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




Interview with Jean-Pierre Delomier

For the Humanitarian Commission of Coordination Sud

National Humanitarian Conference, December 2020

Jean-Pierre Delomier is the leader of Coordination Sud’s humanitarian commission. He has more than 30 years of humanitarian experience throughout the world. He is the Deputy Director of Operations for Handicap International/Humanity and Inclusion. He answers our questions here.

Alain Boinet for Défis Humanitaires – Within Coordination Sud, there are various commissions including the humanitarian commission which you lead. Can you tell us what it is, who is a member and how it works?

Jean-Pierre Delomier – The Humanitarian Commission, known as ComHuma, brings together most of the French NGOs that are members of Coordination SUD and carry out activities related to crisis contexts (ACF, Care France, Groupe URD, Medair, MDM, Secours Islamique France, ACTED, Alima, Institut Bioforce, La Chaîne de l’Espoir, Première Urgence Internationale, Solidarités International, Triangle Génération Humanitaire, France Volontaires, Handicap International, OXFAM, Secours Catholique-Caritas France, Secours Populaire) as well as three organisations with guest status (Crisis Action, French Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières).

The link with the Board of Coordination Sud is ensured by Thierry Mauricet (PUI and CHD). ComHuma meets on average every six weeks in plenary session; exchanges between its members are also very frequent, whether in the context of ongoing projects or in the multiple consultation and coordination forums (Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs/Crisis and Support Centre – CDCS -, Humanitarian Dialogue Group, VOICE, ECHO, Humanitarian and Development Coordination, National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergency Fund, Emergency and Post-Crisis Reflection Group, etc.) The Commission can therefore be represented collectively at conferences and external events.

The Humanitarian Commission has at least three main objectives. The first is to develop collective positions on French, European and international aid policies and institutional reforms, through the exchange of information – from the field and from headquarters – enabling NGOs to become involved in humanitarian issues. The second is to develop collective reflection on fundamental issues concerning humanitarian aid. The third is to provide a forum for exchange with national and regional NGO platforms in the North and South on the subject of humanitarian aid. For example, since this year we have been trying to coordinate more and better with our international peers such as VENRO in Germany. All of these objectives contribute to the Commission initiating actions to influence public decision-makers on issues and debates that interest French NGOs. Finally, ComHuma contributes to Coordination Sud’s positions on more global issues.

Coordination Sud members in front of AFD headquarters.

In addition, the Commission pays particular attention to certain humanitarian crises, both from the point of view of the activities carried out by its member NGOs and the security issues they face. Working groups have been set up to monitor certain specific issues (CAR, Chad, Yemen, etc.) and others may be set up according to current events and needs in order to regularly initiate advocacy actions on these issues. In addition, regular monitoring of French political declarations, such as the implementation of the Humanitarian Strategy of the French Republic and France’s European or international commitments is ensured.

DH : What are the usual subjects you deal with in committee and what initiatives can you take?

J-P.D : Our Commission echoes the positions or collective actions of its members to the outside world. It is concerned with issues related to the financing of humanitarian action and is also working on the trajectory for increasing the budgetary allocations of official development assistance dedicated to humanitarian action by 2022. There are many issues which will be prioritised in 2020 and 2021.

Firstly, there is International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and access. In the context of the current evolution of armed conflicts, the issues of respect for humanitarian principles, IHL and the fight against impunity are at the heart of the concerns of our Commission, which is investing in these subjects and in particular in the commitments made by France in this area. The issue of access to vulnerable populations and the protection of humanitarian personnel is also of concern. Attacks on civilians and humanitarian workers are on the rise as never before and the members of the Commission are mobilised in the face of this situation.

Secondly, the impact of sanctions and anti-terrorist measures on humanitarian action is of great concern to us and the Humanitarian Commission has decided to address it. It is therefore the subject of specific pleas, particularly to limit the negative impact of these measures on humanitarian access. In addition, it incorporates the work done on access to banking services, on which Thierry Mauricet had the advantage of explaining to us on this website the concrete consequences of these regimes and measures on bank transfers made by our organisations.

ComHuma also considers other issues. For example, the triple nexus – the links between humanitarian, development and peace actors – requires us to work coherently in conflict zones and to ensure that there is no confusion between humanitarian assistance activities undertaken by NGOs and international military operations. Secondly, climate-related issues are taken into account, by reflecting on its impact on certain crises, and on new ways of better integrating the climate factor into the humanitarian response, including accountability.

Finally, our Commission can also participate in national, European or international initiatives according to needs, opportunities and requests and issue recommendations.

Some of the members of Coordination Sud’s Humanitarian Commission

DH: What was the role of the Humanitarian Commission in the preparation of the recent National Humanitarian Conference (NHC)?

J-P.D: The Humanitarian Commission was involved in the organisation and preparation of the National Humanitarian Conference (NHC) by working towards a common NGO position on the various issues discussed.

ComHuma members were involved in the five working groups set up in relation to the themes discussed at the NHC and which are part of our action plan developed in response to the previous question: IHL and humanitarian access, the impact of sanctions regimes and counter-terrorism measures, the triple nexus, humanitarian and climate, and pooling resources in the response to Covid-19. In this respect, the members collaborated with the CDCS on the framing of interventions and the drafting of concept notes, which were the common thread running through the discussions in the sessions. The question of the localisation of aid was transversal to the five topics selected, and a specific exchange took place on the challenges of the response to the pandemic.

In the run-up to the conference, we issued recommendations to protect and guarantee a humanitarian space for civilian populations and international solidarity actors. These served as a basis for discussions with the Presidency of the Republic and the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs.

It is worth remembering that the NHC was held when we were in the ninth month of the pandemic. During this crisis, the actors – institutions, international organisations, donors, NGOs – had to coordinate or integrate multisectoral responses in an accelerated manner, based on dynamics that had been underway in the sector for several years. Although pooling initiatives existed well before Covid-19, specific challenges required the strengthening of the use of pooled multi-actor operations. This context has therefore underlined the necessity and interest of our analyses in this field, playing a role of revealing and accelerating the avenues of work and reflection undertaken in the field of mutualisation, as the speakers have strongly emphasised.

Humanitarian airlift plane of the Humanitarian Logistics Network (HLN) supported by CDCS and ECHO

DH: What is your assessment at this stage of this Conference (NHC)?

J-P.D: First of all, we must agree on the good quality of the exchanges that took place during this conference and the alignment that prevailed between the participants on a number of subjects relating to the protection of the humanitarian space.

We noted the President’s speech in response to our requests and welcomed the positive announcements concerning the trajectory of humanitarian funding which, according to the President’s commitments, should reach 500 million euros by 2022.

The President recalled the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence that guide humanitarian action. He confirmed that France will continue to fully apply IHL, which we welcome, including the measures announced to promote it, by supporting the emergence of a special representative to the UN Secretary General and the creation of a joint technical commission in connection with the Franco-German call for action to strengthen investigations into crimes against humanitarian workers.

We also note the President’s commitment to fully apply the principle of non-discrimination of beneficiary populations in the allocation of French public aid. We now expect this essential commitment to be applied by all government departments and public donors of humanitarian action and development aid, and consequently to lift any obligation to screen the final beneficiaries of this aid.

We also note the President’s commitment to strengthening the protection of international solidarity organisations against the criminalisation of their action. Thus, the President’s request to the Minister of Justice to send a circular to the public prosecutor’s office is a step in the right direction. We will follow closely the implementation of this measure. Nevertheless, we consider that the formal integration of a humanitarian exemption in the French penal code remains a crucial demand for NGOs.

Concerning the implementation of a generalised humanitarian exemption in areas subject to a sanctions regime – a major demand of all French, European and international humanitarian organisations – we regret that the presidential response is not sufficiently ambitious in the face of the challenges of the emergency and the day-to-day realities on the ground for organisations. We will continue to be mobilised and to contribute to this issue, particularly through the future international joint commission that has been announced.

