Taliban Takeover: What the U.S. Owes Afghans and Americans
RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a full episode transcript.
In 2001, the United States sent its military into Afghanistan with plans to remove the Taliban from power and build a democracy in its stead. This week, 20 years later, the last U.S. soldier departed the country. But what was supposed to be the end to a decades-long war instead turned into tragedy, as the Taliban quickly wrested back control of the country and its people, setting off a new refugee crisis and global outrage. Nader Hashemi, associate professor in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and director of the Center for Middle East Studies, joined RadioEd to analyze the situation through a humanitarian lens and pose the question: What does the United States owe Afghanistan, as well as its own people?
Nader Hashemi is an associate professor at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies, where he serves as director of the Center for Middle East Studies, which is part of Korbel's Institute for Comparative and Regional Studies. He also co-directs the religion and international affairs certificate program and co-directs the Political Theory Initiative.
In this episode:
- "The American War in Afghanistan: A History" book by Carter Malkasian
- "America's Afghan War: A Defeat Foretold?" New York Times article by Adam Nossiter
- "The Afghanistan Papers" book by Craig Whitlock
- DU Newsroom: The Sorrow and Defeat of Watching the Taliban Reclaim Afghanistan
- PBS News Hour: A Historical Timeline of Afghanistan
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We're your hosts, Nicole Militello.
And I'm Lorne Fultonberg. As the United States began withdrawing its troops and Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Nader Hashemi felt frustration, anger, bewilderment, shock, fear that the human tragedy as he calls it is only beginning. As the director of the University of Denver Center for Middle East Studies, Hashemi has been closely following the latest developments and answered many of our questions about this complex tangled situation like what lies ahead for the Afghan people, even those who managed to escape the country? How can the United States effectively help? How will this change U.S. foreign policy? And above all, where do we go from here? Nader, thanks for joining us today.
Thanks for the invitation.
American presidents have been talking about bringing troops home for more than a decade at this point, did you ever think that this is the way it would happen when the day finally arrived?
No, I didn't. I mean, I anticipated in eventual American withdrawal. There was an emerging consensus, that's what Republican opinion was. There was emerging consensus in both political parties that the United States had to wind down the longest war that the United States was involved, in this case, Afghanistan approaching 20 years. But there's a difference between desiring and supporting an American withdrawal from Afghanistan versus what we're seeing right now unfolding. The complete chaos, in coherency, lack of planning and deep desperation that we see on the television every day as a result of what's clearly a major intelligence failure by the Biden administration to anticipate the rise and the return of the Taliban.
I want to get into some of that intelligence failure and the lessons we can learn from it in a little bit? But I want to start by talking about the people who are on the ground in Afghanistan now. What is the situation like for them? Who's fleeing? Why are they trying to get out?
Well, I think most people are fleeing primarily because the Taliban represent one of the most oppressive tyrannical, ultra conservative political forces in our world. They were in power in Afghanistan in late 1990s prior to 911. There are memories of their oppressive rule, particularly against women and ethnic and religious minorities who were severely persecuted by the Taliban. There's also a deep sense that when the Taliban come to power, those Afghans that were directly working with Americans will be targeted and perhaps killed.
And the evidence of this is very strong because in other parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban had secured a foothold, this is precisely what they have done. They've assassinated Afghans who worked for the American military or the American presence in the country or worked for the Afghan government. So there's very legitimate sort of concerns here that's backed up by human rights documentation that suggests that once the Taliban consolidate power, there's going to be a very dark set of policies that will descend upon the country. So I think that's fundamentally what's motivating people.
I think the other element to it is just the complete shock of how quickly this all transpired, a sense of bewilderment and an uncertainty that the Taliban now basically walked into Kabul without firing a shot. And right now the United States is trying to evacuate as many people as possible, but really on the condition and on the generosity that the Taliban is showing the United States. So what a great reversal in fortunes where 20 years ago, the Taliban were effectively crushed, but now they are in control and it's the United States that effectively has to coordinate with the Taliban to leave the country. So I think that's broadly what's going on.
