its supposed partners, years of effort can go up in smoke in days.

A LONG TIME COMING

Over the past decade, as the United States gradually withdrew its forces from Afghanistan and the job of running the country increasingly fell to the Afghan government, the ruling class in Kabul chose not to fix the military or improve governance. Instead, political leaders focused on acquiring power and money for themselves and patronage for their cliques. They constantly sought to generate political crises or administrative paralysis in order to extract more patronage and rents from the central government.

Part of the problem was delusional thinking. Afghan politicians persuaded themselves that the United States would never leave, ignoring repeated signals from the Obama administration, the Trump administration, and the Biden administration that Washington wanted out of Afghanistan. Beguiled by their own narratives of Afghanistan as the fulcrum of a presumed new Great Game between the United States, China, and Russia, Afghan leaders believed they could entangle the United States in Afghanistan in an open-ended commitment. They saw little reason to reform the ANDSF or respond to the needs of everyday Afghans. The United States and the rest of the international community, meanwhile, never fully prioritized inducing Kabul to do either. Nor could they get Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban so strongly and in so many different ways. And so the insurgents steadily gained power.

The meltdown of Afghanistan’s army exposes the rot that had been festering in Kabul’s halls of power for years.

The weakness of the Afghan government presented successive U.S. administrations with a dilemma. On the one hand, if Washington set a deadline for withdrawal, the Taliban would simply wait until U.S. troops were gone to launch a full-scale offensive against the Afghan army. And there was no guarantee that Afghan politicians would take the deadline seriously: they believed Afghanistan was geostrategically important, and they had seen multiple U.S. administrations pull back from withdrawing. Thus, there was no guarantee the Afghan government and politicians would subordinate their parochial interests to the national one and start undertaking the long-overdue reforms that would have prepared them to secure the country on their own. On the other hand, if the United States did not put any date on a withdrawal and instead made it conditions-based—as the Trump administration stated in 2016 it would do, even though it turned out the president himself never bought into the idea—then the Afghan politicians and government would have even less incentive to change their counterproductive ways.

Unwilling to reduce its power in any significant way or accept a change in the country’s political dispensation, the Afghan government didn’t want to negotiate with the Taliban. That remained true even after the Doha deal, the February 2020 pact in which the Taliban agreed to prevent terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies in exchange for a withdrawal of U.S. forces by May 2021. Kabul was stronger then: the Taliban had conquered far less territory than it would in 2021, and U.S. troops in the country were still able to bomb Taliban forces and provide critical technical support to the ANDSF. But with every day Kabul waited to negotiate, the lifespan of this support shortened and Afghan forces weakened. Kabul, however, thought it could sway the Biden administration to throw out the Doha deal and keep U.S. forces in the country in an open-ended commitment.

At the same time, the Taliban didn’t want to negotiate either, knowing full well that after U.S. troops left, their military power, and thus their bargaining position, was only going to grow. That was exactly what happened, and by that point, the Afghan government hoped that the weakness of its forces would keep the United States from leaving. Many American commentators also wanted the United States to stay, arguing that a limited force of 2,500 to 5,000 U.S. troops should prop up the Afghan government and its forces.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

This spring, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that he would withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. By the end of July, 95 percent of them were already gone. Once it became clear that Washington was finished with the war, the Afghan army grew even more demoralized than usual. But there never was a realistic scenario in which a limited force of some 2,500 to 5,000 U.S. troops, even assuming an open-ended U.S. commitment, could have altered the basic deleterious dynamics of an Afghan government and military that were unwilling to reform and a Taliban that was on the rise.

The Taliban, of course, would have started attacking the remaining troops, thus forcing them to hunker down in the way their Afghan counterparts have done—or, far more likely, forcing the United States to increase troop levels to limit Taliban attacks. Washington would be back to waging a full-scale war against the Taliban, with all the casualties that would entail, with no end in sight. In five years or so, the United States would have faced the same awful situation it did this spring: having no identifiable path for defeating the Taliban or even just reversing their gains.

The Biden administration could have and should have set the withdrawal deadline for December instead of September, giving the Afghan military and government more time to prepare to step up. There was no guarantee the Afghan leadership would seize such a moment of truth; it didn’t after the deadline was set as September. Even so, more time would have given Washington a chance to push Afghanistan’s leaders to start making changes to the military’s force posture, fixing at least the most critical aspects of logistics, and given Afghan civilians a chance to adjust, including to flee. An extra three months would not have imposed too many costs on the United States. But even though the Taliban would have swallowed a December withdrawal, they would not have accepted much beyond that. Had Americans remained in the country longer, a full-blown U.S.-Taliban war would have been back on.

