Jun 11 • 1HR 0M

What Went Wrong in Afghanistan

Yascha Mounk and Yalda Hakim discuss why the Taliban won.

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Yalda Hakim is a BBC World News correspondent and broadcaster. Born in Afghanistan and raised in Australia, Hakim has reported from Afghanistan for many years, often dealing directly with the Taliban. In recent months, she has also reported from western Ukraine. Her foundation offers academic and professional opportunities to Afghan girls.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Yalda Hakim discuss the dramatic changes the Afghan people have felt since the Taliban’s return to power, the parallels between Kyiv and Kabul, and the role of women in both conflicts.

The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Yascha Mounk: You've been reporting on Afghanistan for a very long time now. You were born there, though you left as a baby. Tell us what life was like in Afghanistan over the last two decades, and how the Taliban fits into that.

Yalda Hakim: In 2001, when the US-led invasion took place, Afghanistan had gone through a bitter civil war, which began after the Soviet Union left the country. Then the Afghan people had five years of the dark and brutal reign of the Taliban, where women were completely pushed out of the public eye. Girls weren't able to go to school. Women were just not present at all. You couldn't have TV sets. You couldn't listen to music. Men were forced to grow beards. People were only allowed to study in religious schools—madrasas. So when you think about where the country was in 2001, when the US-led invasion happened, and where it was just before August 15th, 2021, this was a nation that was imperfect. Every time I went there, I was frustrated by the generators that weren’t functioning. Why was there no electricity in a country where billions of dollars were pouring in from the international community? Why was it still such an aid-dependent country? Why was it still embroiled in a conflict that felt like the Taliban were, as each year passed, gaining more and more power?

And yet, look at the gains of the last two decades, including one of the most free and flourishing media environments in the whole region. There was pressure from different powerful politicians, from militant groups, and from powerful individuals—however, the press was still free. Girls were going to school, and women were in positions of power—as judges, MPs, journalists, and activists. People did have a voice, and they were challenging the authorities. The country had come a long way. I remember going to Kabul in July of 2021, and wondering what would happen in the next few weeks or months. It all felt a little bit uncertain, as we've felt the Taliban edging closer and closer to the capital, starting to take provincial capitals. And yet, there was still a glimmer of hope, because of how far the country had come. So there was progress, although it was imperfect.

Mounk: That seems convincing to me. But it makes it more puzzling. Why does the Taliban continue to have so much support in large parts of the country? Was this progress limited to particular, very important issue areas, like women's rights? Was it limited geographically? Why is it that these improvements you're talking about didn't translate into more support for the government, or at least more dogged resistance to the Taliban?

Hakim: There was so much frustration in the country—frustration with the corruption, with the mismanagement, with the various attempts to grab power. Just before the COVID pandemic, we had two inaugurations in the country, because Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani were both claiming that they had won the election. There was a sense that there was no leadership. Some would say that the country had won the geopolitical lottery at the end of 2001. In September, after the 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan became the focal point of the international community, and the United States decided to invade. And while, right up to the very end, every American president said they weren’t there to nation-build, by default, nation building was taking place. Schools were being built, there was construction. There was an attempt at recreating this nation. And it was Afghan-led, no matter how much people say that it was the Western-backed government, and its influence came from a Western societies. It was Afghan women, Afghans themselves, who were driving this, who were pushing for change, who were creating change in their own societies.

And yet, there was anger and frustration and how corrupt the leadership was, right down to a local mayor or local governor, or the police or the army. Everyone wanted something in exchange for something else. And the Taliban themselves were an indigenous force that were getting their funding from the region itself. They were fighting without the support of the international community, the Americans, or NATO. And they were somehow, in their own way, convincing the local population that when air raids happened, and a wedding party was accidentally targeted and struck, and civilians killed, that this is the work of a corrupt government backed by the Western international forces, who weren’t there to build the lives of the Afghan people. They said, “We will offer you an alternative.” So the Afghans themselves were stuck between a rock and a hard place. There are communities that I went to in November, December of 2021, after the Taliban took over, who said to me: “We didn't have a school here for the last 20 or 30 years. It wasn't just because the Taliban were in power that we didn't have an education for our girls or our boys.” Because of the intense fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan forces backed by the international community and NATO, there was no peace and stability in places like Helmand, for example, so they weren't able to build schools for their children.

