Much has been said over the past few weeks about the sudden takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. For all the money spent by the United States and shed blood, the corrupt government that was there received so little support that it fell without a whimper.
The ‘expert analysis’ of the Western side seems to be missing the central reason for its debacle. But one of my clients in Guantánamo, Sanad al-Kazimi, easily identified it in a recent conversation with me. Few people have more reason to regret the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 than he did, as he suffered 16 years without charge or trial.
He said he thinks President Joe Biden spoke with wisdom in defending the decision to end the longest war in American history. He reminds me that the Arabs also have the saying: ‘Better late than never’. But Sanad further said he prefers to move the aphorism one step further: “It is often better to never be.” It would have been better if we had never invaded Afghanistan in the first place.
There is another weary truth that tells us that the first thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history. What the British called the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) is known as “the Disaster in Afghanistan”. The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), the Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919) and the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) all had one thing in common: they all ended in tears, with nothing but chaos not achieved. There was little reason to believe that the American-Afghan War (2001-2021) would have a different outcome.
Just before the pandemic, I was in Kabul to get support for Asadullah Haroon, an Afghan who has been weakening in Guantánamo for the past 14 years. I talked to people from all sides of the chaotic political scene. If there was one thing everyone agreed on, it was that no one wanted the intruders to stay. They did not want them in the first place.
Yet the American invasion took place in 2001. It would always be difficult to turn a killing field into something other than a cemetery. There are few examples in history that the army invaded a country (called ‘the enemy’) and then turned it into a respected friend.
A rare example could be the reaction of the Allies to the end of World War II. The Germans committed the most heinous crimes imaginable (the Taliban could never thwart them, even in the wildest dreams of a Western neocons), the USA gave a small group of Nazis a fair trial and ‘ a number of them acquitted. Then, through the Marshall Plan, the US donated large sums – more than $ 100 billion in today’s money – to help rebuild Europe and expand this generosity of spirit to West Germany.
It would have required an extraordinary effort to create a political structure in Afghanistan that could mitigate the smell of foreign imposition and survive the withdrawal of the U.S. military. It would have taken a truly human attitude. And that’s what we’ve never shown.
First, we have responded to atrocities perpetrated by al-Qaeda by torturing prisoners and another halfway around sending the world to Guantánamo. Then we spent a lot more money on bombs than reconstructing the damage they did. Thirdly, we never even pretended to treat the Afghans as equal partners.
In Kabul, I ate at the home of Hajji Din Mohammed, an elderly man who held various positions in government. He fought against the Russians and with the Americans. I asked him to compare the two. Referring to the Russians, he showed me where they shot him, and described their phenomenal cruelty.
But he said he respected them in two ways: first, they were intensely loyal to their fellow soldiers and rushed to their aid, regardless of the chance. And secondly, when they were finally expelled from Afghanistan, the Russians were loyal to those who helped them and welcomed them into Moscow. He is indeed pointing to another person during our meal who received all his training at Russian expense.
I asked him about my fellow Americans. He was reluctant to be rude, but I begged his true opinion.
“The Americans were never even loyal to themselves,” he said. “If their soldiers are tied up by the Taliban, they must get an order from Washington before anyone can help them.
But then he described how the Americans treated the Afghans. In an ironic twist of racism, no Afghan citizen was allowed to book a room in the heavily fortified hotel where I was staying, and while I could enter without being searched, my host could not. But more specifically, he said, based on his flowing beard and his battle scars, Americans view him as a disturbed “jihadi.” “No American has shaken my hand as a friend in the last 18 years,” he concluded.
I had already decided that I would like and respect this man, and I was horrified when I heard his words. I immediately asked if I (as an American) could shake his hand as a friend. He burst into tears and declared me a blood brother. I would be honored to be the brother of Hajji Din Mohammed. And so must all Americans. It’s just sad that we did not get it right.
While we at least insisted on the rights of women, we introduced a sense of imperial racism that was out of the First Anglo-Afghan War. We have made life excessively expensive without increasing the wealth of the people (if I wanted to establish a branch of our non-governmental organization, it would have cost four times as much in Kabul as in Islamabad). And we set up a government that was so legendary venal and corrupt that the US military referred to it as the VICE – ‘Vertically Integrated Criminal Entity’.
Is it any wonder that the Afghans did not want to allow another civil war to preserve what we offered them?
My father was a fierce chauvinist and homophobic; we did not hate him for it; With increasing success we tried to change our minds. I have tried many capital cases in America, where all 12 jurors to qualify for service must promise that they are willing to impose the death penalty. We could argue with them and tell them they were wrong, or we could speak their language and remind them of the biblical teaching: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” I found the second course much more effective.
We had the same choice when we first visited our conservative Muslim clients in Guantánamo: we can punish them for the chauvinism they were taught in a rural village in Afghanistan, calling them ‘terrorists’. Or we can look for the best in them. Today, I count my Guantánamo clients among my best friends on the planet. One of them, Asadullah Haroon, wants nothing more than for his 14-year-old daughter Maryam to benefit from a full education.
We have the same choice with the new Afghan government. The American media has already begun to exterminate them. According to the New York Times, for example, Gholam Rulani was detained in Afghanistan in 2001 with his brother-in-law Abdul Haq Wasiq, a deputy intelligence minister, after accompanying Wasiq to a negotiating meeting with US officials. He was brought to Guantánamo on 11 January 2002 and was repatriated in December 2007. ”
We are now being told that Mr Rulani, who led a group of Taliban who entered the presidential palace on August 15, told one of his insulting Guantánamo guards “we will get you outside”. That someone who was severely abused, 15 years ago (maybe not) poured something like this on his abuser is not surprising. What I can say is that I have a good relationship with my former clients, and that they like to talk to an American like me who has stood up for their rights in Guantánamo.
Rather than shouting from afar that they are barbarians, it will be more productive to sit down with them and help them rebuild the country, while Asad is strongly supported in encouraging Maryam’s dream of ‘ to become a doctor.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera.