The first time I got to Afghanistan the piece was relatively peaceful. It was 1969, pre-Russian invasion, pre-Taliban, pre-US invasion. If you brought up the invasion, it was either Alexander the Great, Umar, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane or the British (1838 and 1878). I loved the country, in part because traveling there was like going back in time more than just moving in space. I drove there in a VW van from Europe and I immediately notice that even crossing the border from eastern Iran into Afghanistan seemed to take me back a thousand years— and that was Herat, one of the most “advanced” places in Afghanistan!
There were almost no Americans there in 1969. The Hippie Trail, through Herat, Kandahar and Kabul, from Istanbul to Delhi just comprised of a few hundred people a year and they were almost entirely Europeans, Australians, Japanese and Canadians. I spent a winter in a tiny hamlet in the Hindu Kush and no one had ever heard of America (nor had anyone ever experienced electricity). The American consulate in Tehran warned travelers to Afghanistan about two things:
Boil all water twice before drinking or brushing your teeth
Do not stop on the road between cities or you would likely be killed by bandits
I was back about a year and a half later and it was still this incredible, unique magic place. And then the Russians and Americans decided to make Afghanistan the focus of a continuation of The Great Game, ripping Afghan society to shreds almost continuously from 1979 until… well last year, unless you want to make the reasonable argument that what’s happening there today is still a product of the Russian and American invasions.
So what’s happening there today? Did you watch the John Oliver segment last night? He made the point that “Everything’s very much not enjoyable for everyone in Afghanistan right now.” Author, professor and so-called foreign policy “expert” Colin Clarke penned an OpEd for Politico Magazine this morning. I don’t think he’s thrilled about Biden’s withdrawal of troops so he starts off wrong from the start. As much as I don’t like Biden and detest Trump, that’s the one thing they were both actually right about. All wrong, Clarke asked “[W]hat is life like for the Afghan people? Reasonable arguments can be made about what the United States owes Afghanistan following two decades of occupation. But one year after the military withdrawal, it’s clear that existence under Taliban rule has deteriorated across a range of measures— from the economy and security situation to human rights and governance.” The U.S. should have never interfered in Afghanistan and should have certainly never occupied the country and should not get involved with Afghanistan now. People who say otherwise are wrong, not matter how “expert” they’re supposed to be.
Clarke wrote that “To the surprise of few, the Taliban has been unable to stabilize Afghanistan’s economy and the nature of the Taliban’s draconian rule has scared off both foreign aid and potential investors. Taliban leaders remain under sanctions and, while they have experience commanding an insurgency, know little about financial markets or the trappings of managing a modern economy. Afghanistan’s nearly 40 million people are at risk of falling below the poverty line. Related to the economic collapse, half of Afghanistan’s population is facing critical food shortages and acute hunger. Over the winter, there were credible reports about Afghan families selling their children in order to get money to survive. Meanwhile, the one area where the Taliban actually has experience and skill— fighting and armed conflict— has not been enough to keep an aggressive insurgency at bay. Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), the Islamic State’s Afghan branch, has wreaked havoc throughout Afghanistan, waging a guerrilla campaign of bombings, assassinations and suicide attacks that the Taliban has been unable to combat. ISK has also waged a relentless campaign of bombings targeting Afghanistan’s Shia Hazara minority.”
This is terrible: “Beyond a deterioration of economic and physical security, there has been an erosion of human rights under the Taliban regime, especially for women and girls. The United Nations Mission in Afghanistan released a report detailing extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and myriad other violations of fundamental freedoms by the Taliban. Girls have been banned from attending secondary school, while women have seen their right to access the workplace and participate in public life significantly diminished.” But none of America’s business. It’s how they live there. I suggest you not go there for a vacation. Remember when I said it felt like going back a 1,000 years when I arrived in Herat in 1969. I bet not much has changed in the social mores department since then. It’s a bad place for women and worse for anyone identifying as LGBTQ. I hope that after Trump is imprisoned and whatever cockamamie civil war the MAGAts try here is put down, the whole MAGA movement relocates to Afghanistan.
Across the board, life in Afghanistan for ordinary Afghans has become far more difficult. Additionally, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and a June earthquake that killed more than 1,100 Afghans and displaced countless others, have only compounded misery and suffering.
Now that the United States has withdrawn its troops, Washington has precious little leverage to dictate the future course of events in Afghanistan. The fate of the Afghan people is in the hands of the Taliban, a group of fundamentalist religious zealots with little experience as a governing force.
Without question, there are plenty of ways in which the U.S. occupation made Afghanistan a more unstable country. Billions of dollars that flowed through various ministries and warlords were easy prey for corrupt politicians and compromised government officials. As someone who spent time serving on a counter-corruption task force in Kabul in 2011, I experienced much of this firsthand.
But even with some corrosive second-order consequences, on balance, an American military presence gave ordinary Afghans an opportunity for a better life. This included ethnic and religious minorities like Shia Hazara, and traditionally marginalized sectors of society, especially women. Of course, that’s not why Americans were there in the first place. The U.S. military invaded Afghanistan in response to the al Qaeda terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
And Zawahri’s presence shows that al Qaeda remains active in Afghanistan and could very well be on its way toward rebuilding, soon energized by the selection of a new emir, the group’s first in more than a decade. The administration points to the strike as evidence that its “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism strategy can work. But the bottom line is, to keep the United States safe and prevent Afghanistan from reverting to its pre-9/11 form as a terrorist safe haven, Washington must remain engaged in counterterrorism in Afghanistan.
The administration should also do all that it can to prevent a humanitarian disaster in the country it left behind. Afghanistan has faded from the headlines, but its civilians continue to suffer daily injustices. Even if Biden feels like he did what was best for the United States, Afghans still need our help.
This morning the Wall Street Journal’s Jessica Donati and Margherita Stancati reported that “The Biden administration has decided it won’t release any of the roughly $7 billion in foreign assets held by Afghanistan’s central bank on U.S. soil and has suspended talks with the Taliban over the funds after the killing of al Qaeda’s leader in Kabul, according to U.S. officials. The decision reverses early indications of progress in talks between the U.S. and the Taliban and deals a blow to hopes of an economic recovery in Afghanistan as millions face starvation a year into the group’s rule. The U.S. drone strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri late last month exposed deep rifts within the movement and fanned concerns in the West about a resurgence of global terrorism emanating from Afghanistan… The Afghan central bank needs those funds to resume key functions aimed at stemming soaring inflation, stabilizing the exchange rate and reviving the ailing economy.”
The Biden administration previously said it was considering releasing half of the roughly $7 billion it holds for the benefit of the Afghan people while setting aside the rest pending litigation by relatives of 9/11 victims for compensation.
The White House was weighing using the proposed $3.5 billion trust fund for Afghanistan to pay for humanitarian aid and to inject funds into the struggling Afghan central bank, provided it could guarantee how that money would be used. Both options are currently off the table.
Shah Mehrabi, a board member of the Afghan central bank appointed during the fallen U.S.-backed republic, said the decision to keep the funds on U.S. soil could have disastrous real-life consequences on the already struggling Afghan people.
“Many poor women and children will not be able to buy bread and other necessities of life. The country will continue to depend on humanitarian aid, which is not a solution,” said Mr. Mehrabi, who is also a professor of economics at Montgomery College in Maryland. “Those reserves belong to the central bank, and have to be used for monetary policy.”