Monday, November 29, 2021

Old Wine in New Bottles: The Myth of the "New" Taliban and Strength of its Islamic Emirate

When the Taliban effortlessly occupied Kabul this past August 15th, it appeared as if they would finally be in control of Afghanistan after a 20-year conflict with the United States and its NATO allies.  Combined with the collapse of the Western sponsored Afghan government and the chaotic withdrawal of the final contingent of US troops, the Taliban seemed poised to finally establish their Islamic Emirate. 


After 3 months of Taliban rule, the situation in Afghanistan appears quite different.  International aid, which has supported the country, has all but dried up.  Meanwhile, the Afghans are facing a bleak winter with 95% of the population expected to face food shortages, some of which will be very severe. Government employees have either been paid sporadically or not at all. With 80% of Afghanistan’s electricity imported from Iran and Tajikistan and the Taliban unable to pay for it, the economy faces a potential dire energy shortage. 


A key Taliban selling point has been that, unlike the US and its Western allies, and the former Afghan government, it could offer the Afghan populace a secure environment devoid of conflict.   As we have seen, a more radical Taliban splinter faction known as ISIS-K (the Islamic State – Khorasan Emirate) has mounted a number of attacks on. mosques, a hospital and Taliban troops.  Most ISIS-K members are former Taliban who feel the movement has lost its radical edge.  


Where is Afghanistan at present under Taliban rule?  What happened to undermine the movement’s optimism when it first seized power?  Where is the country heading under its new leaders?  And what happened to the so-called “new” Taliban which, after taking power, assured the Afghan people and the international community that it had changed and would institute an inclusive form of rule and not return to the repressive gender politics which it pursued when in power between 1996 and 2001? 


Bluntly put, Taliban rule thus far has been a disaster with nothing “new” to distinguish it from its older incarnation.  Public executions and floggings may have disappeared.  However, little else indicates that the Taliban will be able to rule Afghanistan in anything other than a repressive and exclusionary manner. 

Ideology trumps reality 

Despite potentially having access to $9 billion in currency reserves held in US banks, the Taliban has chosen to severely limit government positions to the Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara minorities, thus breaking it promise to form an inclusive government.  Even where members of minorities have been appointed, their positions are politically marginal because they lack any meaningful power. 


Gender politics has regressed to the same status it had under former Taliban rule. Women are only allowed to attend school through the sixth grade and can no longer be taught by male instructors.  Women have been largely excluded from their former government employment.  Female judges are in hiding in fear of their lives.  When Afghan women peacefully demonstrated against the new Taliban government demanding their rights to education and government employment, they were met with violence. Thus, how has the so-called “new,” more “inclusive” Taliban changed since 2001? 


The truth is that Taliban rule has little to do with Islam and everything to do with imposing a highly repressive and misogynistic ideology on Afghanistan.  The exclusively male and overwhelmingly Pashtun movement is driven by tribal norms parading as “Islam.”  In the view of its members, women should not be empowered through education. Instead, they should remain in the home and not participate in the public sphere, except for a few areas of employment where they are needed, e.g., as teachers of young girls and nurses who attend to women patients. 

Radical versus more radical ideology 

For the minority of Taliban officials who support a more open form of rule, even if to only gain access to foreign aid, they face a quandary.  If the Taliban relaxes its policies on women and access to education, and opens the society to Western culture, such as through social media, it opens the government to even more attacks by ISIS-K that it has foresworn its ideology.  With Taliban already switching their allegiance to ISIS-K, the government can ill afford to lose more of its traditional support. 


Thus, the Taliban is reaping the backlash of its more than 2 decades of inculcating in its members, the evils of Western culture and Westernization.  It is now almost impossible for the current Taliban political elite to back pedal and adopt more moderate views, especially when faced by a radical insurgency which views it as treasonous.  Add to this problem the financial catastrophe facing Afghanistan, and we see a set of rulers with few policy options to address the serious challenges which have arisen since the Taliban seized power. 


No help from its neighbors – the Islamic Republic of Pakistan or the Islamic Republic of Iran 

For the 20 years since the Taliban was deposed by the United States, neighboring Pakistan has provided a safe haven for its fighters.  Indeed, many Pakistanis have lauded the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.  However, talk is cheap and Pakistan is experiencing a major financial crisis caused by global inflation die to the Covid-19 pandemic, including a sharp rise in energy costs. 

Not only is Pakistan suffering from serious inflation, but the ruling political coalition, headed by Prime Minister Imran Khan is threatened with collapse.  Thus, there are no circumstances now or in the foreseeable future in which Pakistan will be able to come to the financial rescue of the Taliban. 

To the West, Iran has expressed its support for the Taliban victory.  However, the Tehran regime is still suspicious that many Taliban harbor hostility towards the country’s Shici Hazara minority.  Indeed, ISIS-K has called for the extermination of all Shica in Afghanistan. 

Iran, like Pakistan, is suffering economically.  International sanctions imposed by the West have dealt a serious blow to its ability to supply the Iranian populace with a wide variety of commodities and services.  Thus, no financial help can be expected to be forthcoming from the Islamic Republic of Iran as well.  

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Iraq's Parliamentary Elections: A First Step Towards a True Democracy in Iraq?

The engineer candidate - Reem 'Abd al-Khaliq 'Abd al-Hadi
On October 3rd, Iraq held parliamentary elections.  Although the results were not officially announced until October 17th, many analysts, both Iraqi and foreign, were quick to decry the results.  In particular, they pointed to the Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s party to win an estimated 73 seats in Iraq’s 329 member parliament and the elections’ low turnout rate, between 38 and 41%.  However, were the elections really the failure that many analysts would have us believe? 

The role of youth in the struggle for global democracy has yet to receive the analytic attention it deserves.  Youth democracy promotion movements from Hong Kong to Chile have shaken the political order in all regions of the world.  In 2011, the Middle East experienced the Arab Spring, largely led by youth.  While suppressed, more sophisticated and successful youth democracy promotion movements have recently been organized in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq.  

Unlike the Arab Spring uprisings, these movements have framed their demands in a more coherent manner by calling for an end to state corruption and nepotism, universal political participation, improved social services, gender equality and an end to sectarianism.  What role are youth playing in promoting democracy, especially under regimes characterized by extensive corruption and criminality such as Iraq? Eric Davis comments on the Iraqi elections on al-Siyaaq Television  


Since it began in October 2019, Iraq’s youth-led October Revolution (Thawrat Tishreen) has had a number of successes in its efforts to fight the massive corruption which engulfs the Iraqi state and to curtail the power of pro-Iranian militias.  Ongoing protests forced the resignation of Iraq’s prime minister, ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Mahdi, who was known for his corruption, in November 2019.  Subsequently, Iraqi youth prevented the appointment of two other candidates, neither of whom was supportive of democracy, proposed by the ruling elite.  Finally, during the spring of 2020, a new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who was sympathetic to the protestors’ demands, took office.  

After the new prime minister took office, the supporters of the October Revolution were able to force Iraq’s Council of Deputies (parliament) to enact a new voting law, based on single member districts where the candidate with the majority of votes wins a parliamentary seat.  Thus, the October Revolution was able to eliminate the party list or “quota” system, which insured that a small group of parties would continue to dominate Iraq’s Council of Deputies.  The new electoral law was critical in making it possible for a number of reformers and supporters of Thawrat Tishreen to win seats in the new Iraqi parliament.  


After the Islamic State seized one-third of Iraq’s territory in 2014, including Mosul, its second largest city, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the head of the world’s Shica who resides in al-Najaf inIraq, called on all Iraqis to mobilize to defeat the Islamic State forces which were moving towards Iraq’s capital, Baghdad.  Existing militias, formed after Saddam was toppled in 2003, and myriad new ones, were formed. Iran supported these militias which, together with US and Iranian forces, finally defeated the terrorist organization in March 2019. 


After the destruction of the Islamic State’s “Caliphate,” Iraq’s militias refused to put down their arms.  Since 2014, they have become an armed force which is as powerful as the Iraqi Army.  Through the efforts of pro-Iranian Iraqi political parties, many militia members have joined the Ministry of Interior’s security forces.  The militias, most of which are loyal to Iran, have morphed into crime syndicates.  They control large parts of Iraq’s economy and engage in the smuggling of oil, automobiles and consumer durables, extortion, extracting bribes in the distribution of government contracts, and the trafficking of arms.  


Iraq’s ruling elite, especially its powerful pro-Iranian wing, has been loathe to make concessions to the demands of youth who support the October Revolution.  In Iraq, youth comprise 70% of the population under 30, as in many MENA region countries.  Over 600 demonstrators have been killed by government security forces, primary by those of the Ministry of Interior, and over 24,000 wounded, kidnapped, and tortured.  

Despite the violent repression, the October Revolution protests have remained peaceful.  Because their demands reflect the preferences of the large majority of Iraqis, especially an end to corruption, the improvement of social services, and ending Iran’s political and economic power in Iraq, they are supported by a large segment of the population. 

Many eligible voters boycotted the recent parliamentary elections which were held this past October 3rd Many Iraqis, who oppose government corruption and Iranian influence in Iraq’s internal affairs, thought that Iran’s militias would rig the elections so that their candidates would win. Nevertheless, to the delight of most Iraqis, candidates affiliated with Iraq’s militia movement (al-Hashad al-Shacbi) fared poorly in the elections and lost seats in parliament.  

On the other hand, reformers and supporters of the October Revolution, many of whom represented newly formed political parties, performed well in the elections.  If they jin with independents who were elected, including a segment of the 97 women who were elected, of which 57 weren't elected through the dominant parties, they could control over 40 seats.

Despite efforts by pro-Iranian militias to characterize the election results as fraudulent, and part of an international conspiracy against them, the elections results have been certified by Iraq’s Election Commission. Iran is deeply concerned that the elections may indicate it is losing its grip on Iraq's polticidal system. This concern explains the vicious campaign the militias have mounted against the head of the United Nations Aid Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) which it accuses of having manipulated the election results as part of a foreign conspiracy against Iran 


The relative success of the October Revolution calls attention to the historical memory of Iraq’s powerful nationalist movement which pre-dated Saddam Husayn’s Bacthist regime (1968-2003).  This nationalist movement included all sectors of Iraq’s diverse ethno-confessional society, including Shica and Sunni Arabs, Jews, Christians, Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidis and other ethnic and religious groups.  

I show that many of the youth who organized and are leading the October revolution carry on a tradition of their elders who socialized them into the ecumenical and inclusive discourse of what I call “Iraqist nationalism” (as opposed to Pan-Arabism which the majority of Iraqis rejected). I develop this theme in my study, Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq. 

Many Iraqis support the October Revolution not only due to its democratic and anti-corruption message, but due to its reestablishing a strong of Iraqi nationalism as well.  This “Iraqist nationalism,” i.e., an Iraq-centered nationalism, was transmitted through urban extended family networks during Bacthist rule as youth were informed that Saddam’s authoritarian and exclusivist regime, expressed in efforts to indoctrinate youth in the education system and youth groups, ran counter to Iraq’s traditional political culture. 

This inclusive political culture, which was transmitted through “home schooling,”  was codified during the June through October 1920 Revolution against British control of Iraq (known as the “Great Iraqi Revolution,” of al-Thawra al-cIraqiya al-Kubra) which involved the participation of all Iraq’s confessional groups – Muslims, Jewish and Christian, and ethnic groups. 

The Iraqi case fails to support the conceptual frame of an “Arab democracy deficit.”  In its promotion of social democracy, namely a political system which cares for the less fortunate in society, its support for gender equality (as seen in the large number of women who play prominent roles in the October Revolution), and its rejection of sectarianism, Iraq’s youth have mobilized significant support for democracy. They also have created a focus on corruption and the new to use Iraq’s oil wealth to improve social services and create more jobs for Iraq’s large youth demographic. 

Compared to the lack of success in other Arab countries, such as the recent democratic backsliding in Tunisia, initially viewed as the only Arab Spring success story, the Iraqi case calls for examining whether democracy without material support, which establishes the bases for hope in the future, is a viable scenario in developing countries. The Iraqi case, where elections have been conducted since 2005, demonstrates the potential weakness of kleptocratic regimes when massive corruption marginalizes large segments of the citizenry in a setting of purported democratic governance.   

Despite the massive corruption, it noteworthy that Iraq has conducted fair and free elections for a decade and a half.  It is true that there were efforts to affect the elections through bribery and even threats.  However. overall it is remarkable that thousands of Iraqi have proposed themselves as candidates for the country's parliament anf numerous political parties have been formed.  Although Iraq has nowhere near gender equality in any aspect of civil society and the public sphere, women have played an active role in politics, as candidates, as members of parliament and as voters.

Compared to many other countries, especially those in the Arab world, this uninterrupted holding of democartic elections is a record of which Iraqis can be proud.  That Iraq has developed a powerful youth democracy movement which emphasizes the right of citizens, and particularly the most needy members of society, to receive properly government funded and administered social services, is anti-sectarian, supports gender equality ,and seeks to end government corruption and nepotism, is a remarkable development in itself   


How Iraqi youth developed their ideas of democracy which, through much of the street art the October Revolution has produced (examples are included in my presentation), was an extensive understanding of history.  This comprehension includes the contributions of Iraq’s ancient civilizations, e.g., the first use of the term “freedom” as understood in modern usage, the first parliament, the first language and the first legal code by Hammurabi (which incorporates concern for the less fortunate of society), as well as the contributions of Iraq’s powerful 20th century nationalist movement.  In my future research, I seek to develop a better understanding of the democratic youth movement in Iraq.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Terrorist Attacks of 9/11: What Have We Learned?

The September 11, 2001 National Memorial, New York City
The solemn commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks this weekend highlight once again a key question.  What did the United States learn from the attacks?  What steps have been taken not only to prevent future terrorist attacks but to address the root causes of the attack?  As the US debacle in Afghanistan makes clear, what the United States has actually learned from 9/11 is not at all clear. 

One of the postive  US accomplishments has been to develop a security nexus which, to date, has prevented another 9/11 type attack from occurring.  Apart from the attack by a Saudi army officer training at the US last year which killed 3 American servicemen,  there have been no attacks in which the perpetrator has identified with al-Qa'ida or the so-called Islamic State.

To date, one of the core policies in the struggle against terrorist and violent extremist groups has been to focus on ever more sophisticated weapons systems.  Some of these systems make sense but others seem more designed to generate profits for large defense contractors than to enable the US to confront the threat of terrorism.

The last time the US fought a protected conventional conflict was the Korean War of the early 1950s.  The likelihood of the US becoming involved in a conventional war, say with China or Russia, is highly unlikely.  The threat to day is less from a country's military might, albeit important, but from cyber warfare and the use of weapons sales and economic assistance.  Think for example, of China's enormous Belt & Road initiative which is financing countless infrastructure projects, primarily in less developed countries (LDCs), and Russian arms sales, e.g., the S4600 anti-aircraft missile system which it sold to Turkey, a NATO member.

During the Obama administration, there was a significant increase in the sue of drones.  Although they disrupted the Taliban, al-Qa'ida and al-Shabab, they also caused considerable civilian casualties.  In Afghanistan, drone attacks which killed and wounded civilians were effective tools to recruit more fighters to join the Taliban.  The "hellfire," the latest version of the drone which uses shrapnel rather than explosives to kill targets, may reduce civilian casualties but eliminating leaders of terrorist groups, while  will not destroy the ideology that led them to become violent extremists in the first place

What is the US' secret weapon?  The answer is human resources. As was clear from the 20 year war in Afghanistan, policies were developed which showed little or no understanding of Afghan culture and society (as I argue in my post,  A Tale of Two Cultures - the US Debacle in Afghanistan).  What is needed is a massive education campaign by the Federal Government to provide culture and language studies for students, beginning at the secondary school level.  

In secondary schools, language study continues to be a weakness in the global studies curriculum.  Because knowledge of a foreign language is the gateway to the culture of the people who speak it, language should not be seen as an "add on" and less critical than STEM courses.  Because the United States is unique as a ethnically and religiously diverse society, teachers who are native or "heritage" speakers of languages other than English should be recruited to obtain degrees in education so they can begin teachers in the nation's public school system.

The Critical Language studies program at the US Department of State, which provides scholarships for studying languages from regions where instability prevails, should be expanded.  Many students in the social studies and humanities face difficult employment opportunities and career choices in the current Covid-19 economy.  Now would seem an ideal time to recruit young scholars to new careers in the State Department and US intelligence agencies where they can study foreign cultures and languages to help policy-makers make more informed and thus better decisions about US foreign policy moving forward.  

How would the Biden administration cover the costs of this large-scale education program? This investment in the nation's human resources in the global struggle against terrorism and extremism should be considered a "weapons system" on its own merits.  The United States does not need additional aircraft carriers, stealth bombers and other highly expensive weapons systems.  Rather it needs a military with a wide variety of new skills which can allow it to fight terrorism in asymmetric conflicts and engage in cyber warfare.  

What the US alo needs is a new generation of diplomats and intelligence analysts who will be able to develop creative ideas which can be used to combat extremism.  The US is uniquely positioned to work with recent immigrants from a wide variety of countries where extremism has taken hold.  Think, for example, of the large Afghan-American population which includes many of the most skilled professionals and educators from Afghanistan, not to speak of many Afghans in the US who have worked closely with the US military and international NGOs.

If the Biden administration were to take this educational mission seriously, it would provide an example for US allies in Europe and elsewhere to follow suit.  A more educated and culturally sophisticated generation of young analysts could also work with Muslim communities in their respective societies who reject extremism and the effort terrorists have made to appropriate Islam (just as Christians have rejected efforts of white nationalists to appropriate Christian doctrine).

In the struggle against terrorism, and in the spirit of truly commemorating the victims of the 9/11 attacks, the US and democratic nation-states globally need to start thinking in new ways to bring the scourge of violent extremism to an end.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Tale of Two Cultures - the US Debacle in Afghanistan. د دوه کلتورونو کیسه - په افغانستان کې د متحده ایالاتو ماتې

Afghan Taliban at the presidential palace in Kabul, Aug 15, 2021
What happened in Afghanistan? The government and security forces’ rapid collapse this month and the images of hundreds of thousands of Afghans seeking to flee Taliban rule raise key questions.  How did a terrorist organization deposed by US forces in October 2001 return to power?  How did the US spend 2 decades in Afghanistan, fight a war which cost countless Afghan and US lives, and spend trillions of dollars to have little or nothing to show for its security and nation-building efforts? 

 The US debacle in Afghanistan is a result of an enormous disconnect which, at its core, is cultural in nature.  The concept of culture is key to understanding what occurred over the past 2 decades of US involvement in the country.  Two cultures require examination.  One is a Washington, DC-Beltway culture, namely an American-centric view of the world, that was prevented the US from achieving a successful outcome in Afghanistan. The other is Afghan culture which was never fully grasped by four American administrations, from George W. Bush through Joe Biden.  


The American-centric culture was based on a lack of knowledge of Afghan society and lack of clarity on the US mission in Afghanistan.  It was rooted in a path dependent and top-down model of dealing with non-Western countries and infused with a heavy dose of hubris and arrogance.  

Few American decision-makers knew anything about Afghanistan, let alone the county’s main languages, Pashto and Dari, a Persian dialect.  

While the US framed Afghanistan through the lens of terrorism and the ability of superior military force – the new technology of “shock and awe” – to defeat it, Afghan’s viewed their society and personal lives though a very different frame.  They sought an end to thirty years of civil strife, persistent instability and economic hardship and no predictable future.  Western=style democracy and a strong central government were not their priorities.  Even if they had wanted to, traditional structures if tribalism, confessionalism, ethnicity and patriarchy structured much of their (male) behavior.  Reducing foreign interference from Pakistan, their most powerful neighbor, weighed heavily on their minds as well.   


Afghans trying to reach Kabul International Airport
These two cultures were never reconciled, nor could they be, given the contours of American “top-down” policy and unwillingness to listen to and learn from the very people the US purported to be helping.  Cultural blindness set the US on the course which ended this month with its withdrawal from Afghanistan.  

 Following communism’s collapse, US foreign policymakers coalesced around the notion of a “Pax Americana.”  This view of US global hegemony was reinforced by the idea of the “end of history,” the Washington Consensus, and a neoliberal approach to governance, based on the assertion that free markets and a “night watchman state” would surely produce prosperous democracies throughout the world.  Post-communist US foreign policy also contained a residue of Cold War era “modernization theory” of the 1950s and 1960s where the US tried to convince former colonial countries that adopting a capitalist road of development would lead to greater success than following the competing Soviet model. 


Historical background 

It is truly remarkable that the media has completely neglected what led to US involvement inAfghanistan in the first place.  When the Soviets invaded the country in 1979 to prop up an allied communist regime, Afghan warlords mobilized to fight the invaders.  Many radical Islamists flocked to Afghanistan to join the struggle against the “apostate and atheist invaders.” 


Sensing an opportunity to deal a blow to the US’ Cold War enemy, the CIA began training Afghan forces during the early 1980s to defeat the Soviets.  By all accounts, the US’ providing surface-to-air missiles to Afghan forces in 1985 turned the tide because Soviet helicopter gunships could no longer control the skies.  Even without US military assistance, the Soviets were unable to control any significant part of the country. A decrepit road system prevented tanks and trucks from pursuing their military objectives.  Often while passing through narrow valleys, Soviet forces encountered major attacks which led to mounting causalities as the war progressed. 


Because the USSR could not win in Afghanistan, and would have withdrawn its forces in any event, especially after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1990, the US made a foolish decision to support Afghan warlords and provide military training to radical Islamists.  Among those the US trained were Afghan youth who later helped establish the Taliban in 1992.  Indeed, some of the Arab fighters – the so-called “Arab Afghans” - who received US training were subsequently involved in the 1993 attempt to blow up the World Trade Center.  Among the Arabs drawn to Afghanistan was Osama bin Laden and Abu Muscab al-Zarqawi, the brutal terrorist who fought the US in Iraq after 2003 through his organization, al-Qacida in Iraq (AQI) 


After the Soviets withdrew in 1979, local warlords turned on each other, engaging in a civil war which led to a collapse of the Afghan economy and the deaths of thousands of Afghan civilians. Formed in 1992 to curtail the mayhem, the Taliban (Pashto for “students”) fought the warlords, finally seizing control of the country in 1996. Welcomed at first for reviving the economy through ending the fractious civil strife which had plagued the country, the Taliban imposed an exceptionally brutal rule which soon was rejected by large swaths of Afghan society. 


Following the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the US attacked Afghanistan in October 2001 when the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Ladin, the head of al-Qacida which organized the terrorist attacks who resided in Afghanistan.  Quickly defeated, Taliban rule collapsed.  Here is where the second problem developed.  In December 2001, the Taliban offered to negotiate a surrender with the United States.  However, Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, quickly rejected the offer, dismissing the Taliban as a spent force.  

Nonnan Asks - 'What if'? on War in Afghanistan 


In early 2002, the neo-conservatives who populated George W. Bush’s foreign policy staff began planning the assault on Iraq and toppling Saddam Husayn’s regime.  US troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan as plans for the 2003 Iraq invasion were put in motion.  Once the invasion was underway, American military and diplomatic personnel began focusing on Iraq, both due the challenges of the new mission and because Iraq was viewed as a better route to personnel advancement.  As one analyst put it, Iraq took central stage and Afghanistan was left to the “B Team.”  


Meanwhile, the Taliban moved across the border to Pakistan where they began to reorganize, with help from Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).  Rather than pressure the Pakistani government, a US ally supposedly committed to fighting terrorism, to reign in its support for the Taliban redux, the Bush administration ignored the group’s reorganization efforts, focusing instead on Iraq. 


