There’s an Afghan proverb that says, “never wash blood with blood.” After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States and its allies tried to cleanse its wounds by doing exactly that. They also turned on a firehose of aid money meant to help build up a country torn apart by decades of war.
It didn’t work.
On Aug. 15, two decades after the war started, the Taliban walked into Kabul virtually unopposed and took control of the country in the final days of the U.S. occupation.
For most observers, the speed of the Taliban takeover was shocking. But a former Afghan ambassador to Canada says he saw it coming.
“I saw this train wreck, if you want to call it, or this collapse,” Omar Samad told Global News. “I kept warning Afghan leaders, and those that I have been in touch with and through my interaction through media and my writings, that if we do not find a political solution fast, that we will lose all the opportunities and that eventually, the Taliban might gain full control of the country, which is what exactly happened.”
There were some gains, to be sure. Education rates and professional opportunities increased, especially for women. But Samad says those gains were mostly felt in cities, while in rural areas, life remained mostly unchanged — except for the constant bloodshed, which killed at least 250,000 people, 70,000 of them civilians. The estimated price tag of the war: more than $3 trillion.
“The result, the return on investment should have been much, much different than what we have,” says Samad. “What we should have done is talk to people who understood their country, their society, their history and the obstacles and the opportunities, and then come up with strategies that worked sort of in the middle of all of this — sort of a middle track. We didn’t.”
Confidential documents obtained by the Washington Post in 2019 confirm Samad’s opinion of how things went so wrong.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015.
“What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
In the same trove of documents, an unidentified former U.S. State Department official criticized efforts to quickly install a Western-style government that was completely foreign to Afghanistan.
“Our policy was to create a strong central government which was idiotic because Afghanistan does not have a history of a strong central government. The timeframe for creating a strong central government is 100 years, which we didn’t have.”
Samad says this poor strategy failed to bring about meaningful change.
“This is where the problem is: we relied on bad strategy, on bad advice, on bad consulting,” says Samad. “And basically, at the end of the day, we did this spinning wheel project that made a lot of money for a lot of people, but it really didn’t create much on the ground.”
What it created was a lot of hope in the beginning, and now, despair for millions, especially women.
“My life has become just to eat, sleep and repeat,” says 20-year-old ‘Aisha’. She spoke to Global News from Kabul, where she is in hiding because of her visibility as an athlete. The Taliban forbids women to compete in sports. “The world has left us in disaster under the Taliban regime.”
WATCH: TNR Extra: Extended Interview with Omar Samad – Part 1: How the world should respond to the Taliban in power, and is a different entity than the one that ruled in the 1990s.
The fundamentalist Islamist movement started out as a few religious talib, or students, in the 1990s. From 1996 to 2001, they ruled most of Afghanistan. Their regime was especially restrictive for women — they were banned from public life, and there were beatings and public executions for a wide variety of crimes.
When they returned power in August, Taliban officials promised this time would be different. But they immediately restricted womens’ rights of movement, dress, education and work. They have beaten protesters and journalists, and summarily executed people accused of crimes ranging from kidnapping to theft. Bodies of alleged criminals have been hung in public, a graphic warning to anyone who disobeys the Taliban.
“At the beginning, they said they forgive everyone,” says ‘Leeda.’ She spoke to Global News from a safe house in Kabul, where she is living under threat because she worked as a photographer with foreign organizations. “But now we’re seeing how they forgave, because that is only a word. How someone can trust them? Whatever they are saying, it is all fake.”
Samad admits there are some troubling stories emerging. However, the country is also on the brink of economic collapse, and he claims the Taliban knows it cannot maintain control of the country if it repeats its brutal repression of the 1990s and gets cut off from desperately needed international aid.
“I also think they’ve learned some lessons. They are more worldly. They have been exposed to the world much more than they used to,” he says. “And so we are all hoping that this is going to result in some level of flexibility on their part.”
It remains to be seen whether that will happen. The early returns are not encouraging, and that has prompted several countries, including the United States, to cut off aid money. At the end of August, a scheduled $450-million payment from the International Monetary Fund to help Afghanistan deal with the COVID-19 pandemic was delayed until further notice. Canada continues to honour its humanitarian commitments, for now.
Samad says remaining engaged is the best way to keep an eye on the Taliban.
WATCH: TNR Extra: Extended Interview with Omar Samad – Part 2: US strategy, corruption, and where the money went
“I think the more presence you have in Afghanistan, if the international community is engaged, if the international media is still engaged, if there are some UN agencies functioning, we will have a window into Afghanistan and we would know what the Taliban are doing and whether they’re changing or not.”
He says the worst outcome for Afghan citizens would be to leave them completely isolated again.
“If you shut down and you closed the country and you isolate the country and you cut its lifelines, obviously not only are we jeopardizing the livelihoods and the lives of Afghans, but we are also in some ways closing the door and basically saying, ‘You can do whatever you want and we’re not watching and listening,’ which is exactly what we did in the 1990s.”
There are a lot of unknowns:
‘If’ the world stays engaged.
‘If’ the Taliban are more moderate this time.