Afghanistan: How America Broke Its Crucible

Page 1


In partnership with


A Bookazine Edition by

In partnership with

Copyright © by Diplomatic Courier/Medauras Global Publishing 2006-2021 All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. First Published 2006. Published in the United States by Medauras Global and Diplomatic Courier. Mailing Address: 1660 L Street, NW, Suite 501, Washington, DC, 20036 | Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data ISBN: 978-1-942772-07-1 (Digital) ISBN: 978-1-942772-06-4 (Print) LEGAL NOTICE. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form—except brief excerpts for the purpose of review—without written consent from the publisher and the authors. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of information in this publication; however, the authors, the editors, Diplomatic Courier, and Medauras Global make no warranties, express or implied, in regards to the information and disclaim all liability for any loss, damages, errors, or omissions. EDITORIAL. The essays both in print and online represent the views of their authors and do not reflect those of the editors and the publishers. While the editors assume responsibility for the selection of the articles, the authors are responsible for the facts and interpretations of their articles. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of information in this publication, however, Medauras Global and the Diplomatic Courier make no warranties, express or implied in regards to the information, and disclaim all liability for any loss, damages, errors, or omissions. PERMISSIONS. None of the articles can be reproduced without their permission and that of the publishers. For permissions please email the editors at: with your written request. COVER DESIGN. Cover photo Sebastian Rich. Cover and jacket design by Marc Garfield.

A Bookazine Edition by



EDITOR’S NOTE | SHANE SZARKOWSKI............................................................................................08


“PLEASE DON’T ABANDON US” KAY’S MESSAGE.....................................................................12 “LEGITIMIZING THE TALIBAN SACRIFICES AFGHANISTAN’S MINORITIES” ALEX’S MESSAGE...............................................................................................................................................14 “I FEAR FOR THE U.S. SOLDIER WHO SAVED MY LIFE” ALI’S MESSAGE........................17 “WHEN WE LOST HOPE, JHR HELPED US FLEE” REZA’S MESSAGE.................................20


AMERICAN LEADERSHIP NEVER UNDERSTOOD AFGHANISTAN | JT LIDDELL.........26 A MOMENT OF DESPERATION | PETER JAMES KIERNAN........................................................28 ACKNOWLEDGING OUR FAILURES SO WE CAN MOVE FORWARD | ANGELIC YOUNG............................................................................................................................................30 HOW WE FAILED TO PROTECT CIVILIANS IN THE AFGHAN EXIT | MARLA B. KEENAN.........................................................................................................................................34 THEIR CALLS FOR HELP ARE STILL SOUNDING | MARIAH SMITH......................................38 REFLECTING ON THE SIV PROGRAM AND HOW WE GOT HERE | JAMES MIERVALDIS.......................................................................................................................................42 WHAT DEFINES SUCCESS IN AFGHANISTAN? A CODA AND A WARNING | CHRISTOPHER KARWACKI.........................................................................................................................46


HOW “STATE DESTROYING” CORRUPTION HAMPERED AFGHANISTAN | RONALD E. NEUMANN..................................................................................................................................52 AFGHANISTAN FOUGHT TO IMPROVE, BUT FOR WHAT? | MARIAM SAFI.....................56 ELECTION FRAUD UNDERMINED AFGHANISTAN’S FLEDGLING DEMOCRACY | MUSTAFA ARYAN...........................................................................................................................................60 STRATEGY SANS POLICY AND FAILURE TO COMMIT IN AFGHANISTAN |ETHAN BROWN................................................................................................................................................64 U.S.-PAKISTAN RELATIONS: ANOTHER GROUNDHOG DAY | ALEXIA D’ARCO............68 NEEDED: A WHOLE-OF-GOVERNMENT APPROACH THAT ACTUALLY WORKS | JOHN F. SOPKO.................................................................................................................................................72 LOOKING FOR AND FINDING COMPLEXITY IN AFGHANISTAN | JOSHUA HUMINSKI.........................................................................................................................................76



n the Western world, we suffer from a largely two-dimensional view of Afghanistan. We see it as a largely unknown place that is unsettled, uncivilized, and a theater for conflict against daunting foes—be it an idea like terrorism or a longstanding adversary like the Soviet Union. Across much of the media landscape, Afghanistan is a tragedy…but a tragedy that is highly politicized in terms of finding fault with the respective administrations of Joe Biden or Donald Trump. These two-dimensional characterizations of Afghanistan do an unforgivable disservice to the Afghans, to our service members and civil servants who worked and suffered to improve the situation there, and to ourselves. After all, if we can’t understand what happened then what is to keep us from making the same mistakes elsewhere? And make no mistake, the United States remains embroiled in interventions around the world which may be lower intensity and get less coverage, but which nevertheless share certain key attributes. There’s a lot we don’t know about Afghanistan and what went wrong where, why, and how. But by seeking broader understanding, listening to voices that don’t always have the platform they deserve, we can do better. We have to. This bookazine is an attempt by Diplomatic Courier and our valued partners— No One Left Behind, Truman National Security Project, and the William & Mary Whole of Government Center of Excellence—to help amplify those voices. We attempt to make sense of what happened in three acts. In the first section, “Afghan Voices,” we invite four Afghans to tell their stories in their own words. Each person we interviewed came from a very different situation and so each format is slightly different. For some, the decision to speak to us involved a great deal of personal bravery. Each of them was motivated by a desire to make their voices heard and to prompt the wider world to try—to try harder—to deepen our understanding of what’s happened and what’s happening. In the second section, “Perspectives from the ‘Field,’” we hear from folks who have been intimately and operationally involved 8 | AFGHANISTAN

in Afghanistan. Four veterans from the Truman network discuss their experiences as service members in Afghanistan and how those experiences have shaped their perspectives. Three current and former board members with No One Left Behind—a charity helping evacuate Afghans who served alongside U.S. service members—talk about their experiences in this critical endeavor, and their attempts to understand the lessons from their challenges and successes. In the final section, “Learning from Tragedy to Do Better,” we feature analyses from a variety of experts—American and Afghan—about how we arrived at today and what it means for tomorrow. We hear from two Afghan civil society leaders— Mariam Safi and Mustafa Aryan—who were intimately involved in both attempts to build up Afghanistan’s civil society and in the peace talks. Regular Diplomatic Courier contributors Ethan Brown and Joshua Huminski provide historical perspectives and further reading through a book review roundup, respectively. Finally, we hear from three former and current government officials—Alexia D’Arco, Ambassador Ronald Neumann, and John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction—who talk about lessons learned through their work and thoughts about what moving forward should look like. Afghanistan is personal for me. The events of 9/11 and the intervention that followed had an outsized impact on who I am today morally and professionally. The same can be said (except only much, much more so!) for all of our contributors in this bookazine. Their personal and professional experiences, their perspectives, their learnings can help add depth to our understanding of this country and this crisis. Diplomatic Courier and our partners hope you find meaning and greater understanding in the pages to come. We certainly did.

Shane Szarkowski Washington, DC November 2021




AFGHAN VOICES In this first section, we hear from Kay, Alex, Ali, and Mohd. Reza. We have anonymized their names to varying degrees, as is their preference and for their protection. On the basis of their preference and situation, we conducted interviews in various formats. Ali and Mohd. Reza told us their evacuation stories with only a few general prompt questions. We spoke with Kay and Alex on the phone and their responses are edited transcripts of those interviews. In Kay’s case, we worked through an interviewer so edits are substantial and the writeup is in the third person. We are grateful for their personal bravery in speaking to us during extremely trying times, sharing experiences that are very personal and vulnerable. DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 11

“Please Don’t Abandon Us” Kay’s Message


ay is a human rights and women’s rights activist who was active and visible in Afghan media in the years leading up to the Taliban takeover. She is Hazara, a minority ethnic group which speaks a dialect of Persian, practices Shia, and is native to central Afghanistan. Kay remains stranded in Afghanistan, and her real name is being withheld in the interest of her safety. Because of her precarious situation, Diplomatic Courier spoke with her on the phone with the help of an interpreter. The following interview is compiled from these notes with her permission, maintaining her voice as much as possible. ***** Kay fled her home city of Mazar three days before it fell to the Taliban. She was able to safely travel to Kabul, but days later Kabul fell to the Taliban as well. She attempted to evacuate through the Kabul airport, but was prevented from getting there. She told us that because she is an ethnic minority, Taliban checkpoints would not allow her to pass. Kay has received emails and messages of support from friends abroad and others who want to help. However, there has thus far been little they have been able to do to support her evacuation efforts. In early October, Kay reached out to various international organizations as well as the governments of the USA, Canada, several EU countries, and Australia. As of the middle of October when Diplomatic Courier spoke with her, however, she had not received responses to any of these efforts. Kay expressed her deep worries about the situation. Her case is strong—she is clearly in danger because of her human rights activism, her media visibility, and her ethnicity. Yet, nobody has been able to help and there has been no real apparent action from institutions to support her case despite her clear need. We asked Kay to tell us about the biggest challenges she is facing dayto-day. She told us that as a young single woman—and especially as an ethnic minority—she is in a very precarious situation with the Taliban in power. There are no protections for her, and her life is in danger daily. 12 | AFGHANISTAN

Her message to the world and to those with power: To the international community, human rights defenders, and those who value human rights: do not recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government. If the world recognizes the Taliban we will let Afghanistan go back in time and the country’s women, girls, and youth will suffer greatly. While Kay is under particular threat due to her social activism, she stressed to us that her situation is similar to that faced by many other single women who are unprotected and potential targets. Kay told us that she feels and is trapped. Living alone, she has no ability to work or to care for herself. She is desperately seeking any temporary assistance to get to safety. Kay also asked us to speak to other scholars, university employees, and others who can speak to the situation. She provided us with contact information for several such individuals, primarily women, in hopes we could speak with them. When asked what message she would like to have conveyed to the world at large, Kay had this to say. Note that quotes are paraphrased via an interpreter, but are as close to her voice as possible. “Please do not abandon Afghanistan’s religious minorities who are under extreme danger from all sides (ISIS and Taliban). Minorities are being targeted and killed in coordinated attacks and they are forced to flee and their properties and belongings are being seized. They lack basic human rights. Our youth, our researchers, our scholars are now all exposed.” At the time of this writing, Kay remains healthy and free. She successfully left Kabul, but remains in hiding anonymously elsewhere in the country.


“Legitimizing the Taliban Sacrifices Afghanistan’s Minorities” Alex’s Message


lex is an Afghan native who is a former government contractor supporting U.S. forces in Afghanistan with IT and communication services. He is an SIV recipient who, in recognition of his service, was able to leave Afghanistan several years ago with his family. Alex has been working with a variety of charities and government agencies to get Afghans who face genuine threats from the Taliban out of the country. Alex has agreed to speak with Diplomatic Courier over the phone to tell us his story. His name and other identifiable information have been anonymized for security purposes. This is the transcript of Alex’s interview, edited for anonymity and readability. ***** 1. As a former contractor for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, can you explain how easy or difficult it was for you to get an SIV visa and come to the United States? When I came to the United States, the SIV requirement was much different than it is today. It took a long time; there was a requirement of 2 years of service, lots pf paperwork, a recommendation by a U.S. sponsor, proof of service to the government. I was eligible, and got my SIV through that process. There were some challenges, largely due to difficulties on the Afghan side, relating to the background of who you are and your ethnicity. Many Afghans were employed by the U.S. government to help process SIV paperwork, so discrimination could cause problems for SIV applicants. I experienced discrimination from Afghan employees due to my ethnicity, so I had to get my paperwork processed by a U.S. embassy outside Afghanistan. 2. How did that process differ, in your experience, from the process faced by Afghans in the past 3-4 months who have been trying to leave Afghanistan on SIV or humanitarian visas?