The US failed to realize that Pakistan wanted a state in Afghanistan controlled by the Pashtun, the country’s largest ethnic group, which comprises almost 50% of the population.  Because Pakistan’s Khyber Pashtunkwa provinces in the Northwest (formally known as the North-West Tribal Provinces) is populated by Pashtuns who have called for greater autonomy from Pakistan or even an independent country, the ISI and Pakistan government have responded by arguing that they are helping to create a Pashtun state in neighboring Afghanistan.  Further, by having a friendly regime in power in Kabul, one dominated by Pashtuns, the Pakistani military and political establishment has felt the country obtains greater strategic depth to the West in face of the threat from India.  

Flawed nation-building and governance  

In December 2001, the US installed Hamid Karzai, a member of a powerful Pashtun tribe, as the new Afghan president.  The US choose Karzai over the country’s former king, Muhammad Zaher Shah, who had ruled a peaceful Afghanistan from 1933 until 1973 when he was overthrown by his cousin, Muhammad Dauod Khan, while he was abroad in Italy.  Zaher Shah returned in 2002 indicating that he was ready to assume the office of head of state, even if not as monarch.  He headed a traditional tribal council, the Loya Jirga (Pashto for “grand assembly”), which, due to his favorable reputation among all Afghan tribes and ethnic groups, wanted him to play a key role in post-Taliban-Afghanistan.

2002 Loya Jirga which chose Hamid Karzai as president
The US failed to consider Zaher Shah’s importance as a national leader who enjoyed widespread popular support.  Even if he would only serve in a transitional role due to his age, Afghans felt he could bring the country’s different ethnic and religious groups together as he had done during his previous reign as king. By ignoring the wishes of the Loya Jirga, of which more than half wanted Zaher Shah to become head of state, the Bush administration sent a message to Afghanistan’s leaders that the US would make its own decisions, in which they would not play a decision-making role.   

Mohammed Zaher Shah, Afghanistan monarch, 1933-1973
An unidentified former State Department official told government interviewers in 2015: "Our policy was to create a strong central government which was idiotic because Afghanistan does not have a history of strong central government.  The timeframe for creating a strong central government is 100 years, which we didn't have."

THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS A secret history of the war: At War with the Truth

Karzai turned out to be an unfortunate choice.  Although a notable from a very powerful Pashtun tribe, Karzai viewed his new office as a means to both promote his political power and line his family’s pockets.  He quickly filled the Afghan government with relatives and clients and failed to use the opportunity to promote an inclusive form of governance. The Afghan president and his clique used the influx of large amounts of US funds to enrich themselves.  Indeed, his cousin, a former Taliban commander, controlled a large drug syndicate.  Over time, Karzai et al came to be referred to by US officials as “VICE” (Vertically Integrated Criminal Enterprise). 


By 2014, US officials were fed up with the massive corruption which pervaded the Karzai government.  When they tried to remove one of his assistants, Karzai raised such protests, that US officials decided to drop all efforts to reign in the criminality pervading his administration.  The key issue here was that the US had no idea how to establish a national governing structure for Afghanistan.  The fact that the country was highly decentralized and ethnically diverse meant that the unitary presidential system the US developed was bound to fail. That the central government stole development funds and failed to provide Afghans with necessary services undermined the US imposed governance structure still further.  


No effort was made by Karzai to reach out to local power brokers, especially tribal elders, to develop an acceptable national form of governance.  After he was re-elected in 2004, he eliminated many non-Pashtuns from ministerial positions.  The Afghan government established by the US was largely a creature of Kabul and few other large urban areas.  When services were provided by the government, they were often sub-standard and invariably required a bribe.  

The 2004 elections were themselves a source of national and international contention.  Karzai claimed to have received just over 50% of the vote.  However. All the members of the Electoral Committee had been appointed by him.  Even though the US, reacting to countless international assertions of voting irregularities, including ballot stuffing, it forced Karzai to conduct a recount. Unsurprisingly, he still prevailed in the final vote count. 


In 2014, Karzai was finally replaced by a new president, Dr. Ashraf Ghani.  I participated in a study group in Middle East politics which included Ghani while he was completing his Ph.D. in economics at Columbia University.  After he received his degree, Ghani developed a successful career working for the World Bank.  I found Ghani to be very intelligent, eloquent and affable.  However, he too turned out to be a poor choice as Afghanistan’s president. 


Women parliamentarians in the Afghan National Parliament 
Ghani was not a hands-on executive.  Unlike Karzai, he did not meet with provincial notables and “pressed the flesh,” he surrounded himself with Western educated technocrats.  Ghani preferred reading the books owned by former king Zaher Shah in the presidential palace such as the poetry of Rumi.  The disconnect between his administration and what was happening on the ground in Afghanistan was evident on August 15th.  The day the Taliban entered Kabul with no opposition, Ghani had scheduled a meeting with his ministers to discuss digitizing the Afghan economy.  It wasn’t until Taliban fighters had arrived at the presidential palace, that his aids whisked him away in helicopters to fly to neighboring Uzbekistan, and then on to his villa in the UAE.

