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




A successful gamble for the European Humanitarian Airlift

The partners of the European Humanitarian Airlift Bridge look back on their experience with the graphics below and the following article.

RLH-HAB (Réseau Logistique Humanitaire – Humanitarian Air Bridge)

When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the Covid-19 virus triggered the greatest concern of international humanitarian organizations. The measures taken at the global level to contain the spread of the virus, including border closures and the halt of airline operations, were going to have major consequences on ongoing humanitarian operations, and potentially create new crises (due to the restricted mobility of humanitarian personnel and the impossibility of supplying operations).

Faced with this situation, and while waiting for the World Food Programme (WFP) to set up a larger air bridge, NGOs got organised.

In April, the Informal Network of Operations Directors (INOD) began to identify the immediate needs for staff movements and the Humanitarian Logistics Network (HLN/RLH)[1] focused on the flow of supplies to ongoing humanitarian operations. These two groups rapidly coordinated with each other and with their members to jointly seek transport solutions. The Crisis and Support Centre of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with whom INOD and HLN have been coordinating since the beginning of the crisis, established the link with the European Commission and its Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO). On 20 April 2020, the European Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, announces the implementation of a humanitarian air bridge, financed by the European Union.

The objective of the operation is as follows: the coordination of the European Humanitarian Air Bridge (HAB) enables a rapid response to the transport needs of passengers and equipment of European humanitarian actors, on a complementary basis with existing transport offers, during the Covid-19 crisis, in conjunction with the Member States and the European Commission. In concrete terms, it involves collecting and consolidating the passenger and equipment transport needs of European humanitarian organisations, identifying routes not covered, listing transport capacities, planning flights and ensuring overall coordination (Partners – ECHO – Member States – Broker – Airlines – Handlers).

The first flight took place on 8 May 2020, from Lyon to Bangui. It carried 73 passengers and more than 8 tons of material, supporting 23 organisations. Following this flight, the need to structure the coordination of the flights appears in a blatant manner. To meet this unprecedented challenge, a team of 10 people seconded from 5 NGOs (Solidarités International, Action Contre la Faim, the French Red Cross, HI-Atlas Logistique and the Norwegian Refugee Council) was set up.

Five months later, 42 flights to 12 different countries were coordinated by the RLH inter-NGO coordination cell. These flights carried 1,208 passengers and more than 780 tons of equipment, benefiting more than a hundred organisations.

Throughout the operation, the coordination team was particularly vigilant in serving and supporting each of these 108 organisations, especially the smaller ones.

A satisfaction survey carried out among the organisations benefiting from the flights demonstrated the relevance of such an operation, and its success, since 100% of the partners stated that they would reuse this mechanism. One partner applauds “a concrete application of the mutualised approach working for the benefit of the NGO community”, another stresses that “flights are requested according to needs, there is a focus on real emergencies in the field by the NGOs” and a last one welcomes the “creation of a collective”. There has been “a real understanding of the exceptional nature of these flights”, says one interviewee, and many partners are satisfied with the added value of some of the EU HAB operations, complementing the offer proposed by the WFP.

With the resumption of commercial air traffic at the end of the summer, the coordination cell is being readapted to the needs: the team is being reduced but a watch capacity is being maintained, as well as an operational capacity to be able to react quickly if required for punctual flights, and this until the end of 2020, thanks in particular to the support of the CDCS. Maintaining the cell has made it possible to organise three flights in response to the explosion in Beirut in August, as well as two flights to Yerevan in response to the Armenian crisis more recently.

The success of this operation demonstrated the ability of NGOs to organise themselves and show synergy in the face of the Covid-19 crisis. And, more broadly, that collaboration between NGOs is the best lever for a reactive response adapted to humanitarian issues.

What RLH has been supporting since its creation in 2014, namely that collaboration between humanitarian logistics actors and the pooling of resources makes it possible to improve operational efficiency and achieve objectives which are beyond reach on their own, is best illustrated by the creation of this humanitarian airlift, highlighting that cooperation between NGOs is more necessary than ever for humanitarian action.


[1] The Humanitarian Logistics Network was created in 2014 and has now 9 members: ACTED, Action Contre la Faim France, Croix-Rouge Française, Humanité & Inclusion, Médecins du Monde, Oxfam Intermón, Plan International, Première Urgence Internationale, Solidarités International.

The infographics in PDF foramt – EUHAB reporting – SOL

The photo album of the humanitarian airlift is here!

The press review on the humanitarian airlift:

On Défis Humanitaires:

A humanitarian airlift to fight Coronavirus.

Interview of Marie Houel, inter-NGO coordinator for the humanitarian airlift.

Covid-19: the planes of the riposte.