Afghans’ choice as US departs: Weak government, or hated Taliban

Omar Sobhani/Reuters
Armed men who oppose the Taliban stand at their post in the Ghorband District in Afghanistan's Parwan province, June 29, 2021.

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As the Taliban have gobbled up territory at an accelerated pace, Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary has monitored the predicament of Afghan officers and intelligence operatives from his native Kunar province. “Sadly, everywhere in Afghanistan is a front line now,” he says. Afghans are experiencing “psychological turbulence. People are terrified.”

That pressure grew today, as the United States and NATO declared that they had vacated the Bagram air base north of Kabul, the epicenter of Western military involvement in Afghanistan since 2001.

Why We Wrote This

In whom can Afghans place their faith? The hated Taliban will not win any popularity contests, but neither will the government, faulted for corruption and a disconnect from the forces that would support it.

Afghans know Taliban tactics – blackmail and intimidation, spiked with explosive violence – and the insurgents would never win a popularity contest. But exposed also like never before is the widespread lack of faith in Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his government, with its institutions eroded by corruption and its disconnect with ordinary Afghans laid bare, despite a 20-year investment of billions of dollars in Western aid.

“The government is weak because it really lost the connection with the people,” says Orzala Nemat, a Kabul-based analyst. “Although theoretically the president has always been talking about a ‘social contract,’ in practice he failed to deliver on that. ... As much as people hate the Taliban, they got fed up with very corrupt officials, and did not much bother about or support the government.”

Every night, journalist Bilal Sarwary gets on the phone from his home in Kabul, checking in with friends stuck at Afghan military bases around the country as they fight advancing Taliban insurgents.

With the Taliban seizing control of one district after another, building momentum on the battlefield as American troops depart after nearly 20 years, these Afghans reach out to Kabul officials for leadership and support – and even extraction. But they rarely get a response.

“Soldiers and commandos are asking for food, water, and ammunition; they are asking to be evacuated,” says Mr. Sarwary, referring to the predicament of Afghan officers and intelligence operatives he knows who are from his native Kunar province.

Why We Wrote This

In whom can Afghans place their faith? The hated Taliban will not win any popularity contests, but neither will the government, faulted for corruption and a disconnect from the forces that would support it.

“Sadly, everywhere in Afghanistan is a front line now. The fighting is at the doorstep of Afghans,” he says. Afghans are now experiencing “psychological turbulence. People are terrified.”

That pressure grew today, as the United States and NATO declared that they had vacated the Bagram air base north of Kabul, the epicenter of Western military involvement in Afghanistan since 2001.

Few doubted that the Taliban would push their advantage, or even aim for military victory, as they boasted of defeating the American superpower. Afghans know Taliban tactics, including blackmail, intimidation, and coercion, spiked with explosive violence and bloodshed; the insurgents would never win a popularity contest. So as America steps away from Afghanistan, raising the specter of civil war, the question emerges: When anti-Taliban sentiment is so strong, why is the Afghan government so weak – and distrusted?

The crisis has exposed as never before the widespread lack of faith in Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his government, with its institutions eroded by corruption and political infighting, and its disconnect with ordinary Afghans laid bare, despite a 20-year investment of billions of dollars in Western aid and nation building.

“The government is weak because it really lost the connection with the people,” says Orzala Nemat, a veteran Kabul-based Afghan analyst. “Although theoretically the president has always been talking about a ‘social contract,’ in practice he failed to deliver on that, by concentrating – and overconcentrating – all government affairs into the palace.

“That’s why, as much as people hate the Taliban,” she says, “they got fed up with very corrupt officials, and did not much bother about or support the government.”

When will the last American troops exit?

It is not yet clear when the handful of remaining U.S. troops will leave, formally ending America’s longest-ever war.

The low-profile American departure, two months ahead of President Joe Biden’s Sept. 11 withdrawal deadline, comes as President Ghani’s government grapples with an unprecedented Taliban onslaught. In recent weeks, that advance brought scores of the country’s district centers under jihadi control – often without a shot being fired, as embattled Afghan troops surrender with promises of safe passage home.

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters
An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at the gate of Bagram U.S. air base on the day the last of American troops vacated it, Parwan province, Afghanistan, July 2, 2021.

