The Middle East on fire

Interview with Antoine Basbous, Director of the Arab Countries Observatory.

Antoine Basbous has been the director of the Arab Countries Observatory for nearly thirty years. On his website, there is a map delimiting his field of investigation, which goes from Kabul to Casablanca, with the Maghreb, the Middle East and the Gulf countries at the centre. Our interview focuses on the epicentre of the crisis, its humanitarian consequences and the geopolitical developments which, according to him, are reconfiguring the entire Middle East today.

Soldiers walk through ruins in Yarmouk, Syria. COMAR SNADIKI/REUTERS

Alain Boinet. Syria has just passed the 10-year mark of war with dramatic consequences for its population, which out of 22 million inhabitants now has more than 13 million people in need of humanitarian aid and over 5.6 million refugees. Let’s go back to the beginning of the conflict to understand: how could Western leaders have been so wrong in betting on the collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s regime? How could countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar support a rebellion, at first moderate, which then turned into Islamist jihadist groups like Al Quaida and Daech?

Antoine Basbous. This question is vast. To tell the truth, the unpopularity of Bashar’s regime was already the result in 2011 of 41 years of absolute power (30 years for his father, 11 for him) of a dynasty that has given only tears, blood and repression to this country. Many analysts had thought that the fruit was ripe, as Ben Ali had fallen in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, and a little later Gaddafi in Libya and Saleh in Yemen – and therefore that Assad could also fall. But they ignored, or at least did not take sufficiently into account, three factors:

  • The first was that Assad Sr. had built a regime with some 15 intelligence services, which monitored the breathing of the population. Having come to power through a coup d’état, Hafez did not want to be a victim in his turn! The security structure of the regime meant that, despite its unpopularity, it had a very powerful security net.
  • The second phenomenon is that no one took sufficiently into account the degree of Iranian involvement. The Islamic Republic considers the Alawite regime in Damascus as a branch of Shi’ism and above all as an ally that will allow the creation of this “Shi’ite crescent” from the Caspian to the Mediterranean and that is an essential step to consolidate Hezbollah’s hold over Lebanon. Iran’s involvement was total: penniless, under sanctions, able to export little, it nevertheless devoted billions to this theatre, put the soldier Assad on a drip and sent Hezbollah to save him.
  • Despite all this involvement, despite the support of the Shiite internationalist brigades hired by Iran, the regime nevertheless nearly collapsed in 2015. Assad’s hometown, Qardaha, was receiving short-range missiles, so the enemy was less than 20 km away from the last stronghold! This is when the third phenomenon came into play: Russian support. The commander of the Iranian expansionist forces, General Qassem Soleimani, went to Moscow, met Vladimir Putin and told him: “this will not be your new Afghanistan, we will be the foot soldiers who control the terrain but we cannot act without the air force”. From then on, at the end of August 2015, Putin sent his air force and entered the war in the most direct way possible, after having provided Assad, throughout the crisis, with arms, ammunition and experts.

These are the three secrets of the maintenance of this regime, which today remains under the perfusion of its two sponsors, even if they no longer get along and are rivals. Indeed, Russia does not want the Alawite regime in Syria to put itself totally at the service of Tehran; Putin moreover turns a blind eye to the daily Israeli bombings against Iranian bases and those of its satellites. Israel moves freely in Syria’s airspace. In 2020, it carried out nearly 500 strikes while Russia maintains S-300 and S-400 missile batteries there, but has never threatened or shot down an Israeli plane. Moscow thus lets Israel act against its rival ally, Iran and the Shiite militias, but does not want the Assad regime to collapse.

Tehran, for its part, has invested in the Syrian social fabric: many people have been converted to duodecimal Shiism, Shiite schools have been created, and “colonies” have been built (on strategically well placed and rehabilitated sites, the Iranians install their men, like platforms). For example, there is the Shiite shrine of Saida Zeinab in south-east Damascus, which has now become a colossal military base as well as a base for the Shiite International. In 2016, Assad endorsed this state of affairs by declaring that “Syria [belonged] to the fighters who defended it”, which was intended both to delegitimise the Sunnis who had fled the country and to legitimise the foreign Shiite fighters “imported” by Iran…

Finally, we must not forget that when the population took to the streets, without any communitarian, Islamist or sectarian slogan, Assad released all the jihadists who were in his prisons and supplied them with arms and ammunition. His Iranian allies supported him by freeing 1500 jihadists from Iraqi prisons in August 2012 and letting them cross 800 km of desert to join their “brothers” in Syria. This manoeuvre profoundly transformed the protest by militarising and Islamising it. Assad was thus able to present himself to the West by saying: “Look, do you prefer a President with a blond woman who wears a three-piece suit, or these bearded men? “. Civil society found itself marginalised – indeed, Obama said at the time, “Who are these people on the street? They are teachers, university professors, doctors, pharmacists, workers, farmers… Will they know how to run the political affairs of the country? “The only choice that seemed to remain was between the bearded men and the dictator.

