Your cause is right and God is on your side!

Zbigniew Brzezinski, US national security adviser, to the Afghan mujahedin,
3 February 1980

I have benefited so greatly from the jihad in Afghanistan that it would have been impossible for me to gain such a benefit from any other chance, and this cannot be measured by tens of years but rather more than that.

Osama bin Laden, March 1997

Once, the Kabul Zoo housed ninety varieties of animals and got a thousand visitors a day, but in the era of fighting that followed the fall of the Soviets and then of Najibullah, the people stayed away, and the animals found themselves in a place more dangerous than any forest or jungle. For ten days, the elephant ran in circles, screaming, until shrapnel toppled her and she died. As the shelling went back and forth, the tigers and llamas, the ostriches, the elephant, were carried away to paradise. The aviary was ruptured and the birds flew free into the heavens from which the rockets rained.

Denis Johnson, 1 April 1997

Let’s step back a moment. Let’s just pause, just for a minute. And think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.

US Representative Barbara Lee, 14 September 2001

This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while. And the American people must be patient. I’m going to be patient.

President George W. Bush, 17 September 2001

The Taliban regime already belongs to history.

Jürgen Habermas, December 2001

I have no visibility into who the bad guys are in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld, 8 September 2003

I will venture a prediction. The Taliban/al-Qaida riffraff, as we know them, will never come back to power.

Christopher Hitchens, November 2004

The markets for defence and related advanced technology systems for 2005 and beyond will continue to be affected by the global war on terrorism, through the continued need for military missions and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the related fiscal consequences of war.

Lockheed Martin Annual Report, 1 March 2005

Well, it was a just war in the beginning.

Michael Walzer, 3 December 2009

RAMBO IN AFGHANISTAN. A screening of Rambo III at the Duck and Cover. Wear a headband for $1 off drinks.

Email chain invitation, US compound, Kabul, 2010

Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanising the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory. Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German and other European women could help to overcome pervasive scepticism among women in Western Europe towards the ISAF mission.

CIA Analysis Report, 11 March 2010

The overthrow of the Taliban was the ennobling corollary of a security policy; it was collateral humanitarianism.

Leon Wieseltier, 24 October 2010

Now I prefer cloudy days when the drones don’t fly. When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear. Children don’t play so often now, and have stopped going to school. Education isn’t possible as long as the drones circle overhead.

Zubair Rehman, 13-year-old Pakistani student, 29 October 2013

I think his legacy in terms of his country will be a strong one.

US Ambassador James B. Cunningham on Hamid Karzai, 23 September 2014

While America’s combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures.

President Barack Obama, 15 October 2015

When [Afghans] leave, they break the social contract. This is an existential choice. Countries do not survive with their best attempting to flee. So I have no sympathy.

President Ashraf Ghani, 31 March 2016

He reads books on the transition from socialism to capitalism in Eastern Europe, on the Central Asian enlightenment of a thousand years ago, on modern warfare, on the history of Afghanistan’s rivers.

George Packer on Ashraf Ghani, 4 July 2016

It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory and none of it painted an accurate picture.

Senior NSC official, 16 September 2016

We’re getting along very, very well with the Taliban.

President Donald Trump, 10 September 2020

This is manifestly not Saigon.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, 15 August 2021

Laura and I, along with the team at the Bush Centre, stand ready as Americans to lend our support and assistance in this time of need. Let us all resolve to be united in saving lives and praying for the people of Afghanistan.

George W. Bush, 16 August 2021

The disarray of the past weeks needs to be replaced by something resembling coherence, and with a plan that is credible and realistic.

Tony Blair, 21 August 2021

Before Afghanistan,​ the US air force had no armed drones in its arsenal. Since 2001, ever increasing numbers of ever more sophisticated devices have been used to map enemy positions and conduct strikes – against al-Qaida and IS militants, against Taliban fighters and, inadvertently or not, against Afghan and Pakistani civilians. Two decades of war have left around a quarter of a million people dead and the country largely returned to Taliban rule. In parts of the Western media that have barely bothered with Afghanistan for years there are calls to enter the fray once more, to re-eliminate IS and fight the Taliban (an enemy of IS) back to at least a draw, since, after all, the status quo was ‘sustainable’ and coalition forces hadn’t lost a soldier in more than a year, until August, when they tried to exit. (The casualties had been low because the Taliban agreed last year not to kill US forces in return for Trump’s promise of withdrawal; Afghan military casualties, by contrast, remained steady.) Westerners who now wish to distance themselves from the attacks and desperate scenes at Kabul airport have mentally displaced the two decades of mayhem that led up to this.