Regarding the major difficulties encountered in making bank transfers to certain destinations, which, according to Emmanuel Macron, “unduly hinder the action of organisations that have put in place robust controls and pose serious threats of prosecution to these same organisations”, we deplore the fact that no concrete measures were announced during the conference, despite a dialogue that began more than three years ago.

Concerning the measures relating to the means that France should make available to NGOs to adapt their actions to climate risks, the President confirmed that humanitarian action should include a strong environmental dimension and that France should support it. A joint working group made up of representatives of ministries and NGOs is currently being set up to define the actions to be taken to ensure that the environmental dimension and climate change are better taken into account in humanitarian aid.

Because neither the climate, nor the 237 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, nor the most fragile communities facing the crises we are experiencing can wait.

DH: Following this conference, a number of important projects are being set up with the public authorities. How do you plan to participate and coordinate with the Humanitarian Dialogue Group?

J-P.D: Indeed, the presidential commitments have led to the identification of seven distinct pillars which concern special drawing rights, the budgetary trajectory, taking account of environmental issues in humanitarian aid, the preservation of humanitarian space, banking access, strengthening respect for IHL and the fight against impunity for attacks on humanitarian workers.

These pillars will be the object of particular attention from Coordination Sud and our Commission at both national and international levels. For example, an International Humanitarian Conference bringing together States and NGO groups to discuss the challenges related to access should be held in December 2021. The Humanitarian Dialogue Group will be the hub of the conference, and the Humanitarian Commission will be one of the key players.

In addition, consultations are underway with the collectives in order to create a joint commission to enable concrete progress to be made in preserving the humanitarian space.

In terms of banking access, we only have a few months left to identify concrete operational solutions to try to provide practical answers to any difficulties that may arise in terms of financial transfers. To this end, we are promoting a high-level dialogue between the state, banks and NGOs based on their good banking practices. This dialogue could then be extended to an international level.

The principle of non-discrimination – or non-screening – in the allocation of aid according to the needs of populations at humanitarian risk prevails for actions covering humanitarian needs. It is up to us to do our utmost to ensure that it is extended to stabilisation and development actions.

The French Presidency of the EU in 2022 will be an opportunity for us to drive the agenda by participating in the designation of priority topics and preparing the related advocacy.

DH: What is the final word?

J-P.D: One word is difficult… but I would say humanitarian!

And I would add a Humanitarian Commission at the heart of Coordination Sud, made up of representatives of member NGOs, collectively invested and committed to international solidarity: patience and passion, commitment and intensity, cohesion and flexibility on the long road of our mobilisation in favour of the people we support thanks to all the projects our organisations carry out. The challenge is to ensure that ComHuma expresses its singularity while remaining part of the Coordination Sud collective.

Who is Jean-Pierre Delomier ?

“After graduating from the 3A International Institute and working for various international organisations, I was one of the three co-founders of Atlas Logistic in 1992 – an NGO specialising in the distribution of humanitarian aid, management of refugee camps, transport, logistical coordination, sanitation, rehabilitation of infrastructure, construction of housing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Mali, Mauritania, Kyrgyzstan, various parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo Brazzaville, Sudan, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Algeria, Angola, Albania, Kosovo, China, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. I was the administrative, financial and human resources director, then executive director until the merger with Handicap International in 2006. I then joined the Management Committee and took charge of the new Humanitarian Action Department, which was created to ensure that the association was able to intervene in major humanitarian crises – in particular in Sudan/South Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, the DRC, the Gaza Strip, Indonesia, Haiti, Pakistan, Kenya, Congo, Jordan, Syria, Mali, the Philippines and Nepal – and that it contributed to the organisation of relief efforts while providing humanitarian aid to vulnerable groups, including people with disabilities. I have been a director of Bioforce for 15 years, and I am the leader of the Humanitarian Commission of Coordination Sud. Since January 2019, I have been HI’s Deputy Director of Operations, specifically in charge of influencing, representing the organisation to stakeholders and leading the Atlas Logistics business unit within the organisation.”

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