DH. In Syria today, the situation seems to be blocked militarily in the north-west and north-east and there is no political solution for the moment. Turkey has taken control of Syrian territories with the support of its Islamist allies and Daech is reorganising. What is the next step: a lasting status quo, a precondition for new fighting or a political solution?

AB. I believe that this country is frozen and divided between several occupants. There are obviously the Russians, the Iranians, and the whole Shiite jihadist international that they have brought with them. There are the Turks, there are the Americans east of the Euphrates who support the Kurds to some extent and protect their hydrocarbon deposits; and the last force present is Israel, which occupies the air space.

The Turkish army near the Syrian border. ©Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

Assad, despite his seat at the United Nations, is reduced to a “little baron of nothing”. He has lost the war, cannot promise anything, and runs a country under sanctions in which bread, petrol, medicines, foreign currency are rarely to be found… a country that is totally disastrous, especially after the entry into force of the “Caesar law” in the United States (June 2020), because nobody dares to trade with it. As for the oil and agricultural resources, they are mainly to be found among the Kurds to the east of the Euphrates…

DH. Lebanon found itself on the humanitarian front line by hosting more than 1,200,000 Syrian refugees for a Lebanese population of 6.6 million. Today Lebanon is itself facing a serious political crisis and a paralysis of the banking system that is plunging more and more Lebanese into extreme poverty, vulnerability and anger. While the explosion in the port of Beirut mobilised a great deal of solidarity, the International Conference in Support of Beirut and the Lebanese People is finding it very difficult to give concrete aid due to the blockages of the Lebanese political class. Doesn’t this crisis risk degenerating in the absence of any solution that is equal to the risks?

AB. This country is really going through hell: the first reason is that there is a mafia-like political class that has governed it for so many years and that has impoverished it to enrich itself. The “DNA”, the “software” of this country is totally out of order, it has no immunity anymore, today it is a country colonised by a pro-Iranian militia that controls everything. In the window, there is a Christian President of the Republic, but this President is at the orders of this militia and he anticipates its desires, its needs and its intentions. Finally, there is no more government, it is a total blockage. The country is collapsing, Hezbollah controls not only the air, sea and land borders of the country, but also the administration, the government, the finances… Nothing disturbs its control and we are witnessing a strategy of killing Lebanon in its current formula, so that it can be reborn one day at the hand of Hezbollah as an Iranian colony.

In reality, there is no longer any hope: this country, which in 2020 will celebrate its first centenary within its current borders, is in agony. Never have the Lebanese experienced such a dramatic situation. Today, even if you have millions of dollars in your bank account, you can’t access them. The country is officially bankrupt since March 2020. People are going to run out of electricity because Lebanon has no foreign currency to buy fuel. And when you don’t have electricity, you don’t have a fridge, you don’t have a phone, you don’t have lighting… It’s difficult to describe this country because it’s so bad, it’s a fall into hell without a parachute. All the elites who could have left have done so or are doing so, it is a humanitarian disaster at the gates of Europe.

Explosion at Beirut port, August 2020 ©Mohamed Azaki/REUTERS

DH. As in Syria, the situation is dramatic for the Lebanese population and this implies that massive and direct humanitarian aid must be mobilised. Following the major demonstrations in 2019 and in the absence of any perspective, is there not a risk that the situation will degenerate and become chaotic?

AB. On 17 October 2019, there was a cross-community movement, a national movement with the slogan “everyone, that means everyone, must leave”. This meant that the entire political class had to be swept away, whatever their reference, religion or community. But this movement was torpedoed by Hezbollah, which tore out the Shiites and in a way “communitarised” it, split it up and weakened it. Even if there were Shiites in it, the majority was abused by Hezbollah and the demonstrations in the Shiite areas were repressed. There were deaths and injuries. The message was clear: “the leadership is us, and we will decide, you go home”. Last February, the Shiite intellectual and Hezbollah critic Lokman Slim was coldly assassinated. The cross-community movement is finding it hard to move, to exist, to express the fed upness of the whole population.

I am sure that famine will not be tolerated, that people will go out into the streets and demand accountability. The solution envisaged by the political class is to give these Lebanese who were proud, generous, rich – there was an extremely dense middle class in this country – a food card. This is buying social peace at the expense of the World Bank.