For 20 years, the United States and its partners tried a number of strategies to defeat the Taliban. Between 2001 and 2005, they relied on Afghan warlords to defeat the Taliban regime and suppress the ensuing insurgency while the United States focused on Iraq. As the Taliban kept growing stronger, the Obama administration surged the number of U.S. and NATO troops to 150,000. By 2014, backing Afghan militias and anti-Taliban uprisings came to be seen as the key to defeat the Taliban. Finally, the Trump administration simply hoped that if the United States and its allies stayed in Afghanistan long enough, the Taliban would make enough mistakes to do themselves in. None of these strategies worked.

Staying past 2021 and likely escalating would have tied down U.S. forces and their valuable intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and other critical support systems. The United States would have remained bogged down in Afghanistan, making China, Iran, and Russia privately happy to have Washington simultaneously mired in a hopeless conflict and taking care of their terrorism concerns there.

WHAT NOW?

The most immediate priority is to engage in tough diplomacy and bargaining with the Taliban. Washington should pressure the group to keep the Kabul airport functioning, so that evacuations can proceed. It should warn the Taliban against committing bloodshed in Kabul and emphasize that the group now bears responsibility for delivering order and humanitarian assistance in the city, where tens of thousands of refugees now roam the streets without food and shelter.

The United States and the international community should also continue providing visas to Afghans vulnerable to Taliban reprisals, not just those who worked with the United States but also civil society actors, human rights advocates, and journalists. To the Taliban, the United States needs to send a clear and consistent message in the weeks and months to come: they must not execute members of the former Afghan government or civil society activists, and they need to restrain revenge killings. Washington should press for as much inclusiveness in the Taliban government as possible, incorporating ethnic minorities, technocrats, and women. And it should demand that women be allowed access to schooling and health care, at least some jobs, and the ability to leave the household without a male guardian.

Yet the prospects for success are dim. The Afghan army’s speedy meltdown has made the Taliban flush with victory and even less inclined to compromise. The fact that the group has announced its intention not to form an interim government suggests it does not intend to share power. Nor does the spate of revenge killings it has committed in the provinces it conquered in the past few weeks bode well.

Had Americans remained in the country longer, a full-blown U.S.-Taliban. war would have been back on.

At this point, the United States has limited leverage. It can offer or deny the Taliban and their leaders economic aid, formal recognition, sanctions relief, and access to international financial systems and institutions. But this set of tools cannot alter the on-the-ground power realities. Besides, the United States’ leverage is already undermined by the fact that China, Iran, and Russia have made their peace with the Taliban. These countries are far more likely to pressure the Taliban to guarantee their counterterrorism and economic interests and share power and resources with their Afghan political clients than they are to urge the group to care about human rights and political pluralism. And so the Taliban’s behavior in power will depend heavily on Afghan communities’ own capacity to bargain with their new leaders.

On the counterterrorism front, the news is not entirely grim. Although the Taliban are most unlikely to sever their links with al Qaeda, they will probably not permit international terrorist attacks to emanate from Afghan territory. Not only would the United States demand that but so would China, Iran, and Russia. The Taliban will also continue to have strong incentives to battle the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Afghanistan.

But other than that, what lies ahead is not a happy picture. An Iran-like internal political and social order may be the best that can be hoped for in Afghanistan. In this system, the Taliban’s supreme council, their ruling body of 20 or so leaders, would sit atop a layer of technocratic institutions carrying out the actual business of governance. In a very optimistic scenario, Afghanistan’s leaders would even permit some form of legislative and executive elections. Technocrats would hold certain posts, and minority groups would be given representation in the government’s administrative and decision-making structures. It’s also conceivable that the situation for women could be prevented from hitting rock bottom: the Taliban would continue to let women have access to health care, education, and certain jobs.

After two decades, 2,400 dead Americans, and $1 trillion, this was hardly the outcome the United States hoped for in Afghanistan. But it was years in the making.

VANDA FELBAB-BROWN is Director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Why the Taliban Won And What Washington Can Do About It Now
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