Is this the right way to provide aid? And what ways should the United States and other countries be providing aid to Afghans in the country?
Well, there's two issues here. One is just evacuating people from the country who want to flee before the August 31st deadline. Then there's the question of humanitarian aid, economic aid, food aid that's required? So focusing on the second part of that question, I think it's a very different set of calculations that we have to think about now because effectively the Taliban are in full control of the country. And so any aid that comes from foreign countries, the United States, the West is going to have to be channeled and coordinated with the Taliban, they're effectively in control.
So I think what's desperately needed is food aid. There are at least according to the UN's report that I saw just yesterday five million people that are desperate and suffering from food scarcity in Afghanistan, those numbers are about decline. There are approximately quarter of a million people that have been displaced in recent months due to the fighting. So I think those are the immediate needs that have to be addressed if we want to keep people alive and living in Afghanistan. But, of course, this is going to be much more difficult because there will be strong pressure in Western countries not to deal with the Taliban because of what they represent.
But I think these issues of foreign aid coming to Afghanistan are really not the priority. Everyone for the next week until the August 31st deadline is going to be focusing on the current chaos in Kabul, in and around the airport related to the withdrawal of foreign citizens, American citizens, and Afghan allies who have visas, or who've been promised an exit from the country before the Taliban return.
Those Afghans are essentially refugees, do you have a sense of what lies in store for these people once they leave?
Well, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of chaos, I mean, I'm not a refugee myself, thankfully. My ethnic origins come from a part of the world where there are a lot of refugees and I've worked with refugees from the greater Middle East. But I think the general sense of the challenges of refugees is that you don't want to be a refugee, you want to stay in your country, but you can't because of political, social and economic circumstances, in this case, in Afghanistan war, the return of an extremist political organization. So it's the deep sense of frustration and forced evacuation against one's will of their homeland, of their family.
And then the bigger challenge of trying to be resettled in a part of the world that you have never been to, that you don't speak the language that you're not familiar with the cultural customs, and then the distance that one has from family and friends and the uncertainty as to whether you'll ever be able to see them again. So I think these are some of the themes, the challenges that refugees everywhere sort of suffer.
You touched on this a little bit, but the situation for those people who are not able to get out of the country, what are we looking at for them? And is there any sort of way once the United States withdraws that will be able to have any sort of influence in providing that aid?
I think the influence will be very diminished and very limited because once the United States pulls out the ability to support those people left behind can only happen with the blessing and the willingness of the Taliban who they'll be in full control of Kabul Airport, all of the main entry points, the border crossing points. And Afghanistan is a landlocked country so if there's people left behind, even if there's American citizens who couldn't get to the airport or Afghan nationals who have been promised a safe exit when the United States withdrawals, how do you get to them when the United States no longer has a physical presence in the country? There's no longer an American embassy operating in Kabul.
So any aid, any sustenance will have to be channeled through the Taliban. And then we're at the whim in the wishes of that organization depending on how they choose to disperse the aid who they decide to support? And the way it usually works is that these authoritarian political systems first get the aid and distribute it to their core supporters, their core followers, the people that they want to keep happy and who are keeping them in power. And then if there's anything left over those people who are not supporting the ruling system might get some benefits. So in that sense, the prospects do not look very good for many Afghans, particularly those Afghans that were working with the former Afghan government and with the United States military.
Will there be any inroads into this country for anybody at all?
That remains to be seen. One of the things that I'm hearing is that the Taliban wants international recognition is articulating a position that seems to suggest that they've moderated some of their views. And I think that's really motivated by a desire for political power for accessing the international banking system, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank funds that have been sending money to Afghanistan. So in that sense, there's some leverage that if Afghanistan wants to be considered under the Taliban to be part of the international community, which in and itself is shocking, given what we thought would be the case 20 years ago, then they'll have to be subject to conditions. That a condition for getting international aid from the UN, from the World Bank or the IMF would be for them to uphold basic human rights standards. So in that sense, there's some leverage.