Currently, Afghans face a lot more challenges than we faced. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the situation has changed a lot. The U.S. embassy is closed and even before it closed, employees were clearing sensitive data. This meant that some SIV applicants’ data and approvals were lost. Furthermore, as there is now no local presence from the United States in Afghanistan, any processing which requires in person interaction is impossible. The U.S. embassies in Tajikistan and Pakistan have barely been processing SIV applications from Afghanistan, even for Afghans who have managed to travel there for the process. Further, there have been indications that they will no longer process these, which makes the challenge even larger. The U.S. government has been thinking about virtual interviews, but the safety of virtual interviews is still at question and no final decisions have been reached. Many Afghans are struggling to get to the in-person interview step because an American sponsor must have signed a recommendation for the SIV program. When an application is submitted, the people processing the visa will seek to reach out to the U.S. sponsor. Most sponsors will have given their government emails or phone numbers that in most cases are no longer active as they were Afghan phone numbers or military emails which would have been deactivated. This could lead to totally valid applications being denied. 3. In your work today trying to help Afghans evacuate, are there any international or national institutions that stand out as having been especially helpful or difficult to work with? Honestly, overall we see many helping hands and people that want to help, but due to high level policies and bureaucratic challenges they often face limitations in what they can do. Some of these are policies established by the U.S. government…the eligibility for evacuation is still not well-defined in some areas. For instance, what constitutes an at-risk Afghan remains unclear, as some Afghans are at more critical risk than others. The current U.S. policy on evacuations doesn’t consider ethnic minorities like Hazaras as being at more critical risk even though they supported U.S. forces and are at a high risk of retaliation. While all non-Pashtuns are at greater risk from the Taliban, Hazaras in particular are being targeted by the Taliban as well as ISIS-K because so many supported the United States. The situation is further complicated by the requirement to have recommendations signed by a U.S. sponsor. There were very few DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 15

U.S. personnel stationed in the Hazara-majority areas. Because the Hazaras supported the United States, there was very little unrest and thus less need for a U.S. presence. That meant fewer opportunities for sponsorship and now they are paying the price for their support of the U.S. Because high-level policies don’t recognize the increased risk for groups like the Hazara who supported U.S. forces, they are now trapped and living in extreme danger of violence from the Taliban. Non-Pashtuns have been targeted for attacks and forceful displacement even in the past few years. The situation is only becoming worse with Taliban and ISIS reprisals now that U.S. forces have left. 4. If you had a message that you could get across to the public at large, what would it be? Thank you for asking this question. The most important message that I have for the public is: do not forget the people who supported the U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Please continue to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, but make sure the aid is properly channeled to reach the hands of those most in need. Do not provide aid without conditions that prevent it from reaching the Taliban because any aid that reaches the Taliban will not reach the wider public in Afghanistan. Most of the ethnic and religious minorities in particular will be unable to get aid unless it is directly delivered by aid organizations. And please, please do not recognize the Taliban government currently ruling in Afghanistan. Do not recognize them as a legitimate government because if you do, you sacrifice the over 60% of the Afghan population which comes from other ethnic and religious minority groups. While Pashtuns comprise much of Afghanistan, the majority of Afghanistan is not Pashtun. It is a country of minorities. If the Taliban regime is recognized, the majority of the population will face isolation, discrimination, violence, and negligence. Then, we will see the biggest human rights crisis in Afghanistan’s history.


“I Fear For the U.S. Soldier Who Saved My Life” Ali’s Message


li worked for the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) and Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) advocating for inclusion of war victims in the peace process. He is a Fulbright Scholar and holds a master degree from Texas A&M University, Bush School of government and public service. Ali agreed to share his story with us. What follows is that story, in his words. ***** For most of my career, I worked for the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF). Most recently, I was the Director of Admissions and an instructor. Before the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban, my family and I went to Islamabad to interview for a U.S. visa as I had been accepted into a PhD program in the United States. Our visa was placed in administrative processes, but when I got a job offer back in Kabul, we returned home, and were in the city when the Taliban took Kabul. The fall of Kabul was so abrupt and unexpected. We are so angry and frustrated about how all of this happened and how the previous government failed us. A day before Kabul fell, my colleagues and I had a conversation and our best analysis was that the Taliban would not be able to enter Kabul militarily for six months to one year. We were wrong. When the Taliban took over, my world changed and I felt threatened. In my job, I was the face of an American liberal arts university that promoted many values that the Taliban detested. They had even attacked the university in 2016. My team and I were promoting those values in provinces and schools as recruiters and admissions officers. I started knocking on every door to help me with the evacuation and put me on a list. I contacted my professors at Texas A&M University, my former boss in Washington, DC, who I had DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 17

worked with as a research fellow during my graduate studies, and the leadership of the American University of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the American University’s leadership didn’t respond. Worse, they put all staff and students in danger by failing to destroy identifying materials. Everyone else responded, expressing support and sympathy. My professors wrote to the State Department that I was in danger and should be evacuated. My former boss in Washington contacted senators and congressmen and women to help me. I am forever grateful to every one of them. The wait was excruciating. My wife and I took shelter at home, reduced our contacts and checked our emails constantly hoping to get good news. We contacted everyone that we thought could help. For us, it was a fight for survival and a future for our 18-month old son. We were so angry that my job offer had brought us back to Kabul. If anything had happened to my son and wife, I wouldn’t have forgiven myself as I had brought them from Islamabad back to Kabul only two weeks before. I felt guilty, demoralized, and threatened. I waited until August 25, hoping to hear something and depart for the airport. It was the longest wait of my life. Except for necessary grocery shopping, we were confined at home. We were not prepared to face the Taliban. Our values were different, I had spoken and written against them and suddenly they were our rulers with the full power to shape our lives and futures. It was as tragic as it was unacceptable to us. On August 25, my wife, son, and I decided to go to the airport. After hours of struggling through crowds of people, I was finally able to get close to an American soldier at the Abbey gate and briefly introduced myself. The deadly explosion which took place at the airport that day happened four or five hours after we were let in. The situation at the airport was extremely chaotic, like a doomsday. Everyone was struggling to leave the country. U.S. forces at the airport were under tremendous pressure. Many people who had come didn’t have proper documentation or a reason to leave. We waited in front of the gate for a whole day and night. When we were in and waiting for initial Biometrics, the alarm bell went off and there was an explosion. We waited another night before we were flown to Bahrain, then Italy, where we stayed for ten days. Currently, we are in a camp in New Mexico, waiting to be transferred. 18 | AFGHANISTAN

When reflecting back, my heart hurts for the many eligible people who could not make it out. The evacuation process was poorly executed and many couldn’t make it. I also think about the U.S. soldier who took my hand, lifted me from the crowd, and saved my life. I hope he made it to safety before the explosion, as it happened right where he had been standing. If I could share a message with the world, it would be this. Afghanistan is going to have difficult times under the Taliban. Although the group has announced public amnesty to improve their image and PR, there are credible reports that they are targeting members of security forces from the previous government, NGOs workers and minority groups. The United States and other countries should pressure the Taliban to stop these brutal practices and resume the evacuation plan for those who are at risk and could not make it to safety in the previous evacuation.


“When We Lost Hope, JHR Helped Us Flee” Reza’s Message


ohd. Reza is Board Member of Marefat Civil Capacity Building Organization and Board member of Mother Trust Organization. He has worked for the Global Communities, The Asia Foundation, Development Alternatives Inc. and the Government of Afghanistan. He has a MSc in Public Policy from University of Bristol and BA in Social Sciences from Kabul University. Reza agreed to share his story with us. What follows is that story, in his words. ***** My family and I left Afghanistan on October 12, 2021, aboard a flight from Kabul to Islamabad. Prior to the collapse of the Republic, I was in communication with several American friends, expressing my concerns that the Afghan government had been losing control, both morally and territorially, to the Taliban since early January 2021. One friend (Jessica), a Washington D.C.-based author, promised to get an invitation so my family could leave Afghanistan. I told her that I still thought there was some time. She sent an invitation letter in May so that my family and I could come to the United States on a tourist visa. We decided to try to leave by tourist visa because, even though I was elegible for an SIV visa I had already applied for this two years previously but the process was severely delayed due to the pandemic. However, the American Embassy in Kabul also experienced delays processing tourist visas. By this time, it was clear that things were NOT going in the right direction and that the government was going to fall into the hands of the Taliban quickly. My main argument with friends, both in and outside of Afghanistan was that although the United States had established a centralized government in Afghanistan that was controlled by Ashraf Ghani and his circle, there was sympathy between former President 20 | AFGHANISTAN

Ghani and Taliban. This sympathy was because both Ghani and the Taliban have an ethno-centric agenda for ruling Afghanistan, which would be the end of democracy for Afghanistan. Ghani was already replacing his inner circle with mostly Pashtun officials to facilitate the Taliban’s acceptance at the Ministry of Interior, excluding minority Hazara and Uzbek groups. Many of my friends and family were losing hope by that time. I know of families that paid as much as $5,000 for black market tourist visas out of desperation. My wife asked me to leave the country without a visa or try to buy a visa for myself and go. Because of my work in the Afghan government and with several American organizations, my face is well-known to the Taliban and sympathetic Afghan officials. I told her that I would not go without her or our three kids. Although I received many threats from the Taliban, I preferred to die rather than leave my family behind. Instead, I applied to the Canadian Afghan resettlement program and quickly received a file number. On August 13, I asked my colleagues at the last organization I worked with, the Marefat Civil Capacity Building Organization (MCCBO), to hide the organization’s valuable assets. On August 15, the Taliban took control of the Presidential Palace. Two Board members of MCCBO went to the Kabul Airport to seek evacuation. For the first time in my life, I could not sleep for several nights and days. On August 16 and 17, I contacted friends who had been evacuated from the Kabul Airport. I also shared my observations about three evacuation entrances with my networks and a high-profile individual. This included very bad behavior of UNIT 01 with non-Pashtun forces at the Airport, worse even than the Taliban. I observed the Afghan-Security Unit 01 not allowing people with proper documents to enter the airport, but the two other entrances were under the control of the Taliban. The IRCC sent a facilitation letter to assist in our evacuation on August 23. We coordinated with the IRCC to reach the Baron Gate Hotel to await evacuation, but the Taliban blocked our way and they beat me and some other people. Firing in the air, they forced us to flee back to our homes. By the next morning, the IRCC was advising us to avoid the airport due to security threats. My family was losing hope and wanted me to flee on my own. My parents wanted me to illegally cross into Pakistan, as the border was now officially closed. Late that night, Jessica asked me to take my family on a bus for Mazar-city. The journey was difficult, passing several Taliban checkpoints. Luckily, I had an old ID card DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 21

from the Taliban era and although one of our children became very ill on the long journey, we arrived safely to the Zar-Afshan International Guest House. The guest house was like a paradise for us. After we arrived in our room, I was able to buy water, chips, and juice for the kids. This little room had one single and one double bed. I slept on the floor so that the kids should have more space. However, rumors that the Taliban had begun searching the guest house forced us to flee. We stayed for more than two weeks with family as I tried to secure visas, but flights were severely delayed. During this time, I was in contact with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) and Rosa Hwang from the CTV News. Together we decided that I should return to Kabul and hide while applying for Pakistan visas on the black market. We were severely overcharged for these visas, and they took my passport and would not respond to us for sixteen days. During this time, the National Endowment for Democracy stepped in to help us apply for an Albanian e-visa. They were very helpful and ultimately, our e-visas were approved. However, our evacuation plan was delayed and we were unable to evacuate with NED. After discussing with the JHR, we decided that I should travel with my family to Pakistan on board a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight. In preparation my wife, oldest son, and I got a PCR test for the flight but more flight delays affected the validity of our results. After getting new tests for the later flight, my family and I arrived at the Kabul Airport. However, PIA staff told us our names were not on the day’s flight and they also insisted on a PCR test for my 8-year-old son even though their policy only required this for ages 10 and up. I contacted the JHR for help and they coordinated with the PIA headquarters in Islamabad to address the situation. It was past midnight in Canada by then but they were still helping us and replying to our messages and concerns. I cannot find the words to thank them. Eventually a PIA staff member agreed to issue boarding passes but ultimately we were unable to board that flight before it left. I thanked my contacts at JHR (Rachel and Rangina) for their help and for staying with us throughout this, then returned home with my family. The next day, the PIA informed us we would be able to board a flight the following day, which would be October 12. On this flight, despite several delays, my family and I were able to enter Islamabad.


Now, thankfully, we are settled at Ambassador Suites while we wait for our Canadian immigration visas. We hope the paperwork by the IRCC and the Canadian embassy will be done in 2-4 weeks.



PERSPECTIVES FROM THE “FIELD” In this section we hear from current and former members of No One Left Behind (NOLB) and fellows with the Truman National Security Project. NOLB is a charity and veterans service organization, which has in recent months been actively involved in working with government and private partners to evacuate Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders who worked to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Three of their current and former board members speak to us about the setbacks and victories—emotional and operational—they have experienced during the evacuation process and what we can learn from the process. The Truman National Security Project is a national security and leadership development organization with a large network of former U.S. military service members. Four of their fellows speak to us about their experiences serving on the ground in Afghanistan, and providing their perspectives on our triumphs and defeats.


