As the debacle in Kabul unfolds, in Washington and London the mud slinging about who is to blame is beginning. British Generals are blaming ‘spineless Johnson and Biden’ and the ex military MP, Tom Tugendhat, contends that we should have stayed put. That the spectacular ending of Afghanistan’s brief interlude in ‘Western Liberalism’ appears to have been such a surprise only underlines the utter delusion of the last twenty years.
I worked for an aid agency in Kandahar at the height of the Taliban regime and remained in Afghanistan until just prior to the British deployment to Helmand. I travelled around the country working on electoral and justice issues, as a journalist and later political advisor to the EU Ambassador, where I followed military issues including the security sector, disarmament and drugs. I also sat in on meetings at with the Coalition, Nato and the Afghan Government. I later published a book and a PhD on issues surrounding ‘legitimacy’ in relation to the Afghan intervention. The failure by the West to understand this concept is why the Taliban are back in power.
While many fear the Taliban return, the human rights issue is not as straightforward as portrayed. In January 2002, women in Kabul complained bitterly to me about posters of the recently killed General Massoud, saying ‘at least with the Taliban we knew the rules’. They remembered the violations of the early 1990s when warlords who were, by 2002, our allies wreaked havoc. But when I worked on aid projects in Kandahar and Herat during the Taliban regime back in 2000, I found many Afghans to be supportive. Although their rights were restricted, their memories of the civil war were far worse.
Today as western media react hysterically to the Taliban return, I am reminded of the days after 9/11. Back then, warnings of a respected Mujahid Commander from the ‘Resistance Royalty’ Arsala family in Eastern Afghanistan were drowned out by calls for bombing and retribution for 9/11. Abdul Haq told Bush and Blair ‘not’ to bomb Afghanistan because, he said, it would disrupt the agreements he had made with Soviet era allies who were then in the Taliban regime (Afghans do change sides) and with tribal leaders, including General Massoud. The idea was to collapse the by then unpopular regime from within; which is what has just happened to the Ghani regime.
Haq’s warnings were ignored, the 2001 bombing campaign went ahead and the West built its Potemkin vanity project in Kabul, overseen by the malleable Washington figurehead of Hamid Karzai.
The truth is that the British bounded into Afghanistan like an innocent Labrador. They were keen to tick boxes and very ‘can do.’ But their six month rotations meant different faces appeared at the meetings I attended at the Coalition Forces Alpha Compound and there was little institutional knowledge. Ironically, I found some American Commanders more open to engaging with the complexity of Afghanistan. When it came to the British a former UK Nato soldier said drily, ‘the army need an ‘Engagement Strategy’ before they can have an ‘Exit strategy’.
An old Afghan hand said to me last weekend as the Taliban advanced on Kabul that 'Afghans thought we’d come to build their economy and not spend it all on dropping bombs and building huge bases which was the wrong medicine.' Although ex military himself he said: 'The British were on a different frequency; they’d go out on patrol and someone would shoot at a convoy with a rifle as Afghans do. But they’d call in an airstrike on the village before going back to base and saying ‘what a great job we did’!'
Undoubtedly such insularity has contributed to the reasons why the British military have been unable to diagnose the Afghan conundrum that – twenty years too late – the army's top brass is now aware of. The Taliban will have spent months making deals similar to those undertaken by Abdul Haq in summer 2001; with regional security figures, police chiefs and governors disenchanted with the corrupt, Western-backed regime of Ashraf Ghani. Such a network of agreements, often made over tea and nuts, is what culminated in the Taliban’s lightning victory last weekend. That the Ghani regime failed to last even a month without US airpower despite billions spent training the Afghan security forces, is testimony to the contempt held by Afghans for Ghani. Even the Communist president Najibullah held on for three years after the Soviet departure in 1999, thanks to his constructive engagement with Pashtun tribes.