But this country will not reform. International aid has been useless, the political class that reigns today is getting rich through grand corruption and does not want to change, because it means losing its privileges and being accountable to the donor community (World Bank, IMF, Arab and Gulf countries). The electricity sector, for example, represents 60% of the Lebanese public debt, yet there are only a few hours of electricity per day. And even then, it is produced by Turkish ships, which allows those who run this sector to get richer every day. The donors – the Arabs in the first place – no longer want their money to fall into the hands of Hezbollah. It is clear that the political class, under the orders of the Shiite militia, will not take any steps towards reform.

Humanitarian aid in Bourj-Hammoud, Lebanon, August 2020. SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL

DH. In the conflicts in the region, minorities are particularly affected, if not targeted, whether they are Christians, Yezidis, Kurds… What special protection should they be given?

The only protection that counts is the one that comes from culture. As soon as Sunnis and Shiites tolerate each other and live together, the culture will have accepted that we can be different and still be friends. But if Shiites and Sunnis continue to kill each other as they do today, I don’t see how minorities can be protected.

Nevertheless, I note that the new American President seems sensitive to the causes of minorities. When he was a US Senator and Vice President, Biden made 24 trips to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. In his constituency, there are also many Greek Americans, which may explain his firmness against Erdoğan. He has also acknowledged the Armenian genocide, another historically mistreated minority in this region. Will he go further to comfort the minorities in the region?

DH. The reading grid that seems to impose itself is that of the confrontation between Sunnism and Shiism, which has resulted in the rapprochement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and even Saudi Arabia with Iran. At the same time, Turkey is trying to take the leadership of the Sunni world and the Iranian nuclear conference is resuming. How do you see this situation?

AB. The Sunni-Shiite confrontation dates back fourteen centuries and is not going to subside, especially since Iran, in the name of Shiism, has exported the Islamic Revolution to the entire region from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. This “Shiite crescent” includes Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah’s Lebanon and Yemen, which allowed the advisor to the President of the Islamic Republic to declare that Iran already controls 4 Arab capitals! With this hegemony, Iran frightens the Arabs; they are on the defensive while Iran is gaining on their territories. This explains the rapprochement between Israel and several Gulf countries.

These countries have given up on the Palestinian cause saying that it has no future, that the fight is sterile. With the American withdrawal from the region initiated by Obama, they said they had to join forces with other regional powers, and Israel is perceived in the Gulf as a real power that can actually prove to be a solid partner with significant support in Washington.

However, the Gulf countries have forgotten that Israel lost its last war against Hezbollah on its doorstep (2006). The Hebrew state received on the last day of the conflict the same number of missiles from the Shiite militia as on the first day! All its air campaign failed to silence Hezbollah. If Iran tomorrow starts launching missiles at the United Arab Emirates’ skyscrapers, their desalination plants or their strategic sites, I can’t see Israel providing real all-risk insurance for countries that are nearly 2,000 km from its borders…

DH. In this context, what changes can we expect between the Trump administration’s “America first” and the Biden administration’s “America is back”, when we have the feeling that the American priority is now China and that the time of Western armed interventions seems to be behind us?

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a speech on his plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, at the White House in Washington April 14, 2021. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS

AB. European disengagement dates back to the late 1950s, in the aftermath of the Suez campaign. Following this military success, which was nevertheless a diplomatic defeat, the Americans replaced the Europeans in the region. The American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq was not very successful, despite the military success of the early days. These long conflicts have sapped the morale of the army and the state coffers. And at the end of George W. Bush’s term, there was a sense of disengagement, of being fed up with the region. Obama confirmed this by moving closer to Iran, and Trump has continued the American withdrawal while marking his passage with a coup d’état, the assassination of Iranian general Soleimani in January 2020.

Biden, on the other hand, has cultivated a better knowledge of the region and the turmoil of its history thanks to his long career as a senator interested in international affairs, then as Obama’s vice-president. He is certainly in favour of a slightly more controlled disengagement that does not totally sacrifice the Kurds. Where Trump had dropped northern Syria and the Kurds to Erdoğan after a flattering phone call, Biden is unlikely to let that happen. But indeed, the US disengagement from the region in order to give priority to China is an undeniable reality.

DH. How should we interpret the recognition of the Armenian genocide by the President of the United States, Joe Biden, in the context of Turkish expansionism, from Syria to Libya, from the Eastern Mediterranean to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh?

