The Afghanistan of the Taliban and us

Humanitarian mission in the eighties. A month’s walk to reach the north of Afghanistan. From right to left, Alain Boinet, Fahim, François and Jean-François.

History will remember August 31, 2021 as the symbol of the chaotic withdrawal of the United States and its NATO allies from Afghanistan after 20 years of a war that began with the Soviet invasion on December 27, 1979. Now that the Taliban have taken over Kabul and are likely to be there for a long time, it is time to draw some useful lessons for thinking about the new period that is beginning.

I speak here in a personal capacity as a friend of Afghanistan since a first humanitarian mission in 1980, followed by many others with Solidarités International and a constant advocacy to support the Afghan population. Let us also remember that Afghanistan played a decisive role with NGOs in the humanitarian revolution of the “duty to assist” which commemorated its 50th anniversary last year and which has since been decisive for the access of relief to populations in danger in the world.

I am well aware that in writing these lines I am leaving the humanitarian field in the strict sense. I believe that this is the moment to share my experience and my thoughts insofar as political errors, ideological errors, ignorance and conflicts generate endless tragedies. This has been the case in Afghanistan for 41 years! And then, I hear and read in the media so many approximations, errors and biases from people who have never been to Afghanistan and who basically don’t know much about it, that it leads me to speak out.

Afghans crowd at the tarmac of the Kabul airport on August 16, 2021, to flee the country as the Taliban were in control of Afghanistan. @Carlos Branson / Alamy Stock Photo

We all have in mind the images of panic at the Kabul airport, the bloody attacks of the Islamic State in Khorasan (EI-K), the chaos and fear. I have a thought for all those Afghans who have fled their country and those who have not yet been able to leave. One never goes into exile without suffering. Let us salute the commitment of all the countries, including France, who have evacuated those who have cooperated with them to protect and welcome them.

A predictable victory.

While clear-sighted observers and men and women on the ground expected a Taliban victory after the withdrawal of the Americans and their allies, no one, not even the Taliban, had foreseen such a rapid collapse of the government, the army and the police, and finally of all opponents. This is the first time in the country’s 40-year history that this has happened, and it speaks volumes about the regime that was put in place after the Bonn Agreement on December 5, 2001, following the fall of the Taliban.

The American military intervention under the mandate of the United Nations was justified after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York by Al Qaeda on September 11, 2001, and the 3,000 victims that it caused. The mistake was to believe that the Taliban were definitively defeated after their withdrawal from Kunduz and Kabul. More serious was the political error of not inviting them to participate, along with all the other Afghan factions, even though they are very divided among themselves and sometimes as radical as the Taliban, in the Bonn agreements, even though the primary objective was to put an end to the conflict and promote reconciliation.

But what is the main cause of the Taliban’s victory 20 years later? Is it not the fact that they wanted, against all odds, to impose a Western-style political model on a country that is not Western, forgetting its identity and historical characteristics, its long tradition of fierce independence and its reputation as the “graveyard of empires”?

Taliban in Kabul on August 18, 2021 @John Smith/ Shutterstock

Hubert Védrine, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced (Marianne 20 to 26.8.2021) “Afghanistan is the tomb of the right to interfere” and added “We lied to these peoples in danger”. Bernard Kouchner, another former minister, has just retorted (L’Express 26.8.2021) “No, the right to interfere is not dead”. This is the whole debate between the school of geopolitical realism and national interests, and the one mainly based on human rights. However, interference in the affairs of another country is not a novelty in international relations.

Here we must remove an ambiguity that consists simply in distinguishing between humanitarianism and politics. The humanitarianism we are talking about in this article is that of neutrality, of the impartiality of aid based without exclusivity on the urgency of vital needs and the independence of these actors. If interference will never end, it is likely that Western interventionism and “state building” will be seriously revised, if not forgotten.

To return to Afghanistan, I recently thought to myself that if we had not lived in the Afghan countryside, if we had not lived with combatants in the field as humanitarians do by necessity, if we had not slept and eaten in the mosques where we were welcomed, if we only knew the cities, the elites and the leaders, it would be difficult to deeply understand this country and the majority of its population, all ethnic groups included. Gérard Araud, former French ambassador to the United States, goes so far as to say, “The Taliban are undoubtedly closer to the mores, beliefs and practices of the majority of the country than the elites of Kabul. Did we understand that the Taliban, bearers of a rigorous conservative Islamic model strictly applying Sharia law, would then become the patriots of the struggle against the foreign presence and acquire a new legitimacy among the population?

Can democracy and liberalism be imposed by force of arms and can George W. Bush’s project of “state building” for democracy be continued in Afghanistan? Bush’s “state building” project to democratize the Greater Middle East through violence by attacking Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with the consequences we know: lies, chaos, destruction, strengthening of Shiite Iran, creation and expansion of Daech whose metastases are now found in Afghanistan, the Sahel, the Lake Chad region, Liberia and which is spreading in sub-Saharan Africa towards the Gulf of Guinea.

