Afghanistan: A broken land

Afghanistan: A broken land

The country takes an even more tragic turn

Borzou Daragahi Aug 30, 2017

Credit: Borzou Daragahi. I have been traveling to Afghanistan for nearly 20 years, and the allure of the country was what brought me out to the Middle East after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda.

It is an amazing country with a distinctive culture and a a topography that sometimes seems like another planet. But it is also the site of an unremitting entirely manmade human disaster that has been unfolding for some 42 years, well past the lifespan of most living Afghans.

I first traveled to Afghanistan almost on foot as a youngish freelancer with a backpack entering via the western border Herat. During that visit, I joined the International Organization for Migration as it moved a convoy of refugees fleeing the war from camps on the skirts of the city to their ancestral villages, in what appeared to be a sign of hope for the country. But dark and ominous developments were already unfolding, with warlords rampant, airstrikes continuing and ethnic tensions simmering, I wrote about that first trip in a short recent piece: Even then there were clear signs that Afghanistan’s 20-year experiment in western-backed pluralism was doomed. Just barely beneath the relatively placid surface, dangerous undercurrents were already in motion.

An Afghan family discuss what they described as an errant US airstrike that shattered their lives. Credit: Borzou Daragahi

Could there have been a less disastrous end to the US departure from Afghanistan? Back in April, as the administration of Joseph Biden was finalizing the plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, I wrote a piece citing Afghans who were alarmed that Americans were leaving before a peace deal with the Taliban had been finalized, largely because the Taliban were refusing to negotiate.

The Taliban have also yet to offer up their own peace plan, even as they claim to be working on one, and many Afghans fear they are preparing to overrun the nation again once the US withdraws, just as they did in the late 1990s. Their demands have included the resignation of the Ghani government, which the Taliban consider a US puppet, and the establishment of an “Islamic system”.

As the Taliban prepared to enclose on Kabul, many were warning that they should not be convinced by claims that the group has become more moderate since it ruled with an iron fist in the late 1990s. If anything, they had grown more unscrupulous, according to a representative of the Ahmad Shah Masoud Foundation in Kabul.

“The Taliban of the 1990s were very religious and discerning and would not embrace just anyone. But now they are extremely accepting of anyone who would fight alongside them in their quest for power. There are criminal elements. There are foreigners. They have already committed many crimes. They’re even worse than the Taliban of before.”

The collapse of the Kabul government and the rise of the Taliban has meant winners and losers throughout the region, with Pakistan, Qatar and Iran the clear winners and India, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates as the losers, as I describe in this piece.

It has also created terrible dilemmas for ordinary Afghans who must decide whether to stay put and accommodate, resist the extremist group or flee the country they consider home. I tell the story of one Kabul man who opted to reach out to Taliban intermediaries to secure himself and his family. Instead of cowering in fear, he called relatives and members of his extended family who are in touch with “the other side,” as he describes the Taliban He implored them to vouch for him and his family, and to win assurances that the militant fundamentalists now in control of Afghanistan would not harm him. They sent out feelers on his behalf: as an executive running an aid organisation distributing help to the neediest in remote places like Khost, Kunduz and Baghlan, he would contribute to the country’s success rather than its failure.

A deadly bombing targeting an entrance to Kabul’s airport shattered any illusions that life would improve for Afghans under the Taliban. The Islamic State’s South Asia branch, often called ISIS-K for Khorasan, claimed the attack. The group didn’t come out of nowhere, and I have been tracking it since a 2017 visit to Afghanistan. I was asked to write a piece explaining what the group is.

The original Isis formed as an offshoot of al-Qaeda that eventually overpowered its predecessor in Iraq and Syria, establishing a self-declared caliphate that spanned a huge swathe of territory across the Levant. But south Asia, which contains more Muslims than the Middle East and north Africa combined, was always in the sights of the group. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the late jihadi who founded the caliphate, identified Afghanistan, Pakistan and India as targets of the group’s ambitions. 

His words and the caliphate’s early successes inspired franchise movements across the globe, including the south Asia branch, which has proven itself enormously effective despite losses suffered by the Isis core leadership in Iraq and Syria. Now that it’s in charge, the Taliban may find that it’s easier to destroy a government using its networks of operatives than it is to build a security system that can provide safety for people, as I discuss in a piece published this past weekend about the intelligence wars inside Afghanistan.

Intelligence has been a key to the Taliban’s victory over the Afghan government and the international coalition backing it. Its infiltration of Afghan security forces and surveillance of both international and domestic troops gave it the edge in a complicated 20-year war of attrition that saw it lose power only to claw its way back into the driver’s seat this month. But as the bombing of Kabul airport this week showed, if the Taliban hopes to keep control and gain legitimacy it must quickly refocus its intelligence operations on targeting Isis-K and other militant groups


Categories: Afghanistan, Asia

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