John Sopko, the brutally honest US inspector general for reconstruction in Afghanistan, has been sounding the alarm for years about how corruption, waste and fraud were effectively neutering the US government’s effort to breathe life into the Afghan security forces.
‘Nerves are jangling”, said the BBC chief international correspondent in Afghanistan, Lyse Doucet, last Monday, confirming that the mood in the country was one of extreme nervousness in the week that the vast majority of NATO troops completed their withdrawal after almost 20 years in the country. “Every Afghan you meet, whether they have jobs manning a shop, cleaning the streets or helping to run the country, are edgy”, she continued. “No-one expected that this year, 2021, would be the year that the last of the NATO forces would leave Afghanistan and that the Taliban would be overrunning districts in fast succession across the North of the country. Every Afghan wakes up in the morning and listens to the radio and watches television, asking themselves ‘what do I do now, how do I protect my family, can I get a visa or even money to go somewhere else?’ However, the vast majority of Afghans expect to have to stick with the situation, anticipating a bloody summer ahead.”
Afghanistan in 2021 is undeniably different to Afghanistan in 2001. A whole new generation of educated men and women has come of age, which could not have happened if Afghanistan had continued under the rule of the mullahs. The country has had a series of elections and now has proper institutions. The reconstructed capital, Kabul, is totally different to the city left in ruins by the retreating Taliban twenty years ago. Although most citizens didn’t expect the foreign troops to stay, they are now asking why they didn’t prepare better for their departure. Doucet reports that many are questioning why a negotiated settlement with the Taliban could not have been achieved, at a time when the authorities are scrambling to get contractors in place to keep the airport safe, scrambling to find ways to support the Afghan security forces, and how to protect Afghan girls and women. In many parts of the country there have been significant improvements in the conditions for girls and women, but in Kabul they are hearing reports that in the areas where the Taliban have regained control, schools for girls are now limited to the age of 11, men are required not to shave their beards, and people are warned not to play music. All an echo of a very dark past.
“It will be very challenging for us to stay alive” said 23-year-old Simin Assy, a newly qualified lawyer and a member of the Shia Hazaras, the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, which in recent years has suffered massacres and pogroms under the Sunni Pashtun Taliban. “My family and friends are going to have to struggle for our lives”, she said in an interview with the BBC. “I shall not be able to work, because of the problem the Taliban have for working women. To be safe I need to stay inside the house.” Ramish Saleimi, 24, a young Afghan who works for an NGO in Kabul, also felt the incoming Taliban would have a huge effect on his life. “We are facing the same situation of almost 20 years ago”, he gloomily forecasts.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was naturally more upbeat about his country’s prospects, calling the coalition withdrawal a moment of “both opportunity and risk” for his administration, for Afghans, for the Taliban and for the region. Others are more pessimistic. The US intelligence committee reported in June that the Afghan government could collapse as quickly as six months after the American withdrawal from the country is completed. An earlier report had predicted two years. This revised assessment was made after the emergence of the Taliban’s lightning offensive in northern Afghanistan, resulting in the fall of dozens of districts in a matter of days. In exchange for Taliban guarantees of safe passage, thousands of government troops simply handed over a large number of armoured vehicles and stockpiles of artillery pieces, mortars and heavy machine guns; all weapons that will be used in future battles against government forces. The resurgent Taliban now claim to have control in more than 200 districts in 34 provinces of Afghanistan, comprising more than half of the country.
Despite an investment by the US of more than $82 billion over the past 20 years in building, training and equipping Afghan forces, the Taliban remain a superior fighting force with just a fraction of the resources. John Sopko, the brutally honest US inspector general for reconstruction in Afghanistan, has been sounding the alarm for years about how corruption, waste and fraud was effectively neutering the US government’s effort to breathe life into the Afghan security forces. In January 2020, Sopko warned the US Congress that “the Afghan military, particularly the Afghan police, has been a hopeless nightmare and a disaster. The biggest problem is not the casualties, it is desertion; people just disappear while we continue to pay their salaries.” “In fact many Afghan troops are not being paid or fed”, he continued, “they have to buy their own food from their officers, who steal it from them”.
It’s no wonder that President Joe Biden has decided to bring forward to 31 August the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, one of the most significant decisions of his presidency so far. “This is a deeply personal decision that comes from the gut”, said one of his officials last week. When questioned about the pull-out, Biden replied, “Look, we were in that war for 20 years. I am now the fourth American President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan: two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth. They’re now going to have to be able to do it themselves with the air-force they have.” He confirmed that some troops will remain, mainly to secure the US embassy in Kabul, and that a few hundred contractors would stay until August, but after that they would troubleshoot maintenance issues at a distance or bring aircraft out, as needed, for major repairs in US bases eight hours away in the Persian Gulf. It will also be from these bases that armed US Air Force drones will hunt Al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists operating in Afghanistan.
The outlook for Kabul’s ability to maintain stability is bleak and many are predicting an imminent civil war in Afghanistan, as this decades-old conflict enters a new phase. Nevertheless, the Taliban’s spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters on Monday that “the peace talks in Qatar will be accelerated in the coming days”, adding that “although we have the upper hand on the battlefield, we are serious about talks and dialogue”. Many believe, however, that the only solution acceptable to the Taliban would be a restoration of the hard-line Islamist rule, reminiscent of the group’s 1996-2001 period of power.
This solution would cause concern in China, as it casts an anxious gaze towards its western frontier. China has long been concerned that Afghanistan could easily become a hotbed for growing Islamic extremism, which would cross over to affect stability in Xinjiang. Because of this, Beijing has constantly insisted that the Taliban limit their ties with groups that it says are made up of Uyghur terrorists, in return for its support. For months Beijing has held talks with the Taliban, and although details of the discussions have been kept secret, government officials and analysts from Afghanistan and neighbouring countries confirm that crucial aspects of a broad strategy are taking shape. This would involve China rebuilding Afghanistan’s shattered infrastructure in cooperation with the Taliban by channelling funds through Pakistan, one of Beijing’s firmest allies in the region. One project under discussion is a motorway linking Kabul and Peshawar.
An important part of China’s motivation in seeking stability in Afghanistan is protecting its existing Belt and Road projects in neighbouring Pakistan and the Central Asian states. A stable Afghanistan, increasingly dependent on Chinese investments, would also extend Beijing’s influence in the country, while smoothing the flow of cargo between China and Eurasia. The danger, of course, is that this may also draw China inevitably into Afghanistan’s domestic strife, entangling it in local political and security issues in regions where it has substantial economic interests. It would not be without irony if China, despite its longstanding policy of non-interference, became the next superpower to try to write a chapter in Afghanistan’s torrid history, one littered with vainglorious invasions from the ancient Greeks, Mongols, Mughals, the British, the Soviet Union, and most recently the United States of America—a list of failures which should remind President Xi Jinping why Afghanistan has for centuries been known as the “graveyard of empires”.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.