The tragedy of Afghanistan today
Covert activity increased substantially during the Russian occupation of the country. The Russians were there at the invitation of Afghanistan’s then Marxist government, which at that time was under great pressure from major opposition forces in Afghanistan.
America’s major involvement, however, began after the attacks in the US on 9/11. It included the use of up to 100,000 military troops, fighter jets and an extensive focus on national building by the US, the World Bank and allies.
On 18 September 2001, then president George Bush signed into law a joint resolution approving the use of force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. US bombing and troop action with Afghan forces were quickly successful in pushing the Taliban from government, but not from the battlefield.
An Interim Government was set up on 5 December 2001, with Hamid Karzai at its head. The Taliban surrendered a day later, although al-Qaeda continued to work from mountain hide-outs.
President Bush announced efforts to reconstruct Afghanistan in a speech on 17 April 2002.
Rebuilding Afghan institutions
That began a long period of both military and aid efforts to rebuild Afghan institutions, resulting in major improvements made in access to education, especially higher education, healthcare and gender equity, including many opportunities for the employment of women in government and the private sector.
The number of public universities grew from seven in 2001 to 38 in 2018 and the number of students at public universities increased from about 7,000 in 2001 to 197,247 in 2019, an increase of over 20-fold. Similarly, the number of female students at public higher education institutions grew from nearly zero in 2001 to almost 54,861 by 2019 (28%).
This was especially remarkable when one realises that the Taliban had banned girls and women from all levels of education except for a few in medicine since they did not want their wives or daughters to be treated by men. Private education also grew during this period from zero in 2006 to more than 200,000 students by 2019.
Healthcare improved tremendously, with Afghanistan moving from the bottom of the international list in maternal and child death rates to the middle of the list.
Maternal death rates dropped from 1,400 per 100,000 in 2001 (at the end of the Taliban period) to 638 in 2019. Infant mortality dropped from 300 per 100,000 in 1979 to 60.3 per 100,000 in 2019, still high but a major improvement in both areas thanks to the training of more midwives and female nurses.
The lives of girls and women improved markedly over this period, although there continued to be Taliban and ISIS attacks on girls’ schools. In spite of these attacks, girls continued to brave the dangers to attend school.
In places such as universities, young women were free to speak out as they pleased, talk to their male colleagues, attend any classes – all of which were co-educational – and get good jobs in government and the private sector. While most marriages continued to be arranged by parents, women had the right to refuse in almost all instances – and some did.
I had a number of women working with me in our USAID project and there were many women working in the Ministry of Higher Education with the strong support of the minister and deputy minister.
There were women reporters in the major cities and many other women who were in sensitive positions, including more than 250 women judges, human rights workers and leaders of women’s groups. The freedom enjoyed by women transferred to their eagerness to send their daughters, as well as sons, to school and then on to college.
Thus, there was major transformation in many areas from the end of the Taliban’s rule in December 2001 up until their return to control in 2021. In addition to education and health, the enhanced liberties included freedom of the press, with at least a dozen independent newspapers in circulation at one point.
Polls showed that the Taliban continued to be very unpopular in most parts of the country. At this point a majority of Afghans were under 21 years of age. They had become accustomed to the freedom the US and others brought. Thus, they are shocked by the changes the Taliban are enacting. These are frightening experiences for this half of the population.
Changes in US policy
The situation began to worsen for Afghanistan with former US president Donald Trump’s announcement, without any representation of the Afghan government, that he was calling off peace talks and signing an agreement with the Taliban that the US would withdraw completely by 1 May 2021. The Taliban was to stop attacking US troops and there were vague suggestions that there would be a ceasefire.
This was a great victory for the Taliban and they celebrated it as the key to their gaining control of the whole country. They did reduce attacks on US troops but didn’t follow through on the ceasefire or negotiate in good faith with the government of Afghanistan. Nonetheless, Trump continued with plans to pull US troops out – something not based on the realities in Afghanistan, but on his desire to declare ‘victory’ prior to the presidential election.
Sadly, newly elected US President Joe Biden continued with that plan after his election and in April 2021 announced that the US would complete its withdrawal by the slightly later date of 11 September 2021. Biden promised, however, that the US would continue to support Afghan security forces and protect those who worked with the US.
What was surprising in the aftermath of the announcement by Biden was that there seemed to be little preparation on the ground for the withdrawal, other than for US and NATO troops and embassy personnel. Nonetheless, there was still enough time to provide visas to those who worked with US troops, the NATO governments, USAID and others at risk from the Taliban.
Yet, in spite of the promises, it continued to be difficult for those who qualified for visas to obtain them. At this point only those who worked directly for the military or US government were eligible for visas and, even for them, getting a visa was very difficult.
One Afghan who worked for me and had previously been a translator for the US military for years, being wounded three times during that work, still did not have a visa a year after starting to work for me on a USAID project. He only received his visa two-and-a-half years after applying and was barely able to leave Afghanistan a few weeks before US troops departed. Most others were not so fortunate.
Only in late July 2021, under the Emergency Security Supplemental Appropriations Act, were visa rules changed to allow 8,000 additional special visas to be available for those who worked on USAID funds as well as for some NGOs.
However, obtaining those visas was difficult, in part because the process was complex, but also because much of the time the US Embassy was closed due to COVID. Few of those eligible received visas in a timely manner and it was suddenly the announced time for troops to leave.
A total of 34,500 visas had been allocated since December 2014 – not nearly enough for the actual number of people who qualified. In addition, the bureaucracy involved in getting a visa hindered the process of allocating them to so many people in the short time available. So many people who were eligible did not receive them, while others with visas did not have an opportunity to get out since the airport was effectively closed off by Taliban check points prior to US and NATO troop departures.