American Leadership Never Understood Afghanistan JT LIDDELL


atching the U.S.-supported Afghan government unravel so quickly, I am confused by our leadership’s decisions. I am angry about how casually we allowed the Taliban to regain control. I am saddened as I think about the hundreds of thousands of lives that have been lost to this war over the last 20 years. I spent almost my entire adult life training for or participating in combat missions in southern Afghanistan. Now I wonder, was it worth it? The plan was flawed from the start as the Afghan forces never had a true voice in the strategic planning process. The reality is that the U.S. government never understood the facts on the ground or the realities facing our Afghan partners. Between 2009 and 2010, “hearts and minds” and “clear and hold” were common phrases for military strategy that I heard tossed around in southern Afghanistan, the birthplace of the Taliban. These operations and strategies, which were devised by U.S. and NATO military strategists and policy makers, were supposed to be carried out and “led” by the Afghan forces. While providing intelligence support in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2013, I found that military operations that were touted as bilateral were, in reality, unilaterally led by U.S. troops. Sometimes Afghan security forces were unprepared or not even present. When U.S. troops would work with and teach Afghan soldiers or police, there was a constant fear that these same Afghans (sometimes Taliban infiltrators) would eventually turn their weapons on American forces. We lived with a constant fear that someone within the Afghan element may have already alerted the Taliban to our mission plan and we could be walking into an ambush. These were just some of the early indicators that there was no buy-in from Afghan forces of the “joint” strategy to defeat the Taliban. Over the decades that the United States operated in Afghanistan, these significant indicators were often wrongly attributed to the security forces being inherently lazy or unmotivated. However, they were not consistently incorporated into planning efforts to help address the key is26 | AFGHANISTAN

sues and challenges facing Afghans on the ground. A true joint strategy could have helped bolster a comprehensive grassroots stand against the Taliban by both civilians and government security forces that could have more holistically addressed the situation facing Afghanistan. A multitude of reports have mentioned the human rights advancements, technological contributions, and financial and logistical support to Afghanistan that number in the trillions of dollars. But how involved were the families in the Arghandab River Valley in deciding the type of aid and support they would receive? In a country where Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index ranks the country 165th out of 180 countries, how much of the financial support that was dedicated to those families actually reached them? The voice of the Afghan people, the single most important variable in ensuring success, has been left out of the entire decision-making process. Despite all of this, many, including those who spent years of their lives dedicated to the American mission in Afghanistan, have been shocked about the way in which the withdrawal transpired. There is also surprise about the speed with which the Taliban was able to reassert themselves as the de facto leaders of the country. At a minimum, most believed that the Afghan government could keep the Taliban at bay long enough to secure key locations, like the U.S. Embassy and the Kabul airport, and to assist with an orderly evacuation of American citizens, Afghan interpreters, and other allies. But even this was not to be. To the uninitiated, the question is how could America and other partner intelligence services miss by so much? The real question is how could U.S. leadership ignore the warnings for so long? Instead of acknowledging the facts, the highest levels of American government, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, repeatedly and consistently claimed that the Afghan government was not only prepared but willing and ready to lead the fight against the Taliban without direct assistance from U.S. troops. This was obviously not the reality from where myself and my fellow American and Afghan soldiers stood. This is not an indictment of the will, capability, or intellect of the Afghan people. It is an indictment of the refusal of the American government to ask one simple question from the beginning: what do the people of Afghanistan want? ***** About the author: JT Liddell is a U.S. Army Combat Veteran and served in Afghanistan 3 times between 2009 and 2013. He is the founder of Promenade, an organization that helps connect military veterans to resources for their post-military career, and a Defense Council Member of the Truman National Security Project in Atlanta. DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 27

A Moment of Desperation PETER JAMES KIERNAN


s the Afghan evacuation was under way, like many others, I received a desperate phone call—it was my interpreter. He had been standing in a massive crowd at the East Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport for more than 24 hours hoping to get out of the country. There was no food, no water, no bathrooms, and no shelter from the unrelenting heat. The last 200 meters of the corral leading to the gate were so densely packed that it was impossible to see where one person’s body ended and another began: it was an impenetrable wall of flesh. My interpreter was with another special forces’ interpreter, both with a wife and three young children who were starting to get sick. I could hear the desperation in his voice. He was past the point of exhaustion and ready to turn back, fearing that his children would not survive the conditions much longer. By this point, our small team of current and former members of special operations was now reaching the 36th hour of an intense sprint trying to evacuate them. Leveraging our networks, we had spoken to reporters, members of Congress, and officials at the State Department. We were part of an army of volunteers and NGOs fighting to get people out, sourcing intelligence from the thousands of messages across our Signal and WhatsApp groups. Our team had gotten the appropriate documents and approvals in the hands of servicemembers on the ground. The interpreters and their families were positioning so they could be pulled through the right gate. They had made a final frenetic attempt to get to the entrance, but despite their valiant efforts, could not get close enough to the gate. Our ‘plan’ had been foiled by a mass of bodies simply too dense to move through. We had pulled every string, called in every favor, used every ounce of privilege that came with the title of ‘special operations.’ Although they were within 200 meters of success, the interpreters might as well have been miles away. The window was closing and if we abandoned the attempt or waited much longer the likelihood of getting them into the airport would be non-existent. The consequences of failing to do so were perilous—these men were known to the Taliban after many years of serving the United States military. U.S. missions had brought them face-to-face with key Taliban leaders because these interpreters had helped fight, capture, and 28 | AFGHANISTAN

question many of them. These leaders were now roaming free and empowered to seek unbridled vengeance. The interpreters had received death threats before the Taliban took control and, with the U.S.backed government collapsed and American military gone, torturous reprisals and murderous retribution were all but assured. We told our interpreters to take a few hours to rest and regroup. In the meantime, our team would work out alternatives and try again. In another desperate attempt our fortunes took a miraculous turn—a contact relayed that our interpreters happened to be in an optimal location for a squad of soldiers to extract them from outside the perimeter of the airport. Our team helped coordinate with the troops on the ground, sharing locations and pictures (incredibly, a photo of their extraction was posted on the U.S. DOD Facebook page). These interpreters and their families were lucky—they were in the right place at the right time. Many thousands of others were not. The families are now safely in another country, waiting to be processed and relocated to the United States. In the aftermath, we have started crowdfunding money to support them as they escaped with only the clothes on their backs and in the weeks of fleeing the Taliban were forced to leave everything behind. The reprieve has allowed for some reflection on the evacuation. The effort to get interpreters out of Afghanistan was nothing short of all consuming and should not have needed to happen at all. It shouldn’t have taken a bunch of civilians outside government to make good on the obligations of the United States. It is a bitter irony that the effort to evacuate our allies fell to the same people whose years of advocacy for interpreters fell on deaf ears. They are unwitting victims of an atrophied bureaucracy, savage politics, and callous policy. The reality is that these interpreters and many other allies have waited years to immigrate to the United States. The cavalier policymakers who allowed for the evacuation of allies to be delayed until the final days of the U.S. withdrawal (despite the crushing Taliban advance) have caused senseless deaths and irreparable harm. This dark chapter of American history has ended with a stain on the honor of the United States, impugned our national integrity, and diminished our country’s standing amongst allies and enemies alike. ***** About the author: Peter James Kiernan is a member of the Truman National Security Project, a Tillman Scholar, and a current student at Harvard Business School. Kiernan conducted special operations in Afghanistan as a MARSOC Raider from 2012-2013. In the Marine Corps, he served as a scout sniper, Pashto linguist, and was free fall qualified. He holds degrees from Columbia University and Trinity College Dublin. DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 29

Acknowledging Our Failures So We Can Move Forward ANGELIC YOUNG


t is difficult to accept that President Biden or his advisors lacked awareness of the gaping holes in the Afghan National Security Forces’ (ANSF) capacity to hold the Taliban at bay.

Much has been written concerning the validity of the 300,000 Afghan force that President Biden cited in his speech about the U.S. withdrawal from the country, which most understand to be a gross overestimation of the actual strength of the ANSF. High rates of desertion have always plagued the ANSF. However, President Biden also seems to have included the Afghan National Police (ANP) in this number—a force that was not able to “provide nationwide security, especially as that force faced a larger threat than anticipated after the drawdown of coalition military forces.” I would know. I spent the first several years of my career as the Afghanistan Police Program manager for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at the Department of State. In 2007, when I left the program, the police could not effectively serve as a force multiplier in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. To imagine that today they would somehow be capable of holding the line against the Taliban would be laughable if it was not so devastatingly tragic. Even when I left nearly 15 years ago, the failures to strengthen the police force were clear. The very conception of our efforts and the decisions made early on that shaped the nature of our engagement and objectives were deeply flawed. To understand why and how we failed, we must go back to the beginning, when Germany took the lead in reconstructing the police in late 2001. German efforts were initially narrowly targeted at officers and non-commissioned officers in the ANP in Kabul. These programs were intensive, nine-month and threeyear-long programs. In theory, this was a fantastic model and provided a professional education. However, the United States wanted to move faster.


In 2002, the United States began building a complementary program at the patrol level that would expand beyond Kabul to several regional training centers throughout the country. As part of the effort, they offered a nine-week basic training course that would produce thousands of trained police officers. Whether nine weeks would have been enough is unknown, the vast majority of ANP never even completed that much training. The U.S. program presumed much higher literacy rates than existed. Much of the material in the nine-week course was useless as many could not read it. The program was shortened to five weeks for recruits and just two to three weeks of “refresher training” for other police officers. Inadequate training based on our fundamental baseline misunderstanding was undoubtedly a key component of this failure. Lack of oversight was another critical failure. Invading Iraq was a pivotal moment. Our national security architecture’s attention shifted, our resources and personnel were diverted, and folks like me—at the time in my mid-twenties and just barely two years on the job—were left in charge of efforts in Afghanistan. Under my so-called leadership, we built seven regional training centers throughout the country in addition to our Kabul facility and spent countless millions on equipment, uniforms, training, and reform efforts. I don’t know the exact number, but I’d estimate that I spent over a billion USD over the six or so years I led that program. At the time, I did not have substantive law enforcement experience. Despite countless temporary duty assignments in Afghanistan, I never made it to all of the training centers. From a purely fiscal perspective, oversight of contractors was superficial at best. My ability to judge the quality and impact of the program was significantly constrained and was focused squarely on the number of police trained. By late 2004, it became impossible to ignore the deteriorating security situation and the inability of the police to play a meaningful role in improving conditions on the ground—corruption was rampant, attrition was endemic, and training was inadequate. It had become glaringly apparent that the number of police trained had little do with force strength or capacity. Frustrated with the worsening security situation, the Department of Defense took over police training in 2005. The transition was a mess. Congressional opposition to the takeover made for a chaotic budget situation. Further complicating matters was DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 31

the mystifying language describing the new relationship between Defense and State. The vague phrasing led to a year and a half of interagency squabbling and lacked anything approaching a coherent strategy. By 2006, police training amounted to training cannon-fodder for the increasingly virulent insurgency. Successive administrations have noted that we did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. Perhaps I do not understand what the term “nation-building” means. If the U.S. objective was to leave Afghanistan with security forces that were committed to the rule of law and capable of providing a safe and secure environment for Afghanistan, I think the United States signed up for at least some aspects of nation-building. So, why did we fail? We failed because we lacked a plan with measurable and articulated goals. We failed because we got distracted by the Iraq war. We failed because the Bush administration could not get the interagency to cooperate, let alone collaborate. We failed because subsequent administrations poured resources down the drain rather than fix the underlying systemic inadequacies of the programs. We failed because we lacked anything approaching a meaningful commitment, too scared of the word nation-building to admit that this is what we were doing—just doing so poorly. ***** About the author: Angelic Young spent 10 years leading police programs at the Department of State. After leaving federal service, she spent 6 years at Inclusive Security. She now leads training programs for U.S. law enforcement agencies. Angelic is a Truman Project National Security Fellow.



How We Failed To Protect Civilians in the Afghan Exit MARLA B. KEENAN


ince mid-August, civilian protection advocates have watched in agony as the United States failed to meet the moment, ignoring the precious lessons learned over 20 grinding years.

