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Afghanistan: The Graveyard of Empires

Guest: Edward Girardet, President of the International Centre for Humanitarian Reporting

The U.S. announced a full withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan, closing two decades of American military presence in the country. And within days of the pullout, the Taliban have taken over the country. Once again, an empire retreats from Afghanistan. In this week’s episode, we dive deeper into the complexities of what that means for the U.S., Afghanistan, and the region. 

Edward Girardet, President of the International Centre for Humanitarian Reporting, a Geneva-based media foundation, and editor of Crosslines Global Report, joins Altamar to sort out what lies in store for the future of Afghanistan. Girardet has worked as a journalist, writer and producer reporting from humanitarian and war zones in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. He has worked as a foreign correspondent for US News and World Report, where he first began covering Afghanistan several months prior to the Soviet Invasion in 1979. Since then, he has traveled often throughout much of the country, often by foot. He has written several books, including Afghanistan: The Soviet War and produced numerous television current affairs segments and documentaries.

Taliban forces took over the country and, finally, Kabul with lightning speed. The U.S. leaves Afghanistan – with almost nothing to show for it – after having spent close to $800 billion and losing over 2,300 lives to date. After all the resources and funding poured into the country, did Biden make a mistake in pulling the troops out now?

I think he has [made a mistake] in the sense that they’re basically leaving Afghanistan now [completely]. And whether they will continue with development aid and investment–that’s another question. But the message which has gone out is that basically ‘You’re on your own, we don’t care, and we’re leaving,” says Edward Girardet. Now the Taliban is taking over city after city. Civilians are most vulnerable. Those that assisted the U.S. military, such as translators and interpreters, are receiving death threats and will have to live in constant fear of the Taliban’s revenge for ‘betraying their country’.

For example, during the Algerian war when the French brought back their collaborators there (their translators), many were killed before that happened. And I think unfortunately that may also happen with Afghanistan. Thousands of Afghans have worked and benefited from the US-led intervention in Afghanistan, have received salaries and so on, but are considered by the Taliban to be the enemy,”points out Girardet. “So the question there is what’s going to happen to them. And I know some will be and are being brought to the United States and same with the UK. However, the long-term question is that the overwhelming majority of Afghans really do not support either the Taliban or the government,” continues Girardet. 

One of the key coming policy concerns will be whether the United States and other Western countries provide financial backing to a Taliban-backed government? It’s hard to visualize this in the future.

The U.S.’s imminent military withdrawal and the power vacuum it leaves behind raises the question of a civil war. “I think, unfortunately, you will see civil war elements occurring in lot of places. I think a lot is going to depend on the message the West now gives saying, ‘Okay, we will be willing to continue to support Afghanistan economically, and that there will be benefits.’ But this has to be made clear. And I think that is still the intention of the West, but it’s not being made clear. And the Taliban needs to understand that unless they also give up certain things, they’re not going to get this economic backing,” says Girardet. “However, this has to be made very, very clear. And right now, I think the West has not quite decided what it wants to do with Afghanistan,” continues Girardet.

So, who are the Taliban? Altamar hosts Peter Schechter and Muni Jensen took a step back to understand the group. “Basically the Taliban are primarily Pashtun. They themselves are divided into clans and they tend to be in the Eastern areas of Afghanistan, but also in the north, because a long time ago, the former government moved a lot of Pashtuns to Northern areas. The Taliban themselves are a movement, not a highly organized group. You have a lot of divisions within the Taliban. And that’s what we always seem to forget. There’s also the Shura groups in the Taliban and the Quetta groups in Baluchistan of the Taliban. And the only thing which is giving a semblance of an organized movement is the fact that right now they’re making headway militarily,” explains Girardet. 

Nicknamed ‘The Graveyard of Empires,’ Afghanistan has previously defeated numerous global powers. First the British and then the Soviets, now the U.S. is next. Who will fill the power vacuum? “There’s a saying that you can never buy an Afghan, you can only rent him. And this is because everyone’s tried it—the Afghans themselves have tried it, [and so have] the Soviets, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Americans, and NATO. The fact is Afghans traditionally don’t like having outsiders in their country unless they are there as guests,” explains Girardet. 

Understanding the power factions within Afghanistan is incredibly difficult, but understanding the regional complexities, proves nearly impossible. “What about the neighborhood? What impact does the chaos and war have on Afghanistan’s neighbors, in particular, Pakistan, Iran and also others,” asks Altamar’s Muni Jensen. “The Indian and Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan has always been linked more to Kashmir than to Afghanistan itself. And we keep talking about Afghanistan being a ‘great game’, and this game just continues. I mean, everyone is playing their own games. I think the Pakistanis could have long ago done something about the Taliban or the Pashtuns with their groups and terrorism. But they won’t because their ISI, which is the Inter-Services Intelligence (the military intelligence), have been making a lot of money out of Pakistan, and the Indians are not necessarily concerned about Afghanistan,”replies Girardet.  He continues, “If the war continues, I think we’ll just see no real progress economically in many of these directions, but the Indians and the Pakistanis, they have always bickered like spoiled brats and are continuing to do so. And they’re using Afghanistan as just one of their many fronts while doing this. So, I think they need to assume the responsibilities as well,” explains Girardet.

Want to take a deeper dive into Afghanistan and whether a civil war is possible? Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.

Image Source: Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

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Episode 106