September 11, 2001 was a beautiful day in Berlin. I was working as the Berlin correspondent for the Turkish television station CNN Türk. There was not much to do that day and I was looking forward to jiujitsu training in the evening. But then, in the late afternoon, the images of two airplanes flying into the World Trade Center were visible on all the news channels and I knew that the News Center in Istanbul would call in the middle of the session. And so it was. And so my Afghanistan adventure began.
Broadcasting live, I explained to the Turkish audience the degree of the Germans’ feeling of solidarity with the Americans. Indeed, the sympathy was spontaneous, genuine and widespread. There were church services, memorials and vigils. People placed flowers in front of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, and many used social media to express their sympathy with Americans. At the same time, Germans were suddenly gripped by fear of a new war. They could not believe it. The war in Yugoslavia had ended only a few years before. I reported that Afghanistan was now returning to the center of attention.
Due to personal interest, I have been following the developments in Afghanistan since the 1970s. That is why I knew that the United States was no longer interested in the country situated in the Hindu Kush region after the socialist government in Kabul had imploded following the Islamists there being strengthened with Washington’s support and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The fact that its Islamist allies had reduced the capital Kabul to rubble within a few years, that stone age Islamists—the Taliban—had ruled with violence against their own population for years, was unimportant from Washington’s perspective.
But one person, Osama bin Laden, was determined to fight against the US. The CIA knew this and that he had found shelter in Afghanistan. This had been a thorn in Washington’s side for years.
So it came to pass that then-US President George W. Bush decided to attack Afghanistan instead of Iraq. At the time, his administration was actually toying with the idea of taking out another man, Saddam Hussein, and was testing the waters in Europe to see if it could count on political support for that operation. The out-of-the-blue attack on New York City came in handy for Bush. Now the US public was easily convinced to back the war, which the White House christened as the “War on Terror.”
The name was deliberate and cleverly chosen; it implied the possibility of not limiting the war to Afghanistan.
In Europe, the winds of change were blowing. On the one hand, most Europeans understood that the US wanted to fight back, but on the other hand, many did not believe that the so-called terror could be stopped with a war. Fighting the causes was the motto in Europe. Stable states and societies had to be created in the “problem countries,” where otherwise more violent criminals would develop.
The German Foreign Minister at the time, Joschka Fischer, had a difficult balancing act to perform. On the one hand, he had to stand by their most important ally, the United States, but on the other hand, he was convinced that a war would make the global situation even more complicated. He wanted to go to Afghanistan, but mainly to rebuild the war-torn country with civilian development aid, in the shadow of the military. He knew that he had the support of most Europeans on his side.
In Afghanistan as well, many people, especially in urban areas, liked the idea that the West would now intervene and put an end to their suffering. Democracy—this word gave the Afghans new hope, even if they could not imagine anything concrete about it. Yes, maybe just, free elections, but that was something. They had long since grown tired of war, which was initially forced on them by their own Islamist rulers. Because Washington supported the Islamists in the fight against Soviet troops during the Cold War, fighting engulfed the entire country like a wildfire.
The West’s initial plans worked. US air power supported the Northern Alliance, the only local opposition still fighting the Taliban, and Kabul fell within a week. Now reconstruction was to follow.
The Afghanistan Conference in Petersberg and a New Constitution
On December 27, I was sitting in the media ship on the banks of the Rhine in Königswinter, Germany along with hundreds of other journalists from around the world. It was a strange feeling. We were supposed to be covering the negotiations between several Afghan factions, UN representatives and Western countries that were taking place in Petersberg Castle, five kilometers away, but nothing was getting out. That was our problem. We knew nothing except the information provided to us in background talks, which each country organized for its own media.
The German diplomats were celebrating in the end. They had pushed through the idea of reconstruction. Beyond that, the US had made sure that the otherwise divided Afghan delegations agreed with the outcome. A transitional government was to be established and a new and democratic constitution prepared, followed by free elections. Good plan.
But plans forged in comfortable conference rooms rarely fit Afghan reality. Although it is not apparent from a Western perspective, Afghanistan also has domestic politics, traditional political parties and development strategies for its own country that would have to be taken into account.
“Who is the strongest party?”
I was in Afghanistan for the first time in 2004. I was supposed to teach radio journalism to young Afghans in Jalalabad. Of course, I knew that journalists could not be trained in ten days. But the participants could be given an idea of journalism, encourage them to choose this career path and thus contribute to the democratization of their country. Perhaps, in addition, the basic rules of journalism could be taught.