Unlike the Soviet departure from Afghanistan in 1988-89, no major power is elated by the American departure. In China, Schadenfreude on Weibo has given way to regret that the US will soon no longer be mired in a hopeless conflict. Fashionable commentary about possible links between the Taliban and the Uighur Muslims appears to be baseless: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the new leader of the Taliban, has all but offered to send the heads of China’s enemies to Beijing in a box, and dangled the prospect of copper mining and mineral extraction before its patron-in-waiting. In Tehran, Moscow, New Delhi and even Islamabad, governments are more worried about the further implosion of Afghanistan: as far as they’re concerned, it’s 1996 all over again. For Pakistan, the Taliban have long been an asset, promising ‘strategic depth’ against India, but they have also been a risk, as the violence of their homegrown offshoot threatens enrichment schemes dear to Pakistani elites, such as China’s Belt and Road project to connect Xinjiang province to Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea. Only Erdoğan’s Turkey, which can now amply grant at least one wish of its electorate – that Afghans be kept out – and which can increase its fee for keeping Europe Afghan-free, has more to gain than to lose.

American occupation has made the Taliban more disciplined fighters – with new elite battalions such as the Red Unit – and above all a more media-savvy organisation. Video footage from Kabul airport may dominate online, but a different set of images moved events. These were small videos, captured on phones earlier this summer in borderland provinces, showing Taliban forces taking over Afghan border posts, the soldiers calmly handing over their weapons without a fight. In the larger towns and provincial capitals where the Afghan army did not simply abandon its posts, the resistance evaporated after initial skirmishes and crossfire. The Sher Khan Bandar crossing fell on 22 June; Taloqan and Kunduz (for the second time) fell on 6 August; Puli Khumri fell on 10 August; Ghazni and Herat fell on 11 August; Kandahar on 12 August; Lashkargah on 13 August; Mazar-i-Sharif on 14 August and Jalalabad on 15 August. As the Afghanistan analyst Adam Weinstein put it, the Taliban effectively ‘weaponised the prisoner’s dilemma’. Few regular army units wanted to be singled out for vengeance as lone resisters. The notion that Afghan troops, completely reliant on US air support, could forestall the Taliban was the cover the Biden administration hid behind to manage the exit. (After all, how could the generals object? Hadn’t they praised the capabilities of the Afghan army for years?) The real war in Afghanistan was waged far above ground. In the early days of the conflict, an Allied patrol would need to draw fire before calling in air support, but by the end, as the rules of engagement relaxed, it was only necessary to have a sense of where a Taliban position was to radio in a drone or a fighter jet. ‘It got pretty ritualistic,’ a former US Marine pilot told me last week, ‘like ordering pizza.’

European chancelleries have responded with horror to the apparent contraction of American resolve (the German tabloid Bild Zeitung ran a panicked headline claiming that the Taliban now has more weapons than a Nato state). But the reality may be more bleak. Although Biden played populist tribune for a day (a role he has been itching to perform for decades), dismissing the elite consensus about the war and ignoring the appetite of the military-industrial complex, his decision hardly signals the end of the forever wars. In 2009, when he dissented from Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan, it was less in the cause of devolving America’s global projection of force than of refining it. Biden wanted over-the-horizon capability then, and he wants something like it now. The killing of thirteen US Marines at Kabul airport has not diverted that desire: a reduced US troop presence will provide fewer targets for local militants, Biden has argued, and those militants will be ‘hunted’ for retribution by more remote means. Biden was even more sanguine than Obama about the promise of drones and special forces to fight America’s enemies. He isn’t so much the undertaker of the war on terror as its McKinsey consultant.

The Taliban nearly eradicated heroin production in Afghanistan in the 1990s, but the Allies did everything in their power to push poppy cultivation into Taliban-held territory, and then, by destroying supply elsewhere, to raise prices. They have made the Taliban appear a better prospect to many Afghans than a government that was a byword for crookedness. The departing president, Ashraf Ghani, who in the 2019 election won the vote of 2.5 per cent of the population, who wrote his dissertation at Columbia on state failure, and who fled Kabul in a chopper (according to some sources, with piles of cash onboard), has now joined the ranks of Washington’s failed proxies: Ngô Đình Diêm, Ahmed Chalabi, Nouri al-Maliki, Hamid Karzai. The corruption of the Afghan government is dwarfed only by that of the American operation itself, which constituted a massive wealth transfer to US defence industries.

Will the Taliban behave? They have entered a very different Kabul – one with beauty salons and shopping malls – from the one they left twenty years ago. In the interim, they have developed the ambition to run a state, which will require a basis of legitimacy outside their own constituency in the country, and international support of some kind. In the first days after they took Kabul, the Taliban made a show of paying respects to Shia Afghans on the holy day of Ashura, taking questions from female journalists at press conferences, relaying their offer of an amnesty to the opposition despite having apparently executed some Afghan soldiers earlier in August, and setting up checkpoints to counter spoiler attacks, which were not long in coming (IS and its local affiliate IS-K are major liabilities for the core of the Taliban leadership that wants to take the reins of what passes for the state). Meanwhile, several of the old players have resumed their original positions. Ahmad Massoud, son of the Lion of the Panjshir Valley, wants to reboot the Northern Alliance, while his press attaché, Bernard-Henri Lévy, has compared the fall of Kabul to the fall of Rome to the Ostrogoths. The ruthless Afghan Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum flew back from hospital in Istanbul to call for war on the Taliban. Navy Seals brandished copies of Clausewitz on Fox News, and Rory Stewart and George Packer wondered if America can still regain its soul. Afghan contractors and co-operators have been consigned the fate of the Hmong of Vietnam and the Harkis of Algeria. And, just as before, the women and girls of Afghanistan are foremost among the war lobby’s playing chips. They face violence from every quarter and their weaponisation by the West – as a post-hoc justification for invasion and now as an argument for continued occupation – only exposes how irrelevant the long-term future of Afghan women has been to the US project. The improvements in their health and education under the US occupation – as under the Soviet one – are incontrovertible. But to cheer on such progress in a Potemkin state is to lead people to the slaughter. There is talk of an effort on a par with that performed after the collapse of Saigon in 1975 to shelter refugees in coalition countries. But an exodus has been going on for years, and today taking in refugees isn’t the symbol of Western largesse that it was in the 1970s. ‘A simple way to take measure of a country,’ Tony Blair once said, ‘is to look at how many want in … and how many want out.’ That verdict came some time ago in Afghanistan.

27 August

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 43 No. 19 · 7 October 2021

Thomas Meaney chose his words carefully when describing the US ‘departure’ or ‘withdrawal’ from Afghanistan (LRB, 9 September). No mention of ‘retreat’, which is usually understood to mean a tactical disengagement following a setback. In 1991, this semantic distinction cost many Iraqi soldiers their lives on the infamous ‘Highway of Death’ – the road from Kuwait City to the border with Iraq at Safwan, and then on to Basra. The Iraqis, having communicated their intention to withdraw from Kuwait in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 660, had been assured they would be unmolested along the way. When Iraq complained of US interference in its troops’ withdrawal, George H.W. Bush angrily denounced Saddam Hussein, declaring: ‘He is not withdrawing. His defeated troops are retreating. He is trying to claim victory in the midst of a rout.’ There followed the infamous ‘turkey shoot’, while the white flags of surrender flown by desperate Iraqi soldiers were ignored. With regard to Afghanistan, and to paraphrase Bush, the US did not withdraw; its defeated troops retreated. Significantly, Biden has warned that the US has unfinished business in Afghanistan, declaring: ‘We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.’

Dominic Carroll
Ardfield, County Cork

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences