The Road to Kabul:
Recent developments in Afghanistan, particularly over the past fortnight, together with this week’s (18th August) emergency debate in the House of Commons, have prompted me to write further on the question of Afghanistan, taking an even longer view of the key issues of the past quarter century. In my last post on this, I went back to 2001, when NATO troops first arrived in the country after the events of 9/11 in the United States. In his 1998 book, Strange Places, Questionable People, John Simpson, the BBC’s chief international correspondent and World Affairs Editor, described his first meeting with Taliban soldiers in 1996. This was soon after ‘the Taliban’ – the name means ‘religious students’ – began in the refugee camps around the Pakistani border town of Quetta and swept across into Afghanistan in 1994, in rage at the then Afghan government’s failure to impose the basics of fundamental Islam. At that point, they were not particularly good fighters, but they were Pashtu-speakers who had played intelligently on the linguistic divisions inside Afghanistan and had gained the support of many groups that disliked the lordly ways of the Tajik-speaking government in Kabul. Simpson described his roadside encounter with a group of fighters:
I couldn’t tell the difference between them and any other mujahaddin group. And perhaps there wasn’t any difference: a clever mixture of bribery and good propaganda had won over dozens of local warlords to the Taliban side. They were crouched behind a makeshift wall of piled-up rocks beside the road, and we had just made the nerve-racking journey by car between the two front lines, on the the outskirts of Kabul. These men had no objection whatever to being filmed. Nor did their commander, though he was still nervous about his new masters (he had only recently changed sides) he insisted that someone else had to do the talking on camera for him.Chapter 17, The Mountain of Light. p 501.
It was only when the film crew went south to Kandahar, the ‘Taliban capital’, that they found ‘the real thing’. They were very alarming indeed, Simpson wrote, noting also that Kandahar was well-known for its homosexuality, and that it was commonplace to find Taliban soldiers with mascara’d eyes, painted fingernails and toenails and heeled gold sandals. Of course, they also carried AK-47’s.
Some of the Taliban’s greatest gains had been achieved through deal-making rather than fighting in the field. By this means, they had gained control of half the territory of Afghanistan, from Herat in the West to the border of Pakistan, and with it almost half the population. At that point, they were besieging the capital, Kabul itself. Their main centres, Kandahar and Herat, were on the Pakistani telephone system, and Pakistani banks flourished in several of their towns and cities. But there was no denying that their main motivation was ‘radical Islam’. In their centres, there were fewer women on the streets than in Kabul, and those who did appear were covered from head to toe in the traditional burkhas. Confiscated televisions were hung up on the same streets as if they were executed criminals on gibbets. Television was evil because it presumed to capture the likeness of living creatures, something that, according to their interpretation of the Qu’ran, was considered blasphemous. Kandahar was, therefore, far from being an ideal place for a television team to work. An aggressive young mullah was appointed to the role of chaperone. On the flat roof of one building, Simpson recorded a piece to camera, including pictures of people walking in the streets below:
JS: The Taliban are probably the most extreme Islamic fundamentalistic group in the world. By comparison with this place, Iran and even Saudi Arabia seem positively liberal. We aren’t allowed to film any living creature, because that would constitute making a graven image of it. The Taliban police Kandahar very intensively, and those who don’t necessarily support the régime here are too frightened to speak to us. It’s hard to move here without being watched or stopped and questioned.Transcript of report for The Nine O’Clock News. Kandahar, 27.4.96.
On the morning after the television crew arrived in Kandahar, Mullah Omar Akund, the reclusive leader of the Taliban, was to reveal the cloak of the Prophet Mohammed, donated centuries before to Kandahar, before the eyes of an expected crowd. The cloak was only shown publicly at moments of great significance; the last time had been more than sixty years before. Now, as the Taliban prepared to open their great onslaught on Kabul, they took it out again. People gathered around the crew in large numbers, staring through their vehicle’s windows with curiosity, not having seen Europeans before. It had happened the night before as well, but that had been far more menacing. Men with terrifying scars, one with an empty eye socket pressed their faces against the glass. It was very hot inside the vehicle and the crew was getting very uneasy inside. One of them joked, “Don’t look now, but the crowd’s turning ugly!” That morning, during the ceremony of the Prophet’s cloak, they went largely unnoticed among the distracted crowds. They were able to get some extraordinary pictures, as Mullah Omar held up an ancient piece of pale brown material. The emotion of the crowd was intense, with people weeping aloud and tearing the turbans off their heads to throw them up into the air and touch the cloak. Simpson comments that … it was like watching Peter the Hermit preaching the First Crusade. The result was rather similar, as within a few months the Taliban had taken Kabul.
As the Taliban seized control of Kabul, it brought in a brutally conservative version of Islamic rule, as it had promised from its inception. Women were barred from most work and education, and punishments including stoning and amputation were were introduced. Over their next five years in power the Taliban continued their brutal and misogynist policies. In 2001, they blew up the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas. The picture below shows a Hazira boy flying a kite near the site of the statues.
The Taliban in Power, Invasion and War; 2001-2014:
Then the 9/11 attacks prompted an ultimatum from the US for the Taliban to hand over Osama Bin Laden. Mullah Omar refused, leading to a US-led coalition invading the country. By November 2001, they had taken Kabul, and by December Hamid Kazai was installed as Afghanistan’s new President.
During their time in Afghanistan, it proved impossible for the BBC crew to persuade any senior figure in the Taliban to record an interview with them on camera. One of them agreed to have his answers recorded, but wouldn’t show any part of himself to the camera. Some Taliban leaders, more moderate, were sympathetic to the idea but felt their position within the organisation would suffer if it were known that we had made a graven image of them. On their last day in Kandahar, they went to see the Mullah Balouch, who had a fearsome reputation as a strong supporter of the punishments ‘drawn from’ the Sharia or ‘Islamic law’, he tried to persuade the surgeons under his control to cut off the hands and feet of convicted criminals. If they refused, he would do it himself. By all accounts he rather enjoyed it. Simpson’s crew found him in his office, surrounded by petitioners, whom he waved away. With the camera running, Simpson went over to him and asked whether he was willing to be interviewed. The Mullah replied,
It is idolatry to show a person’s face only, since a graven image can be made from that. But if you show me down to the waist, no graven image can be made from it.Strange Places, Questionable People, p. 504.
The journalist did not understand this reasoning but was happy to accede to the now ‘moderate’ Mullah’s wishes. He proved to be a frank interviewee, except on the question of his own involvement in the brutal punishments of criminals. He absolutely denied cutting off anyone’s hands or feet himself, even though what he had done was a matter of public knowledge in Kandahar. Perhaps he realised the effect, even then in pre-internet times, that it might have had on a Western audience had he admitted it. But he insisted that it wasn’t in any way strange that a minister of health should try to persuade hospital surgeons to amputate perfectly healthy limbs. Simpson let this answer pass, since ‘liberals’ were in short enough supply in the Taliban ‘ranks’. It therefore seems difficult, from Simpson’s memoirs and recordings, to make comparisons between the Taliban of 1996 or 2001 and that of 2021. But among its ‘mainstream’ leadership today, we can see for ourselves none of the hostility to being filmed that was so obvious to the correspondent twenty-five years ago. The same idiosyncracies and contradictions are also apparent, and may be exploited by skilful negotiators, especially if these are experienced Afghan leaders. More than that, naked propaganda has been replaced by a slick, twenty-first media machine among the leadership of the movement. This has shown itself to be both receptive to nuances in western diplomatic and military strategies and transmissive of reassurances to the Afghan people, even if the various audiences remain skeptical of these and far more sophisticated in their responses due to the major changes that have taken place just in the last five years of relative peace.