My career spans more than one and a half decades working with NGOs such as the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and the Stimson Center to build governments’ and their security forces’ ability, will, and skill to protect civilians in conflict and crisis. I have conducted high-level advocacy with political leaders and policymakers and my staff has worked alongside NATO and U.S. security forces to protect civilians in Afghanistan since 2008. When Kabul fell to the Taliban, I volunteered with the Afghanistan Operations Center, which the Truman Center and Truman Project for National Security quickly set up in the midst of the chaos. Over six weeks later, I’m still working to get two families back home to Texas. We will surely be dissecting our failures for the foreseeable future, but as I reflect on my own 15 years of advocacy, one issue seems all too clear: a heavily slanted focus on security forces and active combat allowed the State Department’s barely existent civilian protection capabilities to atrophy catastrophically. To be sure, there were myriad problems with U.S. and NATO policies on Afghanistan, but progress was made. For example, ISAF developed an entire line of effort dedicated to civilian-military interaction and guidance on how the troops could better communicate and work with the Afghan population. ISAF Commanders were a primary advocacy target for my protection work because they were in close contact with civilians and in a powerful position to help or harm. They in turn trained their soldiers and their Afghan counterparts. Both U.S. and NATO security forces have publicly documented their learning in reports, crafted new doctrine, and produced ample practical guidance in the form of handbooks and tactical directives. But advocates in the protection space 34 | AFGHANISTAN

also knew that we needed high-level policies to ensure that there was political and diplomatic buy-in. This came in 2016 at the Brussels Summit when the North Atlantic Council, the principal policy making body within NATO, adopted the Protection of Civilians Policy and committed resources to support its implementation. It was a broad policy that included not only protecting civilians from military operations but also protecting them from other actors, understanding the human environment, and facilitating access to basic needs. In the United States, there was less success. It was hard to get traction at the political level and so we settled for an Executive Order under President Obama that solely focused on the military. While the U.S. State Department was supportive of these efforts, they steered clear of involving themselves. I remember several meetings at State in the early 2010s where we would approach the subject and would be told that these were Defense issues. This lack of engagement was, I suspect, motivated by a mixture of preference and pragmatism. State did not want to step into the messy discussion around civilian harm and Defense did not want more voices complicating the topic. This was a devastating mistake and meant our focus was entirely on civilians in combat and not the holistic protection of civilians across the war. Protection is not just something the military does and it does not end once the policies are set. Protection is active and it must be a central mission across the whole of government. It needs enduring political will, resources, and the ready apparatuses to mobilize in a crisis. From what I saw, State Department was caught completely flat footed when Kabul fell. Civil society organizations were quick to set up volunteer groups and coordinated with State to fill in gaps and shore up capabilities. For example, to bridge some of the lack of capacity at State, volunteers created intake systems to gather and transmit data from U.S. citizens, green card holders, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and Afghans at risk to State. The Ops Team helped ensure that any charter planes that did make it into Kabul left at 100% capacity instead of half-full as they had in the early days. The close relationships between these organizations and the networks with State, Defense, and the intelligence community saved lives. The link between civil society and government is vital, especially in times of crisis. As we work to build back the State Department that the previous administration decimated, we must also strengthen these ties. DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 35

We need to get serious about implementing civilian protection capabilities across the whole of government and international institutions. While the crisis in Afghanistan may be closing, protection capacity in future conflict and crisis scenarios will play a key role in success or failure. It is not enough for our military to have policy, guidance, and training on the protection of civilians—our State Department needs it too. In future engagements—whether in armed conflict or crisis response—the whole ‘team’ must understand and know how to protect civilians. The U.S. has a critical opportunity to lead, especially at NATO where progress toward civilian protection implementation is at a pivotal moment. I am thankful for the committed work of our military and State colleagues, and I mourn the 13 service members who lost their lives. I am so thankful for all the volunteers who answered the call and stood together across so many organizations to fill in where our government needed tools, capacity, knowledge, connections, and skills. What I know for certain is that it did not have to be like this. Proper planning could have saved lives and prevented the current situation: U.S. citizens and those who stood beside our troops are still in danger. ***** About the author: Marla B. Keenan is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Stimson Center. Her areas of expertise include human rights in armed conflict, protection of civilians, civilian harm tracking and analysis, and civil-military relations in armed conflict. Keenan is also a National Security Fellow and Member Board Director at the Truman National Security Project.



Their Calls for Help Are Still Sounding MARIAH SMITH


n the night of August 15th, 2021, I received the following email: Dear sir/madam, I am sure you are aware of the security situation in Kabul. I am stuck with my family in the middle of nowhere. The city is closed and anti-government elements are everywhere and robbing, thieving and entering to people’s houses and taking their stuff by force. All the banks are out of money and the ATMs are out of service. Including of me a lot of people are out of cash. In Afghanistan no one use visa or credit cards. The airport is closed and I am not sure how to get out. I served to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan for about 18 years. My identity has been exposed in the area that I live and everyone knows that I worked with and for the U.S. government for years. I and my family are at very high risk please don’t forget us in your prayers. My flight has been scheduled on 24 August but I am not sure if I will be able to get out. Any update from your side?? Signed, “A” (Name redacted for privacy)

‘A’ was an Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) recipient. He had been in contact with us for over a week. I serve on the Board of Directors for No One Left Behind (NOLB), an organization dedicated to assisting the Afghan and Iraqi translators who served with U.S. troops.


Back in July, we realized with growing dread that the fall of Kabul to the Taliban was going to happen sooner than we anticipated. At that time, we thought we had months. In reality, we only had weeks. SIV recipients have access to a process where tickets can be booked for them through the International Organization for Migration, but the process can take weeks, and time was running out. Thanks to a grant from The Change Reaction, NOLB was able to privately and quickly book tickets for more than 50 SIV families. Sadly, there was even less time than we feared. The first family we helped with commercial tickets left the country on July 21st. The Taliban entered Kabul and seized the Hamad Karzai International Airport on August 16th. Many of the families that had booked tickets with us were suddenly trapped. The messages for help that had begun slowly suddenly exploded. I was being contacted directly with hundreds of messages a day by at-risk Afghans of all types: journalists, artists, those who had worked with US businesses, and those who had applied for SIVs but hadn’t been able to finish the process. Soon they overwhelmed my email and then my LinkedIn. The words were heartbreaking in their urgency. By August 17th, I was unable to sleep more than an hour or so at a time because I wanted to be tied to my computer and the little bit of connectivity I had to help. From the 17th–21st of August I worked out of my living room, sleeping on the sofa in short naps and barely eating. On the 22nd of August I went to join a group of volunteers at a rented conference room in a DC hotel to be physically near other people dedicated to the same effort. My experience during the evacuation is very similar to those of many of the hundreds if not thousands of volunteers that came together to save as many Afghan allies as possible. Most of these volunteers were hearing daily from Afghans who have been terminally stuck in the SIV application process. It was disheartening and enraging. Despite advocacy efforts by groups like NOLB and some Congressional allies to repair and streamline the SIV process, it remains needlessly complicated and chronically under-resourced. We could have made this process more efficient long ago, as NOLB has advocated for. If we had, thousands of our translators would already be in the US rather than trapped in Afghanistan today. Our system has failed these brave individuals who put themselves at risk to serve alongside us. DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 39

From the 22nd–26th of August our coordination cell tried to help as many translators and allies as possible make it inside the gates of Kabul airport. It was exceptionally difficult for people to get in. There was chaos, with tens of thousands of people channeled into an area with high walls and tightly packed crowds, where people fainted from exhaustion or were trampled. There were reports that ISIS was in the area and was going to set off a VBIED (Vehicle Borne Explosive Device). On August 26th, when the blasts went off at Abbey Gate, 13 American servicemembers and over 170 Afghans were killed. I had been talking for hours via WhatsApp to a fellow veteran I had served with in Afghanistan who had family at Abbey Gate. I was emailing every contact I could think of, for these Afghan allies and others I was in contact with, in the hopes that a military member could help them get inside. After the Abbey Gate blasts, the entrances to the airport were barricaded to everyone still trapped outside. There were so many allies that were left behind. At the end of August, official U.S. government efforts to evacuate our Afghan allies ended, leaving many trapped. The whole volunteer community was in a state of despair, yet our mission hasn’t ended. NOLB is now focusing on assisting our Afghan allies who have newly arrived in the US, but it is critical that we all keep in mind the thousands—translators, U.S. residents, U.S. citizens, and other allies—who remained trapped in Afghanistan and at risk for their lives. Their calls for help aren’t ending, and it is up to us to find ways to keep their hope alive. “A” made it to America with his spouse and 4 children. He made it onto the airfield and arrived in Dulles International Airport on August 30th. He contacted us and we purchased his family tickets for them to get to California where they are getting settled into their new home in America. ***** About the author: Mariah Smith is the Vice Chairman and Development Committee Chair of No One Left Behind and has served on the Board since 2019. She retired from the Army as a Military Police Lieutenant Colonel, commissioned through Vanderbilt University and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy. She served three tours in Afghanistan, a tour in Djibouti, and was a platoon leader in the initial invasion into Iraq in 2003.



Reflecting on the SIV Program and How We Got Here JAMES MIERVALDIS


s of the end of September, No One Left Behind (NOLB) was tracking over 200 SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) families (people who have visas and passports in hand) and over 2,000 SIV applicant families (people who are somewhere in the 14-step process) all hiding in Kabul. Many received communication from the State Department to shelter in place. How did we get here? How did we leave so many of our vetted interpreters behind? The answer begins in 2008 when the State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) audited the Iraqi SIV Program. OIG highlighted key structural problems which still have not been fixed over 13 years later. The report identified the need for Department of Defense and State Department definitions of “foreign interpreters.” While the law detailing SIV conditions was made purposely ambiguous to give the executive branch maximum flexibility, it also meant that many individuals could apply for SIV status. Over the past 9 years, the Afghan SIV pipeline was flooded with applicants spanning the full breadth of affiliation with the United States—barbers, drivers, cooks, embassy employees, combat interpreters, bankers who paid combat interpreters—anybody who had the slightest affiliation with the United States could apply to the program. Think of the process like a traffic jam. Our interpreters and translators desperately needed an HOV lane. They did not get one. SIV applications were adjudicated on a first come, first serve basis. Even in 2021, the U.S. government still relies on a paper based (pdf based) vetting system because the Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security have disparate IT systems that do not sync with each other. So again, how did we get here? In January 2020, NOLB took the initiative to submit recommendations to State OIG, which was mandated by the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to provide an assessment of the Afghan SIV program to Congress. OIG received our recommendations and invited us to meet with 42 | AFGHANISTAN

them in February. Two interpreters—an Iraqi (one of 2 who got a SIV in 2019 and who is now a U.S. Marine) and an Afghan— joined us. In March 2020 we began working with Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff on a simple definition of “foreign interpreter”—a term which is already referenced in JP 3-16, JP 6-0, JP 4-02, JP 3-33, JP 4-10, JP 3-24, JP 3-07.3, JP 1-0, JP 3-06, but never actually defined. OIG presented their report to Congress in June 2020. As appendix B of the report shows, the Secretary of State finally designated the Under Secretary of State for Management as the Senior Coordinating Official for the SIV program in March 2020. The report highlighted that only one person at State was working on the security vetting process for 18,000 applicants. It also mentioned that the Afghan SIV Unit, which falls under Consular Affairs, had told State OIG that it needed 50 more full time employees. In July 2020, the State Department was successfully sued in a class action lawsuit brought before the U.S. District Court of Washington DC. on behalf of SIV applicants whose applications were taking magnitudes longer than the Congressionally mandated 9 months. The government provided an adjudication plan to the ruling judge, yet no tangible progress was witnessed. In September 2020, NOLB published our internal research identifying over 300 Afghan interpreters and their family members that had been systematically targeted and killed because of their affiliation with the United States. This number is likely an underestimate and has been cited in House and Senate testimony. We met with the United States Institute of Peace Afghanistan Study Group and presented our findings. In February 2021, President Biden announced EO 14013 which asked the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of Homeland Security for recommendations on streamlining the SIV program and expanding it to include other allies. The report was delivered to the President in early August. A week before President Biden announced the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Brown University’s Costs of War Project published their findings and recommendations on how to fix the Special Immigrant Visa program. After the President’s announcement, No One Left Behind was invited to meet with the National Security Council (NSC) in early May. We provided 10 user case interviews with SIVs to the NSC and U.S. Digital SerDIPLOMATIC COURIER | 43

vice so they could understand how the SIV process was seen from the applicants’ point of view, with one applicant noting his fear of the Taliban cutting off internet access. Also in May, CBS aired the comedy The United States of Al about an Afghan translator in the United States, which attracted an average of 5 million viewers through its first 13 episodes and was picked up for a full second season. In June 2021, Secretary Blinken appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and noted that he had added 50 more full time employees to the Afghan SIV Unit. Congress then passed several pieces of legislation to streamline the program and the President signed it into law. All of this however, came too late. On August 15th, our worst nightmare came true. Despite over 8 years of effort through 3 administrations, 7 Congresses, 7 Secretaries of Defense, and 5 Secretaries of State, a hit network TV show, unprecedented bipartisan Congressional support, and over 200,000 petition signatures, the bureaucratic, technological, interagency process, and leadership problems with the SIV application process remained in place. The United States failed to honor its promise to our allies. We only have ourselves to blame. ***** About the author: James Miervaldis served as Chairman of the Board of No One Left Behind from 2020-2021. As an Army Reserve Noncommissioned Officer, he deployed twice in support of the Global War on Terrorism. James has served with Combined Joint Interagency Task Force 435 to develop the Afghan National Security court and prosecute detainees under Afghan law. Prior to the military, James gained media and policy experience at the White House, U.S. Department of State, and Senate Republican Policy Committee.



What Defines Success in Afghanistan? A Coda and a Warning CHRISTOPHER KARWACKI


ore than two months have passed since the fall of Kabul, and the extent to which efforts to evacuate Afghan and refugees since has been a success is still very much in question. The coupling of a government-led evacuation effort with private endeavors to fill the gaps through charter aircraft and coordination to identify at-risk Afghans could be a model for future publicprivate partnerships. However, the fact that the results are still unclear is, in itself, highly problematic. Along with questions over the efficacy of the experiment, there are further questions over the value of funding models and the legality of operations. This continued uncertainty will likely be the coda for America’s experiment in building a democracy in Afghanistan—a final, solitary nail in the coffin. While the public-private partnership enjoyed meaningful successes, we should all be worried about what it means for government control over inherently governmental functions. What defines success when upwards of 130,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan? As a single data point, the number alone signifies some success. However, dig into the specifics and one will find that most combat translators (also known as ‘SIVs’) who served with American forces were left behind. An official with the Biden Administration admitted as much in September. While the public-private partnership did save lives, the unofficial numbers for the most at-risk population of Afghans—combat translators—are disheartening. The Department of Homeland Security revealed that just 3% of Afghan evacuees had Special Immigrant Visas. There were an estimated 18,000 primary legal recipients of the SIV visa in Afghanistan in August and with family members that number was closer to 32,000. Including those in various stages of the application process and the number was around 65,000 total. Of this total, around 7,000 Special Immigrant Visa applicants made it to the U.S. That number would sound great if not for the fact that 58,000 were 46 | AFGHANISTAN

left behind. A more troubling question is whether the publicprivate partnership to evacuate at-risk Afghans passes scrutiny with the American public. The conglomeration of various task forces with both active and retired military and regular citizens combined with millions of dollars in donations should lead anyone to pause and take stock. Who did what, where, when, and why? How will the American public react in learning that private citizens influenced the government at every level to get people out of Afghanistan? What if the public were to find that these private rescue operations used their contacts to arrange for temporary holding stations in third countries without U.S. Government approval? Americans should question who is in charge and making decisions. The recent Congressional hearings with the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are just the beginning. More specifically, donors—and the charitable status of the supporting cast of 501(c)(3) organizations—will require an accounting of their actions. No One Left Behind (NOLB) supported many of these efforts through building comprehensive lists of at-risk Afghans. Yet even these noble efforts included troubling associations. NOLB received multiple notices from the UAE Red Crescent regarding its responsibility for the care and feeding of 5,000 refugees in the UAE. Clearly, we made no agreement for such a thing and yet, we were implicated in something that was beyond our capabilities—who made such a promise and why NOLB was named is still uncertain. Despite these complications, NOLB remains committed to spending $2 million to legally and officially fly-out combat translators with the Special Immigrant Visa on commercial flights and has already commenced that process after a pause since Kabul fell. If evacuations are inherently a government function, what role should the private sector play? Over the past 40 years, there were upwards of 20 non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO) with the most recent likely the most trying in terms of numbers and time. Every Combatant Command possesses a plan for a NEO, so processes are in place to move quickly when approval is granted. What is not clear is the role private evacuation efforts should perform. As a case-in-point, armed private citizens tried to enter Afghanistan but were thankfully stopped by immigration officials; what does that level of unbridled commitment mean for the future of these efforts? Equally troubling are admissions that donor funds were burned-through at an alarming rate and likely with minimal scrutiny. Many well-meaning Americans gave money towards evacuating Afghans with the understanding that the efforts would meet with success, DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 47

that flight clearances would be approved and that the safety of the Afghans would be paramount. In such a complex landscape, nothing is guaranteed. However it is clear that many groups moving Afghans across the country were unable to complete the final stages of evacuation, to include embarkation and takeoff. Interestingly, the State Department was blamed for obstruction in this regard. In reality, the situation on the ground was intensely more fluid and complex than the State Department could predict, let alone any single private organization. Extricating at-risk Afghans is a noble aim, but the reality is that the support required once they leave Afghanistan is a part of a much larger problem, particularly because these many private endeavors attempted to move Afghans without United States visas. Unless the State Department approved third countries for processing, these private organizations should rightly be held responsible for the continued support of these refugees once they arrive in third countries. Furthermore, the difference between Afghans rushing onto government flights to be screened later and private entities doing the same without appropriate screening processes is the difference between the inherently government function of providing immigration services and everyone else. Americans need to understand that good people did what they thought was right for the right reasons. However, these actions were often taken at the cost of subverting inherently governmental processes likely, unnecessarily complicating the matter and potentially leading to criminal investigations. There is a role for the private sector when it comes to evacuations, but it must be assiduously scoped so that efforts are neither duplicated nor undermining to government control. Donors and the American public expect as much. ***** About the author: Christopher Karwacki is a military operations analyst contracted with the Department of Defense, a Major in the Marine Corps Reserve and the former treasurer for No One Left Behind.





LEARNING FROM TRAGEDY TO DO BETTER In this section, we hear from experts with unique and important insights into how we came to this juncture, what we can learn from our policy decisions (and how they worked on the ground), and what the future might look like. In addition to Diplomatic Courier’s own network, we are grateful to be able to have drawn from the expertise of our partner networks of the William & Mary Whole of Government Center of Excellence and Salzburg Global.


How “State Destroying” Corruption Hampered Afghanistan RONALD E. NEUMANN


s a diplomat in Iraq and later as an ambassador in Afghanistan, I watched as we and other donors struggled with and generally lost the battle against corruption. It was pervasive and it undercut many of our efforts at state building and improving local lives. I was and remain convinced that we have not understood the phenomenon. We conceptualize the solutions inaccurately, and, ultimately, shy away from the hard question we may sometimes have to confront; what to do when we cannot fix the problem? Afghanistan and Iraq were not my first occasion to reflect on this problem. I spent my career in the Middle East where some measure of official corruption or economic favoritism was prevalent in every country I worked in. Yet, some had flourishing economies. It is clear that corruption is not just one thing. We need to learn new ways to consider it. For Americans, corruption is essentially a legal and moral failure. The solution is better laws, more investigations, and an upgrade in the rule of law. But that is not the only way to think about corruption. Essentially, corruption functions like any other economic cost, very much like a tax. If the cost is known and if one gets the service one pays for, then corruption can be calculated as a cost of business and commerce and government can go on. But if corruption is rampant and predatory then it stifles business and sucks the life out of services that should help people and build the state. The leading anthropologist on Afghanistan, Dr. Thomas Barfield, refers to “state building” and “state destroying” corruption. As an example of the first type of corruption consider what occurred in many major American cities in the 19th century where political rings made money from everything from services to construction. But the buildings they built were usually solid; we still drive on their bridges. That was essentially the old system of Afghanistan where, as one somewhat offended governor accused of corruption told my father, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan in the ‘60’s, “I never took more than was expected.” 52 | AFGHANISTAN

We might not like this approach, but donors can work with it and accomplish much. State destroying corruption is what occurs when the corruption becomes so rampant that it gobbles up everything and builds nothing. When soldiers go without pay, when ammunition is sold instead of delivered, when contracts are never fulfilled, or when everyday citizens are extorted at every step yet receive few services, then corruption has become so rampant that it undermines the structure of the state. That is part of the problem we encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is not unique to those countries. It is worth pausing to consider some of the contradictions we generally refuse to examine when we press a government to deal with corruption. One is our simultaneous pressure for legal procedure and speed. In the United States with its strong system of laws, institutions, and investigative tools it can take years to bring corruption cases in state or local government to trial. To duplicate our approach, donors should start trying to update much of the local legal system. Achieving all this may add years to the process, while corruption deepens and donors rail. If anti-corruption action is to be a real deterrent in states with deeply embedded, corrupt practices, then the punishment will almost certainly need to be speedy and draconian. Instead, our focus on procedure guarantees that the results will be slow and the punishment weak or delayed by appeals. If a customs official can make many times his yearly salary every month, eventually firing him will have little deterrent effect. Prison without appeal or execution swiftly applied might get attention, but would violate our norms and be subject to criticism from donors. In essence, when we ask that corruption be dealt with swiftly and legally, we are asking for contradictory things. Many factors drive corruption, but two seem particularly significant. One is insecurity. When life and employment are uncertain it is rational to grab what one can, when one can. That this may undermine the state and make the future more uncertain may be true from a macro perspective, but it is irrelevant at the individual level where corruption makes rational sense for the preservation of oneself, one’s family, and one’s political supporters. The duality between the interest of the state and the interest of the individual has made it difficult to use conditionality to bring about change. Restricting or cutting off funding hurts the state, but it is irrelevant at the level where the stealing occurs. Thus, DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 53

the pressure is not really pressure at all unless the senior levels of government have both the will and the power, physical and political, to bring the individual into line. It is exactly this power that weak governments lack. When Hamid Karzai came to power in Afghanistan, he arrived with neither the power of guns nor of money. When confronted early on by a threat of revolt if he did not take certain political actions, he found that the United States was not interested in helping him face down the revolt. Maneuvering through appointments (which then allowed the recipient to exploit the position) were the only tools Karzai had to rule. He was also brought to power by a delicate balance between strong political parties, each of which had to be propitiated with positions. Afghanistan and Iraq were not unique in being examples of states where government leaders felt too weak politically to move against major supporters in the interest of suppressing corruption. Perhaps that kind of action can only be taken by a political leader with deep political support or dictatorial powers. Neither was the case in Afghanistan or Iraq. Neither the United States nor other donors ever directly confronted the problem of weak political will. Instead, we tried one institutional solution after another. In Afghanistan, we established electronic pay systems for the police and the army. Yet many soldiers and policemen were months behind in pay. We sponsored specialized courts and judges. Many of the individuals tried hard to work against corruption, but without political support from their superiors the institutions came to naught. The dedicated staff became increasingly frustrated by the unwillingness of their superiors to let cases come to trial. Certainly there have been other countries in which the institutional or procedural changes we advocated have worked. It is not that the tools were useless, but that they were not adapted to the fundamental lack of political will and power to make change. This absence of political power and willingness to use it was a reality from which we always averted our gaze. There were times and reasons when it seemed change might be possible. In my own, early period in Afghanistan, I still hoped and worked with Karzai to persuade him to try to control and channel corruption rather than end it. However, this approach had no formalized U.S. government backing and ended after I left. Perhaps it would have failed anyway. Many hoped that when Ashraf Ghani Amadzai became president he would take a new approach to corruption. He did not. 54 | AFGHANISTAN

Whatever the might-have-beens of Afghanistan or Iraq, the question for the future is how to manage corruption if the local political will and power to control it are lacking? My own view is that when this becomes plain we need to face the fact that we lack the means to fix the problem. At that point we have a binary choice. We can abandon our efforts or we can decide that our strategic interests are so great that we have to shore up and sustain the state or government despite continuing corruption. In either case the political consequences are likely to be severe, but so is the result of hiding from ourselves the awareness of a problem we cannot fix. ***** About the author: Ronald E. Neumann was ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain, and Afghanistan. He is now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.


Afghanistan Fought to Improve, but for What? MARIAM SAFI


fghanistan in August 2021 was fundamentally different than the Afghanistan of 2001. The protests that took place across the country as the Taliban replaced the flag of the republic with their own is characteristic of that change. Afghanistan has experienced great social progress over the past two decades and these protests are proof of that. However, the country has also seen the growth of bad governance, corruption, aid dependency, and terrorism. That being said, in hindsight the achievements far outweigh the failures and the events following August 15 are a stark reminder of how much there is to lose.

Afghanistan’s Progress and Setbacks Since 2001 In the years following the international intervention of 2001, progress toward equality was rapid. A new constitution was adopted in 2004 enshrining women’s rights and in 2009 Afghanistan adopted the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law. Economic growth had been volatile but rapid, with construction and agriculture the key contributors to the country’s economic expansion. Women became more actively involved in economic activity, making up approximately 16% of the total national work force. A new report by UNESCO shows that education enrolment increased ten-fold in the last 20 years. With almost no primary schools for girls prior to 2001, by 2018 there was 2.5 million. Furthermore, according to the World Health Organization, there were a total of 3,135 health facilities, ensuring access to almost 87% of the population within a two-hour distance. Afghanistan’s security forces, despite heavy casualties, were also being restructured, giving way to a new generation of defense and law enforcement that in time could have led the way to a modernization of the security sector. Women made up 1.4% of the security sector and took up positions in the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces previously unavailable to them in the country’s history. Though this figure was far below the target of 10% set by the Afghan government and its international partners to achieve by 2020, the space to advocate for the effective implementation of the United 56 | AFGHANISTAN

Nations Security Council Resolution on 1325 National Action Plan (NAP), which Afghanistan adopted in 2015, did exist. Much had been achieved, but much still remained to be done in all three domains of peace, security, and development. In 2016, an internal survey conducted by the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies (DROPS) showed that Afghanistan’s youth identified corruption, unemployment, poor economy, followed by weak governance as the main factors pushing them to leave Afghanistan. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when these challenges became so prominent despite efforts by the international aid community, but the period following the security transition process (2011-2014) and transition to the Ghani government is a likely culprit. Over the ensuing years, the number of regional and international terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan proliferated, the Taliban made significant gains, and both fatalities and displacement among women and children rose sharply. Starting in 2018, Afghanistan began experiencing a politically dynamic period marked by the start of U.S.-Taliban negotiations and talks between the Republic’s Negotiating Team and the Taliban Negotiating Team from September to December 2020. The unprecedented ceasefire agreed to by the Afghan government and Taliban in June 2018 demonstrated the possibility of peace in Afghanistan. However, the parties involved and their stakeholders repeatedly excluded key groups, including women and civil society actors, from the peace table. Thus, while the ceasefire and ensuing negotiations demonstrated the possibility of peace, the failings of the negotiations also illustrated how easily actors involved could sideline the need for local ownership while reinforcing a culture of impunity in the pursuit of achieving that peace.

How A Lack of Inclusivity Doomed the Peace Talks Since the Peace and Reconciliation process first started in 2010, civil society organizations and women’s groups expressed concern over a lack of political will on the part of the Afghan government, regional stakeholders, and international stakeholders in the promotion and inclusion of women in major phases of the process. These groups argued that the peace process was top-down and elite centric, but those concerns were largely ignored. Additionally, very little consensus building actually took place across the country. The exception to this was the Peace Jirga held by the government in April 2019, bringing together 3,200 community leaders, tribal and religious elders, women, and youth who agreed that durable peace was only achievable through a political process rather than military action. However, such one-off events did not satisfy calls for an inclusive DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 57

process that required continuous national consultations to reach a consensus among all groups on the definition for peace, framework for talks, and redlines for negotiations. In summary, the international community and its Afghan counterparts focused on technical and operational aspects of the peace process, while sidelining the needs and aspirations of Afghan society, particularly women. In some ways, Afghanistan made progress toward more inclusive involvement of women in peace and security. It signed off on the 1325 agenda, had gender units in all ministries, committed to women making up 30% of its civil service, and was working on an antiharassment policy in the police force. Furthermore, women were included on the peace negotiation team, and the government passed the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law. But ultimately Afghanistan’s prevailing patriarchal socio-cultural attitudes toward women meant the treatment of women’s rights was superficial and any advances remained vulnerable to external shocks. Thus, as far as women in peace and security was concerned, there existed only a hollow infrastructure. Despite these barriers, Afghan women actively involved themselves politically and socially. We witnessed the remarkable mobilization of women and women-based organizations who came together in ways never seen before. Their advocacy cut across ethnic, religious, and sectorial lines with the goal of preventing a regression on the gains made towards women’s constitutional rights, civil liberties, and democracy. They have held nation-wide consultations, talked with current and former Taliban members, organized roundtables, wrote op-eds, staged sit-ins inside of peace tents in the restive province of Helmand, provided policy recommendations, and carried out peaceful protests in Kabul and around the world. Afghan women called upon the international community to stand behind their struggle for inclusion and sustainable peace. “No Peace Without Women; My Red Line,” and “Women Will Not Go Back,” are only some of the messages that spread across social media to express that any process in which women are left behind is one that is not only unacceptable, but is also doomed to fail. As direct talks between the Taliban and the United States progressed, critics’ concerns went beyond the exclusion of women from the peace process, focusing more broadly on how the peace talks should be reconfigured to ensure inclusivity and sustainability. The talks were progressing on a narrow agenda over the withdrawal of foreign forces and assurances by the Taliban that they would not allow Afghanistan to be used as a sanctuary for groups working against U.S. interests.


This narrow focus not only set the ground for a hasty withdrawal that would jeopardize the future of hard-won gains, it also excluded any meaningful participation from women’s groups, activists, civil society actors, or even the Afghan government itself. This exclusion further exacerbated fears about the loss of rights and freedoms Afghanistan’s young democracy had afforded its citizens. Women’s groups and civil society organizations also questioned whether U.S.-Taliban talks would eventually lead to the start of the Intra-Afghan Dialogue—and whether that forum would be one in which actors ensure unity of approach based on a national consensus and inclusivity. The fact remained that the only process that could gain legitimacy and be sustainable would be one which reflected the aspirations of Afghans. Even at this late date, Afghans were calling for the international community to deepen its engagement in support of grass-roots consensus building amongst all sectors of Afghan society on key concerns related to the peace process. Remedies were still available to avoid the crisis we witnessed in August and Afghan stakeholders made their voices heard about these remedies. The ongoing peace process could have been strengthened if the international community introduced a strong third-party mediator and observer group to monitor the implementation of any political settlement reached with the Taliban. The timetable for the withdrawal of Western troops could have been made contingent on all parties involved in talks upholding and protecting the country’s democratic gains. International donors could have made clear strategy statements tying post-peace agreement aid to alignment with Afghanistan’s development priorities to help generate greater revenue, continue delivering services, and create long-term employment. Afghanistan’s international partners repeatedly expressed their intention to continue to stand behind the people of Afghanistan to ensure an orderly withdrawal, a comprehensive peace agreement, and an Afghanistan that could continue to progress. In the end, however, Afghans felt abandoned both by the Afghan government and its international partners. ***** About the author: Mariam Safi is the founding Director of the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies (DROPS), an independent and multidisciplinary policy-oriented research institute formerly based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Ms. Safi brings over a decade of research, strategy-building, and leadership experience working and engaging with the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, think-tanks, and academic institutions in Central and South Asia, Europe, and North America. DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 59

Election Fraud Undermined Afghanistan’s Fledgling Democracy MUSTAFA ARYAN


ree and fair elections are the foundation of democracy. Elections are, at their most basic level, an important instrument for a government to hold itself accountable to its people. Following the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Afghanistan’s first-ever Presidential election was held in October 2004. Afghans went to the polls for the first time in their history, positioning Afghanistan’s path towards a democratic country. When many Afghans were unsatisfied with poor governance, elections, if seen as reasonably free and fair, would have reaffirmed that the people had had a say in the future of their country. From September 2005 to October 2018, Afghanistan held three parliamentary elections. All were alleged to be fraudulent. The 2005 elections were subject to fraud allegations and lengthy delays, with results not announced until November. In 2010, many candidates called for a suspension of the election due to claims of fraud and election rigging, leading to numerous interruptions in announcing the results. In the 2018 election, despite making some positive steps, such as preparing voter lists and using biometric identification, the Afghan government and elections commission were again unable to deliver a fair and transparent process. All of Afghanistan’s presidential elections—2004, 2009, 2014 and 2019—faced similar problems. Despite security threats, millions of Afghans voted in the 2009 election, demonstrating their commitment to a democratic process in the face of the ongoing conflict. However, as the process continued, widespread fraud became apparent. The process’ integrity was harmed, as the election was conducted without a consolidated and accurate voter registration. Neither leading candidate—incumbent president Hamid Karzai nor Abdullah Abdullah—obtained the 50% support required to win in the first round. Abdullah withdrew in the second round as his request for the electoral commission to guarantee transparent elections was not met. 60 | AFGHANISTAN

The 2014 presidential election was held in April, with a second round held in June. According to opinion polls, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani were the front-runners and the first round election results showed Abdullah leading and Ghani behind him. However, since neither candidate could secure a majority, the election went into a runoff. The runoff became controversial due to, once again, widespread election fraud. Then–U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry mediated talks between the two candidates, resulting in a power-sharing agreement. Abdullah compromised and settled for the position of chief executive and Ghani became president. The fourth presidential election in Afghanistan’s history was held in September 2019 with only 1.82 million votes cast, compared to the 2004 presidential elections where more than 8 million votes were cast. It was the lowest turnout since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. Accusations swirled of deep corruption and both Ghani and Abdullah declared themselves president. The ensuing political crisis did not end until Ghani and Abdullah reached a power-sharing agreement on May 16, 2020, in which Ghani would remain president and Abdullah would lead peace talks with the Taliban. Since the country’s first elections in 2004, many believed that the electoral process would improve over time, but every election in Afghanistan has become more fraudulent than the last. Afghanistan’s elections have seen a gradually declining turnout, from around 70 percent in 2004 to less than 25 percent in 2019. The decline in turnout reflected the growing public frustration with widespread fraud and misuse of power. Fair and transparent elections are crucial for responsive and accountable governance and are required to ensure public confidence in the government, both at the national and local levels. Afghanistan experienced the opposite— the fraudulent elections in Afghanistan increased corruption, undermined government legitimacy, and crippled the efforts to gain popular support and meet Afghanistan’s needs. In 2012, over half of Afghan citizens paid a bribe for a public service, while about a third paid a bribe for a private sector service. From 2010 to 2013, the total cost of corruption in Afghanistan rose dramatically to $3.9 billion. Afghans were enraged by the government’s failure to deliver fundamental public services, as well as the widespread corruption of the nation’s elites. The people of Afghanistan despised the abuses of power, impunity, and lack of justice that have been ingrained over the years. DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 61

From the moment Ghani came to power in 2014, his rule was tainted with corruption. Ghani granted several government contracts to his family members throughout his nearly seven years in power. Khatib & Alami, a Beirut-based firm, received $16 million in sole-source contracts from the Afghan government without going through a public bidding procedure or obtaining a legitimate work permit. The contract was brokered by Riad Saada, Ghani’s brother-in-law. In September 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that the United States was withholding about $160 million for an Afghan energy project because of the lack of transparency and accountability in the National Procurement Authority. Ghani, a winner of fraudulent elections, was an unpopular president. He centralized power within the presidential palace and sidelined government ministries by creating parallel institutions and administrations, often led by corrupted officials. Ghani’s small incompetent circle’s interference in government institutions weakened their ability to meet citizens’ needs. Ghani’s inability to unite the country fueled instability. His outbursts of rage and displays of arrogance were frequent, and he quickly became loathed and isolated from the Afghan people. Ghani’s commitment and transparency was often questioned. A fact that became extremely clear after he took millions of dollars when he escaped from the country, abandoned his people, and the government collapsed. Twenty years of gains in Afghanistan have been reversed, at a speed no one could have predicted. Fraudulent elections were a major element leading to Afghanistan’s fall. ***** About the Author: Mustafa Aryan is Executive Director of the Security, Gender & Development Institute (SGDI). Prior to this, he worked as the Director of Regional and International Affairs of Afghanistan’s High Council of National Reconciliation (HCNR). He holds an MA in International Security from the University of Reading in the UK.



Strategy Sans Policy and Failure to Commit in Afghanistan ETHAN BROWN


hat were our failures in the decades leading up to today? What were our responsibilities and what could have been done better? The top lines are evident, and well known. Afghanistan was a war absent strategic vision and objectives. What were the intended outcomes and how did it factor into our greater geopolitical goals? Afghanistan remains a land-locked, resource-scarce environment that serves as little more than a buttress between Iranian-Saudi competition to its west and a third of the world’s population to its east. That this “graveyard of empires’’ occupies such a preeminent place in global foreign policy appears counter-intuitive and, after two decades of American interference, begs the question—how did such a remote locale with a history of geopolitical defiance keep the United States engaged till this bitter end? There was never a traditional ‘war to be won’ in Afghanistan. This statement encapsulates the failure—one where there was never a fixed desired outcome to Afghanistan, but rather an attempt to juxtapose the War on Terror into a geographic and political confines. The two concepts: a war on ideology and stateless actors, forced into the structured borders of sovereign nations (equally attributable to Iraq), were incompatible yet concurrent. Treating this campaign like a war with neatly defined lines was a flawed strategy from the onset, as everything about Afghanistan—the culture(s), ecology, tribal dynamics, geographic isolation, and historically perpetual state of conflict-defied western notions of how wars were to be waged. The failure to define policy outcomes spanned political parties. To critique one administration instead of another in the Afghanistan context does not illuminate the lessons learned from this experience. I spoke with a former U.S. military colleague who served as an AFPAK Hand, an expert on Central Asian affairs, who (on the condition of anonymity) summarized the policy failures by sequential administrations: “From Bush to Obama, to Trump, and now Biden, none could make the case or would 64 | AFGHANISTAN

spend their political capital to stay in Afghanistan long term, either to nation build or justify why our continued presence would prevent another 9/11.” The war against a disaggregate enemy was antithetical to a 21st century American society. At the onset of the war, vengeance for attacks on our homeland secured near-unanimous domestic support, even though the average citizen likely struggled to locate Afghanistan on a map. Retribution for America’s bloody nose was an easy check for policy makers to cash with constituents. That raison d’être became unsustainable over ensuing years of American occupancy when an insurgency, a corrupt Afghan government, tribal feuds, and an annual mission creep eroded the constancy of the U.S. presence. Admittedly, the Afghan version of stability or victory was perhaps not Jeffersonian democracy, but, as noted by National Security expert Joshua Huminski, some form of baseline dignity. Far too many threads became woven into the policy in absentia tapestry that the “Graveyard of Empires” swallowed with patient indifference. It was evident in 2001 that the complexity of Afghanistan would require a clear policy outcome, but clarity proved fleeting soon after the invasion. By the time U.S. and coalition forces had achieved early tactical gains on Afghan battlefields, a critical misstep totally changed the vector of the war: the 2003 Iraq invasion. This sudden policy shift drew critical resources away from the early success of a sweeping Taliban defeat, based on the myth of weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq shift was not solid from its early foundations and Afghanistan suffered for it. The detour to Iraq forsook a golden opportunity to achieve some kind of stability in Afghanistan, an opportunity that would never be regained. By opening a second front in the global war on terror, the following decades in Afghanistan would be marked by a constant change in policy and strategy. In 2002, reconstruction became the calling card of the mission, with U.S. and NATO forces coordinating the implementation of the “provincial reconstruction teams,” a system that regularly failed to deliver on its promise to foster infrastructural development. The foundations of these problems identified in the damning 2020 SIGAR report may be traced to the ad hoc effort to offset the Iraq shift in Afghanistan. In 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared the end of “major combat.” This shifted NATO’s assumptions about the mission and was weakened by differing levels of commitment by international parties. DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 65

Before the 2006 start of a decades-long insurgency, democratic elections and a constitutional government were attempted in Afghanistan amidst sweeping corruption and the United States agreed to a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan to help “organize, train, equip and sustain Afghan security forces.” This agreement would ultimately lead to the Afghan National Defense and Security Force’s (ANDSF) undue dependency on American technology, portending the rapid surrender of Afghan forces to the Taliban in 2021. In 2008, a rise in collateral killings marked the early stages of the publicity war that the United States would ultimately lose to the Taliban. The following year saw a cycle of troop surges, peaking at over 100,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The violence of the insurgency would remain a source of diplomatic tension in strategic planning, with U.S. administrations regularly changing out mission commanders in an effort to find a solution despite lacking a clear, stable policy. When security responsibility for Afghanistan was handed over to the ANDSF in 2013, the NATO mission transitioned to a primarily advisory role. From 2017-2018, U.S. offensive operations began again, signaled by the employment of the “Massive Ordnance Air Blast” bomb dropped in Nangahar against the rising Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) threat, with additional troop surges into insurgents strong holds. In 2019, peace talks between the United States and the Taliban began in earnest, signaling that the waiting game for the Taliban was nearly over. Amidst the negotiations, combat continued while American forces began the phased drawdown ahead of the well-publicized total withdrawal. Even during the withdrawal, the tragedy continued—an ISIS-K suicide attack that killed another 13 U.S. servicemembers assisting with the evacuation of Afghan refugees, yielding one of the bloodiest casualty events of America’s longest war. There were many tactical successes in Afghanistan. However, those battlefield victories ring hollow absent a strategy vehicle to a political end. As Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated in congressional testimony: “We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in [Afghan] senior ranks, the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, [or the] snowball effect caused by the deals between Taliban commanders and local leaders.” America did not understand Afghanistan, in whole or in part. Our lesson here, is that no policy decision is still a decision. 66 | AFGHANISTAN

Accepting a vague status quo and failing to commit to a longterm solution means that the United States spent two decades of blood and treasure without a substantive return. Clausewitz famously called war the erosion of an enemy’s will to fight and history will show that in Afghanistan, American will never rose to the necessary level to see this conflict to an acceptable end. ***** About the author: Ethan Brown is a Senior Fellow for Defense Studies at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress in Washington, DC. He is a veteran of the United States Air Force, where he spent 11-years as a Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack Controller with multiple deployments to Afghanistan. He regularly writes for the Diplomatic Courier, The Hill, Modern War Institute (West Point), and RealClearDefense on national security issues and the military. He can be found on Twitter @LibertyStoic.


U.S.-Pakistan Relations: Another Groundhog Day ALEXIA D’ARCO


he United States and Pakistan have repeatedly overestimated their ability to influence one another’s bilateral relations and regional security interests. Since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the United States has employed every tool in its foreign policy playbook—from military coercion and debilitating sanctions to an enhanced partnership accompanied by billions of dollars in aid—with little success. Meanwhile Pakistan has continually hedged its bets by providing nominal action on U.S. priorities while pursuing its own national security interests, namely achieving strategic depth against India. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan is forcing both sides to re-evaluate their troubled relationship, but it will be exceedingly difficult to break the cyclical “groundhog day” nature of U.S.-Pakistan relations. In the meantime, Washington and Islamabad must search for new leverage and pressure points—with each other, China, and India—to help further their regional security goals while the geopolitical implications of a Taliban 2.0 world continue to play themselves out.

Reviewing Bilateral Relations In the first public hearing in Congress about Afghanistan since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken told policymakers that the United States would review its relationship with Pakistan to determine “the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years but also the role we would want to see it play in the coming years and what it will take for it to do that.” Meanwhile, Ambassador Qureshi recently cautioned the United States against blaming Pakistan for the outcome in Afghanistan and called for both sides to “look forward” instead of “relitigating the past.” Like so many Pakistan hands, I have lived this story before. When I served as a political-military affairs officer at the U.S. Department of State, I was at the forefront of explaining U.S.-Pakistan policy during one of the most turbulent times for our bilateral relationship. Against the backdrop of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s premier military academy and Pakistan’s shutdown of NATO supply lines to Afghani68 | AFGHANISTAN

stan, I was one of many analysts tasked with reviewing how we deployed over $1.1 billion a year in U.S. security assistance to Pakistan to determine what was working and what wasn’t. The conclusions I came to then still hold true today – Pakistan is a difficult but necessary partner, none of the carrots or sticks in our policy toolbox will fundamentally change Pakistan’s strategic calculus, both sides overestimate their ability to influence each other’s long-term behavior, and bilateral engagement is challenging but the alternative is worse.

The Latest Tipping Point When the United States dialed back support for Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Pakistan was left with a bloody civil war and refugee crisis along its 2,670km western border with Afghanistan. From Pakistan’s perspective, building and maintaining a relationship with the Afghan Taliban was necessary to help counter India. Although Pakistan was willing to work with the United States to fight Al Qaeda, it was never willing to completely sever ties with the Taliban because it knew from past experience that Washington lacked strategic patience and would eventually withdraw its troops from the region. As the mission in Afghanistan increasingly shifted from a narrow counterterrorism campaign to ensuring that Afghanistan could never again be used as a base for carrying out an attack on the United States, Pakistan and U.S. priorities increasingly diverged. The United States was intent on building an autonomous civilian government supported by a strong military that could prevent the rise of new terrorist safe havens; Pakistan’s biggest fear was that such a government would be pro-India and result in the encirclement of Pakistan. This fear was exacerbated by the fact that India quickly emerged as a major regional partner in US-led reconstruction efforts, investing around $3 billion and providing military training to the Afghan National Army. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and withdrawal of U.S. troops is a strategic victory for Pakistan in many ways, but Islamabad faces a whole new series of complications in Afghanistan as its leverage over the Taliban decreases with each Taliban success. First and foremost, the success of the Afghan Taliban will embolden antigovernment extremists in Pakistan. Islamabad is eager for their Afghan partners to curb the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which poses a significant and growing domestic terrorist threat, but it is unclear that the Afghan Taliban have the incentive or capacity to do so as they struggle to solidify their rule. This summer the Afghan Taliban already released hundreds of militants, including senior TTP DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 69

leaders, from prisons across Afghanistan, and the TTP have historically benefited from safe havens in Afghanistan. Furthermore, if the Taliban fails to gain international recognition—a condition for the international aid underpinning Afghanistan’s economy—Pakistan will shoulder many of the repercussions. Pakistan is already home to nearly 4 million Afghan refugees and that number will swell if Afghanistan’s economy further deteriorates. In short, Pakistan is likely to find itself both a patron and a victim of the situation it helped to create.

70 Years of Papering Over Divergent Goals The United States has prioritized cooperation with Pakistan during two geopolitical eras. During each of these periods, the two countries had starkly difference motives for forging an alliance. While Washington’s priorities focused first on countering communism and then terrorism, Pakistan remained singularly focused on cultivating strategic depth against India. From Pakistan’s perspective, its initial alliance with the United States guaranteed significant military and economic aid while seemingly inhibiting closer American ties with India (although this would be a repeated source of disappointment as US-India ties grew over the decades). Military action in Afghanistan since the 1980s served multiple purposes, including regaining U.S. military and economic aid after multiple suspensions, providing a training ground and launching pad for extremists that Pakistan could re-orient toward India, and trying to ensure Afghanistan was controlled by forces friendly to Pakistan. Over the past 70 years, both sides repeatedly failed to recognize, ignored, discounted, or simply papered over their strategic disparities. Each tried to maximize what the other side offered, conveniently overlooked inconsistencies in behavior when mutual dependence was deemed critical, and overestimated their ability to influence each other’s long-term behavior. And each time that U.S. regional security goals shifted such that Washington no longer viewed Pakistan as a critical partner, bilateral relations took an abrupt nose dive and the United States penalized Pakistan for actions it had conveniently ignored as long as it depended on Pakistan’s support. Given this context, it is no surprise that our long-term goals failed to converge in Afghanistan, or that Pakistan is emphasizing the central role that it could play to further America’s regional security priorities as it pitches continued bilateral engagement in a Taliban 2.0 world.

What Next? The United States has less incentive to engage with Pakistan now that the imperative of protecting and supplying ground 70 | AFGHANISTAN

forces in Afghanistan no longer exists (although an “over the horizon” capability to target terrorists in Afghanistan will require using Pakistan’s airspace). Pakistan is clearly concerned that its reduced leverage over the United States will lead to an abrupt downturn in the relationship, as it has in the past. Prime Minister Khan’s recent UN speech was a highlights reel of the ways that the United States has been an unreliable partner over the last 70 years. Recognizing that its ability to maintain relations—and cashflows—has been most effective when its support is framed as vital to American regional security interests, Pakistan’s latest pitch for continued engagement wisely focuses on geoeconomics, playing into America’s increasing regional security concerns regarding China. If the United States chooses to pursue a strategic partnership with Pakistan, rather than a more transactional “pay to play” type arrangement, America must take into account several lessons from the past 70 years. American expectations for the bilateral relationship have consistently fallen short whenever U.S. regional security goals were at odds with Pakistan’s pursuit of strategic depth. Barring a successful Pakistan-India peace process, there is no mystical combination of American carrots and sticks that will fundamentally change Pakistan’s obsession with strategic depth. The Biden administration is still finalizing its approach to China, but it has already signaled that America’s so-called “Quad” partners (India, Japan, and Australia), will play pivotal roles in its emerging Indo-Pacific strategy to offset China’s influence in the region. Blaming Pakistan for the outcome in Afghanistan and focusing purely on punitive tools, as we have in the past, will be sorely tempting and politically expedient. But such an approach will simply encourage Pakistan to further expand its cooperation with China while increasing Indo-Pakistan tensions due to India’s role in the Quad; both of these outcomes would detract from U.S. regional security goals. Bilateral engagement will continue to be frustrating for both sides, but disengaging is shortsighted and reeks of the same strategic impatience that enabled the Taliban to retake control of Afghanistan. ***** About the author: Alexia D’Arco is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project. She previously served as a Strategic Planning Advisor for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and as a Presidential Management Fellow at the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan & Pakistan. DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 71

