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Biden's Afghanistan withdrawal could've gone so differently

The war in Afghanistan was far, far different from how it has been depicted in American media.

For the last few weeks, Americans have been struggling to understand how, after 20 years of war and occupation and historic levels of foreign investment in Afghanistan, the Taliban were able to seize control of the country before the U.S. even completed its withdrawal Monday.

It's not a really sustainable state whatsoever. It's a creation of Washington and elsewhere.

Most mainstream news conversation has focused on what went wrong with the withdrawal itself — issues like intelligence failures, bottlenecking in airlifts, visa processing debacles, and insufficient attention to support for the Afghan air force. In these narratives, often authored by legacy media outlets and national security experts steeped in hawkish assumptions about American power, 20 years of effort seemed to fall apart due to President Joe Biden’s poor planning.

But the reality is that the very speed of the collapse of the Afghan security forces requires a much deeper, and more cosmopolitan, understanding of decades of U.S. policy failures in the country.

So I called up Anand Gopal, an award-winning journalist who reports for The New Yorker and wrote the acclaimed book, “No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes.” He’s a trained sociologist and renowned foreign affairs reporter who lived in Afghanistan for years, embedded with the Taliban, speaks the local languages and is well versed in the history of the war-torn nation.

Gopal was in Taliban-controlled territory in July and is returning to the country for yet another round of reporting. We chatted on the phone between his trips about how the how the withdrawal could’ve gone differently, the huge opportunity the US missed in 2001 when the Taliban surrendered, and why the United States' mistakes ran far, far deeper than poor last-second planning.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Zeeshan Aleem: Was there a significantly better way to withdraw from Afghanistan?

Anand Gopal: Well, there was and there wasn't.

There was a better way to do it if Washington faced certain hard ground truths. What would have been the better way was if the U.S. government had secured a deal with the Taliban that began a process of transfer of power to them, while the U.S. was still in the country. But that would have meant completely undermining the Afghan government to do that; it would've meant recognizing the Afghan government, basically, is a creation of the U.S. entirely, and has no real legitimacy on the ground. So that would've been a pretty major paradigm shift, almost a greater paradigm shift than just simply cutting and running, I think.

What the U.S. did is kind of buy into its own fiction that the Afghan government was somehow a sovereign actor.

Because the way the Afghan government is structured is that almost all of the funding, something like 80 percent of its revenue, comes from international sources. This is what political scientists call a rentier state. It's a state that owes its very existence to foreign aid, so it's not a really sustainable state whatsoever. It's a creation of Washington and elsewhere.

What the U.S. did is kind of buy into its own fiction that the Afghan government was somehow a sovereign actor and try to treat it as such. So how they sequenced the withdrawal was, "We're going to have a deal with the Taliban, and one of the conditions of that is that the Taliban are going to have to talk to the Afghan government to come to a peace deal."

But why would the Taliban talk to a government that's not a sovereign entity, that has no real stake on the ground? The U.S. should've recognized that and used that leverage over the Afghan government to force the Afghan government and the Taliban to come to a deal before they withdrew. And I think, if they had done that — or, at least, if not come to a deal, come to some sort of mechanism that would've been better than what we see now — that could've also bought time for more orderly withdrawal, especially for all the Afghans who helped the U.S. and want to leave and things like amnesty measures [for people who worked with the U.S. or served in the Afghan government].

The important thing is: What could you salvage from the Afghan government, and have them be part of the new order? Because that would make [the Taliban’s government] even slightly more inclusive. The current order, the danger is, is not going to be inclusive at all, which is the other terrible outcome.

Aleem: What is the biggest thing you've seen American media get wrong about what's been happening in Afghanistan over the last few weeks?

Gopal: Well, it's actually the same thing that they've gotten wrong for the last 20 years, which is that there's actually two Afghanistans: There's the rural Afghanistan, and there's the urban Afghanistan.

Right now, all the coverage is in Kabul, so one would think there is complete chaos in the country. But most of that chaos is just around the airport, and most of Kabul itself is calm. And then life outside Kabul is calm, and for the first time, outside of Kabul there's no war, which, if you talk to men and women in the countryside, especially in those areas that had faced heavy fighting, that's the most significant difference that they've seen, compared to what was there before.