President Ashraf Ghani meeting with Joe Biden, June 2021
The security forces 

The Afghan Army was organized according to an American model which was inappropriate for Afghanistan.  The army’s centralized structure did not reflect the ethnic diversity and decentralized character of Afghan society.  The lack of a strong and legitimate central government and the continued power of powerful, local tribal leaders and warlords undermine the effectiveness of the national army. 


Had the US allowed greater Afghan input in establishing a new army after the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, it would have been more successful in defending the country against the terrorist group.  A command structure which included officers representing all ethnic and regional tribal confederations would have created a local “buy in.”  It would not have been an army which looked like the US military, but it would have been more effective.   


With a unified command located in Kabul overseen by an ineffective central government, the US created Afghan military and security services which suffered from weak leadership from the start and thus were doomed to not be able to stand up once the US and NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan.  This organization of the Afghan security forces is a prime example of ignorance of Afghan culture and the failure to listen to Afghans in reconstructing their country after Taliban rule ended in 2001. 


Once US and NATO forces ended combat operations in 2014, the Obama administration decided to draw down American forces but use air power against the Taliban instead.  Bombing and drone attacks were ramped up.  They caused many civilian causalities.  The anger of Afghans in rural areas who had family members killed or wounded made then more susceptible to Taliban propaganda and recruitment. 


By this year, the Taliban controlled more than a third of the country and were contesting many other areas as well.  The claim that the Afghan military failed to fight the Taliban is an insult to the national army.  More than 70,000 members of the Afghan national army and police were killed in fighting the Taliban, 20 times the number of US soldiers.  However, the key to preventing the Taliban to seize large cities and provincial capitals was US air support. 


Once the Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban to withdraw US troops on May 1, 2021, contractors who had provided key technical support to keep Afghan helicopters and fighter aircraft in the air began to leave the country.  Once the US Air Force shut down operations at the main Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, the Afghan Army lacked critical air support in attacking large Taliban fighter formations on the ground.  With lack of backup from the air, the army and security forces decided that they had no other option than to put down their weapons and surrender.  Sadly, some national army troops who surrendered were summarily executed by the Taliban.

Pervasive corruption 

If the structure of governance and the military the US tried to build after 2001 failed in its objectives, an even more pernicious failure was the massive corruption which entangled the American enterprise in Afghanistan.  Billions of dollars in US aid was squandered, with much of it falling into the hands of the Taliban.  To deliver goods to military bases throughout the country, the US military had to pay bribes to warlords and the Taliban along the delivery routes.  Failure to do so led to attacks. 


Already by 2006, the military consensus was that the US had lost the war in Afghanistan.  Afghan recruits, many of whom were very young – 15-16 years of age - were not conditioned for military service.  Many maintained ties to Taliban in the provinces from which they came. While the US did train an elite special forces division, the conscript army was undisciplined, with many soldiers reporting for duty and then leaving their posts and returning home to work or visit family. 


As the military situation deteriorated, US military and government officials continued to paint a rosy picture of developments in Afghanistan.  Reports documenting development of the national education system, the expansion of education and employment opportunities for Afghan women, and the spread of civil society organizations were touted as “progress.” 


The problem with these reports, many emanating from USAID, was that they either embellished positive development in the country or were outright lies.  As the war progressed, the US military began to pressure USAID and other government agencies to produce statistics which demonstrated benefits of the American mission in Afghanistan.  Thus, the supposed economic and social development occurring in Afghanistan was an illusion, fostered by the military and various administrations to sustain American support for the war. 

Much has been made of the US effort to expand educational opportunities in Afghanistan especially for women and girls who were denied access to it under the first Taliban regime. In urban areas, many women became entrepreneurs.  Before the Taliban takeover, the Afghan Women's Chamber of Commerce had 57,000 members.  While there was considerable progress in building civil society in Kabul and other large cities, rural areas were a different story all together.

One of Afghanistan's non-functioning schools
For example, USAID boasted about considerable progress in the education sector.  However, it depended for its assessment on the Afghan Ministry of Education.  In 2011, a study of the ministry's data found over 1100 "ghost schools" which either didn't exist or weren;t functioning.  This accounted 1 in 12 of all Afghan schools.  When efforts were made to establish schools in rural areas, such as that by an American marine who raised $250,000 to build one for the children near his military base, corruption interceded to prevent the project from moving forward.
Ghost Students, Ghost Teachers, Ghost Schools

Meanwhile, the Taliban kept expanding control of rural areas until over a third of the country was in their hands, with much additional area contested.  The continued calm in large cities and provincial capitals provided a false sense of security because the areas surrounding urban areas were in many instances dominated by the Taliban who taxed supplies entering them.  