Needed: A Whole-ofGovernment Approach That Actually Works JOHN F. SOPKO


he U.S. involvement in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001, with international support and clear goals: to drive out al Qaeda and to prevent its hosts, the Taliban, from allowing Afghanistan to be used as a base for terrorist operations—tasks our military accomplished within weeks. It ended almost 20 years later with a victorious Taliban in control of the country and scenes of utter chaos as refugees swarmed the Kabul airport. How did such an eminently justifiable mission, launched by the mightiest military on earth, end so ingloriously? Historians will be writing the saga of the United States’ “longest war” for decades to come, but even now, so soon after the event, it is clear that key decisions made across the span of four administrations pushed us toward this result—all of which illustrate our failure to actually implement a “whole-of-government” approach to modern warfare and development assistance. I can say this with some confidence, because I saw our efforts in Afghanistan unfold from a uniquely privileged vantage point over the last 10 years— as the head of the only independent U.S. government agency focused solely on Afghanistan and responsible for looking at all U.S. agencies involved in the $146 billion reconstruction effort there. Through SIGAR’s many products—audits, inspections, quarterly reports, and criminal investigations—we have learned much about the many things that can go wrong when the United States gets involved in an overseas contingency operation. Though the average American rarely realizes it, we do so all the time: U.S. military forces and USAID are currently active in Mali, Burkina Faso, Somalia, Yemen, and Ukraine. In an effort to synthesize what we have learned about what does and doesn’t work in Afghanistan, and apply those insights to future reconstruction efforts, I created the Lessons Learned Program (LLP). So far, SIGAR has issued 11 lessons learned reports, based 72 | AFGHANISTAN

on extensive research written by some of the most experienced experts in Afghanistan in the U.S. government. From my perspective, then, here is my take on the key turning points that got us to where we are—all of which are linked to failures in our “whole-of-government” approach: Our “whole-of-government” approach was based on a strategy that kept changing. The Bush administration’s “light footprint” approach toward eliminating al Qaeda and routing the Taliban was based on the theory that we could get in, get the job done, and get out quickly. Partly, this was based on a desire not to look like an invading colonizing force to the fiercely independent Afghans. But it was also based on an ideological aversion to “nation building”—at least when nation-building took the form of long-term, expensive foreign entanglements. By 2002, with al Qaeda effectively out of commission and the Taliban routed, we viewed Afghanistan as a “post-conflict” country where the United States could plant the seeds of democracy with a few humanitarian programs and have all our troops home by 2004. This was a wildly optimistic and deeply flawed assumption. As we now know, the Taliban almost immediately began regrouping, and by 2003 it began launching new attacks at coalition forces from its bases in the southern and eastern parts of the country, where it had always enjoyed grassroots support. Our “whole-of-government” approach existed mainly on paper. In theory, the U.S. State Department is in charge of leading U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. In reality, State has neither the money nor the staff to do anything of the sort. In 2021, Congress appropriated $696 billion for DOD, compared to $55 billion for State. Its 7,900 foreign service officers—the backbone of the agency—only slightly outnumber the musicians employed in DOD bands. The U.S. repeatedly undertook programs in Afghanistan without first checking to make sure the implementing agencies had enough staff to see them through. At one point, a USAID employee told SIGAR that the organization was so desperate for additional staff that they were hiring anyone with “a pulse and a master’s degree.” By 2006, the Bush administration realized that to build a government strong enough to defeat the Taliban meant helping that government develop basic institutions: a civilian police force, a reDIPLOMATIC COURIER | 73

liable court system, a strong military—in other words, nation building. The first attempts were limited and under resourced. When U.S. policymakers realized more was required, we overcorrected. That brings us to the next key turning point: We gave the Afghans too much money. From 2006 to 2008, the Bush administration dramatically ramped up its funding for Afghanistan reconstruction: the amount allocated in 2007 (roughly $10 billion) was three times the amount allocated the year before. Meanwhile, members of Congress, impatient to see some results after five years of conflict, began demanding deadlines for showing progress. The result: an influx of money into one of the poorest economies in the world, where corruption was already endemic—essentially, adding fuel to a smoldering fire. We sent in even more money and troops—and then set an unrealistic deadline for what all that was supposed to achieve. In 2009, the Obama administration decided on a new plan for Afghanistan: a “surge” of troops and reconstruction aid. But it was a self-limited surge: after 18 months, the Obama administration said, the surge would have either worked, and Afghans would be able to assume responsibility for the fight against the Taliban—or it would fail, meaning it was time to give up. Politically, admitting that we were giving up was a non-starter. Yet this full-court press, combined with an 18-month deadline, almost ensured failure: It created unrealistic goals, pressure to show short-term results, and a spending spree that exacerbated existing corruption among Afghan officials. Monitoring and oversight of projects funded with U.S. taxpayer dollars was cursory at best, and at times nonexistent. By the time the Obama administration took action to correct that last problem, it was too late: corruption had become a wildfire. Corruption would hobble the United States’ every reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, especially when it came to building up its military. To those of us who have monitored events in Afghanistan, and there are many, it came as no surprise to learn in the final days of the Ghani government that a significant percentage of the 344,000-member Afghan National Defense and Security Forces existed only on paper. The missing were “ghost soldiers”— invented by corrupt commanders or Ministry of Defense officials who pocketed the salaries. 74 | AFGHANISTAN

Throughout our involvement in Afghanistan, the United States often seemed to be pursuing mutually incompatible goals. We decried corruption in the Afghan government while, for expediency’s sake, our own military partnered with local militia commanders who were known human rights abusers. We announced a goal of creating an independent, self-sustaining Afghan military while training it to fight effectively only with our air support—dooming it to failure once that air support was gone. We announced long-term goals, but tried to implement them with military and contractor personnel deployed for one-year tours of duty, creating constant turnovers that came to be known as “the annual lobotomy.” The U.S. experience in Afghanistan was by no means an unmitigated failure: Among other things, we have helped the Afghans make great strides in health care, maternal mortality rates, and education. The two decades we spent there created a generation of educated young women, aware of their rights and their potential to be full participants in society—assuming the Taliban ever realizes it can ill afford to squander the talents of half of its population. However imperfectly it executed its plans, the United States had honorable intentions. SIGAR’s work has demonstrated that no single policy decision or Administration led to the failure of the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Rather, it was a series of mistaken decisions, made over two decades, each building on the other, that led us to this point. The seeds of Afghanistan’s collapse were sown well before President Ashraf Ghani fled and the Taliban fighters strolled into Kabul. The ultimate verdict of history on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is still being written. At the moment, however, it is hard to erase the mental image of Afghans desperate to leave the country clinging to the outside of a U.S Air Force C-17 as it taxied down the runway. There is a popular aphorism that what seems like failure is merely a learning opportunity. If so, we have a major learning opportunity. Next time—and there will be a next time—we have to figure out a whole-of-government approach that actually works. ***** About the author: John F. Sopko was sworn in as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction on July 2, 2012. He has more than 30 years of experience in oversight and investigations as a prosecutor, congressional counsel, and senior federal government advisor. DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 75

Looking for and Finding Complexity in Afghanistan JOSHUA HUMINSKI


hroughout the 20 years of America’s involvement in Afghanistan there have been countless books exploring nearly every aspect of the war. From how the conflict started to what comes next, from personal stories of heroism to the conflict’s effects further afield, very little of the conflict has been left unmined or unexplored. Yet, there is a rich seam of books that go beyond the established narratives of Washington or Kabul, beyond the well-trodden “I was there” memoir, and offer deep, if unconventional, looks at how the West found itself mired in Afghanistan, what took place there, and what could well come next. Here are several such books. Naturally, the intellectual antecedents of al-Qa’ida are critical to understanding how 9/11 came to pass and, ultimately, America invaded Afghanistan. Here, Thomas Hegghammer’s magnum opus “The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad” is exceptionally instructive, yet not nearly as well-known as it deserves to be. Hegghammer’s book, the product of over a decade of primary source research and on-the-ground interviews, explores the life and impact of Abdallah Azzam. While Azzam had some battlefield experience via the Muslim Brotherhood in Israel and Jordan, his sermons and calls to arms from Pakistan had far greater reach and helped birth the global jihadist movement. In the course of his excellent book, Hegghammer dispels the notion, popular not just in conspiracy theory circles, that the United States backed Arab fighters in Afghanistan, the precursors to al-Qa’ida. There simply was no point to do so given how small a presence the Arab fighters were. This is to say nothing of the fact that the Afghan Arabs were keen to distance themselves from America. Nonetheless, the United States’ support to the Afghan mujahedeen was largely funneled via Pakistan to the more Islamist factions. While the proximate enemy, the Soviet Union, was defeated, the long-term impact of mobilizing the ummah contributed to the road to 9/11.


In this same vein of deep reporting and from a similar foundational view of the dynamics of Afghanistan is “Night Letters: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Afghan Islamists who Changed the World” by Chris Sands and Fazelminallah Qazizai. “Night Letters” offers a much-needed deep dive into the complexities and nuances of pre-revolution Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion, and the civil war that followed. As with Hegghammer’s book, “Night Letters” is deeply researched, bringing together six years of in-country reporting and several hundred interviews. Sands and Qazizai chart Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s rise from a student debating with communists in college to the charismatic figure fighting against the Soviet Union and, as with Azzam, helping to both plant the seeds and encourage the growth of global jihadism. “Night Letters” places greater emphasis on Hekmatyar’s role in this rise in lieu of Azzam, arguing that many future jihadists followed the path and example of the former over the latter. While Azzam was clearly a warrior-scholar, more influential as a speaker and mobilizer, Hekmatyar was an organizer and operator. Indeed, his conflict with Ahmed Shah Massoud saw the Lion of Panjshir being arrested in Pakistan with Hekmatyar’s assistance. His Hezb-e-Islami was far more aggressive and violent than other militant groups, attacking other anti-Soviet mujahedeen groups his party deemed insufficiently pious. The authors certainly chart a much more wide-ranging path for the Afghan insurgent. That Hekmatyar has survived as long as he has is a testament to his canniness and resilience in an environment where loyalty is often fickle and transient. In 2016, he received a pardon from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and later ran in the 2019 presidential election, placing a distant third. This while most of his peers including Azzam, bin Laden, and Massoud are all now dead. His path in Afghanistan is an instructive vehicle to understand the broader conflict, which Ahmed Rashid masterfully charts in his collected works. Rashid’s body of work was immediately sought after following the attacks of 9/11, and understandably so. The Pakistan-born writer authored one of the first widely read books on the Taliban and the dynamics of Central Asia, which quickly became the textbook on the Taliban, and was later joined by rigorous academic research, such as that from Dr. Antonio Giustozzi (about which more, below). He followed up with successive books on jihad in Central Asia, and a critical book, “Descent into Chaos” on the effects of America’s intervention in Afghanistan. His most recent book “Pakistan on the Brink” explores the DIPLOMATIC COURIER | 77

resulting dynamics within Afghanistan’s neighbors and the fallout of America’s intervention in Central Asia. The richness of Rashid’s writing is found in his non-American, non-Western approach that grounds his research and perspectives. In the absence, thus far, of an Afghan academic or policy analysis, Rashid’s presents a critical—both in importance and tone—view from South Asia. Too often in the Afghanistan campaign, Americans forgot that other countries stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the battlefields of Helmand and the other provinces. Their sacrifices were just as real and just as painful for the families in England as those in West Virginia. Toby Harnden’s “Dead Men Risen” is of particular interest here, looking at the fighting in Afghanistan from the perspective of the United Kingdom’s Welsh Guards. Harnden offers a full picture view of the Welsh Guards’ 2009 deployment to Helmand Province, exploring not just the soldiers’ ground-level view, but also the home front. “Dead Men Risen” won the 2012 Orwell Prize and it is unsurprising why—its reporting is raw and frank, it is objective, and its insights are challenging if occasionally uncomfortable. On this latter point, it is worth noting that the Ministry of Defence bought the entire first run, “pulping” it to ensure it didn’t see the light of day. It was later published with considerable redactions. Harnden’s UK-first focus is refreshing as it shows not just an army struggling to fight against an amorphous adversary, but fighting to find its post-9/11 footing, something that was not unique to the United States. It was equally indefensible in London as it was in Washington that the Welsh Guards found themselves under-equipped and with an unclear mission—a failing of the White House as much as 10 Downing Street. Arguably, this deep narrative thread that goes beyond the alluring simplicity of the front page of a broadsheet, reaches its apex in the writing of Dr. Antonio Giustozzi. A professor at King’s College London, Giustozzi consistently writes some of the most reflective and deeply analytical work on the Taliban and, now, the Islamic State in Khorasan. His explorations of the Taliban’s evolution in countless books are invaluable to appreciating just how complex the movement is in practice and how they view themselves on-the-ground. There is no small irony in the fact that the United States could find itself as a curious bedfellow, once or twice removed, from 78 | AFGHANISTAN

the Taliban in its fight against “The Islamic State-Khorasan,” the subject of Giustozzi’s latest book of the same title. Unsurprisingly it surged both in demand and price on Amazon in the wake of the Kabul airport attack in August and is likely the single best source on the transplanted militant group. As Giustozzi describes, the group is far more complex and dynamic than merely a flag-waving offshoot, maintaining funding offices in the Gulf, and demonstrating far more military resiliency despite the antiIslamic State campaign waged by the western coalition. Despite President Donald Trump’s claims that the Islamic State was defeated, the group is merely degraded and still a threat. One fears that Afghanistan may go the way of Vietnam in terms of literature, research, and policy analysis. Indeed, nearly 50 years since the last American troops withdrew from Vietnam, there is still a small cottage industry exploring the causes of the war and the roots of America’s failure, it seems to decrease with each passing year. Yet, it is the very fact that the United States found its efforts wanting in Vietnam that it should read more about that conflict. It is the very reason too that the West must read more on and better understand what happened in Afghanistan before 9/11 and what followed after. The West may have withdrawn from Afghanistan, but Afghanistan may not be done with the West. ***** About the author: Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Visiting Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.


Turn static files into dynamic content formats.

Create a flipbook
Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.