Under Surveillance

Nick McDonell

In January 2021, seven months before the fall of Kabul, representatives of the US-backed government of Afghanistan met with Taliban negotiators in Doha, Qatar. It was one of several inconclusive rounds of talks that had been going on for years. They failed for many reasons, but one may have been that negotiators on all sides believed they were under surveillance by the Americans, which made it difficult, perhaps impossible, to build trust.

The Sharq Hotel is a compound of spas, ballrooms, restaurants and fifteen stone villas scattered along a pristine beach on the Persian Gulf. Delegates from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan stayed at villas one, two, three and six, on the far side of the resort from the Taliban delegates, who stayed at villa eleven. Envoys and staff of a few European nations stayed in the lobby building between. I was there as journalist and stayed in villa ten. The Americans – not only diplomats but intelligence and defence officials – took rooms elsewhere, in the Ritz tower downtown, but they often visited.

One Canadian diplomat told me he teased US officials by asking their opinion of meetings they hadn’t attended. Others were less sanguine about the surveillance. A European diplomat said that when she first arrived at the Sharq she showered in the dark, but eventually decided this was too paranoid and carried on as if her room were simply bugged rather than videotaped. A Talib told me that he, too, assumed he was being monitored. When we met in my hotel room, he would say nothing off his talking points; for more frank conversations, we met elsewhere in the city or walked along the corniche.

Shortly after I left the Sharq, I called a former CIA officer to ask if all the paranoia was justified. ‘I would assume,’ he said, ‘there’s a camera in your room, and a bunch of other stuff … Like, the manager of the hotel is 100 per cent recruited by somebody. Could be the local service who have just told him: “If you work for someone else, we’re going to cut your head off.” Some intelligence service has that guy on their payroll. And he’s the way in, you know, when the rooms get empty, or people leave, and the maintenance – or whoever, cleaning service – goes in, one of them has, you know, somebody putting in cameras and stuff like that. There’s just no way that’s not happening.’

I thought about the time I’d spent naked in my hotel room, as well as the conversations I’d had there with Talib delegates. Neither, I was certain, were of intelligence value to any government. But I wondered if any of the delegates’ hotel room conversations justified such surveillance. Perhaps the Americans wanted to know what the Talibs planned to say ahead of time, or to intercept intelligence that might threaten assets in Afghanistan. The Taliban have never been especially trustworthy, either – see the recent, deadly revelation of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul. It may be that espionage is inseparable from diplomacy and honest negotiations were never possible. But it may also be that, for peace talks to have any chance at success, some baseline courtesies are necessary – such as not installing cameras in your counterparts’ hotel rooms.

In any case, every diplomat I asked about this at the Sharq assumed they were under surveillance, and the assumption added to a pervasive sense of futility. The ex-CIA officer questioned why America went to the trouble of surveilling the talks at all. ‘My first sort of first reaction,’ he told me, ‘is kind of how silly it is – because really, who gives a shit?’

Fewer and fewer Americans, was the answer, as the war went on. In a recent piece for the Atlantic, General David Petraeus argued that the US war in Afghanistan ended as it did because of a lack of commitment, a misallocation of resources and a failure to understand the regional context. These surely contributed to the Taliban’s return to power and the United States’ harried, ignominious exit.

But the way the US pursued its aims in Afghanistan was also consistently hypocritical: calling for the rule of law but empowering criminals; calling for fair elections but looking away from fraud; calling for human rights but bombing villages and denying civilian casualties. And, in the peace talks, calling for good faith negotiations but surveilling the people across the table.

Support for this article was provided by the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting.


  • 21 August 2022 at 10:24pm
    nlowhim says:
    An interesting story that I haven’t heard until now. Certainly plays into the idea that it represents the American lack of trust and general just technological bullying that though it can do, rarely does it stop to ask of it should. Probably the same kind of thinking that got it into the war. Sure it could invade Afghanistan but should it have? That most of the world was behind it and the idea of revenge is besides the point. Even now many of my fellow Americans can’t think of that first moment. Instead it’s “bush pivoted to Iraq, that’s why”. Maybe that played a part, but from the stories I’ve heard not at all. The idea of revenge had leeched through the entire operation and combined with a completely corrupt contractors (it’s more than just corrupt afghans, those were the small thieves, mind you) & you have the perfect concoction for failure. No matter the president.
    Nation building? Let’s try it at home then talk about bringing it elsewhere. Maybe we can at least surveil them to sell them ads. We seem to at least do that well stateside.