The President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, has just taken stock of it by applying it to Mali: “I do not believe in “state building”: it is not up to the West to go and build a state in Mali”. And he added in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche (29.8.2021) from Iraq, where he was participating in an international conference on stability and the fight against terrorism: “We have drawn the consequences in Mali before their time of what we saw in Afghanistan.

The question now is what to do with Afghanistan, its 38 million inhabitants and the Taliban, who are likely to be there for a long time. Emmanuel Macron provided a first response when France, Great Britain and Germany submitted a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council. This resolution aims to define “under UN control, a ‘security zone’ in Kabul” in order to continue the evacuation of Afghans who have worked with the French and other Western countries. This is one of the preconditions for any relationship with the Taliban,” he said. Discussions have begun with the Taliban in Doha and with Qatar in order to “set up airlift operations.

This is a prerequisite for a dialogue that could then be continued and expanded with the Taliban, as several countries are already doing. In the past and for a long time, many experts considered Afghanistan not to be an international strategic issue and therefore neglected it. And yet, in 40 years, this country has seen successive interventions by the Soviet Union, the United States and NATO. Finally, the intervention of the French Head of State on television on August 16 on Afghanistan has suddenly given this country a completely different status, not without reason. Afghanistan today confronts us with 5 unavoidable strategic issues that are as many challenges: terrorism, drugs, immigration, geopolitics and human rights.

The 5 strategic issues in Afghanistan.

Terrorism. At stake is whether Afghanistan can become a base for international terrorism. The double suicide bombing by Daech or the Islamic State in Khorasan (EI-K) on Thursday, August 26, is a real declaration of war against the Taliban. What distinguishes the Taliban from Daech and Al Qaeda is that the former is only interested in Afghanistan, whereas for the Jihadists it is only a base to spread terrorism and their ideology elsewhere in the world. The Taliban made a commitment with the Americans in Doha, and more recently with the Chinese, that Afghan territory would not be used for terrorist purposes around the world. They must therefore demonstrate this.

The pain of families after the Islamic Emirate bombing at Kabul airport @ John Smith/ Shutterstock

I would like also to recall some facts that are forgotten or overlooked. Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda had been in Afghanistan for a long time before the Taliban took power in September 1996. The Taliban were not informed and did not participate in the attack on the World Trade Center that led to their downfall. They probably learned the lessons of this as well as those of their refusal to hand over Osama Bin Laden, for reasons of honor since he had fought with the Mujahideen, described by the West as “freedom fighters” against Soviet troops, when they could have simply invited him to leave.

Drugs. Afghan production of poppies, from which opium and then heroin are derived, accounts for 84% of the opiate drugs sold in the world. In 2021, Afghan opium production was 6300 tons and would represent between 20 and 30% of the GNP, or between 4.1 and 6.6 billion dollars, against 18% for legal agriculture. In 2020, the area of land used for poppy cultivation increased by 37%, or 250,000 hectares, about four times more than in the mid-1990s!

In July 2000, a fatwa issued by Mullah Omar, founder and leader of the Taliban, led to a near eradication of poppies in 2001, from 4,600 tons in 1998 to 185 tons in May 2001, concentrated in the northeast. In a recent article entitled “How the West let Afghanistan become the country of drugs again” (Le Figaro 25.8.2021), Bernard Frahi, Honorary Controller General of the National Police and former Director of the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) regional office for Afghanistan and Pakistan (1998 – 2002), calls for “renewed dialogue” and “taking the Taliban at their word by challenging them to impose a total ban on opium cultivation”.

Migration. Many fear a vast migration movement comparable to the Syrian refugees who left Turkey for Europe in 2015. There have long been nearly 2.5 million Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan, mostly from the war with the Soviet Union. This year, many have returned from Iran. In addition to the 123,000 Afghans evacuated from Kabul airport since August 14, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said it fears that 500,000 Afghans will leave this year in a “worst-case scenario,” but that “no exodus has been recorded” so far.

According to a recent UNOCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) report card in Kabul, 558,123 people have been displaced by the fighting since the beginning of the year. It is also true that Afghanistan today represents a land of continuous emigration because of the fighting, endemic poverty and high demography. The Afghan border crossings are currently closed, with the exception of Spin Boldak in the southwest, where cross-border movements are common. Thus, no significant exodus is seen at this stage, but care must be taken to avoid the possible consequences of rapid impoverishment, weakening of the humanitarian effort, and isolation of the country.

Assistant Foreign Minister Wu Jianghao with the delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar @Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Wang Yi meets with the Head of the Political Commission of the Taliban of Afghanistan Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar @Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

International relations. The entire geopolitical balance has been destabilized by the Western withdrawal, the collapse of the regime of President Asraf Ghani and the victory of the Taliban. The Chinese did not wait for the Americans to leave before officially receiving a delegation led by the Taliban’s number 2, Mullah Baradar. Turkey, through its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced its intention to cooperate. Iran, for its part, seems willing to do so, and Russia will be pragmatic if it receives assurances regarding security and terrorism. Let’s not talk about Pakistan, which has always supported the Taliban, or Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which recognized them in 1996. The question for the United States and the EU countries is whether they will give these countries a free hand in the future and what an alternative policy could be!

