Watching Afghanistan’s cities fall to the Taliban in rapid succession, as the United States completes a hasty withdrawal from the country, is a surreal experience, laced with a sense of déjà vu.
Twenty years ago, I reported from Afghanistan as the Taliban’s enemies took these same cities from them, in the short but decisive U.S.-backed military offensive that followed the 9/11 attacks.
The war on terror had just been declared, and the unfolding American military action was cloaked in purposeful determinism in the name of freedom and against tyranny.
For a brief moment, the war was blessed by that rare thing: public support, both at home and abroad.
In the wake of the horror of Al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States, most Americans polled believed that the country was doing the “right thing” in going to war in Afghanistan.
That level of support didn’t last long, but the war on terror did, and so did the military expedition to Afghanistan, which stretched on inconclusively for two decades and now ends in ignominy.
Donald Trump set this fiasco in motion, by announcing his intention to pull out the remaining American troops in Afghanistan and begin negotiations with the Taliban.
In February, 2020, an agreement was signed that promised to withdraw all U.S. military forces in return for, among other things, peace talks with the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
The American troops were duly drawn down, but, instead of engaging in real discussions, the Taliban stepped up their attacks.
In April, President Joe Biden announced his intention to carry on with the withdrawal, and pull out forces by September 11th.
However much he says that he does “not regret” his decision, his Presidency will be held responsible for whatever happens in Afghanistan now, and the key words that will forever be associated with the long American sojourn there will include hubris, ignorance, inevitability, betrayal, and failure.
In that regard, the United States joins a line of notable predecessors, including Great Britain, in the nineteenth century, and the Soviet Union, in the twentieth.
Those historic precedents don’t make the American experience any more palatable.
In Afghanistan—and, for that matter, in Iraq, as well—the Americans did not merely not learn from the mistakes of others; they did not learn from their own mistakes, committed a generation earlier, in Vietnam.
The main errors were, first, to underestimate the adversaries and to presume that American technological superiority necessarily translated into mastery of the battlefield, and, second, to be culturally disdainful, rarely learning the languages or the customs of the local people.
By the end of the first American decade in Afghanistan, it seemed evident that the Western counterinsurgency enterprise was doomed to fail, and not only because of the return of the Taliban in many rural parts of the country: the Americans and their nato allies closed themselves off from Afghans in large regional bases, from which they operated in smaller units out of combat outposts, and distrust reined between them and their putative Afghan comrades.
“Green-on-blue attacks,” in which Afghan security forces opened fire on their American and European counterparts, became alarmingly frequent. The Taliban, meanwhile, grew inexorably stronger.
During a visit to the tense, embattled, eastern province of Khost, in the winter of 2010, a senior American military commander there, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Lutsky, acknowledged to me the lack of trust with his Afghan counterparts, several of whom he suspected of working with the Taliban.
“The cultural complexity of the environment is just so huge that it’s hard for us to understand it,” he said.
“For Americans, it’s black or white—it’s either good guys or bad guys. For Afghans, it’s not. There are good Taliban and bad Taliban, and some of them are willing to do deals with each other. It’s just beyond us.”
Ten years on, as Afghanistan’s provincial capitals are falling to the Taliban and Kabul itself becomes encircled, the litany of exotic place names—Sheberghan, Taloqan, Kunduz, Kandahar, Herat—must mean little to most Americans, except for those who were once deployed in them.
But a generation ago, as Afghan mujahideen, or holy warriors, of the so-called Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban coalition commanded by warlords, battled alongside American Special Forces to free these same towns from the Taliban, they were in the news constantly, as commonplace to Americans then as Benghazi or Raqqa became in later years.
(In war, as in life, perhaps, people and places can become briefly and often intensely familiar, only to be discarded from memory when their apparent relevance has ceased. Who today remembers Hamid Karzai? Or Mullah Omar?)
When Kunduz and Sheberghan, adjacent cities in northern Afghanistan, fell within a day of each other, last weekend, I wondered how many Americans recalled that these were the sites of some of the bloodiest early episodes of the war,
in 2001. In the desert outside Kunduz, hundreds and possibly thousands of Taliban and suspected Al Qaeda prisoners of war, who had surrendered to the Northern Alliance after the fall of the city that November, were locked in shipping containers and shot or left to die by forces led by the Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was working with the C.I.A. and with Special Forces commandos.
Some of the survivors of that ordeal were selected for rendition by American agents on the ground, and ended up as prisoners in Guantánamo, beginning a controversial new chapter in American judicial history.
At the same time, an uprising by captured Taliban and foreign jihadis, at a nearby fortress named Qala-i-Jangi, resulted in the killing of Johnny Micheal Spann, an American C.I.A. officer—the first American to die in combat in Afghanistan.
After days of fighting, during which at least three hundred prisoners died, the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, a twenty-year-old Muslim convert from California who had become a volunteer with the Taliban forces and had been questioned by Spann, was recaptured, after Dostum flooded the compound’s underground chambers.
Lindh was returned to the U.S., tried in federal court for providing support to the Taliban, and sentenced to twenty years in a high-security federal prison.
His presence at the fortress, though there is no evidence that he participated in the revolt, provoked strong feelings in the United States and led to an ongoing debate about national identity and loyalty in the modern age.
In 2019, Lindh was released three years early, for good behavior, and he is on probation for the remainder of his sentence.
I was on the scene for the fall of Kunduz, in 2001, and was part of a small group of foreign journalists ambushed by Taliban fighters who had remained in hiding and attacked, even as most of their comrades were in the process of surrendering.
Fortunately, none of us was killed, but the following night, after we returned to the nearby provincial capital, Taloqan, which had already been retaken by the Northern Alliance—and which also fell to the Taliban last weekend—a Swedish journalist was shot and killed by gunmen at the house where he was staying.
After his death, and considering the lingering presence of numerous Taliban in Taloqan—along with that of allied Uzbek fighters, a group of whom we had seen engaged in last-minute deals with the Northern Alliance—the foreign journalists soon fled the city.
I joined an armed convoy headed for Kabul, a four-day journey through the Hindu Kush mountains.
Along the way, we were accosted by Afghan gunmen—perhaps Taliban, perhaps merely highwaymen—but, again, we were lucky, and arrived without loss of life.
Kabul had already fallen, supposedly. At least, the Taliban were visibly gone and, with them, their Al Qaeda friends.
But, on subsequent days, as I moved around the devastated city, I had reason to wonder how genuine the Western-assisted Northern Alliance victory had been.
One morning, a group of four women concealed in blue burqas approached me on the street, and one asked if I knew of any work opportunities.
I was accosted by a furious shopkeeper for daring to communicate across the gender divide. The women scattered. It was as if a malady lingered in the Afghan air, despite the Taliban’s retreat.
Most of the Afghan men whom I met and who led battles against the Taliban two decades ago are now dead. Almost all were killed, in separate assassinations, as part of the Taliban’s plan to return to action.
Their comeback has taken twenty years, but it is a classic example of a successful guerrilla war of attrition, and has involved all the usual elements of guerrilla strategy: a stealth campaign of hit-and-run military attacks, selective assassinations to demoralize their adversaries, and acts of terror that both weakened the government and created an atmosphere of abject compliance from local populations.
A public campaign of hearts and minds followed, accompanied by decoy negotiations with the government and its allies in order to promote the idea that, as a force, the Taliban are not really extremist and are, in fact, open to dialogue, even to internal change.
But the Taliban, by their very nature, are fundamentalists, believers in a strict Quranic credo.
In the pre-Taliban days of the late eighties, when I spent time with the mujahideen of Kandahar, who were then fighting the Soviets, a pair of local Islamic scholars banned music after consulting their sacred texts; this rule was added to their list of severe prohibitions, which included death for adulterers and the amputation of hands for thieves.
In a court, set up in the middle of a battlefield, the two judges explained their sentencing system and told me how many murderers and adulterers they had put to death, after which one of them said,
“We adhere to the Sharia in all cases.” Patting a pile of holy tracts next to him, he added, “All the answers are here.”
It was this same kind of earnest devotion to Islamic law that earned early popularity for the Taliban, when they emerged in the same area a few years later, after the Soviet retreat, under the leadership of Mullah Omar, a particularly devout mujahideen commander.
Various mujahideen warlords who had emerged ascendant were fighting one another for power, and some were abusive toward civilians in the areas that they controlled.
Mullah Omar’s Taliban presented themselves as a moralizing force and made swift headway against the warlords.
Within a couple years, they controlled most of Afghanistan, and Kabul fell to them in 1996.
With no opposition except for a rump group of Northern Alliance warlords, who held out in the northern mountains for the next few years (until the Americans came along to assist them, in 2001), the Taliban imposed their strict version of Sharia law.
Afghan women were all but excluded from public life, with many girls prohibited from attending school; the freedom to work for female teachers, doctors, and nurses was drastically circumscribed.
The Taliban zealotry grew so great that children were forbidden to play with dolls or to fly kites, in favor of prayer sessions, while ethnic minorities and members of religious sects other than the extreme Sunni version of Islam that the Taliban espoused were persecuted.
In one incident, it is estimated that the Taliban killed at least two thousand ethnic Hazaras, who are Shiite.
Public executions became a norm, as well, often of women accused of various moral offenses.
The killings were often carried out on sports fields or in stadiums, with the condemned sometimes stoned to death, or summarily shot in the head, or hanged, or, in the case of homosexuals, crushed and suffocated by mud walls toppled onto them by tanks.
Before isis, in other words, there was the Taliban, showing how to do things.
In March, 2001—a few months before their Al Qaeda comrades carried out the 9/11 attacks—the Taliban, as a testament to their supposed iconoclastic purity, destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas.
These were a pair of giant, fifteen-hundred-year-old sandstone statues, regarded as one of the man-made wonders of the ancient world.
Taliban officials also took sledgehammers and axes to priceless artifacts in the Kabul Museum, destroying anything that predated Islamic civilization. The outside world did little to prevent any of these crimes.
The list of atrocities that the Taliban committed while they were in power goes on and on, and in the two decades since their ouster they have murdered again and again, in a war aimed at anyone who opposes them or even represents a potential challenge to them.
The other day, a Taliban spokesman took credit for the murder, in Kabul, of his government counterpart, in what he called “a special attack.”
Women have also been among the Taliban’s most consistent victims, from schoolteachers and television presenters to female parliamentarians and judges.
In March, in the eastern city of Jalalabad, the Taliban killed three young female media workers; a female journalist was killed in June,
in Kabul, by a car bomb. If the Taliban do sweep back into power in Kabul in the coming weeks, which seems a strong possibility, women will again be among their foremost targets.
There is a conceit that today’s Taliban is different from the Taliban of 2001. This is certainly an idea that some senior Taliban officials have sought to propagate in recent years.
Facts on the ground suggest otherwise. They claim to have moved on from their old alliance with Al Qaeda, for instance, but over the years they have partnered with other jihadist groups operating, as they have done, out of sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan, such as the Haqqani network, which is responsible for scores of suicide bombings and so-called complex attacks—involving gunmen and suicide bombers acting in tandem—and for causing hundreds of civilian deaths.
The Taliban have rendered Afghanistan unworkable as a country; unworkable, that is, without them.
And the truth is that they were never really beaten. They merely did what guerrillas do in order to survive: they melted away in the face of overwhelming force, regrouped and restored themselves to fighting strength, and returned to battle. Here they are.