The end 

Former Trump National Security Advisor, Gen. H.R. McMaster, a highly respected veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, called the deal the Trump administration signed with the Taliban to withdraw US forces a “travesty.” As he noted, Our secretary of state signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban,” 

Trump's Deal with the Taliban Draws Fire From his Allies 

The Trump administration dealt directly with the Taliban, cutting the Ashraf Ghani's national government out of the negotiations. This Trump administration negotiating process told Afghans, including the security forces, that the Taliban were the main political actors and would rule the country in the future.  The US also agreed to force the Afghan government, against its will, to release 5000 Taliban prisoners, many of whom participated in the assaults on provincial capitals during this month.

McMaster says Trump's Taliban Deal is Munich-like Appeasement 


Meanwhile, Trump advisor, Stephen Miller, one of the architects of the administration’s “Muslim ban,” worked to slow the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) process to a crawl.  Many Afghans, who were caught in the rush to leave the country after the Taliban seized Kabul on August 15th, could have already had the opportunity to travel to the US if the Trump administration hadn’t placed excessive bureaucratic hurdles in their way.  This is not to disagree that the SIV process was always fraught with administrative backlogs and inefficiency, but that the Trump administration made the situation much worse. 

Afghanistan’s uncertain future 

While the Taliban are celebrating the withdrawal of the final US troops, Afghanistan faces a future fraught with serious challenges for the new rulers.  An extensive drought threatens crops and food production and is increasing poverty throughout the country.  The central bank lacks financial reserves and the country’s currency has lost most of its value.  Inflation is rampant.  The Taliban lack the professional cadres to administer government ministries and provide social services. 


The Taliban has never been a unified political movement.  It suffers from a variety of cleavages. The political wing, led by Abdul Ghani Baradar, wants to put a more “moderate” face on the Taliban.  The Taliban’s political leadership realizes the precarious economic situation facing the country which, before the Taliban victory, depended on 75% of its budget derived from foreign aid.  In 1996, only 3 countries recognized the Taliban – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan – but few seem ready to offer recognition, and hence legitimacy, to the new regime today. 


The military wing, which has already carried out atrocities, including executions, torture and sex slavery, by forcing young women to “marry” Taliban fighters, wants to impose a more repressive form of rule on Afghanistan.  Some segments of the military wing control parts of the country where opium is grown, despite the drought, and thus have access to massive amounts of funds from the country’s illicit drug trade.  Afghanistan drug production, the source of 80% of the world’s opium and heroin, is almost completely controlled by the Taliban. 

Profits and poppy: Afghanistan's illegal drug trade a boon for Taliban


Another cleavage pits various tribal groupings within the Taliban against one another, as well as divisions between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.  In the latter case, Pakistan’s Haqqani network represents a powerful and radical wing of the movement.  Indeed, the Haqqani network, located in Pakistan, was designated a Foreign Terorrist Organization by the US in 2012.

Threatened by ISIS, The Afghan Taliban May Crack Up


Other ethnic groups, such as the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazzara Shica minority, don’t trust the Taliban to represent their political, social and economic interests.  Already, an uprising led by Uzbek and Tajik Afghans has begun in the rugged terrain of the northern Panjshir region, the last province not under Taliban control. Panjshir is the birth-place of Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan’s national hero, who was assassinated two days before 9/11 by the Haqqani terrorist network. Massoud fought against the Soviets and Taliban in the 1980s and 1990s.  Now his son, Ahmad Massoud, who has revitalized his father’s Northern Alliance, is leading the anti-Taliban insurgency. 

Afghan Dispatches: a Revolt against the Taliban?

US-Taliban relations moving forward

The Biden administration was unable to evacuate all Afghans who worked with the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, nor the many members of NGOs and civil society organizations who face threats from Taliban rule.  Laser focus must be placed on assisting those Afghans at risk to leave the country.  Because the US has frozen $9.4 billion of Afghan assets, this aid must be used to force the Taliban leadership to live up to  its promise to allow anyone who seeks to leave safe passage to do so.  

Given the dire economic and climate induced problems facing Afghanistan, it is doubtful that it will become any more of a base for terrorist groups than it was before the Taliban takeover.  Indeed, the Taliban face a threat from the ISIS-Khorisan Province terrorist organization which attacked Kabul Airport on August 26th, killing 13 US soldiers and 200 Afghan civilians. 

In Afghanistan's new reality, China and Russia now have concerns they both need to face.  Increasing instability in Afghanistan under Taliban rule will pose new threats not only for the country itself, but the wider Central Asia region.  US withdrawal from Afghanistan is not a zero-sum game with the US the sole loser and its major adversaries, China and Russia, the winners.

After Withdrawal: How China, Turkey, and Russia Will Respond to the Taliban