Afghanistan is one of the most rural countries on Earth. The individuals that we tend to hear about are the extreme outliers in Afghan society — which is not to say that they don't deserve a shot and they don't deserve to have a good life in Afghanistan as everyone else does. But if you just focus on these people, you won't actually understand how the Taliban was able to take over. In the countryside, people face very different calculus. They're facing war, and they can be killed either by airstrikes or by roadside bombs or whatever else, and the most important thing they need right now is security, above all else. Afghanistan's been in a civil war for 40 years.

People saw the Taliban as a lesser of two evils to the violence perpetuated by the U.S. and by the U.S. proxies.

That's another thing people miss. They think it's a war between the Taliban and the United States military and the Afghan army, right? That's actually not what's happened. Afghanistan's been in a civil war, and by “civil war” I mean different sections of society have been armed against each other. The Taliban is not just an organization; it's a coalition of different groups, tribes, clans, particular villages, all of whom have been excluded from the 2001 order. And they've been fighting — and, in some cases, fighting enemies that they've had stretching back to 30, 40 years.

Aleem: The Taliban were offering to surrender to the U.S. swiftly in 2001, and their only demand was amnesty, but the Bush administration had said, "We don't negotiate surrenders." Fast-forward to nearly 20 years later, and the U.S. negotiated an agreement with the Taliban in which the Taliban had much more leverage and the U.S. effectively threw its hands up and admitted it had failed to not only eliminate the Taliban as a threat, but even to counteract their rise again.

Is there a case that 2001 was a huge missed opportunity? Might that have created a better overall outcome for Afghans?

Gopal: Oh, absolutely, because the U.S. won the war in 2001. The Taliban were defeated entirely. They put down their weapons; they went back to civilian life. They became teachers and farmers and bus drivers. And in many cases, they even tried to join the new government. The U.S., however, rejected that state of affairs.

From the very beginning, the U.S. had the idea that there's only unconditional surrender; there was no surrender with amnesty. That went from George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, on downwards. And so there was a lot of pressure from above on the Afghan elites — who were running the country at the time and interested in offering amnesty — not to do so.

And then, the U.S. also incentivized Afghans to turn against each other. I mentioned this is a country that was in the midst of the civil war. So the U.S. went to one side and started paying that side and saying, "Give us terrorists and give us Taliban members." And so, that side would use that to settle their old scores; they had nothing to do with the Taliban or Al Qaeda. Tons of innocent people were rounded up, arrested and killed by the U.S. and its proxies.

If you go back and look at that period between 2001 and 2004, and if you interview military personnel, special forces who were based in Afghanistan at the time, or if you talk to Afghans, one of the striking things is that there was almost no anti-coalition or anti-government activity in Helmand and Kandahar and these kinds of places. They were remarkably peaceful, from that perspective. However, despite that, the U.S. was arresting people right and left, torturing them, sending them to Bagram Air Base or Kandahar Airfield or Guantanamo. Horrific tales of torture. And the U.S. was allying with local warlords and commanders who were just killing people right and left, on the slightest provocation.

So really, you had a one-sided war in those years, between 2001 and 2004, where the U.S. was fighting an enemy that didn't exist, and innocent people were the ones who were suffering. That really is what created the Taliban's resurgence. The Taliban wasn't a popular force in 2001, but in these communities, people saw the Taliban as a lesser of two evils to the violence perpetuated by the U.S. and by the U.S. proxies.

Aleem: In July, you were on the ground in rural, Taliban-controlled territory as the Taliban were sweeping the country. What did you see, and what did you learn about the state of the occupation and its wind-down?

Gopal: Well, I think the biggest thing I noticed on the ground is just how tired people were of fighting. It's really been boiled down to the bare minimum for a lot of people, which is, "Can I go home and go to sleep, and not worry about somebody breaking into my house and try to take my son away?" or, "Can I go to the mosque and not worry about hitting a roadside bomb?"

I interviewed a lot of people who really faced a lot of real deep trauma, because of the kind of loss that they've suffered in the last 20 years — which even for me, as somebody who's been studying this conflict and reporting on it for a long time, even for me, it took me aback. It was shocking for me to see the extent of human suffering.

It's a heavily militarized countryside where everything along the roads is destroyed. There are rusted hulls of tankers here and there. There's empty bases that clearly have had car bombs that have run through them and they're ripped open. There's very few hospitals. There's very few services. There's trauma centers in the big cities, and there's just, every single day, people coming in, stepping on mines or getting droned or whatever else.

The first thing people say when I call them these days is, "Thank God everything's peaceful." They're not even thinking about the kinds of things we think of, like, "Who's going to be in the government? Are the Taliban going to be sharing power? What's the role of women?" Right now, the people I'm talking to, men and women, the thing they say is, "Well, thank God it's just peaceful."

Aleem: The speed of the Taliban's takeover shocked even seasoned analysts and defied U.S. intelligence predictions by a significant margin. What would you say the swiftness of the collapse revealed about what the U.S. was building in Afghanistan for the past 20 years? What are the roots of this failure?

Gopal: The most immediate reason, I think, is that the Afghan military was weaned on the U.S. way of fighting wars, which is almost entirely reliant on air power and on contractors. This goes back to the Rumsfeld Doctrine of the early 2000s, which is to try to decrease the size of the military; decrease the military footprint on the ground; to outsource a lot of the core functions of war-fighting to private contractors; and to shift a lot of the burden of the fighting onto air power.

When the Taliban started to advance, a few things happened at once. One is the U.S. removed its air power, and the Afghan army didn't know how to fight without air power, because unlike the Taliban, they'd been made in the mold of the United States military. Two, all these contractors left, at least the foreign contractors — a lot of the supply chain started to fall in shambles. And then, three, what was left is this military that had no legitimacy on the ground, and nobody was willing to fight and die for the military, because they didn't really believe in it, outside of getting a paycheck or knowing that they're on the winning side. And so, all those things came to a head simultaneously and collapsed like a house of cards.

Aleem: The Iraq War was marked by scandal and widely considered a stain on America's reputation in our mainstream national discourse. But up until just a few weeks ago, Afghanistan has been sort of a foil to that. It's been seen as predicated on a just premise, and largely stayed under the radar, despite its longevity. If you were to compare the two wars, would you say the Afghanistan War deserves that relative freedom from scandal and scrutiny?

Gopal: Yeah, I think it's clear, if we study the history of the last decades, the Afghanistan War was not a good war.

Afghanistan is probably the most privatized war fought in modern American history.

Almost everything you can say about the Iraq War, it does apply to Afghanistan. For example, [torture at] Abu Ghraib, right? Iconic moment in the Iraq War — and there were dozens of Abu Ghraibs happening in Afghanistan. There were everything you could imagine: prisoners being killed, prisoners being raped, electrocuted. That was happening constantly, especially before 2006.

When you think about de-Baathification in Iraq, which is the cutting off of the old Baath Party [former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's party]. So there's tens of thousands of people, mostly Sunnis, who are out of work and then incentivized to turn against the occupation. There was something like an equivalent to that in Afghanistan. The exclusion of the Taliban from the government was equivalent, in its effect to de-Baathification.

Then you look at the contracting — Blackwater, infamous in Iraq for the role it's played, and, I think, symbolic of the way in which private security contractors are taking an unprecedented role in the war. Well, Afghanistan is probably the most privatized war fought in modern American history. I mean, most of this war was being fought by people being paid as mercenaries. Now, they didn't have names like Blackwater, because they're all Afghans, but these are all warlords.

Warlordism was not something that's endemic to Afghanistan. It emerged, first, as a result of the CIA's patronage to rebel groups in the 1980s, along with the Soviet Union's destruction of the country. Then it was eliminated by the Taliban in the '90s, and then it re-emerged when the U.S. brought it back, when they literally brought back warlords from outside the country to run the country, very similar to the way the U.S. brought all of these illegitimate actors from outside the country to Iraq to run that country. So the parallels there are pretty striking, and there's no really good reason to say that Afghanistan was, in any way, a good war.