Ultimately, the Afghan people just wanted peace. They wanted the fighting to stop. They wanted the bombs to stop. And in the end, the international community had created a force that was backed only by the contracts that they provided. Once the rug was pulled out, and the contracts ended, and the support, the maintenance, and all of that structure around it ended, the force itself crumbled. The international community needs to have a look at what went wrong, why they got it so wrong, why they built a force that was so dependent on them, rather than an organic force that's there to defend the nation.

Mounk: If you could go back to the fall of 2001 and write a memo, either for the occupying forces or for the first truly elected Afghan Governments, what would you put in that memo? What are the key levers that we could have pulled to get a different outcome?

Hakim: There are so many things that could have been done differently. I think the focus of the United States shifting to Iraq disrupted things for Afghanistan. But I think if we look back at Bonn, when the international community came together with the key Afghan figures that had helped the United States defeat the Taliban—and the Taliban were on the run, many of them were rounded up and sent to places like Guantanamo Bay or fled over the border into Pakistan, but others had said, “Look, we don't want to fight. We want to be part of the new Afghanistan”—I think one thing that should have been understood right from the outset, is that the Taliban weren't going away; that the Taliban, sure, were on the run and in hiding now, but they were part of the fabric of that society, and they had a voice within it. And so why not bring them to the table, while they're weak, and on the run, and have them as part of the conversation? Those of the members of the Taliban who said, “Look, I don't want to go to Guantanamo Bay, I want to just live in Afghanistan, go back to my village, have a peaceful life in this country,” which is what many of them have subsequently said to me in recent months. “We would have happily accepted the Karzai regime had we not been forced to flee or pick up arms again, because we weren't happy with the way things had unfolded.” Something that was a major fault of all the sides was leaving the Taliban out of the negotiations. They shouldn't have left it so late—almost two decades after the fall of the Taliban regime—to go back to peace talks, and have them come to the negotiating table in Doha, first with the Americans and then an attempt with the Afghan government, which never eventuated. They should have done that when the Taliban were weak and on the run, not regrouping.

Mounk: I'm Jewish, and I grew up in Germany with a lot of anger and rage about the way in which senior Nazis ended up having respectable positions in the early post-war democracy in the early years of the Federal Republic. The chief of staff of Konrad Adenauer had written the official commentary on the Nuremberg race laws. And this wasn't really a deliberate choice, but had to do with all kinds of compromises made during the time of the early Cold War, and so on. But in retrospect, it was probably the morally fraught but politically right choice, because it is what ensured that you never got a serious neo-Nazi movement in the early federal republic, because the people who might have led it and organized it, actually, were integrating a new political system. It's interesting to think about that in the context of Afghanistan, even though anybody who would have argued that at the time would have made themselves incredibly unpopular with both the American right and left. But I think one can make a compelling case that that would have been a clever move. 

Beyond that, were there any steps that could have been taken to ensure that the governments from Karzai to Ghani would have ended up being more effective, less corrupt, and more inclusive of the interests of all Afghans? 

Hakim: You think about the stories that came out about these rubbish bags full of millions of dollars, transported into Afghanistan and handed over to different warlords and tribal elders to buy favor. This was done, rather than understanding the people and the complexity of a country like Afghanistan. We hear reports and stories of people saying, “Well, so-and-so is a member of the Taliban,” when in fact, they may have had some kind of enmity with that person, or a land dispute. And so you have the Americans or NATO barging into a home, taking someone away, locking them up in Guantanamo Bay, resentment being built, and the cycle of violence continuing. And we hear so many cases of these these brutal governors who, in the guise of the war on terror, brutalized their own community with the help of the international community and the allied forces, who perhaps were ignorant, or perhaps were unaware, or perhaps knew but turned a blind eye, because it was easier to say, “These are our partners. These are the people that we've aligned ourselves with. And this is the information, the human intelligence that they're providing me. I have to rely on that. Yes, I know some of it is incorrect, but it is easier to know my enemy, who is the Taliban, rather than get caught up in the complex tribal conflicts of the Afghan people.” 