The withdrawal turned out to be a major disaster for the Afghans, many Americans and everyone else except the Taliban, for whom it was a great publicity win over a major power.
As the departure date approached, it became clear that no workable plans had been made to get people to the airport.
Even with the deployment of 6,000 US troops to the airport and help from Great Britain, Turkey, Germany and several other countries, as well as some NGOs, the scenes inside and outside the airport were ones of total chaos, even for people with valid documents. They sometimes waited days outside the airport to get a chance to get in, while being harassed by the Taliban.
While some Afghan special forces, trained by the CIA, were able to get to Kabul and assist the evacuation of several thousand Americans and Afghans who had helped the US, these were the fortunate few.
The public face of President Biden and the White House was that all was going as planned. However, anyone who watched press coverage could see that this was not what was happening. Then on 26 August 2021, a bomb attack outside Kabul airport by ISIS killed more than 180 Afghans and injured many more, as well as killing 13 American soldiers.
While it is hard to know how many eligible Afghans were left behind in Afghanistan, reasonable estimates are that the number was around 200,000 people. The US has promised to continue the effort to get these people out of Afghanistan, but their chances remain slim, although a few flights out of Afghanistan were allowed for a small number of people in early September.
A moral disaster
Nonetheless, the promises of the US and its allies to protect their Afghan allies prior to departure were not honoured and that is a major moral disaster for the US as well as for some of its allies.
No one will ever believe US promises of protection in the future – promises made when the US desperately needed Afghan allies as interpreters and other aides to protect troops, implement USAID projects and assist in a wide variety of other ways.
It was easy to make promises when we were in desperate need of assistance, but these promises were clearly not taken seriously by either the Trump or Biden administrations. This is a major ethical violation and embarrassment for the US and several of its allies.
Also upset by the poorly planned departure and abandonment of thousands of people who aided the US are a large number of US soldiers, aid workers and US employees who feel that their sacrifices were useless given the US and allied abandonment of Afghanistan.
Especially outraged are many of the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan who feel, rightly I would argue, that their family members’ deaths were in vain.
Those working on aid projects too, some of whom were killed, wounded, kidnapped or threatened, as was this writer, are horrified to see that the successes of our efforts in health, higher education, women’s rights and other areas are being reversed. Some officials are saying we weren’t there to do nation-building, and anyway Afghans are not capable of succeeding in such efforts. That is patently false.
We knew at least five years ago that the US would leave Afghanistan at some point in the near future. There was plenty of time to plan for an orderly departure, with adequate time for people who were eligible to apply for visas.
It was only in late July 2021 – under the Emergency Security Supplemental Appropriations Act – that visa rules were changed to allow additional special visas for those who worked on USAID funds and for NGOs eligible to apply. However, the process was long and bureaucratic. In fact, few received visas in a timely manner.
In addition, there seems not to have been much planning about what to do with those evacuated once they were out of Afghanistan. Many of the evacuees were packed into hangers or left for long periods on airplanes with little water, food or toilet facilities while waiting for clearance once they had landed in Doha and other places.
Although the White House claimed all was going as planned, they clearly were not telling the truth, as press reports from the scene demonstrated.
The consequences of the rapid US evacuation, and the poor planning when it did happen, will live long after the US departure. The vast majority of Afghans, those under 21, have grown up with freedom of speech, co-education in higher education, press freedom, strong women’s rights, improved healthcare, expanded education and greatly improved higher education. They are already finding Taliban rule a disaster.
The reputation of the US internationally has been badly hurt. While, according to the head of NATO, there was consultation between the US and European allies, the impression lingers, even in Europe, that it was minimal and with little coordination.
The pictures of people waiting days at the airport while being bullied by the Taliban and fighting to get into the airport and, in particular, women handing babies to US soldiers over the fence, are seared in people’s minds across the world.
The ethical and moral disaster for the United States is chilling internationally and in the US itself. As mentioned, many of the soldiers who fought in Afghanistan feel that their words and promises to Afghan allies had no meaning and they are suffering from great guilt. The families of soldiers killed or badly wounded are angry.
The irony of the decision to undertake total withdrawal was that with as few as 2,500 to 3,000 soldiers, the US had been able to provide air support when needed by Afghan troops, provide for the upkeep of a few airplanes and helicopters of the Afghan Air Force and keep the military moral of Afghanistan’s best units high, with nearly no losses for the last several years.
That could have been maintained through this year in order to allow for the orderly execution of our promises to those Afghans who have put their lives on the line for the US. Until the death of 13 US armed forces during the evacuation because of the ISIS bomb attack at the airport, the US had suffered almost no casualties in the last few years.
We have kept soldiers in South Korea since the 1950s, not to mention those still in Iraq and for that matter in Europe. This was a political decision, not a strategic one, in my view.
The long-term consequences of the failures of the withdrawal will probably soon be forgotten by the American people. Biden’s reputation as a thoughtful problem-solver has been badly hurt in some areas, as noted above, but I do not think it will cost him or the Democratic Party in the next elections.
However, the failures and the ethical and moral lapses of the US will live long afterwards in the experience and minds of millions of Afghans, as well as many of our allies and enemies. This is a sad commentary on American values and our democracy that will live long after this has ended.
Dr Fred Hayward is a senior higher education consultant at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, United States. A specialist in higher education and comparative politics focusing particularly on the developing world, he has worked in 15 countries on higher education with ministries, NGOs and higher education institutions and, until recently, was working in Afghanistan with the Ministry of Higher Education as part of the University Support and Workforce Development Program.