Defense One Radio, Ep. 86: Afghanistan’s new, uncertain chapter

A former Afghan interpreter and diplomat explain what might lie ahead for Afghanistan after nearly two decades of war.

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This episode we speak about where Afghanistan might go from here—with help from former Afghan translator Habib Hassan and former State Department official Elizabeth Threlkeld, currently of the Stimson Center.

A transcript of this episode is below.

After nearly 20 years of fighting, America’s war in Afghanistan has ended. And it’s come to a fairly sad and bloody end with more than 100 people killed—including 13 U.S. service members—in a suicide attack that hit outside the Kabul airport less than a week before the U.S. is set to leave the country entirely on Aug. 31. The local ISIS affiliate claimed responsibility for that attack, which many coalition nations responded to by ending evacuation flights out of the country. 

The Taliban pretty much formally won the war in Afghanistan on Sunday, August 15, when they swept into Kabul and took photos inside the abandoned Presidential Palace. The Taliban’s military offensive was three months in the making, and culminated in a victory so swift the U.S. and its allies were clearly taken by surprise. Desperate and horrifying videos from Kabul on the night of Aug. 15 revealed as much: Afghans clinging to the side of U.S. Air Force planes, with at least two young men falling to their death when they could not hold on any longer. 

There have been many tragic and lasting images that have come from Afghanistan and its desperate people over just the past 12 days. 

For me, as a former U.S. Army photographer, the imagery from Kabul’s airport was incomparably more vivid than the black and white photos of the American exit from Vietnam in late April 1975, when dozens of evacuees were photographed streaming into a small helicopter on a rooftop in Saigon. That evacuation took about three weeks and airlifted as many as 80,000 who fled Vietnam. The U.S. has airlifted more than that in less than two weeks this time around—flying more than 100,000 people out of Kabul and away from the Taliban and the ISIS affiliate there.

Here’s U.S. President Joe Biden on Sunday, when evacuation imagery started showing up on every major news network. 

Biden: Let me be clear: The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful no matter when it started and when we began. It would have been true if we had started a month ago or a month from now. There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss, of heartbreaking images you see on television. It’s just a fact. My heart aches for those people you see.”

And here’s the president just hours after the suicide attacks that killed more than 100 people. 

Biden: “Look, I know of no conflict, as a student of history — no conflict where, when a war was ending, one side was able to guarantee that everyone that wanted to be extracted from that country would get out...I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan — a country that has never once in its entire history been a united country, and is made up — and I don’t mean this in a derogatory — made up of different tribes who have never, ever, ever gotten along with one another...Ladies and gentlemen, it was time to end a 20-year war.”

Habib Hassan is one of the extraordinarily lucky ones from Afghanistan. 

Habib worked as an interpreter with coalition forces back when I was there 11 years ago. Habib would later go on to work for NATO in Kabul. You may remember we spoke to Habib three years ago, in episode 28

Today, Habib lives here in the U.S., a transition he was very fortunate to have secured just under a year ago. Many of his family and friends, as you might imagine, have not been so lucky. And he’s been working to help everyone he can for nearly every waking minute of the past several weeks. 

Watson: Habib, thanks for letting me call you up today. 

Hassan: Thank you. Thank you.

Watson: All right. So first, I know that you've been busy. I know that you've been working, without being specific about who they are. Have you been able to have sort of any success in helping get anyone out of Kabul over the past several days?

Hassan: Unfortunately, not. My dependent members of my family are still stuck in Kabul. And I tried different ways to get them evacuated. But every time I fail, it's because I know that despite the absolutely great job the American troops are doing in Kabul. It's just they are— the capabilities are insufficient for the kind of the job. And the assets that are required are not sufficient. So my dependent family members, they went to be evacuated three times, and every time they were returned back; the last happened with the imminent threat [of an ISIS attack on Wednesday and Thursday]. So no.

Watson: Good lord. I'm very sorry to hear that. I hope the picture changes to some degree, I had heard the crowds were even larger around the airport today. We're talking on Friday. What can you tell me about some of the emotions that people you know inside Kabul and Afghanistan are feeling? Of course, we're over here in America, we get lots of pundits and lots of think tank people talking about this stuff. This is an incredible, historic and human human moment for so many people.