And so I think that in itself—having a greater depth and knowledge and understanding of your subjects and the people that you're you're dealing with—was missed, perhaps, because of the speed in which the whole thing unfolded, in which Bonn and the invasion itself took place, and then trying to set things up as you went. I think there were key moments in those early years, whether it was in 2006, or 2008, when the violence really intensified, and even in those early years of 2003-2004, when there was intelligence around saying that the Taliban were regrouping and an insurgency forming, there was perhaps a way of either bringing them back into the fold then or clamping down on it. But I think that the sense of resentment was being built in the society by one group, the losing side.

You just gave that example of those who asked how the international community could come to terms with bringing the Taliban to the table in those early years, because they harbored members of al-Qaeda who were behind 9/11, or the people of the left who say, “These people treat women badly, or don't give people their basic human rights.” Well, here we are, in 2022, and where are those voices? Afghan women are staring down the barrel of a gun, fighting this war on their own, fighting for their own basic human rights on their own, despite the promises of the international community. Afghan women were put up on podiums for almost 20 years, certainly in those early years, and told, “You are our partners. Stick your neck out, come out on a limb, we will fund you, we will support you, we will finance you, we will train you, and we will back you. And in the end, we’ll abandon you. We’ll leave you to the very people that we encourage you to take on, to stand up against, to be educated against. These Afghan women who were trained as judges prosecuted men who are now looking for them. So many of them are either on the run, in hiding, or have fled the country after being sponsored and trained by the West for 20 years. And now they're fighting this war on their own, they're protesting day and night—not just for the most basic things like a meal on the table, or to be fed, or to have their assets and funds to be unfrozen, but just for their girls to go to school.

Here we have the biggest reversal of basic human rights ever, anywhere, overnight. Literally, overnight. As soon as the Taliban took over, they gave a press conference and laid out what their Sharia law would look like. And frankly, when we see the events of the last few months, it should put to rest once and for all the notion and idea of a “Taliban 2.0”—this hope that the Western world had that they were signing a peace agreement because the Taliban had changed. Well, what we constantly see now are reports from the United Nations that al-Qaeda has a foothold in the country, that al-Qaeda was very much present in the country long before the Taliban took over. The US Treasury warned about this. And when I held US officials, NATO officials to account for this, they said, “Oh, no, those reports are dated. And that's not, in fact, correct. The Taliban say that they'll never use Afghanistan as a as a base for terror.”

And so, one has to question—and it certainly is something that keeps me up at night—what all this was for. All of these slogans: blood and treasure, hearts and minds, everything that we heard in the last 20 years. A whole generation has known the connection with Afghanistan and yet, we, the Western world, walked away.

Mounk: I think the most extreme expression of this was in early August of 2021, when President Biden said something along the lines of, “Afghans have to fight for themselves,” implying that they hadn't been doing so. Sometimes I have students of a morally relativistic bend who say, “Well, who are we to tell people how they should live? They want to live under the Taliban. That's their choice.” But there is a sleight of hand there, because of course, people have not chosen democratically to be ruled by the Taliban. Most of them do not want to be ruled by them. And women certainly did not have agency in that matter.

What does life look like today in Afghanistan, in general, in terms of affluence, and access to food, water, and electricity, and healthcare? And just how far have the basic rights of women regressed since the Taliban took over last summer?

Hakim: I think the best way to sum up what life is like now for Afghans is if we break it down into three crises. The first is the humanitarian and economic crisis that we're seeing. Because the economy is close to collapse and the funds of the nation have been frozen, people don't have access to their salaries. They haven't been paid for months. There is food in the markets and restaurants. When you go out, you see food; there's no shortage of food. When we talk about a famine, or when the UN says it's a “march towards starvation”—people just don't have the funds to buy it.

If you and I don't get paid our salary for a few weeks, we'll protest and say, “I'm not coming back to work until you pay me my salary.” There are people in Afghanistan, especially in the health sector, who go into work every single day and have done so for the last nine or ten months without pay. Because, they said to me, “In the hospitals, if we don't go to work, those children that you see in those incubators”—who are close to death because of famine and malnutrition—“will die.” A cleaner said to me, “I come in every day and I don't get paid, because if I don't clean these wards, those children will get an infection and die.” They come in day in, day out. One woman said to me, “I don't have 11 cents to get a bus to work, so I walk three hours every morning to get here. I live on top of the mountain in the hills of Kabul. And in the snow, I slide down and I have bruises all down my leg. When I go back in the evening, my husband says, ‘Where's your money? How are we going to feed the family, you've been gone all day?’” And she says, “Along the way, I look for scraps of food so that I have something to take home.” 

Another aspect is the security crisis. When I was in Kabul and Helmand and Kandahar in November and December, we went on multiple raids with the Taliban, who were raiding ISIS sleeper cells. We're seeing mosques being bombed, with an excess of 100 people killed at any given time. Whether it's in Kandahar, Kunduz, or Mazar, people are still dying as a result of bombings. Someone said to me, “the Taliban have become the Ghani government and ISIS have become the new Taliban.” And this vicious cycle continues in the country. When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan, it was a brutal reign. But the one thing that they could more or less guarantee the people was security. This time, they can't even do that. People are hungry. They're not safe. There are bombs going off.

The third crisis is the human rights crisis. Afghanistan is the only country in the world that prevents girls from getting an education. Teenage girls, over the age of 12, are not allowed to go to school. In the last few weeks, we've seen television presenters forced to cover their faces. In Afghanistan, women are being told, “Do not leave your homes unnecessarily. You don't have a job, because there are no jobs for you. You don't need to go to get an education, because you will have no prospects. Your husband or male guardian can go out and get food or any other supplies for you, so there is no reason for you to be out. But if you do go out, cover your face, and do not have a voice. If you do go out, you are not to work. If you do go out, you cannot take your children with your husband to a park, because they're segregated now.” As a result, Afghan women have lost a sense of hope, the burning fight and spirit that they had. Despite the insecurities in the country over the last two decades, there was hope and reason to study, because you could become a judge, or an MP; because you could go to the United States on a Fulbright, or to Oxford University and study and then go back to the country. So for all its faults and flaws, there was a sense of purpose and hope. All that has now been taken away.

Mounk: That's incredibly powerful, and incredibly depressing. Is there any hope for the situation to get better? What are the different scenarios for how the future of Afghanistan may look? Because I have to say, after listening to you, I have a very heavy feeling in my heart.

Hakim: We all have heavy feelings in our hearts, because it's not just the collapse of a nation and a country; it's the loss of the idea that you have a land, or a home. There was a spate of targeted killings, pinned on the Taliban, before the takeover of the Taliban, of a number of prominent Afghan, mostly female, journalists, civil society members, and people who were raising their voices—not just prominent people, but some unknown, some as young as 24. A young woman who worked for the Human Rights Commission was brutally murdered. She was simply working in that department and investigating a few cases, but certainly not prominent. 

I interviewed a member of the Haqqani Network and asked the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has a $10 million bounty on his head (he's also the interior minister of the country). He talked to me about Afghans never accepting someone imposing anything on them. He said, “Look, the Soviet Union tried to back a communist regime, and look what their fate was: it collapsed. Afghans demanded change, and they rose up and we had the Mujahideen fight against them. What's happened in the last 20 years is that Afghans rose up, they didn't want a Western-backed government. They fought and now here we are.” And I asked him, “But what about everything that the Taliban is imposing on the Afghan people and the will of the Afghan people? The idea that the Taliban can just carry on preventing girls from going to school, preventing women from having a voice and being part of the public domain, and pushing them out of the public space, forcing families to do things that they know are against their basic human rights?” The difference between the Taliban coming to power in 1996 and the Taliban coming to power in 2021 is that in 1996, Afghans didn't know what they had lost. What Afghans knew, until recently, is a life where they were free. Sure, there were flaws. The government was corrupt. But they were free to make choices for themselves, whether they wanted to send their girls to travel abroad to study, whether they wanted to have basic freedoms within their family environment, whether they wanted to simply go to a park, to enjoy family time together—these are basic freedoms that they had, that are gone. And so just as the Taliban speak with pride now and say, “We defeated the greatest military alliance in history,” the Afghan people do not want their basic freedoms taken away. When I speak to the Afghan people, I sense there's only so much they will tolerate before they vote, demand change, come out on the streets, or pick up arms.