Human rights. This will be the major stumbling block between the Western countries and the new Taliban regime. What about elections, parliament, media, education, culture, the role of women in society? When the Taliban came to power in Kabul between 1996 and 2001, they left behind the memory of a regime that severely enforced Sharia law (stoning, public execution, amputation, harassment and physical punishment) and prevented young girls from accessing higher education and working. Recently, the Taliban, through their spokesperson, officially stated that they needed competent women, especially in education and health, and that they could work according to Islamic rules. They also asked the civil servants to stay at their posts. Isn’t this an opportunity to take them at their word and set red lines?

The test of humanitarian relief.

The first test for both the Taliban and Western countries will be humanitarian aid. Will the Taliban prevent or coerce it after their victory, and will the West stop funding it after they leave?

Najmuddin Hilal at the ICRC orthopedic center in Kabul @ICRC

Today, one in three Afghans do not have enough to eat, and 14 million people are at risk of starvation, if not possible famine, according to the United Nations. UNICEF warns that one million children are at risk of severe malnutrition. And since the beginning of the year, the fighting has caused 550,000 displaced people to require ongoing assistance. The World Health Organization (WHO) is concerned that 500 tons of medicines and medical supplies stored in Dubai have not been delivered.

The United Nations humanitarian agencies, through the voice of Martin Griffiths, the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) and humanitarian NGOs have committed themselves to remain in Afghanistan in accordance with their mission. But there is no shortage of obstacles. Will the Taliban keep their commitment when they ask the humanitarians to stay and continue their aid? This is only possible if the principles of neutrality, impartiality, independence and the practice of complete control of the aid cycle are respected: assess, implement, verify and report.

An NGO manager, active in the field since 1987, mentions several immediate difficulties. Whether it is access to banks, which are closed while the need for cash is daily, especially to pay Afghan employees, the current blockage of airports, the need for supplies of medicines, or the issue of customs clearance with the Taliban who are not very familiar with these issues.

For his part, Olivier Routeau, Director of Operations for Première Urgence Internationale (PUI), said that he had already moved on to the question of the aftermath: how do we continue to act with the Taliban in power? It turns out that this was already the case in territories already controlled by the Taliban. In the eastern province of Nangarhar, the Provincial Health Commettee is now headed by a Taleb official who facilitates working meetings. But there is still no authority and no rules established at the central level. Olivier Routeau is also concerned about the famous anti-terrorist laws (COTER) that could criminalize humanitarians. As is often the case, humanitarians must adapt to act, but all share the conviction to “stay and deliver”. For example, MSF has a hundred expatriates on the ground, and in general, Afghans working in these humanitarian health organizations in particular, are not very concerned by departures and evacuations. It is more difficult for development projects, particularly in the field of education.

Since the beginning of humanitarian aid in 1980, it has never been interrupted despite successive military and political breakdowns. It has constantly adapted to its principles and practices, and to the relationships established with Afghans for over 40 years. So much so that the United Nations (UNOCHA) has defined a framework for relations with the Taliban in a document entitled “Engagement strategy with Taliban in Afghanistan”.

Even today, humanitarians cannot leave Afghanistan and its 38 million inhabitants. Thus, UNICEF and WHO call for “the immediate establishment of a reliable and robust humanitarian airlift to send supplies” and I would also add qualified personnel to reinforce the teams on the ground.

A tentative conclusion.

How to conclude in a context of constant evolution and change? What will be the composition of a future Afghan government? Will the evacuation of Afghans be allowed to continue, and what will be the attitude of Western countries and other actors?

Basically, there are two main choices. Either seek to isolate the Taliban, or even punish them, or engage in a dialogue justified by the five strategic challenges of terrorism, drugs, mass migration, geopolitics and human rights.

Isolating and punishing the Taliban would certainly radicalize them and drive them into the arms of countries with little regard for human rights, or even Al-Qaeda and Daech, who would be strengthened in their position and influence.

The former deputy representative of NATO in Afghanistan, Mark Jacobson, a veteran of the American army, has just declared in an interview with the newspaper Libération (30.8.2021): “We have to resign ourselves to some kind of agreement with the Taliban”. No, we must not resign ourselves but understand that, without any angelism, the best way to make the Taliban listen to us on human rights and future evacuations is to dialogue with them on the resolution of the major challenges that the current Afghan reality imposes on everyone.

Isn’t the role of diplomacy also to talk with one’s enemies? And dialogue does not mean bowing down, on the contrary! Finally, in spite of the Taliban’s rough rigorism, we also know the pragmatism of the Afghans and the end of this 20-year war can ease their minds.

The first tests will concern the continuation of the evacuation of Afghans, humanitarian aid and the composition of their government.

And then, Afghanistan is 38 million human beings, nearly half of whom are under 15 years old. In 30 years, there will be 65 million of them in a country that has a structural deficit of cereals to feed its population. Finally, climate change threatens the Himalayan range of the Hindu Kush, a real water reservoir for this country which may one day run out of water for its agriculture.

Is this the end of the war in Afghanistan? Is this the beginning of a path to peace? That’s what’s at stake.

Alain Boinet.