Afghanistan ranked 165 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index. Indeed, a report today by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) pointed to government “neglect and incompetence” as much as “Taliban strength,” as a reason for the insurgents’ recent lightning advances.

Widespread Taliban attacks as the U.S. withdrew were “expected, but the scale of and speed of the [Afghan security force] collapse was not,” AAN reported.

President Biden’s April announcement of an unconditional, swift U.S. troop withdrawal “shifted the balance and nature of the conflict suddenly and decisively” in the Taliban’s favor, the AAN report said.

Presidential Palace/Reuters
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani meets Gen. Austin Miller, commander of U.S. forces and NATO's Resolute Support Mission, in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 2, 2021.

Unafraid now of once-devastating American airstrikes, the Taliban are engaging in scorched-earth tactics, which range from burning harvests and seeding orchards with land mines to destroying bridges and bulldozing roads.

When Mr. Ghani visited the White House a week ago, President Biden promised continued U.S. support, including a request of $3.3 billion for security assistance next year, which would include training and technical support from outside the country.

But is time running out for such plans?

On Tuesday, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin Miller, said, “Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now.” That view was reinforced by a U.S. intelligence assessment, which warned last week that the Kabul government could fall within six months after Americans leave.

“The truth is, today the survival, security, and unity of Afghanistan is in danger,” Abdullah Abdullah, the government’s reconciliation envoy, said in recent days. “There is no better way than peace.”

But peace between the Kabul government and insurgents has not come, despite a U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement signed in early 2020, and intra-Afghan peace talks that began last September in Doha, Qatar.

At the same time, says Mr. Sarwary, the journalist, the government and the forces that would support it are experiencing a worsening “disconnect.”

The result of government weakness is clear to the Afghan security force members from Kunar who are followed by Mr. Sarwary, whose pleas for help go unanswered by officials in Kabul.

“President Ghani, from the get-go, failed to bring political cohesion, failed to gather everyone around the same table,” he says, referring to disunity that included dueling presidential inaugurations last year for Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah, his longtime rival.

“Ghani might be fluent, he might be eloquent, he might have a lot of appeal in English, but his guys lack roots in the society,” says Mr. Sarwary. “Suddenly you had people with two passports – I call them ‘political tourists’ – and some guys who could not even speak Dari or Pashto, in parliament.”

Rahmat Gul/AP
Women wait inside the passport office in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 30, 2021. Afghans are lining up by the thousands to get new passports, uncertain what tomorrow will bring as they witness the final withdrawal of the U.S. military and its NATO allies.

That has led to the disconnect between Kabul – with its “bravado and empty statements, [where] people like painting a rosy picture,” he says – and frontline commanders, who “have been badly let down.”

“A lot of these [officials] have not picked up a coffin ... have not gone to a funeral,” says Mr. Sarwary. “A lot of them don’t feel that pain; they are detached from the consequences, from the reality. For some in the government – I stress, some – it means they are not aware.”

A lack of consistency

Frequent changes in the Cabinet and security top brass have added to command-and-control confusion and lack of consistency, as the Taliban have escalated violence.

“I wonder if it’s not so much about Taliban success, but more about this alienation of the Afghan people, and what drove this alienation so that people are so indifferent to the fate of this government,” says Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan analyst with the International Crisis Group.

He cites government lack of accountability, due to extensive funding by Western donors with different agendas, as well as endless political wrangling in Kabul.

Another factor has been U.S. and NATO troops who were “so unaware” of local dynamics – from village to valley to hamlet – that they were often used in local vendettas, with one side accusing another of being pro-Taliban, thereby turning entire areas against the government.

“Despite 20 years of massive military intervention, there hasn’t been a day of peace in Afghanistan, really,” says Ms. Nemat, the Afghan analyst.

“The majority of people know the Taliban are not Robin Hoods of Afghanistan, they are not the saviors,” says Ms. Nemat. “The Taliban leadership is also corrupt, and fighting for others’ interests.”

“None of the parties won the hearts of the people. ... The people are feeling they are hostage to two parties fighting each other,” she says. “The winner here is the one that will deliver peace, stability, and resources, but those are neither coming from the Taliban or the government.

“Of course, everyone will stand next to the [Ghani] government, because they are not ready for the nightmare of the Taliban to return,” says Ms. Nemat. “They will try to stand, but they are not happy with the government, because of their actions, because of their corruption.”

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