Opinion: the US and its allies were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan from the outset

"The Soviets have left Afghanistan, making the collapse of the besieged puppet regime in Kabul just a matter of time," wrote Ashraf Ghani, then assistant professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. In that Los Angeles Times' opinion piece published in February 1989, the future president of Afghanistan also urged the US government to cut off the arms flow to Afghan resistance groups and let the Afghans unite.

History came full circle in Afghanistan more than 32 years after the publication of that article. After almost seven years in power, Ghani abandoned his government and fled the country soon after the Taliban entered the Afghan capital without a fight.

So what are some of the mistakes the US made which have brought Afghanistan back to square one?

'Very little idea of what they were doing'

After the atrocious 9/11 attacks, then US president George W. Bush rejected every offer made by the Taliban to avoid the impending war, including the offer of handing over Osama bin Laden to Saudi Arabia. Instead, he ordered the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, which subsequently led to the toppling of Taliban regime in Kabul. Thousands of Taliban were either killed or captured alive, many of whom were imprisoned in the infamous military prisons such as Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Bagram in Afghanistan. The remaining fighters fled to the countryside only to regroup and make a comeback within a few years.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, John Simpson, World Affairs Editor at the BBC; and Pamela Constable, former Afghanistan, and Pakistan bureau chief for the Washington Post, on the current situation in Kabul

Once the Taliban were ousted, the US government and its international and local allies hoped Afghanistan can be changed for the better. However, the policy makers had very little idea of what they were doing, who the enemy was and what to do next. Classified US government documents, recently obtained by the Washington Post, reveal that the American military brass were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan, despite deploying hundreds of thousands of troops which resulted in 2,352 deaths and 20,149 wounded personnel.

"The history of military conflict in Afghanistan [has] been one of initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure", Bush said in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute in April 2002. "We're not going to repeat that mistake". He reiterated that the US had invaded Afghanistan with a clear, stated objective: to bring Al-Qaeda to justice for committing terrorism and prevent a repeat of 9/11 attacks.

But the reality was different. After toppling the Taliban, the goalposts kept changing, thanks to the wrangling between the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department. Some American officials wanted to turn Afghanistan into a democracy, with or without knowing that the country is void of any democratic tradition. Others wanted to transform Afghan culture and empower women. Some believed it was time to realign regional balance of power among Pakistan, India, Iran and Russia.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, former CIA director John Brennan on how US president Joe Biden has handled the crisis in Afghanistan

Corruption and war criminals

Since 2001, the US government has spent an estimated $2.261 trillion on Afghanistan. To rebuild the country, Washington relied on contractors and US-allied Afghan power brokers who plundered the aid with impunity. According to Christopher Kolenda, a US army colonel who was deployed to Afghanistan several times and advised three US generals in charge of the war, then Afghan president Hamid Karzai was overseeing a kleptocracy by 2006, while US officials looked the other way. As a result of the top-down corruption – involving provincial governors, ministers, judges, police chiefs and bureaucrats – many Afghans lost faith in the democratic system and some started looking towards the Taliban as the solution.

Former US ambassador Ryan Crocker admitted that the development of mass corruption was the single biggest factor that led to the project’s failure. A Washington Post investigation revealed that the US government failed to carry out a comprehensive audit to find out how much money it has spent on the war in Afghanistan, and how much of it was lost due to corruption.

Apart from the unlimited support of Pakistan, one of the reasons why the Taliban were able to capture most of Afghanistan in the 1990s was their fight against deeply unpopular Afghan warlords. Many of these were accused of committing war crimes during the 1992-96 civil war.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Mahbooba Seraj (Afghan Women's Network), Mary Ellen McGoarty (World Food Programme in Afghanistan), Marion McKeone (Sunday Business Post) and Patrick Bury (Bath University) on the current situation in Afghanistan

But after the Taliban were driven from power in late 2001, the US brought warlords such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, Qasim Fahim, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Karim Khalili, Faryadi Zardad and many others into government. They continued their abuses through their privately maintained militias, and ramped up narcotics, smuggling and other criminal activities. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report slammed Washington for this approach and described the policy a ‘self-defeating failure’. This, in turn, undermined the trust of Afghan population in the US-backed institutions.

The Taliban didn't go away

The US struggled to create a strong central government, establish democracy, support a strong civil society and promote women’s rights, and soon diverted its attention and resources to the Iraq war in 2003. Meanwhile, the Taliban refused any dialogue and single-handedly focused on fighting and expelling the ‘infidel invaders’ from the country. "The very presence of Americans in Afghanistan trod on a sense of Afghan identity that incorporated national pride, a long history of fighting outsiders and a religious commitment to defend the homeland," Carter Malkasian, a former senior Pentagon official who served in Afghanistan for years, wrote in his book.

To make matters worse, US airstrikes on Taliban insurgents often resulted in deaths of Afghan civilians, which eroded the support for Coalition forces in the countryside. The recurring attacks, often labelled as collateral damage by US officials, were routinely condemned by Afghan president Hamid Karzai, leading to estrangement between Kabul and Washington.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, Mary Akrami from the Afghan Women Network on what she thinks the future holds for women in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover

No exit strategy

While keen on toppling the Taliban, apprehending bin Laden and his associates, and dismantling Al-Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan, Washington found itself stranded in the land-locked Central Asian country without concrete plans. US officials who served under Bush and Obama administrations admitted in unusually candid interviews that both leaders failed in their most important task as commanders in chief – to pursue a clear strategy with realistic objectives.

Many US diplomats and military commanders acknowledged that they struggled to differentiate between allies and enemies, and decide how and when the war becomes winnable. As a result, both US government and military committed early blunders from which they never recovered. While most of Al-Qaeda had vanished by the time Obama took office in 2009, Taliban had already made a comeback. Commenting on the situation a Taliban commander then said "you have the watches but we have the time."

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From RTÉ One's Nine News, US president Joe Biden stands 'squarely behind' US pullout from Afghanistan

Finally, time was up. In April, US president Joe Biden announced the unconditional withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11th, in line with the pledge made by former US president Donald Trump. The Taliban refused to enter into any negotiations with Kabul until all foreign troops withdrew from Afghanistan. This demand effectively left Ghani’s elected government, and his allied politicians and warlords, at the mercy of the Islamist militia.

The Taliban, as suggested by the US national intelligence reports, were confident of a comprehensive military victory in Afghanistan. The peaceful takeover of Kabul proved their strategy right. What follows next is anyone’s guess - and as we have seen time and again, guesswork does not work at all in Afghanistan.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