I found a dozen young men sitting in front of me, all in their early 20s. They were burning for a new life in journalism, even if some of them could barely read and write. In the women’s training session, which ran in parallel in the same building. There was some confusion between the concepts of wells and journalistic sources – the participants automatically thought of the fountain in their part of town, the water source, that is, the only source they had encountered until that day.
I tried to make the best of it with the help of my translator Emal, who was 18 years old at the time. The young men soaked up the information and especially the journalistic perspective on social life, which was completely new to them. Years later, I met Farhad, one of my trainees from Jalalabad, at a press conference in Kabul. He had taken the idea seriously, had studied journalism in India, and had since become the political correspondent for a respected Afghan TV station. So the development work was not in vain.
But there was also a lot for us trainers to learn. One day I asked the director of the media house where we taught which party was the strongest in Jalalabad. He looked at me as if I was from Mars. “The party that has the most and the best weapons, of course,” he said.
Correspondingly, from his perspective, the U.S. and the West were now the strongest political party. For him, and almost all Afghans, the West was now a part of Afghan domestic politics. This, of course, resulted in a great responsibility toward the Afghans. This was a responsibility that Western politicians were not really aware of – neither before the deployment nor during the 20 years that followed.
In order to successfully implement its plans, the West would have had to intensively interact with the dividing lines of Afghan domestic politics. They avoided doing so because these were not simple.
Afghanistan’s political landscape resembles a fluid mosaic that rarely settles down, with frequently shifting coalitions. The rival dominance of the Pashtuns and the Tajiks complicates the situation because neither makes up the majority of the population. In addition, there are numerous other ethnic groups, including the Shiite Hazaras of Mongolian descent, as well as Uzbeks and Turkmen, two Turkic peoples. All of them, especially the Pashtuns, are divided into rival tribes.
This ethnic diversity determines Afghanistan’s political balance of power and political events in the country. The interests of different beliefs within Islam, different classes and social groups, especially women, are also represented along these ethnic lines, further complicating problem solving.
The party landscape reflects this complexity. There are the old elites from pre-socialist times, who are often monarchists; the Muslim Brotherhood, which controls one of the strongest political parties, Gulbuddin Hekmetyar’s Hezb-e Islami; former President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamiat-e Islami, which is dominated by Tajiks. In addition, there are the Panjshiris, moderate conservatives now led by Ahmad Massud, son of the eponymous hero of the Afghan resistance against the Soviets, but operating locally in the Panjshir valley. Also, the Jumbish-i Islami of Uzbek warlord Abdurrashid Dostum and Hisb-e Wahdat of Hazara warlord Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq. Even socialists and secular republicans still exist. And of course there are the American-backed and appointed technocrats. The Taliban mainly represents the interests of the most conservative ulema, the religious teachers.
In a country where political interests are so complicated, the best approach toward helping is to have a strong parliament that allows interests to be balanced through democratic deliberation. Instead, American advisers imposed a strong presidential system on Afghanistan, possibly only because it would make it easier for Washington to push through decisions without wasting much time with multiple interlocutors. A parliament existed, but it was very weak. This was a serious mistake: the deliberate absence of a strong parliament in which political parties interacting with the population lead to the disputes and negotiate compromises, eventually leading to the implosion of the state in the summer of 2021 when military defeat was imminent. That is why Afghan soldiers chose to surrender rather than fight for an isolated president – not because they were too cowardly or sympathetic to the Taliban.
The Straitjacket of Neo-Liberalism
When I reported from Washington, D.C., as a correspondent from 2005 to 2009, public support in the US for the War on Terror had begun to crumble. That was due to the rising number of US soldiers killed in the Iraq War, which had begun in the intervening years. In order to prolong the legitimacy of the Afghanistan front of the War on Terror, the spin-doctors at the White House looked for suitable material.
In 2010, they thought they had found what they were looking for. The New York Times reported on enormous amounts of natural resources that US geologists had unearthed in Afghanistan. The find was so large that it could change the course of the war, the New York Times quoted senior U.S. government officials as saying.
I had to laugh. Because the find was nothing new. As recently as the 1980s, Polish and Soviet geologists had discovered and documented the same natural resources. I even had a Polish map of Afghanistan at home on which these minerals were marked. But the Soviet experts at that time had also quickly discovered that the extraction of the natural resources would not be cost-effective, even with the most modern technologies.
In 2012, I moved to Afghanistan. For three years, I lived there and reported directly from the country. It did not take long for me to realize that Afghanistan did not need to depend on development aid, but nothing was done to achieve this goal. On the contrary, western advisors, with their basic neoliberal attitude, were destroying the country’s few remaining economic sectors one by one because they insisted that the country keep its borders open to all export goods. The few critics of this policy were mostly silenced through libel, often being called communists.
During these years, I was privileged to report on the fate of Afghanistan’s last export product: Afghan carpets. They had always been in demand all over the world. However, on the one hand, cheap wool from Belgium came through the open borders and destroyed the cotton production in Afghanistan. On the other hand, carpet washing plants were destroyed in the civil war. In addition, Pakistani labor was even cheaper than Afghan labor. This combination led to the death of Afghanistan’s last export commodity.
There was a similar story in the textile sector. I visited an abandoned factory in Gulbahar, a village in Kapisa, in 2012. Before the war, the textile factory was still equipped with German machinery, but had to stop production in the 1980s for security reasons. Afghan union members maintained the plant for more than 20 years, hoping to restart it and create jobs for thousands of people one day.
But this was dismissed by Western advisors, led by the Germans, and turned away investors who were certainly interested. It was said that the technology was too old, the factory could not compete on the world market. Even the attempt to produce the uniforms for the ever-growing Afghan army in Afghanistan failed because it was cheaper to have them made in China.
Economic policy played a crucial role in the West’s failure. Western powers have always acted ideologically and never understood how to establish a stable economic foundation on which the Afghan economy could grow.
Coming from the same ideological blindness, Western development agencies promoted all employers’ associations, but they were unwilling when it came to supporting the unions to provide effective structures. In 2015, an employee at the German development agency GiZ recommended to her bosses that they fund a position for the trade union umbrella organization NUAWE, which wanted to reorganize and needed advice. The response was sobering. The GiZ leadership claimed that trade unions are not a part of civil society.
It soon became clear that this rejection of Afghan workers getting organized was no coincidence. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had the union headquarters raided by police, and NUAWE was evicted from its own building. Ghani and his Western supporters wanted a low-wage country.
The mood shifts
The mood in the country was already depressed when I went to Kabul in 2006 to train parliamentary correspondents on behalf of UNDP in the newly opened Afghan parliament. The hopeful atmosphere of the early years had disappeared.
Afghans complained about corruption and the abuses committed by the US military. Everyone was also talking about self-appointed bounty hunters from the US, kidnapping people in Kabul and torturing them in secret basements to get clues about Taliban leaders wanted by the FBI. Stories circulated about individual US soldiers running amok, raiding homes at night, and US soldiers disrespecting Afghan traditions.
But the complaints made by most Afghans did not focus on American soldiers. Afghans were grateful to them in spite of everything, and, even if it was difficult for them, they understood that they did not know Afghan traditions. But Washington’s military and political strategy was increasingly disturbing.
In order to limit its own losses, the US military had turned to drone attacks. Airstrikes on weddings or other incorrect targets in villages proliferated, with dozens of civilian casualties. One of the biggest blunders, however, was caused by a German officer. He had completely misjudged a situation and had two oil tankers bombed near Kunduz. This resulted in more than a hundred casualties, including several children.
The US also came under criticism because it joined forces with warlords in order to achieve its goals. Large amounts of money flowed from Washington to Afghanistan, most of it into the pockets of people who owned private armies and behaved like petty princes. According to one persistent rumor, for example, the US paid $50,000 a month to a governor in Uruzgan to protect U.S. troops passing through his province from attack – in other words, a kind of protection money.
It was an open secret that the CIA carried US dollars around the country in plastic bags and bought the loyalty of old warlords, and that both President Ashraf Ghani and his predecessor Hamid Karzai also helped themselves to these funds. Such occurrences were reported not only by Afghans, but also many Western aid workers.
The payment of the Western advisors was another issue that the Afghans rightly criticized. I was also one of these consultants and therefore knew that the accusations were true. The trillions, the amount of which the Western public increasingly complained about, hardly stayed in Afghanistan, but were partly returned to the countries of origin in the form of salaries or consultants’ fees.
What of these funds remained in the country was often pocketed by Afghan politicians in leading positions and invested outside Afghanistan? How often have I heard reports by Afghan media about US dollars found in suitcases at Kabul airport? It was not uncommon for these corrupt politicians and state officials to carry the money in cash to Dubai, Turkey or India to buy houses.
If the US had not single-handedly encouraged corruption, the civil reconstruction work that has certainly been done in Afghanistan in 20 years could have been done much more cheaply.
Despite all these problems, most Afghans thought their semi-functioning democracy was a good thing. They saw the flaws, the aberrations, and the corruption, of course. But they also knew that this democracy, as they experienced it, was better than anything they had known before.
Their children were able to go to school, and the women were not only allowed to leave their homes, but could also be educated and work. New schools and hospitals were built. Although they could hardly stand up to the presidential palace, the elected representatives of the people could openly criticize conditions in parliament. Freedom of the press was the greatest in the region compared to most countries. The mostly young journalists, many trained by their Western colleagues, worked with great courage and success.
People thought that “everything can be improved with time,” until the first disputed presidential election in 2014. Afghan authorities had already begun to prevent observers from working in the run-up to the election. Civil society organizations criticized the Independent Election Commission for this, warning that the commission’s work was not transparent.
Nevertheless, and despite massive threats from the Taliban, Afghans went to the polls en masse. The ballot was the last clear demonstration by the people that they wanted to live in a democracy.
On election day, a commissioner was caught in a truck convoy with dozens of ballot boxes. He was allegedly trying to move them to safety. The election commission declared Pashtun candidate Ashraf Ghani, who was also Washington’s favorite, the winner. His main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, refused to recognize this result. The recounting of votes was also disputed and stopped after a few days anyway. The result was a stalemate. The head of the EU election observation team, Thijs Berman from the Netherlands, was among the critics; the US was not.
Finally, once again, US diplomats dictated the solution to the two opponents: Ashraf Ghani should become president and Abdullah chief executive – a post that, according to the Afghan constitution, does not even exist. To this day, it is uncertain who actually won the election.
The 2014 election led to the ultimate demoralization of the Afghan people. They realized that even the most basic rule of democracy—that the choice of the people should be respected—was followed. And Western countries went along with it without issue. When the same game was played again in the 2019 election, the people expected nothing more from the West and especially from the US, because they assumed that whoever served US interests best would assume power, not whoever was elected.
The final nail in Afghanistan’s coffin
Despite these disappointments, the Afghan people were ready to stand up for their own democracy. Above all, this meant that women, who finally enjoyed a bit of freedom again in the last 20 years, as well as young people who grew up after the Western invasion and listened with horror to their parents’ tales of the time of Taliban rule, were not about to let themselves be beaten down. The young men in the army actually fought heroically against the self-proclaimed warriors of God. Over 60,000 of them gave their lives for Afghan democracy.
But what the Afghan people still desperately needed was the support of the West, and everyone knew it. Military support in the form of air support and logistics, of course, but above all they needed development assistance, diplomatic assistance and moral support. The fact that the general public in the Western world had no desire to send their sons and daughters to Afghanistan was something they could understand very well.
It was precisely this support that former US President Donald Trump denied them. He instructed his questionable advisor Zalmay Khalilzad to make some kind of agreement with the Taliban to end the war as soon as possible. Under pressure from the Taliban, Washington simply sidelined both the Kabul government and civil society representatives and signed a “peace agreement” that was not even worth the paper it was written on. This was because everyone involved knew from the outset that the Taliban would not abide by it.
Trump’s behavior was unacceptable for the Afghans. But because Trump was despised around the world and in the US itself, they still hoped that he would be voted out of office at the end of 2020 and that his successor would correct the mistakes in the agreement.
The new president, Joe Biden, decided to destroy those hopes for good. With him, the US retreated to its initial line of argument: that it had invaded Afghanistan merely to fight al Qaeda and kill bin Laden. Although his own Afghanistan experts advised him against it, he decided, stubbornly, to withdraw without compromise, with a date. Correspondingly, it was Biden, not Trump, who became the traitor in the eyes of Afghans.
“Why does America always have to save everyone in the world?”
In 2008 during the US election campaign, I interviewed the wife of a farmer in the state of Indiana. When the conversation turned to the topic of Iraq, she asked me why all the peoples in the world always called on the US for help. I could not explain to her that the contrary was true: no one in the world wanted to be saved by the US.
She was a delightful person, like most Americans who foreigners meet in. But there is a huge discrepancy between their behavior at home and abroad.
The world now holds its breath in fear when Washington shows interest in any place on earth. Where US soldiers go, the first thing they bring is death and misery. This is the common experience the world has had with the US and its “war on terror”. First they come to the rescue – uninvited. When they leave, they do so without regard for what they are leaving behind.
This first happened to the Iraqis, whose state the US military destroyed, only to leave later when the vacuum was threatened to be filled by radical Islamists from the Islamic States. The Kurds in Syria suffered a similar fate. They were left to Turkey’s terrorist state. And now Afghanistan.
The idea of reconstruction, the idea of addressing the root cause of the problems, has been discredited, as has the reputation of the United States. Although it still seems necessary, it will hardly be possible in the foreseeable future for Western countries to help people suffering from the failure of state structures.
Worse still, it is to be feared that the war on terror that began on September 12, 2001, is not yet over. Not only the speeches made in the US on the 20th anniversary of the attacks, but also the determination of the US administration to launch further military operations in Africa are no reason for any hope.
Cem Sey is a freelance journalist who writes for German and international publications.