Afghanistan: a predictable defeat

American soldiers going on an operation in a Chinook helicopter.

Interview with Gilles Dorronsoro, author of “The Transnational Government of Afghanistan – Editions Kartala”.

Alain Boinet for Humanitarian Challenges – What is the exact meaning of the title of your latest book “The Transnational Government of Afghanistan”?

Gilles Dorronsoro – The central hypothesis of the book is that under the guise of state-building, foreign operators (IOs, NGOs, NATO, etc.) have in fact governed Afghanistan for 15 years (until the 2014 withdrawal). This transnational government has in fact simultaneously built and deconstructed Afghan institutions, financing the army or development projects, but organising a systematic bypass of the institutions (PRT, militias in particular).

DH – You say that your book was born of an ethical reaction, what do you mean by that?

GD – In the winter of 2001-2002, in a text for the journal Cultures et Conflits, I drew attention to the risks that Western countries were taking in Afghanistan by reinstalling political figures from the 1990s, who had been widely discredited because of their corruption and the violence perpetrated against civilians. Later, I worked at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (a Washington think tank) during Obama’s first term, when the surge (a massive infusion of military and civilian resources into the conflict) was being decided. Here again I have tried unsuccessfully to draw attention to the likely consequences of US policy. The blindness of the vast majority of experts, military and politicians to the consequences of the policies pursued created in me an “ethical reaction” or perhaps more simply a form of anger at the human and social cost of these mistakes.

DH – Your book came out after the Doha agreements of February 2020, between the United States and the Taleban, and before the date of evacuation of foreign troops fixed for 1 May 2021, is it already an assessment?

GD – The war is lost, which does not mean that the Taliban have won, but it is time to take stock of this intervention. The negotiations have so far focused on the modalities of the American disengagement. This is now irreversible, which leads me to believe that the time has come to take a critical look at the American moment in the Afghan war.

DH – The subtitle of the book is: “Such a predictable defeat”. Among the causes that can explain it, what seems to you to be the main cause of this defeat?

GD – There are several major inflections in American policy and each time other decisions could have changed the course of things. It seems to me that one of the most decisive obstacles was the obstinacy in thinking of Afghanistan as a “traditional”, “tribal” country, allergic to the state, whereas the demand for a state is apparent from all the surveys. Westerners have missed the evidence of the social and political revolution that has been tearing the country apart for 40 years now. The Taliban have responded in their own way to the demand for statehood by mimicking (or caricaturing) the state, the Western forces have multiplied false moves, starting with the ultra-violent practices of the special forces and the under-investment in justice issues.

DH – Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, wrote a strongly worded letter to the Afghan leader, Ashraf Ghani, on the 4th March. An international conference of key countries is being organised under the aegis of the UN, as if peace was being sought outside the country that could not be found inside. There is talk of an interim government between the Taleban and the Afghan government. There is talk of a 90-day ceasefire allowing the evacuation of foreign troops, but there is fear of a new Taleban spring offensive. After so many failures, what do you think is the most likely outcome?

GD – The US is seeking to install an interim government and therefore a ceasefire so that it can withdraw without major humiliation. Ashraf Ghani will most likely be sidelined in such a process, which explains his lack of enthusiasm, especially since he was not in the least associated with the negotiations between the Americans and the Taliban (which were concluded with an agreement in February 2020). Ashraf Ghani, who owes his position to American mediation and not to the verdict of the ballot box, is in a weak position with regard to American diplomacy, so I think it is likely that he will eventually give in. The Taliban, if they get a firm guarantee from the United States for a withdrawal before the end of the year, have an interest in playing the game insofar as they will be able to avoid a war of the cities which would be ruinous.

The Afghan president Ashraf Ghani

DH – After the withdrawal of foreign troops (US and NATO) from Afghanistan, what are the most likely political hypotheses and could we see an acceleration of events?

GD – If we assume that a new government will be formed before the American withdrawal and that it will include the Taliban, the most likely scenario is that the transition will fail for two reasons. On the one hand, the Taliban, after twenty years of war against the United States, cannot accept the risk of being disowned by the ballot box. However, they are clearly a minority in the country, so the most likely outcome is that they will refuse to go to the elections under various pretexts, which could lead to new arrangements or fighting. On the other hand, the idea of a merger or integration between the Taliban forces and those of the regime seems to me to be almost impossible (unless the Taliban form the backbone of the new army, which is prohibitive for the regime’s supporters, especially the Panjshiris).

DH – In the hypothesis of a return of the Taleban to Kabul, they will be confronted with new realities that have appeared in the last 20 years: elections, media, university, status of women, development policy, not to mention the opium culture and how to deal with the opposing forces.

GD – On some issues, drugs, development, compromise is possible. As far as opium is concerned, the Taliban have proved that they know how to do it. For development, they could continue their current practice: political control (and collection), but assurance of security for the NGOs that have agreements with them. On other issues, conflicts are inevitable. For example, elections (other than symbolic ones) seem to me to pose an insurmountable problem, even if the Taliban have renounced the theocratic organisation they had set up in 1996. This directly raises the question of the possibility of independent media, of an opposition and above all of an alternation of power, I am pessimistic on this point because the whole political culture of the Taliban is opposed to it. Similarly, on questions of gender or education, and therefore implicitly the status of the Afghan bourgeoisie, tensions will probably be high (we can fear a major exodus of executives who have worked for international operators).

DH – Is a new generalised civil war a risk to be envisaged?

GD – We are already in a generalised civil war and the Islamic State in its local version will never rally to a political solution. So, for sure, this actor will continue to practice violence (anti-Shiite attacks, targeted assassinations, attacks against institutions). As for the other actors, the Taliban and the maintenance of a resistance in the North can envisage a pessimistic scenario in which the departure of the United States precipitates a major offensive. The duration of the confrontation will then depend, as is often the case in Afghanistan, on the support that the parties obtain. If the Taliban can count on Pakistani support, things are less clear for the groups in the North who could constitute a pole of resistance. The Russians seem to prefer the Taliban option for the moment and Indian support is not a given. The attitude of Western countries, starting with the United States, will probably depend on the Taliban’s attitude towards al-Qaeda.

Talks in Moscow in March 2021 between the Kabul government and the Taliban in the presence of the most concerned countries.

DH – To take a step back, after twenty years of war and faced with political and military failure, could the Taleban not have been involved from the start at the time of the Bonn agreements in 2001-2002 ?

GD – An amnesty and a form of reintegration of the Taliban could have been pronounced after their military defeat, the leadership of the movement seems to have been ready to return to Afghanistan in exchange for some guarantees. Another option was to take a hard line, but this would require decisive pressure on Pakistan, which was probably possible in 2002. But the policy followed was an in-between: neither amnesty nor pressure on Pakistan. The Afghan commanders opposed an amnesty and the American military never understood the Pakistani game.

DH – This website, Humanitarian Challenges, is particularly aimed at humanitarians. What lessons do you draw from your experience in the 1980s and since 2001 and what advice would you give them for the future?

GD – Afghanistan is one of the best places to observe the transformation of the humanitarian sector since the 1980s. To limit myself to one aspect, it seems to me that although humanitarian aid was sometimes amateurish in the 1980s, it was based on an extremely strong commitment and a desire to be with the population. The turning point in the 1990s, but especially in 2000, which is not specific to Afghanistan, is the creation of humanitarian bubbles where expatriates live among themselves with a shocking lack of contact with the population (apart from a few mediators). Moreover, NGOs have become, with a few exceptions, the operators of the large international or national institutions and have lost the role of itching powder that was once theirs, which is probably a pity.

DH – What is your final word?

GD – Perhaps we can underline the evolution of the perception and the commitment of the United States. We remember that a decade ago, during Obama’s first term, NATO forces numbered more than 150,000 men in a fight that was presented as existential for the Western countries. The duration of this war since 2001 makes it one of the most expensive for the US: two to three trillion dollars and thousands of deaths. These facts are neither new nor disputable, but the extraordinary silence surrounding the defeat in Afghanistan raises questions. If we look back at the post-2001 speeches justifying this war, two themes stand out – the fight against the jihadists and the dominant position of the United States on the international scene. On both counts, the US position has clearly deteriorated. In particular, the situation left by Western countries is unquestionably worse than the one they found twenty years ago. Al Qaeda, the main reason given for the invasion, is still, and increasingly, present in Afghanistan. Hundreds, if not thousands, of the movement’s fighters are based in the areas held by the insurgency. If the Taliban have indeed committed (at least since 2012) not to make Afghanistan a place for preparing anti-Western attacks, Al Qaeda fighters now have an impregnable sanctuary.


For more information, see Le Gouvernement Transnational de l’Afghanistan. Une si prévisible défaite, published in French.






Who is Gilles Dorronsoro ?

Gilles Dorronsoro is Professor of Political Science at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, PI of the ERC Social Dynamics of Civil Wars, and author of “Le gouvernement transnational de l’Afghanistan, Karthala, 2021