An Armenian demonstration outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence on the 106th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in Washington, D.C., on April 24, 2021. ©AFP

AB. First of all, Biden has never carried Erdoğan in his heart. He is very close to his Greek constituents, knows a bit of history and is familiar with Erdoğan’s manipulations, his ambitions, his desire to reconstitute the Ottoman Empire and his meddling abroad. It is true that the year 2020 has been a good one for the Turkish president. He has met with success in Syria against the Russians, as well as in Libya against Haftar and Wagner’s Russian mercenaries. His drones have taken away successes on the battlefield and they have also been successful in Nagorno-Karabakh on behalf of Azerbaijan. Erdoğan tried to intimidate Europe, with some success, and launched his exploration ships into the disputed areas of the eastern Mediterranean. On the other hand, he was banking on Trump’s success because he knew his “software”: Trump likes flattery, strong men, small dictators… but as soon as Biden was elected, we saw Erdoğan change his tone. He immediately softened his rhetoric in relation to Europe, in relation to France, he withdrew his prospecting boats from the eastern Mediterranean and at the same time he showed himself to be very understanding, less threatening on the issue of migrants, which he had always instrumentalised.

He was right to fear Biden: the latter’s first phone call, more than three months after taking office, was to announce 2 unpleasant things to him: first that he was going to recognise the Armenian genocide, and second that Turkey was excluded from the F-35 programme in which it was a partner. For Erdoğan, this is a hard blow in an economic context that continues to deteriorate in Turkey. The pound continues to fall, and the country is on its third central bank governor in two years, unemployment is climbing, the pandemic is hurting badly… The rocky relations with Moscow and the sale of Turkish drones to Ukraine have moreover pushed Putin to decide not long ago that he would no longer let Russian tourists come to Turkey. Finally, many of Erdoğan’s lieutenants have left him to create rival formations and in the last elections, i.e. the 2019 municipal elections, all the major cities in Turkey switched to the opposition. These elements paint a Turkish context today that is very gloomy for Erdoğan.

Armenians take part in a torchlight procession in Yerevan on April 23, 2021, on the 106th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Karen MINASYAN /AFP

DH. France has committed itself by supporting the Kurds in Syria. It is almost the only country that has opposed Turkey head-on in the eastern Mediterranean, notably with the sale of Rafales to Greece, but also, in another register, through its support for Lebanon. How do you understand this French policy? What role can France usefully play in this region?

AB. France is helping the Kurds in Syria who control the largest prison for jihadists, which holds over a thousand French jihadists. Paris has not forgotten the contribution of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq to the defeat of Daech, unlike Trump. This is to its credit. It is also in its interest to support this effective ally, always ready to fight Daech.

As for the hegemony that Erdoğan wanted to exercise in the eastern Mediterranean, it is true that without France he would not have encountered significant opposition. NATO anaesthetised by Trump and Germany too obsessed with managing its own Turks, allowed Erdoğan to push his advantages. France thus took the lead in mobilising southern Europe around Greece and Cyprus, dragging in Arab powers as well, including the Gulf. The United Arab Emirates participated with its military aviation in recent manoeuvres in the Mediterranean. Paris also supports the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), a coalition set up by Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Greece to contain Turkish hegemony by setting up cooperation between gas-producing countries for joint marketing. But the issue is also to remind Erdoğan that the Mediterranean is not a field of manoeuvre for Turkey.

Finally, there are international conventions (Montreux, Montego Bay…) that prevent Turkey from creating faits accomplis, claiming and exercising its hegemony over areas that do not belong to it. Without France’s leadership in this operation, Erdoğan would have already advanced his pawns to challenge international law – as he did via the November 2019 agreement with Libya, which so expands Turkey’s exclusive economic zone that it joins Libya’s and encroaches on the waters of other riparians, including Egypt, Cyprus and Greece. This large-scale operation was aimed at controlling the maritime space of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Beirut after the explosion at the port on 4 August 2020.

DH. To conclude, what are your final words?

AB. We live in a world that is becoming more and more fluid and uncertain. We need more than ever to be upright and have the means to act or react to defend our interests. Although suffering from the wear and tear of his power and major difficulties, Erdoğan is pursuing an offensive policy and charging into the “soft bellies” of his neighbourhood (Libya, Syria, Iraq, the Caucasus, the Eastern Mediterranean). He will continue his policy until he meets resistance. Thus, the ideology of Islamist terrorism continues to progress on all continents, even if its geographical expression has failed each time it has been realised.

Antoine Basbous, Arab Countries Observatory

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Who is Antoine Basbous ?

Antoine Basbous is a political scientist and specialist in the Arab-Islamic world and Islamist terrorism

In 1991, he founded the Observatoire des pays Arabes (OPA) in Paris, which he has been running ever since. It is a completely independent consultancy specialising in North Africa, the Middle East, the Gulf and the Islamic world in general.

Antoine Basbous was born in Lebanon, where he studied law and French literature. In France, he obtained a doctorate in political science and a DEA in Information and Communication. He worked as a journalist from 1975 to 1987 in Beirut and then in Paris.

Antoine Basbous has published several essays translated into different languages, including Guerres secrètes au Liban, Editions Gallimard, 1987; L’Islamisme, une révolution avortée? Editions Hachette, 2000; L’Arabie saoudite en question, du wahhabisme à Bin Laden, Editions Perrin, 2002. In September 2004, an updated version of the latter work was published in paperback by Tempus under the title L’Arabie saoudite en guerre; Le tsunami arabe, Editions Fayard, 2011.

He is consulted by the largest companies, governments and courts in Europe and North America, and regularly participates in debates on the crises that are shaking the Arab and Islamic worlds, on terrorism and on the relations between Islam and the West.

Afghanistan: such a predictable defeat

The Taliban at the gates of Kabul in September 1996, © Robert Nickelsberg

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 organizing a systematic bypass of institutions (PRT, militias in particular).

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

GD – As early as 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 American 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 May 1, 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. Up to now, the negotiations have 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 to the demand for statehood in their own way by mimicking (or caricaturing) the state, while Western forces have multiplied their false moves, starting with the ultra-violent practices of the special forces and the under-investment in justice issues.

DH – Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, wrote a strongly worded letter to Afghan leader Ashraf Ghani on March 4. An international conference of key countries is being organized under the aegis of the UN, as if peace were being sought outside the country that cannot be found inside. There is talk of an interim government between the Taleban and the Afghan government. There is talk of a 90-day cease-fire allowing foreign troops to evacuate, 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 thus a ceasefire so that it can withdraw without major humiliation. Ashraf Ghani will most likely be left out of 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 respect to American diplomacy, so I think it likely that he will eventually give in. The Taliban, if they get a firm guarantee from the United States that they will withdraw before the end of the year, have an interest in playing the game, as they will be able to avoid a ruinous war of cities.

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 the events?

GD – If we assume that a new government will be formed before the American withdrawal and that it will include Talibans, 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 – If the Taleban return to Kabul, they will be confronted with new realities that have emerged in the last 20 years: elections, media, universities, the status of women, development policy, not to mention the opium culture and how to deal with 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 security assurance 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 organization 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. In the same way, 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 generalized civil war a risk?

GD – We are already in a generalized civil war and the Islamic State in its local version will never join 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, we can envisage a pessimistic scenario in which the departure of the United States precipitates a major offensive by the Taliban and the maintenance of resistance in the North. The duration of the confrontation will then depend, as is often the case in Afghanistan, on the support that the parties obtain. While the Taliban can count on Pakistani support, things are less clear for the groups in the North, which 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 attitude of the Taliban towards al-Qaeda.

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

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

GD – There was a possibility of amnesty and some form of reintegration of the Taliban after their military defeat, and the leadership of the movement seems to have been willing to return to Afghanistan with 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 amnesty and the American military never understood the Pakistani game.

DH – This site, Défis Humanitaires, 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 if 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 of the 1990s, but especially 2000, which is not specific to Afghanistan, is the constitution of humanitarian bubbles where expatriates live among themselves with a shocking absence of contact with the population (apart from some 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 troops in a fight that was presented as existential for Western countries. The duration of this war since 2001 makes it one of the most costly for the United States: two to three trillion dollars and thousands of deaths. These facts are neither new nor questionable, 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 points, the American position has clearly deteriorated. In particular, the situation left by Western countries is unquestionably worse than it was twenty years ago. Al Qaeda, the main reason given for the invasion, is still, and increasingly, present in Afghanistan. Hundreds, if not thousands, of al-Qaeda fighters are stationed in areas held by the insurgency. While the Taliban have effectively pledged (at least as early as 2012) not to make Afghanistan the site of anti-Western attacks, Al Qaeda fighters now have an impregnable sanctuary.



For more on this topic, see Le Gouvernement Transnational de l’Afghanistan. Une si prévisible défaite, published by Karthala.




Who is Gilles Dorronsoro?

Gilles Dorronsoro is a professor of political science at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, PI of the ERC Social Dynamics of Civil Wars, and author of “The Transnational Government of Afghanistan, Karthala, 2021”




To learn more about Afghanistan: