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.

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”




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