There’s No Way to Spin Kabul’s Fall
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Having worked in Afghanistan for four years, I shouldn't have been surprised by the rapid collapse of its West-backed government.
By Erik Nelson
As I write this, I’m hearing confirmation that the Taliban are cruising the streets of Kabul and that Afghanistan’s Western-backed President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country.
Like so many others who have worked in Afghanistan, for me it’s gut-wrenching news. Especially so when you know people who learned of these latest developments while frantically trying to leave the capital city. That panic is especially justified for women, and for those connected in any way to Western organizations. No less so for those belonging to ethnic groups and Islamic sects other than the Sunni and predominantly Pashtun Taliban.
Across continents, the prevailing reaction has been profound shock at the speed of the collapse of Kabul’s government after two decades of Western military intervention and support. While I’ve also been surprised, in hindsight I shouldn’t be. Nor should anyone who is familiar with Afghanistan’s recent and past history. I worked as an editor for the U.S.-led coalition’s biweekly magazine in Dari and Pashto between 2008 and 2012. As such, I was compelled to learn — as much as anyone could — how things worked in the country. Or didn’t work.
For every article we published for our small but influential readership, highlighting improved law enforcement training or newly-built medical clinics, there were mainstream media reports of endemic corruption in the Afghan National Police and unstaffed hospitals. For every editorial envisioning a future under the U.S.- and U.N.-backed government, there were stories featuring such damning evidence of corruption as cargo pallets of U.S. currency being flown from Kabul to Dubai. “Democracy” disappeared from the Voice of Freedom’s lexicon, after ballot counts no accountant would have been able to reconcile with local demographics.
One invader exits in ignominy, another force celebrates its triumph.
Not that democracy was the glue holding things together. I believe most Afghans would have settled for autocratic stability and an affordable system of official bribery. Army commanders could skim recruits’ paychecks, but they could at least pay them enough to feed their families. Then maybe they wouldn’t have felt compelled to sell their ammunition. The U.S. and its allies, meanwhile, fumbled through a nebulous mission. Well-meaning nations like Germany touted it back home as humanitarian. The Pentagon combined nation-building and antiterrorism with its counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) that labeled its key bases after its provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs). However it was defined, it meant funneling even more money into an unsustainable system while endangering the Western troops that propped it up.
The Taliban too has had foreign backers. After all, they emerged from the mujahedeen that the CIA bankrolled and Pakistan armed and facilitated in the 1980s — to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The constant feuding, back-and-forth shelling and rapacious corruption of the warring militias inspired a group of religious “students,” which is what Taliban means, to enforce order. Benazir Bhutto, who led Pakistan in the early 1990s, publicly supported the group, only to be assassinated in 2007 in an attack claimed by a Pakistani offshoot of the Taliban. The country’s relationship with the archconservative Islamist fighters became slightly murkier — or duplicitous, as U.S. officials have long lamented — after the prior Taliban regime became America’s avowed enemy. But it was always Pakistan that was the safe haven for Taliban leaders when they were driven into hiding by coalition forces. Though in the 1990s, Texas oil executives also courted the militant group, hoping to build a pipeline from Central Asia cutting through Afghanistan.
Last week, Imran Khan, Pakistan’s current prime minister, made a telling statement. After saying the U.S. was only interested in Pakistan for “settling this mess,” he complained that “the Americans have decided that India is their strategic partner now.”
And there you have it: Afghanistan has become the chessboard for yet another “Great Game.” That’s what it was called when Britain disastrously invaded in 1839 and twice returned to outmaneuver Russia in the region. The cycle continued in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion and America’s support of militias to repel Moscow. Then the U.S. entered more overtly, seeking to avenge 9/11 in the 2000s. Today Pakistan still sees Afghanistan as a pawn in its gambits against India. During my four years there, ending almost a decade ago, one of the most common bombing spots, after coalition bases, was the Indian embassy and guest houses identified with Islamabad’s chief rival.
Luckily, my largely university-educated Afghan former colleagues have in recent years, some with my help, obtained interpreter visas and brought their families to the U.S. But Sunday’s drama is not about those fortunate refugees. It is about people who didn’t have such outs — those desperate for money as banks run out of it, for tickets on flights that may never leave, for recommendation letters from organizations that by themselves could get them arrested or worse.
They’re now at the mercy of other Afghans writing a new page in their nation’s tragic story. One invader exits in ignominy, another force celebrates its triumph. And as before, the ink flows from the veins of Afghans who dared hope that this time, things would be different.
- Erik Nelson, OZY Author Contact Erik Nelson