Hassan: Thank you. I think the important question, before I get into the Afghans’ feelings, [is] that everyone around the world, and particularly every American citizen, has to ask is, what did the U.S. administration get in return from the Taliban? So Afghans feel in anger, they feel enraged, because as a result of President Biden's decision, all the hard work [and] gains of the past 20 years will be reversed now, in a matter of weeks. And you name it—from a woman's rights, to work in education, the security institutions, the Constitution, that's keeping all Afghans and treating the Afghans equally, and together the free media—and you can look into how flourishing our free media was in Afghanistan, it was the top in the region, you know, comparing them to our neighboring countries, and so much more.

So yes, and Afghans feel betrayed and disappointed because I know that I have watched a couple of speeches President Biden made and he is trying to cover up in a way; he is misinforming the American people. For instance, yesterday in his last speech, he said that Afghans had never lived in peace to gather domestically. Well, that's like that's factually wrong. I can give you one specific example from 1933 to 1973—exactly 40 years in the modern and contemporary history of Afghanistan. Afghanistan was completely at peace; not a single shot fired all throughout Afghanistan. And this was King Zahir Shah's time, just this modern history, 20th century, 40 years right there. And Afghan women could vote long before women got the right to vote in Europe or in America. So that's how flourishing Afghanistan was. And I'm sorry to say this because the U.S. administration is both this one and the one in the previous ones, they keep misinforming the Americans that, okay, you know, it's not worth it. It's absolutely worth it. Biden says that he did not want to continue the war for over 20 years. And please interrupt me if I'm being too long in my answers, that, well, it's not worth it; it's absolutely worth it.

To put it simply to a high school kid in America, to a farmer, to a driver, to anyone: President Biden forced the U.S. troops out to drop out of the 12th grade. So they started from kindergarten—the job—made it all the way to the 12th grade, and just he forced them to drop out. And that is unfair. So they started like they had over 140,000 troops, U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan. And in 2018, 2019, they brought it down all the way to 2,500; and not a single American was killed in the past two years or wounded. It's just because they were confined to the bases; they would not travel out of the basis; they would [fly] into the country into these huge bases, communicate with the Afghan counterparts make sure that those systems they had in place were running smoothly. Of course, there was corruption, there were some deficiencies, but that's why the Americans were there to to fix them. The only ground movement Americans both either civilian or military had was in Kabul, and even that was inside the Green Zone that was highly protected by jammers, canine dogs, the Afghan security, special forces, that were trained by him by Americans. So that's why Afghans feel betrayed and angered. And I have more to add to this later.

Watson: No, it's all it all. I will tell you, I whenever I was in the Army, one of my first, you know, I was doing public affairs for the Army. So I was doing public relations. And one of my first assignments was to talk with Green Beret veterans from the Vietnam War. And they were talking about bringing over the Montagnard fighters who were the local fighters in Vietnam that they had trained in the mountains and had done a lot of operations with for years. And the common refrain from these Green Beret veterans that I was speaking to was, ‘If we'd only been given more time, we were abandoned.’ It was tough for me to kind of say anything, really; I didn't, you know, I didn't live through the experience. I was not there. And I don't know, the dynamics that they witnessed, the things that they understood, and the things that they saw and how close they were to being, you know, wherever checkpoint they felt, they were denied reaching. It's tough to hear them say that sort of thing. It's painful in a deeper way to hear you say what you're saying as well about a sense of abandonment. And of course, I can't argue with any of it.

And I sensed that it was about three years ago, when the Taliban had made major [gains], they kind of understood their situation [and] read the next three years properly, and started making advances. So that's 2018. You and I spoke in about 2018. Looking back over those three years, do you think that there's any sort of sense that what has happened, did you sense though, that this was what was going to happen anyway?

Hassan: Yes, absolutely. And it doesn't make sense at all. It was predictable by even farmers in Afghanistan. That is the reason the Afghan soldiers did not put up an Afghan fight. And in you know, when I say an Afghan fight is a resistant one, it's determined one. Why? Because and like I said, let me repeat that question: What did the U.S. get in return for it? When they provided Taliban with political legitimacy, got Mullah Baradar released from a Pakistani jail as part of the negotiation process, lifted travel bans on its leaders; downgraded the Taliban, from terrorists to insurgents, because the U.S. does not negotiate with terrorists, we don't talk to terrorists, but we can talk to insurgents; and then got 5,000 of the fighters that were in Afghan prisons out and released as a result of the U.S. pressure; even financed Taliban leaders traveling around the world and campaigned for a so-called political settlement in a way that opposed and undermines the Afghan government's approach; and so, even pressured the Afghan government to make premature concessions to the Taliban—so when as a fighter, as [Afghan National Army] officer, as a member of the Special Forces, when you see all this is happening, okay, you sense that now, the party that supported me has withdrawn support and is now supporting the other party. And particularly given that U.S. has a superiority in terms of finance, air power, and the diplomatic reach, the political clout it has around the world, you feel dissuaded from fighting. The only thing you can think about at the moment is like, okay, you know, what is the best way to stay alive?

Watson: I was thinking that is changing their clothes, they're just trying to eat, they're trying to live another day?

Hassan: Yes. So that's why I'm asking the question. Okay, for all these things that I mentioned—the political legitimacy, releasing leaders, financing travels, and getting their fighters out of the prison—what did the U.S. get? Like, what did they get in return? That’s what is unanswered for me.

Watson: Yeah. I mean, I mean, this this kind of we're talking about, and then, you know, President Biden, also, of course, understandably, they would say that we inherited this mess from the Trump administration. But the Trump administration was a big transactionalist group—a big deal maker, right? You do this, and I get that, etc, etc. And you're bringing up a very good point. And I think a lot of people were just maybe in America, you know, speculating here, are fatigued over the issue. And so they didn't pay attention to the fact that the deal was a crappy deal, or that the U.S. wasn't getting anything out of it. Now, this is just me guessing. But it feels that way, as an observer, somebody watches this news Monday through Friday for the last seven years.

Looking forward here—and everything's a big, massive question mark—what do you think about this moderation question? You know, how long do you think the Taliban can keep up this alleged moderation where they say they're not the bad guys we all knew them to be for decades? I don't think anybody really believes it; but of course what do you think about that?

Hassan: Um, I think that, yes, Taliban will be judged by their actions, not their words at the moment. They say to the media, what the international community wants to hear, that we are allowing women to work but in fact they're saying that, but in action, it's the opposite. They are preventing women from work; we saw prominent journalists denied the right to show up at the workplace. We saw a woman who showed up, they made a call to the civil servants to show up to the work and then when women did, they were told that the security environment at the moment is not conducive for them.

Watson: Right, which you can extend that for an indefinite period of time and never let them in.

Hassan: Yes. So I consider it a collection of self-serving rules and tactics that domestically benefit them while projecting a reformed image of the group internationally. But I'm highly confident that they will not be able to cover things up for a long while. Yes, the international community humanitarian organizations are giving them time to get a grip on everything. But once they do that, they will have to be responsible to the Afghan people to answer those basic questions of basic human rights and also to the world. And we should not forget also President Ghani—people think that he escaped. Yes, he did; but there is a ploy behind that, too. So later on, of course, he escaped; he did all that; but then he will come up and say, ‘Okay, I left everything behind it to the Taliban intact. Now, they had everything—institutions, civil servants, the budget—everything was there. And of course, for the time being the IMF, the World Bank, U.S., everybody has frozen those assets, but they can be reactivated, and made available to the Taliban. So the Taliban will be judged later on, and they don't have much time. The only good thing that I can give them a well-done mark [on] is that they have not announced their government. They're still saying ‘We're planning to go for an inclusive government, engaging all sides,’ and they've been doing that. But at the end of the day, like I said, they will be judged by what the outcomes of these negotiations for the inclusive government are.

Watson: Yeah, that's a good point. And I think a lot of sensible people are kind of repeating that line. Let's go by what they do, and not what they say. And of course, that's always the best way to really deal with just about anything anyway. Right? Alright, so last question: What are the sorts of things that are on your mind beyond Aug. 31?