Mounk: I want to believe that, but I wonder whether there isn't a kind of systemic difference between those two scenarios. It's one thing to have foreign troops in the country. It's a different thing to have internal divisions, to have some people within society who are comfortable with the moral religious doctrines of the Taliban and others who say, “No, we have gotten used to certain kinds of liberties and want to fight for them.” But to organize along those lines tends to be much more difficult and complicated, because you're also fighting against something which, in some superficial respect, has a greater legitimacy, because it is homegrown. What would that look like?

Hakim: It's an interesting question, because when we think about the makeup of the Taliban in the last 20 years, or the count of how many Taliban fighters there were, estimates ranged from 70,000 to 100,000. One has to question, then, how 100,000 Taliban fighters, or an insurgency turned government, are holding 38 million people hostage. What does it take for a society like Afghanistan—which is incredibly tribal and relies so heavily on that form of community and hierarchy—to say, “Okay, we've had enough?” It might not be about resistance and picking up arms, because, as you say, the difference between the 1980s and the 2000s, and now, is that there were foreign forces backing these different militia groups. However you judge the Afghan army—regardless of the fact that they were based on this contractual system and totally reliant on the United States—they did get some form of training. And while they crumbled overnight and left because of a lack of leadership, there is an armed force that either left or are in bordering countries.

What I'm trying to say is that 100,000 indigenous fighters from within the Taliban—that had, perhaps, some funding from the outside—were able to defeat NATO and the United States and the Afghan army. Something new, for all of the turmoil of the last 40 years, can rise from the ashes of Afghanistan, today. We're seeing some skirmishes taking place north of Kabul at the moment, and this is the only period in the last 40 years where a group of militia are not being backed or funded by the international community. Even the Mujahideen, when the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, were backed by the Americans and the CIA. So, ultimately, this is the only period where that isn't taking place. But nothing ever remains the same in Afghanistan. And I think whether it's women staring down the barrel of a gun and protesting, whether it's skirmishes in in the Panjshir, it's only a matter of time before these restrictions become so suffocating that, whether it takes five or ten years, something else emerges.

Mounk: Well, I very much hope that that prediction proves to be right.

In the last month, you’ve also been reporting a lot on Ukraine. There are some similarities between those two cases. They are both a matter of people fighting against a suffocating dictatorship for their freedom. But there's also a whole set of very obvious differences between the two places. How did Afghanistan resonate, in your mind, as you were reporting on what's going on in Ukraine at the moment?

Hakim: The one thing that really was quite stark and stood out right from the outset was when we saw President Zelensky remain in the country. And I think one of the things that has stuck is what he said, when the United States offered to evacuate him from the country, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

Mounk: It's rare that sound bites really have a political impact. But that feels like one that actually made a big difference.

Hakim: Yes, and I think that it also resonated with a lot of Afghans who were incredibly angry at the fact that Ashraf Ghani had fled the country with his inner circle and abandoned the nation to the Taliban. And I think that for many, that sense of leadership—someone remaining despite the threats, despite knowing that he could die at any time—provided the kind of morale that the nation needed. Ukraine is also a very complicated society, and Volodymyr Zelensky’s approval ratings were quite low before the conflicts began. Ukrainians are very vocal about their leadership in Kyiv. But when I spent time in western Ukraine, and I spoke to the Ukrainian people, the one thing that they felt incredibly proud about—whether they were a supporter of Zelensky or vehemently against him before the war—was that he had created a sense of unity and purpose, because it had come from the top down.