The other leverage that is worthwhile exploring is the there's several countries in the region that have close relations with the Taliban, first and foremost, is Qatar that played a mediating role in terms of the negotiations that led to the announcement in February, 2020, that the United States and the Taliban have reached an agreement for the ending of this war. Pakistan has huge influence over the Taliban given the long-standing relationship between the Pakistani intelligence services and the leadership of the Taliban. And Saudi Arabia and the Emirates also have influence, they were two countries that recognize the Taliban when they were in power over 20 years ago, and those are close U.S. allies. So in that sense, there might be some leverage that could be used to perhaps create better internal conditions for the delivering of aid. And possibly I don't have much hope in this possibly improving the human rights situation there.
Let's talk about the United States role on the international stage, the diplomatic stage. The country is still involved, either militarily or diplomatically in a lot of other countries in this region, Israel, Palestine, the Korea, Iraq, Syria, how, if at all, will our tactics in this situation in Afghanistan affect our other situations?
That's a great question. There are very few parallels that one can point to I think right now that can allow for a fair comparison between what the United States has experienced and is experiencing in Afghanistan and other parts of the world. I mean, Iraq was the sort of the closest parallel, but most American troops have been removed. Combat troops have been removed from Iraq roughly the end of the first term of the Obama administration in 2011. So I think that's one of the big questions that I think really needs to be asked here. It's one of the most important I think political challenges that we as American citizens have going forward, and that is to do the type of deep soul searching, retrospective reflection rooted in humility and an objective understanding of what went wrong in Afghanistan.
What I'm suggesting is what is needed given the scale of this defeat, given the extent of the humiliation, given the amount of money that we invested in Afghanistan, according to some predictions over $2 trillion, given the lives lost, not just American lives, but Afghan lives? What's needed really is another 911-style commission of inquiry to figure out why we lost the war in Afghanistan? Why it ended so tragically? And what are the lessons to be learned? What are lessons to be learned in terms of U.S. foreign policy going forward? Given U.S. military presence in other parts of the world?
I think we owe that to the people of Afghanistan, we owe that to American citizens who went to Afghanistan to fight, we owe it to the families who lost loved ones fighting for the American military, that's what's required. I don't have all the answers to that because it's an enormous undertaking. But I think we need something of that scale given the enormity of the loss here and given the fact that this particular war the way that it is ending is really going to haunt the United States for many years to come. And unless we have that type of accounting and analysis to learn these lessons then I think we're doing to repeat the mistakes again in the future.
As we work on that undertaking, do you see any immediate recoils? Immediate reactions that will affect American foreign policy?
Not at the moment. At the moment, there's a lot of blaming and pointing fingers who's responsible for this catastrophe? Is it Biden? Is it Trump? There is a general mood in the country, as I'm sure your listeners will appreciate that the United States has been fighting these forever wars for far too long, it's time to focus on our problems at home, and we have immense problems. I just mentioned the figure of $2 trillion according to some estimates that were spent in Afghanistan. We could do a lot of good things with that money not just here in the United States, but then other parts of the world. So that's the general I think sort of mood that we see. I think that's primarily what's motivating the Biden administration to pull out and get out as quickly as possible. That position is widely supported by most people in the country if you look at the opinion polls.
And I don't see that changing any time soon, I think the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq because they're effectively failed wars have left a deep scar on the political culture of the United States of America. Anyone who calls for an intervention similar to what we saw roughly 20 years ago after 911 will not have a strong popular following. Whether that will change in the future? I don't know, I think it's going to take at least a generation or perhaps more.
The parallel that I think we have is really the Vietnam war. The Vietnam war ended roughly 1975, deeply scarred this country, deeply polarized this country. It took at least another generation before there was an appetite once again for Americans to send troops in that large number abroad. So that's probably where we are, but the world is changing in significant ways. Internationally, the United States is not as powerful as it once was, it's clearly a declining power. China is the rising power. Russia is throwing it's weight around. There's a general sense that we have a lot of internal problems in the United States that we have to focus on. So those are the trends that I think are going to shape U.S. foreign policy thinking in the coming weeks and months.
Well, I heard you say in another interview with another news organization that this was not only a major defeat for the United States, but a humiliation for the West, and I was curious what you meant by that?
Well, just think about it, the United States, the most powerful military in the history of humanity backed by its allies in the West, the United States, France, Germany, NATO effectively, goes into Afghanistan. And after 20 years is effectively defeated by a ragtag tribal militant organization with people fighting with basic weapons, many of them wearing sort of rudimentary fighting gear. And the United States is and its allies were basically sort of just a desperate to get out, pleading with the Taliban not to sort of attack the airport, let us get out and let us call it into it.
So this is a defeat for the United States, but also the West, because while the United States was the major intervening power, it did so in close coordination with its NATO allies, most of them in Western allies. So there's a lot of soul searching and anger and disillusionment in other Western countries that also sent troops. So this is much bigger than the United States. But, of course, the intervention Afghanistan would not have happened had the United States not led the way. So in many, many ways, this is really an American problem, an American war, American defeat and American failure, it's brought other countries down as well. So I think in that sense, the moral responsibility on the United States is much greater.
Right. The United States led the way after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, which coming up on 20 years since then. I heard you tell a local TV station here that if the Taliban gives safe haven to extremist groups, then in many ways, we are likely to see a repeat of the events that led up to 911. Could you explain that?
Well, if your listeners recall the history, our problem with Afghanistan after the attacks on September 11th, 2001 was primarily with Al-Qaeda that was present in Afghanistan. It wasn't immediately with the Taliban, a problem with the Taliban was that they were giving a safe haven to Al-Qaeda. We were not attacked by the Taliban. In fact, there was demands of the Taliban early in the post 911 days and weeks that the Taliban handover Al-Qaeda as quickly as possible. So that's how we got involved in this particular war that because of the safe haven that was given to Al-Qaeda by the Taliban, they were able to launch and organize this attack thus drawing the United States.
In many ways, had Al Qaeda been present in a different country then we probably would not be having this conversation about Afghanistan. So the big concern is going forward is what is the policy of the Taliban with respect to Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups? According to the negotiations and the deal that was struck in Doha, Qatar, the Taliban had to promise, and they did promise that they would not allow extremist organizations like Al-Qaeda to be stationed in their country.
We do have credible reports, UN reports, American intelligence reports that there are extremist groups in Afghanistan today, 15 out of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan are known to have a small Al-Qaeda presence. There is this organization that now is getting some attention in the daily Pentagon ground briefings known as ISIS-K, which is an offshoot of ISIS that has a presence in Afghanistan. So the question here is that what happens three months from now? A year from now if there's another terrorist attack on the United States or some American asset that can be traced back to an Al-Qaeda or an extremist presence located in Afghanistan? That sort of brings us back in many ways to where we were roughly 20 years ago. And then that puts the onus on the United States in terms of how it wants to respond to any potential terrorist threat. So in that sense, there's a concern that we could in many ways repeating the same scenario that we were facing 20 years ago.
Leading ultimately to similar results?
Hopefully not, hopefully not. If you listen to what the Biden administration is saying, is that, look, we don't need to go in and occupy another country when we face a terrorist attack, we can take them out with the assets, special forces, military strikes. We don't need to repeat the mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan. So that's I think one of the big lessons here that has perhaps been learned militarily, strategically from a national security perspective. I think what happened 20 years ago was there was an incredible amount of anger, a desire for revenge over what happened in 911 and a deep sense that the United States was invincible, that it could do whatever it wanted. This is one of the problems that all great powers face, and they face them ironically in Afghanistan. Before it was the United States in Afghanistan thinking that they could control the country and rewrite the rules and build a new government.
It was Russia, it was the Soviet Union, of course, before that it was Britain, they all faced the same set of challenges. And I think they fundamentally came to the same conclusions, they were fundamentally defeated in large part because of a deep set of assumptions that they made rooted in imperial arrogance and hubris that often defines how great powers operate in other parts of the world not recognizing and understanding local conditions. And that I think is where the United States fundamentally failed, but it's not unique to the United States.
If you study other wars where Western powers try to occupy and control parts of the non-Western world, whether it's the United States in Vietnam or the French in Algeria, you often see very similar patterns of assumptions of similar interventions, but also similar forms of defeat that take place rooted in the arrogance of great powers, their inability to understand local conditions forcing and eventual humiliating portrayed. There was actually a really great piece last week that was published by Adam Nossiter in the New York Times that really went over this territory, it's really worth reading, and I think it was called Afghan: A Defeat Foretold?
We'll make sure to link it in our show notes as well. You posed the question earlier, and I think it's a really good one, what do we the United States owe Afghanistan? What do we owe veterans? What do we owe the families of service members who died? Is finding solutions and not repeating our mistakes enough?
Well, it's debatable what is enough given the scale of the defeat and given the people that are going to be left behind in the lives lost, obviously we can't roll back the clock and bring back to life those people who have died in Afghanistan. I don't want to highlight, it's not just Americans. According to the New York Times, roughly 240,000 Afghan citizens have died over the last 20 years. So they've paid the biggest price. What we owe Afghanistan, what we owe the United States, I think fundamentally is the truth. I think one of the problems here about this particular war is that we were effectively not told the truth.
I want to strongly recommend this book that's coming out next week by the Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock called The Afghanistan Papers based on internal documentation and interviews with people within the U.S. military, the Pentagon, the government who were involved in the Afghanistan. Were effectively making the argument that people within the decision-making centers of power in the United States knew that the situation in Afghanistan was going in the wrong direction, but repeatedly put a positive spin on events, not telling the truth to the American public about how bad things were unfolding.
So in that sense, what's needed is the truth, something along the lines I mentioned earlier in 911-style commission of inquiry. I think we also owe the people of Afghanistan as much help in sustenance and support that we can offer given that many of them have effectively been abandoned. We promised that we would be there, we promised that we would support them. We left very precipitously based on poor planning and mismanagement. And so the extent that we can help those remaining Afghans to come to the United States.
I mean, if you want a concrete suggestion, we have a certain quota for the number of refugees that we let into this country on an annual basis. I would portion off a percentage of that annual refugee intake that we normally support in the United States and devote that to Afghan citizens and civilians. I think we owe that in terms of historical addressing past mistakes and trying to live up to our promises. And then I think also at the international level, to the extent that the United States can play a role either at international institutions like the IMF world bank, the UN, or with American allies that have influence over the Taliban. We have a responsibility in that sense to try and press these allies and international institutions to do what they can to help Afghanistan survive under the new rulers that have taken over. So those are the things that come to mind.
This is going to scar the United States for a very long time. It's going to be, I think, as influential and as consequential as the Vietnam war. But, of course, the analogies are not perfect. But I think those are the things that we owe, those are the things we owe to the people of Afghanistan and those are the things that we owe to the people of the United States, particularly those Americans who went to Afghanistan, who died in Afghanistan and whose families deserve answers.
That's Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at DUS Corvelle School for International Studies. The articles and books he mentioned are linked in the show notes along with a first-person account from Jen Birch. She's a full-time student at University College and an air force veteran. In the essay she wrote, she reflects on the complicated emotions that surface as she watches the U.S. leave Afghanistan, that's all at du.edu/radioed. Alyssa Hurst is our executive producer. Tamar Chapman is our managing editor. James Swearingen arranged our theme. I'm Lorne Fultonberg, and this is RadioED.