The Trump ‘Deal’ and its Aftermath, 2020-21:
In 2014 the NATO powers declared its war over, ending their combat missions, shifting to training and advising Afghans. But Afghan security forces remained reliant on the allies for support, especially air cover. In 2020 US President Donald Trump signed a bilateral withdrawal deal with the Taliban claiming that it laid the groundwork for peace talks between Afghans, but the subsequent meetings were slow to start and soon spluttered to a halt. With violence continuing to escalate against Afghan government forces, in April this year, the incoming US President Joe Biden reiterated that the remaining US troops in Afghanistan would be home by 11 September, a timetable that was soon accelerated. As western troops began to depart, a combination of western and Afghan jounalists were reporting on how the Taliban became resurgent on the ground, having been utterly routed just twenty years previously. They have been saying how they have changed, but brutal ‘punishments’ have already returned with their rule in the provinces. In April, a video went viral on the internet showing the public flogging of a woman for adultery in Obe district. As it was shared by urban Afghans, it revived ugly memories of the darker times of Taliban rule in 1996-2001, leading to an outpouring of revulsion. Men with lashes were shown taking it in turns to bear down on the woman until she began screaming, “Oh God, I repent!” An audience of men and boys watched and snapped photos, and it was this public nature of the ‘event’ which angered Taliban commanders.
After years of being a post-holder in the Taliban’s shadow administration, the mullah still regularly hands down this sentence for ‘adultery’, which in Afghanistan can cover any sexual relationship outside marriage, sometimes even including rape. For this, men were flogged and then jailed. He had recently ordered the flogging of a woman within her home who was betrayed by her neighbours. She was sentenced to twenty lashes. Obe was one of dozens of districts to fall under Taliban control in the last month, and the experiences of its people are a good indication of what a country ruled by them might look like; a disturbing vision. Its fall revealed the problems hobbling the Afghan security forces, most notably the lack of air support and strategic foreign ground support. US troops left Bagram, the sprawling airbase north of Kabul that was the symbolic and operational heart of its in-country operations, within twenty-four hours, leaving fewer than a thousand ground troops around Kabul. The British were also on the verge of repatriating the last of their regular troops.
Through their withdrawal talks with the Americans, the Taliban have also gained a form of international recognition they had long craved. Senior envoys have responded by burnishing their the image they present to the world. At peace talks in the Qutari capital, Doha, and across platforms including the a New York Times opinion column by their deputy leader, the Taliban’s representatives have been presenting an image of change. They use the language of peace and reconciliation, and have promised women their rights as granted by Islam – from the right to education to the right to work. Yet, according to multiple accounts collected by The Observer, they have revived most of the brutal and misogynist policies of the 1990s, although almost all of those documented are anonymous, due to fear of reprisals against the witnesses or their relatives. Halma Salami, a women’s rights activist based in Herat, who receives regular death threats in response to her work, testified:
The international platform for the Taliban is truly disturbing. We live under the Taliban, we deal with them and we know they have not changed.
That platform also includes Hamas, the Palestinian terror group, which held negotiations with the Taliban in Doha. Halma Salami stayed in contact with fellow activists in fellow activists in Obe, who reported being confined to their homes and barred from going to work. On 14th June, the last government forces in the district were helicoptered out of the besieged outpost. The militants were confident enough of their control that they called a meeting at the mosque in the main street to lay out their laws and plans for Obe. Schools have been closed for years by fighting, or boycotted by parents who are worried that their children will be caught in crossfire. When they reopen, girls will not be allowed to study past sixth grade (eleven to twelve in age). Interviewees reported that women would be made to wear the burkha and would no longer be allowed to go to work or leave their homes for any reason other than with a male ‘guardian’. Shopkeepers have been ordered not to serve women on their own, and the Taliban already beat any unaccompanied women they catch. Mobile phones are regularly checked by Taliban fighters in Obe, according to one resident, and if video clips are found with music, dancing or anything supporting the government, the owner will be beaten. If they find pictures of the owner in government uniform, the punishment is execution. Sentences including amputations and floggings are being handed down by judges, including the one who spoke to the Observer, asking not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to journalists:
If you don’t give sharia punishment, crimes will rise. People come to us and say they are grateful. When the government was in power, no robbery was investigated. Now after we came to power, people can leave their doors open.
In his court, which hears three or four cases a day, often on land and water disputes, in which “testimony from two women equals that from one man.” One refugee mother conceded that the Taliban had brought an end to lawlessness but, for her, it was not enough to offset all the cruelty and restrictions:
The Taliban have already made a really big reduction in robbery. I know many people and are satisfied because of this, but I don’t want them (ruling the district). They had special people responsible for beating women, they used rope or pieces of wood to hit them. It was exactly like last time they were in power. I was in Obe then too.
Other petty restrictions, such as a ban on makeup, have also returned.
How much have the Taliban really changed?:
Just how much the so-called ‘changes’ by the Taliban have reverberated in Kandahar and Herat, let alone to more remote towns and villages, has yet to be discovered. In Kabul, from my own distant perspective, based on Simpson’s successors in situ (both American and British), the picture of the Taliban fighters seems very mixed, and much will depend on how the still largely rural, tribally-organised fighters are managed by a new generation of ‘officers’ on the streets. Deeper than all of this, however, is the question of whether the fundamental Islamist ideology has changed over the past quarter century. Of that, there is so far little evidence, and what there is suggests that they have no intention of departing from their own interpretations and definitions of Sharia law. Therefore, at the very least we can expect that they are likely to re-impose barbaric punishments on ‘criminal elements’ and to curtail the rights of women to play a full rule in society outside the home or very traditional forms of female employment. Certainly, the establishment of a more pluralist governance and constitution seems already to be a fast-shrinking possibility, so much will depend on which factions within the movement eventually assert themselves and win power. Meanwhile, women are already fearful to leave their homes and men are regularly beaten for not praying and for not fasting during Ramadam. One man still living in the Obe district commented:
“Of course, you just worry about the children’s future” … There was a bleak sense of history repeating itself … “I was only educated to fifth grade, then I had to drop out.”
Despite their public commitment to ending “the killing and maiming”, are themselves accused of war crimes. They have been linked to targeted assassinations; in Obe, locals say they have used whole families as human shields. Their comprehensive capture of the district centre, after years of attacking and falling back, appears to have been made possible by an influx of fighters from other provinces, under a new commander, Rafi Shindani, probably a nomme de guerre, who arrived in the district after Eid at the end of May, bringing about sixty or seventy fighters from nearby Farah and Bagdhis provinces. When they arrived, a group of government-funded engineers working on development programmes, building bridges and providing water supplies, were warned to leave by the local Taliban. The engineers had built up a good relationship with the insurgents to ensure that their projects could go ahead.
Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts’ Network wrote in a recent report that it was to be expected that the Taliban would launch widespread attacks while, or immediately after, US troops left, but the “scale and speed” of the collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) was unexpected. The insurgents had held only about a quarter of nearly four hundred district centres at the end of June, according to the thinktank’s calculations from news reports and its own investigations. Clark went on to describe the plunging morale of members of the ANSF in the field and … a new-found confidence among Taliban fighters. In some provinces, almost all areas beyond the city limits had fallen; government supporters feared the Taliban was positioning for a push on provincial capitals. Although it had previously overrun several of them, it had not been able to hold them. That track record was about to be considerably improved upon and this time, by early August, all of them had fallen. Other factors undermining government forces were corruption, desertion and ill-thought-out policy. The air support vital to holding the insurgents at bay had already dwindled before the abandonment of the Bagram air base, with the putative Afghan air force overstretched and US forces already operating from thousands of miles away.
The Final Failure – Disbandment & Demobilisation:
In December last year, the government disbanded a supportive unit of the militia-like Afghan Local Police in Obe, under what now looks increasingly like an ill-considered demobilisation programme. Several other districts that fell to Taliban control had recently lost ALP forces as well. In Obe, by June, the Taliban pressure on the city centre had morphed into a siege. A few dozen men from the intelligence, police and army were stranded on a military base with just a single glass of water per day, and dwindling food supplies. They called desperately for air support or evacuation, but the only visitors were Red Crescent officials who had come to collect bodies. The men had been reduced to stripping leaves off the trees to eat before a group of parents launched a three-day protest in Herat, demanding support for for the besieged group. Initially polite, the terrified parents and desperate parents were by day three burning tyres in the street and threatening suicide attacks. The next day, helicopters were dispatched, but for many it was too late. One commando said, bitterly:
Bodies were carried out of injured men who would have survived if they had got help sooner.