There was this sense that if their leader could stay in the heart of the capital, and be a target, and be surrounded by Russian forces, knowing what was happening just half an hour away—it was really quite striking, being there, and knowing what had happened months earlier in Afghanistan; when Ashraf Ghani fled, Kabul fell. I took a call from the Taliban as they were at the gates of Kabul, live on air. And I asked, “What is your intention? What do you plan on doing?” And the Taliban spokesperson I spoke to said, “We're on the outskirts of Kabul. We will not enter the city. We are waiting for a peaceful transfer of power.” And even today, when you speak to the Taliban, they will say this is not how they saw things unfolding, that Ashraf Ghani would flee and they would be left to deal with what happened next: to prevent looting, to safeguard the capital. So when Zelensky stayed, and said that he would defend the capital and defend the country, it mobilized the people. I met 18 year old students, young teenage girls who had the option of leaving, but were creating camouflage nets, in Lviv, to be sent to the frontlines. I spoke to grandmothers who said, “I have no idea what I'm doing, but at least they've given me the ingredients and told me this is how you create a Molotov cocktail. But I need to do what I can to defend my land and to defend my country.” 

One thing that was unfair about what President Biden said is that 66,000 Afghan soldiers have died in the last 20 years. The Afghan people did fight. But they were let down by the leadership and by the lack of guidance by the so-called “founding fathers” of Afghanistan, post-9/11. In the last two decades, there was this real vacuum of power and leadership, which we've seen in a very striking way in Ukraine, and it really has united the people.

Mounk: I want to close with a personal question. You're obviously a person of strong convictions, and a healthy sense of moral outrage at what the Taliban are doing to Afghanistan at the moment, for example. And yet, you've casually mentioned interviewing them, taking phone calls with them, and riding along on their missions. What does that look like in practice? I imagine that you're not too fond of them, and they're probably not too fond of you. 

Hakim: These things are incredibly complicated and complex, especially in our field, where on the one hand, you take calls from devastated young girls and women who say to you, “This is what's happened to my life.” And we spoke about the utter heartbreak that millions of girls feel across Afghanistan about not being able to be educated and not knowing what their future holds. And then on the other hand, for me to understand my privilege—knowing that I may be born in Afghanistan, I may be an Afghan woman, but raised in the West in Australia and living in the UK. I work for a major news broadcaster and organization that has clout and power, which means when I enter these places and enter these conversations, I have a seat at the table. They listen to me, and I listen to them, and I report on what they're doing, and they know that I'm doing these reports.

I'll be going back to Afghanistan in a few weeks. And it is incredibly challenging and difficult, but I know that I also have a job, and I have to do my job well. And I have told the Taliban—as I've told others that I've covered, whether it was in Iraq, or Syria or Yemen or Mexico, wherever I've worked and reported from—that my job is to seek the truth. I will report it if it's the truth. I've told the Taliban that if they do something good, I will report it. If they do something bad, I will report it. My job is to get to the bottom of what the truth is, and that involves traveling with them, sitting down with them, speaking to them, interacting with them, listening to them, challenging them, and ultimately getting as close to the truth of what is actually happening, for the sake of public good and to help international viewers and audiences and the Afghan people better understand the climate. That is a huge responsibility that I feel, certainly in relation to Afghanistan, but also in relation to Ukraine, most recently, where I was meeting so many women—and this is what I was really overwhelmed by, as someone who now has a small child—on the run from Ukraine, with their small children, and the clothes on their back, doing whatever they could to get to safety. For all of those people who stayed and fought, there are millions of others who are desperately concerned, like any parents, for the safety of their children, and who had to leave. I was struck and overwhelmed by that. But my job is to go to these places and meet with these difficult characters. And as you say, there are occasions where, one-on-one with someone, I realize that ultimately, they are human beings. Perhaps they, too, once had dreams and hopes for a better future for themselves. But they have fought for an ideology that is currently oppressing a population. My job is to get to the heart of that and the truth.


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