Hassan: Beyond Aug. 31, I think the international community led by us should a push for some sort of mechanisms, that allows smooth flow of people who want to get out to be able to actually travel outside Afghanistan, if they feel that Afghanistan is no longer a safe place for them to stand in defense of their values, and to have a voice. So that's one. This has to continue, this must not stop in any ways. In I know the U.S. has that leverage and I know it's working on it.

Number two: The media coverage, it needs to expand from Kabul. Everything is now Kabul-centric, focused on Kabul, right? All internationalized domestic media. Everybody's telling us about Kabul. Well, Afghanistan is just not Kabul; they need to be out there. And I think what the international media cannot or is not willing to send their foreign correspondents to Afghanistan, there are thousands of Afghans who are willing to work for them. They need to employ or higher them maybe on [a] monthly basis, or temporarily so they could hear from Herat what's happening in Herat. What's happening in Kandahar? What's happening in Helmand? Have we received anything from any news from northern Afghanistan? How are the NDS officers [and] other senior officials treated over there? Like in Jalalabad, the three, the Enikass [Radio and TV], which lost three female correspondents a couple of months ago to targeted killings. Of course, the government said that it was the Taliban. That TV was shut down. Now, these questions need to be compiled and asked to the Taliban: what's happening? So the attention has to expand from Kabul and cover the whole of the country.

That and also, NGOs, the international NGOs, who are charged with delivering humanitarian relief —put the Taliban to test. Go and then, you know, work, see if they allow you to operate in the areas that were hostile in the past and were inaccessible. See if they can get there and if not, of course, they can always withdraw staff and then report about it—that the Taliban are not living up to their commitments that they say in the [press conferences].

And then looking forward, basically, whatever is left from Ghani's government is intact; there needs to be pressure on Taliban to make sure that those services continue, to make sure that those rights that are enshrined in the Afghan constitution are respected unless and until there is a new constitution agreed upon and approved by the Afghan people.

Watson: I've been thinking about that a lot of that lately, and in terms of what might come next. And what I've been thinking is kind of you got about 90 days to get your act together if you're the Taliban. I feel like you get 90 days, you get three months to put people into positions of power and try to get things running again, electricity backup, or gas stations with petrol or whatever. And then after three months, I think the questions from the international community might be like, Where are the women? You know, where's the media? And what's your plan about NGOs? And yeah, I love your point about the other cities, too: Afghanistan is more than just Kabul. 

Hassan: Mm-hm. 

Watson: Alright, Habib Hassan, thank you so much for talking to me about this. I really appreciate it. I will stay in touch with you and I, boy, I'm really, I'm really thinking about your family and your friends. And I really hope for the best for every single one of them.

Hassan: Thank you very much for this opportunity. And I'd like to see that question raised by more and more Americans—like, what did we get in return for trading our royal flush for a two and seven offsuit? So thank you very much. You have a blessed day.

Watson: All right. You, too, Habib.

Hassan: Thank you. Bye bye.

No one at all knows what comes next, right? But if the Taliban remain in charge, as it seems they will, there are a couple of questions that I think we can usefully consider. 

And so I called up Elizabeth Threlkeld. She’s a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, D.C. Before that, she served for two years as a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department in Pakistan.

Watson: Elizabeth, welcome to Defense One Radio. 

Threlkeld: Thanks for having me.

Watson: Thanks so much for coming on. So lots of developments, lots of things to kind of pay attention to, and of course, a whole lot to think about in the short to mid term, before we ever get to any long term considerations. But in the short term for me what I'm thinking of maybe more than anything lately, I'm just curious how your what your thoughts are for this? Because, of course, nobody quite knows. But the Taliban seem pretty intent on showing the world one face now. And you know, understandably, as they posture for legitimacy, I'm curious, how does the U.S. respond if the Taliban once again revert to their you know, like brutal ways, chopping hands off for alleged theft? Germany's foreign minister, for example, already warned against this, but I'm wondering what you can what you think about how does the U.S. respond if and when those old habits return?

Threlkeld: The U.S. is in a tough situation right now. Realistically, we have limited leverage. And the leverage that we do have, for the most part would impact not just the Taliban, but the wider people of Afghanistan. And so that makes it difficult to use any one stick to a great extent, given those second order impacts more broadly on the population.

So for example, we are seeing the U.S. lead an international campaign to use economic levers to try to shape the tala bonds policy going forward, what government formation will look like, their treatment of women all have all those sorts of issues. And the challenge being we are already seeing a cash crunch that's hitting across Afghanistan, inflation, other just kind of economic challenges at a time when the population is already reeling from insecurity and displacement, pandemic drought that's ongoing. And so the second order impacts have a lot of that kind of leverage that the US and others are trying to exert is really a challenge.

And so thinking based on that, going forward, I think Washington should expect that the Taliban will revert to form unfortunately, on a lot of these issues. distinctions I might draw are, I think, particularly in terms of their core interests in terms of their ideology, they are unlikely to budge. And that will raise concerns among some in Washington and other capitals, in terms of treatment of women, for example, I do not expect it, despite what the Taliban is saying that they will change, too significantly. On that front, we could see a little bit more give in terms of cooperation on narrowly defined mutual interests—so potentially counter-narcotics, potentially confronting Islamic State-Khorasan province. But really, more broadly, I think it's not if but when the Taliban do deviate from the wishes of the international community.

And just finally, you know, I think looking at the list of asks that was included in the UN Security Council statement last week, for example, those are very similar to the list of asks that the U.S. went into Doha with. And to my mind, it's unrealistic to expect the Taliban to make concessions on those issues now that they are in power, much as we would like them to. But our leverage is just limited.

Watson: Right? Yeah, it certainly kind of seems that way. And lots of other policy folks are anticipating, you know, second, third order effects. A lot of the analysis that I'd seen in the last couple of days was sort of emphasizing how a pivot towards halting or slowing the march toward starvation across the country might grow to be a larger issue. That’s sort of if sanctions begin to hit the Taliban, and all kinds of financial crunches don't get any better. Graeme Smith, formerly of the Crisis Group, now he's the skeptic of sanctions having much effect on the Taliban's behavior. He said Afghanistan, and this is a kind of an interesting point for me, he said Afghanistan's trade routes are its real treasure anyway. For example, in Nimroz [province], he wrote, “The collection of fees by armed personnel to allow the safe passage of goods raised about $235 million annually for the Taliban and pro-government figures. By contrast, that province got just less than $20 million a year in foreign aid. And that's $20 million a year in foreign aid versus $235 million from, you know, these trade routes.

So what are your thoughts about this undercurrent of financing, which might act as a buffer from improving their behavior from our Western perspective?

Threlkeld: I think it will insulate them, to a certain extent, from these kind of bigger-picture international sanctions, I think the impact is likely to be somewhat limited. And what I mean by that is, you know, certainly the Taliban have access to gray markets to revenues from narcotics from smuggling, from taxation from customs, as you mentioned. That is to a great extent how they financed their rule back in the 90s. And that we've already seen was part of the tactics they used in their approach on Kabul; they choked off those inflows of revenue for the government. So I expect that to go forward.

And the implications of that are, you know, it could be the worst of both worlds in some respect, given that the Taliban would be able to insulate them to a certain extent from the impact of sanctions, but the Afghan people wouldn't. And that is just a further layer of this challenge in terms of of leverage. I will say sanctions will still have an impact. Afghanistan has changed significantly enough over the past 20 years, particularly in terms of the way that its economy is structured. It is dependent on foreign income for 75% of public spending right now. And so, really, regardless of how the Taliban play this and what sanctions look like going forward, there is going to be a real economic shock. That's coming down the line. And while yes, the Taliban do have alternate sources of income; into those I would actually add the potential that countries like Russia and China and Pakistan could break ranks with the international community and then provide some assistance—that's only going to go so far given the structural realities of the economy that that they're likely to face.

Watson: Interesting. I had seen just yesterday Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown of Brookings wrote for Chatham House, “The Taliban know how to deliver a brutal order, to oppress crime and provide swift dispute resolution. But it doesn't have the capacity to build hospitals or deliver medical care and build modern water, electricity and infrastructure systems. It needs technocrats and foreigners to perform these functions or the services will wither.” What's your impression, what are you gathering on the folks that you knew, the expertise in the region, given the desire to flee, plus various folks [who] may realize they cannot flee? 

Threlkeld: We can pick up on this to a certain extent in the Taliban's U-turn, or at least shift in terms of Afghan evacuees. So initially, they were not officially restricting Afghans from leaving the country. There were certainly reports that the State Department and others had pointed to suggesting that Afghans, even if they had the proper documentation, were not being allowed to access the airport in the numbers that foreign citizens were. But yesterday, seeing the announcement from Taliban spokesperson, saying essentially, ‘We do not want Afghans to leave,’ and pointing to the issue of brain drain, that people should go back to their jobs. Part of that is certainly to avoid the embarrassment of Afghans trying to vote with their feet and flee the country, which doesn't look great to a nascent Taliban regime. I think the other part of that though, is potentially a recognition that they will need these people in their jobs. They have called on experts and former government employees to go back to work.

Obviously, there is a great deal of skepticism about the amnesty that they've offered; there's a great deal of fear and concerning reports coming out about potential targeting of those employees of the U.S. and the previous government. But I think it puts some pressure on the Taliban in terms of how they will approach this question of dealing with the Afghans who worked for the previous government and have the capacity and the understanding to be able to play these roles, where really, the Taliban will lack it.

And the other piece of this too, from the international community’s standpoint is, I can imagine there will be a great deal of need at least for continued technical assistance just to provide basic governance in Afghanistan. I don't see that as being forthcoming. I think we are a very, very long way from having that conversation. But again, you have to think about the humanitarian impact of a total breakdown of the system that's been built over the past 20 years. Some parts might be salvaged in pieces. But I think about the implications for just stability within the country and the wider region if we do see a more dramatic collapse and, as I anticipate, the Taliban are not able to keep the trains running on time, so to speak—what that means in terms of outflows of refugees, and just further pain for the people of Afghanistan.

Watson: Yeah, interesting you brought up that last point. Because that was my final consideration, a kind of outside-the-region perspective. I’d already seen reports of growing phobia against South Asian migrants and refugees. We've been talking more like foreign relations. When you think more stateside matters, U.S. public opinion polling still kind of shows the public basically in the positions they've dug out that I understood them to have been dug into 10 years ago. And yet, we still have kind of like, you know, this backlash against refugees that have poured out of the Middle East since a couple years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That's my bigger-picture worry to be honest with you, as I look into the demographic changes in the U.S. and the way that we kind of like struggled with tolerance over the last five years.

Threlkeld: Yeah, you know, I think one thing that has been striking to me is how much coverage Afghanistan has gotten over the past two weeks on main channels in the U.S. in a way that it truly had not pretty much in the last 20 years. And so, you know, I think, down the line, it is right to be apprehensive in terms of what this means for treatment of refugees for Islamophobia. And the way that that will play into political currents at home, as well as in Europe. You know, I liken this in some ways to what we saw on Syria and the backlash that came out at the polls, subsequently. You know, the other piece of it, though, is, those images, those videos from the airport in Kabul were just so searing that, to my mind, at least, however, temporarily, it might have taken people out of a political frame, and just brought out the humanity and the tragedy of the crisis that we're seeing unfold. You see people falling from airplanes, so desperate to get out of country being crushed by landing gear. I think unfortunately, that feeling of sympathy and shared connection is unlikely to last. But it was striking, nonetheless, that those images were enough to break through the new cycle and to garner the attention that they have.

Watson: Yeah, yeah. Thanks. Thanks for kind of turning it back toward that. It's so tough. I mean, there's been 20 years and yet, you know, almost 20 years worth of images in three days. In terms of emotional power. Elizabeth Threlkeld is a senior fellow and Deputy Director of the South Asia program at the Stimson Center. Elizabeth, thank you again so much for talking to me.

Threlkeld: My pleasure. Thank you.