At least one of the trapped men, himself from Obe, has been quietly sounding out friends in the area and in Herat about organising a militia to try to reclaim the district. For years, western-backed efforts aimed to disarm irregular militias. But the Taliban’s advances and the accelerated departure of foreign troops have convinced Afghans whose homes are threatened, and the officials who have to protect them, that they need more people to pick up guns and fight. Militias were still forming and re-forming around the country, many encouraged, financed or even called up by the government, even as the Talaban were reaching the gates of Kabul itself. The fighter from Obe has lost brothers, his father and at least twenty more distant relatives to the Taliban, and he refuses to consider either surrender or collaboration. He concluded:
The situation is catastrophic, and the government won’t even listen to me, so now my work is just to be killed, or liberate my town.Observer
The Observer’s editorial of 9 July concluded that by setting an unconditional US withdrawal date of 11 September shortly after taking office, Joe Biden triggered an unseemly military scramble for the exit that has been joined by all residual NATO forces, including most UK troops. It appears the vast majority had already left the previous weekend (2-4 July), without ceremony, almost by the back door. The editorial went on:
The withdrawal has set Afghanistan back on the path to terror, mayhem and disintegration. A catastrophe is in the making. These are not the predictions of mere armchair critics. Gen. Austin Miller, commander of US forces, warned that chaos beckoned:
“Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualised … that should concern the world,” he said. The former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is similarly pessimistic:
“Those who came here twenty years ago in the name of fighting extremism and terrorism not only failed to end it but, under their watch, extremism has flourished. That is what I call failure.”
By then, at least half of rural Afghanistan was already controlled or contested by the Taliban. The regional capitals and Kabul itself followed in quick succession as President Ashraf Ghani’s government looked on helplessly, its Nato-trained and equipped soldiers repeatedly forced into flight or surrender. Faced with such incapacity, local armed militias continued to re-form and majority non-Pashtun groups in the north were also threatening to revive their anti-Taliban struggles of the 1990s. In June, Biden had assured Ghani that the US would continue to provide financial assistance and support. Yet, once Bagram had been abandoned, they lacked suitable bases in neighbouring the countries from which their drones and aircraft could provide meaningful, timely back-up. In any case, the Pentagon claimed that its priority was containing Islamic State and al-Qaida, whose jihadists may soon freely roam ungoverned Afghan territories.
Britain’s military and diplomatic leadership was clearly, if privately, horrified by the US decision. Mindful of two decades of often thankless, bloody striving, Biden’s failure to fully consult the UK government and NATO was obviously galling. Limited gains – democratic or pluralistic governance, free expression, improved healthcare, greater educational opportunities and civil rights, especially for women, have all been imperilled. In many ways, the dire situation is a legacy of the neoconservative, reckless idealogues of the Bush-Cheney administration which took the US and its NATO allies into Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place. Like Iraq, coldly abandoned to its fate a decade ago, Afghanistan’s post-US future looks bleak.The prospect of a lasting peace with a measure of liberty and equity is fast vanishing, and the genuine western ‘friends’ of Afghanistan have only a very little time in which to win the possibility that such a peace might be forged. As an engaged observer of the ‘Afghan situation’ since 1979, I believe that Afghan people deserve no less than this, though only they can be the ultimate architects of their own ‘salvation’. An imposed model of democracy is always a fake one. In supporting the reconstruction of the country, ‘the West’ must also now listen with patience and endurance to its own ‘experts’ from the field, past and present. That is what John Simpson is continuing to urge western allies to do, together with military veterans and aid workers who have been following these objectives over the past two decades.
John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke & Oxford: Macmillan.
Guardian Weekly. London: Guardian News & Media:
Emma Graham-Harrison & Akhtar Mohammed (9 July 2021), After the Retreat, Guardian Weekly. Graham-Harrison is a Guardian & Observer Foreign Correspondent; Akhtar Mohammed Makoh is a freelance journalist based in Afghanistan.
Observer Editorial (9 July 2021), Western nations are abandoning Afghanistan to war and terror.