Q&A with Kathleen Collins on Afghanistan

Afghanistan presidential palace with the Taliban's white flag with black symbols flying from its roof. A row of white Taliban flags on flagpoles are in the foreground
Taliban hoisting their flag over The Arg on September 11, 2021. Photograph by CuboidalBrake06, distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en. It was cropped for size.

What historical context is most important for people to consider when hearing or reading about Afghanistan? 

Afghanistan has often been called “the graveyard of empires,” and for good reason. Fierce opposition to foreign invaders, a widely-shared duty to defend Islam, difficult mountainous terrain, and opium-funded warlordism are among the many factors that have drawn foreign invaders into long and costly wars that take a toll on their military capabilities, political will, and public support. The catastrophic losses of both the British empire and the USSR should have tempered the US vision of what it could accomplish by invading Afghanistan, even though it was necessary to attack and degrade al-Qaeda. 

How did Afghanistan’s recent history affect the prospects for the US involvement there? 

Afghanistan had been at war for over twenty years before the US entered after 9/11. In 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to aid a communist party that had seized power in Afghanistan, triggered a mass mobilization of the population to expel the Red Army. Islam became highly politicized as Soviet carpet-bombing destroyed most of the country, killing between one and two million Afghan citizens. Over six million refugees flooded neighboring countries. Radical Islamism and brutal warlordism, largely funded by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, took root during this period, as traditional Islamic and tribal elites lost influence. 

The Soviet exit was followed by a brutal civil war—this time an internecine conflict among mujahidin factions, some of which had been backed by the US in the anti-Soviet war. Anarchy on the streets fostered the rise of the Taliban, aided by Pakistan, which surged across the country and established a puritanical Islamic state. The Taliban used ethnic cleansing and violent application of sharia law to subdue most of the country by 2001. Decades of violence, the proliferation of weapons, social turmoil, and radicalization of the population, and close ties to Pakistan meant that Afghanistan was by no means fertile ground for building democracy or even a government that could keep the peace—key aims of the US policy in Afghanistan.  

How did we get so deeply entrenched in Afghanistan?

The US entered Afghanistan in October 2001. Our immediate goal was to hunt for Osama Bin Laden and destroy al-Qaeda, the organization that had perpetrated 9/11—the deadliest attack on US soil in our country’s history. Initially, the Bush administration, backed by NATO, launched a small-scale US invasion. In 2002, just 5200 US soldiers were there. The US operation was meant to be short and targeted. Yet the Bush administration decided not only to fight al-Qaeda, but to defeat the Taliban, which was harboring al-Qaeda. The consequence was a twenty-year war, which the US was ill-prepared to take on, and ultimately lost. 

By April 2002, President Bush was determined to establish democracy and launch something akin to a Marshall Plan for the Central Asian state. The Obama administration continued that policy and escalated nation-building. According to Gen. Karl Eikenberry, US Marines were doing everything from building schools and roads, to agricultural training, to anti-narcotics missions, and sending “female engagement teams” to villages to foster gender equality. The US was attempting revolutionary change in a country and culture we knew exceedingly little about, while fighting an enemy we poorly understood. 

What did the US fail to understand?

Successive US administrations failed to realize the depth of the problems in Afghanistan.  Afghanistan was a fragmented, tribally, and ethnically divided society, and an extremely underdeveloped country even before 1979. Decades of war had only exponentially exacerbated its problems. Its colonial-era border with Pakistan had long been contested by the Pashtun population and the Pakistani government. Understanding this context would have helped US policymakers realize the magnitude of democratization and nation-building there. Those processes involve far more than passing a constitution and holding founding elections. They demand many decades of investment after establishing security.   

Just as importantly, the US did not understand the enemy—the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Taliban’s goal was to reestablish its Islamic emirate, while al-Qaeda’s was to defeat the US, in its view an infidel superpower that empowered Israel, violated Islamic holy lands, and supported apostate regimes in the Middle East. Both were driven by a radical and militant ideological interpretation of Islam. Both believed it was their religious “duty” to wage jihad. Both had extremely long-term time-horizons. Consequently, they were willing to wait out the US presence, waging a bloodletting guerilla war and increasingly relying on suicide bombing in the meantime. 

The US not did realize that, as the war escalated, many Afghans saw the Taliban as defenders of both Islam and the Afghan nation. The Karzai and Ghani governments, by contrast, were seen as corrupt stooges of the West that provided neither security nor good governance.    

What do you see as the US mission? How did the US government describe its mission? Did the United States fail in its mission in Afghanistan? If the US failed, why?

The primary US mission in Afghanistan was always defeating al-Qaeda and preventing another strike against the US. While the US has degraded al-Qaeda’s operations inside Afghanistan, killing or capturing dozens of key leaders, al-Qaeda subsequently gained many thousands of followers in affiliates around the globe. Second, both the Bush and Obama administrations set themselves the goal of defeating the Taliban, which had been harboring al-Qaeda and providing a base for terrorism until 2001. Arguably, this was a critical mistake in 2001. Too few US troops and resources were sent after al-Qaeda, and the Bush administration naively and prematurely declared victory, when both the Taliban and al-Qaeda had merely fled across the border to Pakistan. The Bush administration failed to recognize that Pakistan was not our ally in this war. While President Obama did identify the problem, his troop surge and drone campaign were not the answer. 

The war against the Taliban has obviously failed. The US-Taliban peace deal collapsed even before the last US troops had exited Afghanistan in August. Instead of power-sharing, as they had promised, the Taliban are now controlling Afghanistan and re-consolidating a dictatorial regime. Moreover, the Taliban have not abided by their promise to rid Afghanistan of terrorism. They have not broken their ties with al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups that have targeted the US for the past 20 years. Counterterrorism in an ongoing, long-term war, and the US exit from Afghanistan ceded territory to dozens of terrorist groups. Some experts estimate that al-Qaeda will be able to regroup inside Afghanistan, and within a few years regain the ability to strike the US homeland. 

Why did the US attempt nation-building in Afghanistan, and did it succeed? Did the US create democracy in Afghanistan?

A third US goal evolved over time—democracy and nation-building. Once the Taliban had been defeated in Kabul, the Bush administration was determined to create a democratic government for Afghanistan, one that respected the human rights of women and all religious and ethnic groups. The intention was to reverse the horrors of the Taliban regime and leave something better behind, and to avoid a return to the civil war that had made Afghanistan a base of terrorism and extremism in the 1990s. President Obama expanded the nation-building project. 

Yet, while the goal of leaving behind a stable democracy was an admirable one, and the founding elections and constitutional process went fairly smoothly, nation-building was slow and plagued by problems that the US did not anticipate. Basic security was necessary before democracy and development could work. But when the Bush administration realized this, it found that the army and police forces were notoriously difficult to build from scratch in an ethnically-divided society. Moreover, recruits were largely illiterate and difficult to train. Low pay and an illegitimate central government meant that recruits sometimes switched sides. Government forces were also regular targets of Taliban and al-Qaeda attacks. Over 66,000 ANA and APA were killed between 2002 and 2021. 

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s fledgling “democracy” became plagued by corruption, exacerbated by the flow of donor cash into the country. International actors, eager to spend funds and achieve quick results, failed to monitor grants and rein in corruption. Popular dissatisfaction grew. Ultimately, Afghanistan’s government simply collapsed as the president fled and the Taliban rolled into Kabul. Few Afghans at that point stood up to defend their government. The consequence was the rapid eradication of all political rights and civil liberties, which had existed, albeit imperfectly, under former Presidents Karzai and Ghani. Today, the rights of women and minorities remain extremely precarious; the Taliban’s decisions on women’s education and right to work, for example, have not been released. The Taliban seems to be avoiding extreme measures in the hopes of receiving international aid. Gains in literacy, school infrastructure, and health will not be reversed overnight, but remain in a precarious position. 

What were the causes of the Taliban’s return? 

The Taliban’s return, which began in the mid-2000s, was the consequence of critical errors by the Bush administration in the early years of the US invasion. Although the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, with US support, had quickly defeated the Taliban in Kabul in 2001, the Taliban forces survived by fleeing across the border to Pakistan. There they received safe harbor, regrouped, rearmed, and recruited more followers. Recruits increased over time, motivated by the duty to fight a foreign, “infidel” invader, and also by disillusionment with the highly corrupt governments of President Karzai (and later Ghani). Meanwhile, after declaring military victory, the Bush administration was focused on democracy-building, not security; investment in the new Afghan police and military began too late.  

To counter the growing Taliban forces, President Obama initiated a troop surge and shifted to a counterinsurgency campaign; he increased US troops to over 100,000. But the new strategy meant a dramatic escalation of night raids, military operations throughout the countryside, and widespread use of drones.  Both US soldiers and Afghan civilians suffered heavy loss of life, resulting in growing sympathy for the Taliban. 

Could the Taliban’s return have been prevented? 

Among many poor decisions by the US political and military leadership, several key errors of judgment stand out. First, the Bush administration excluded the Taliban from the Bonn Agreement. Bringing some influential Taliban members into the new government in 2002 might have prevented the movement from becoming “spoilers” of the initial US/Northern Alliance victory. Second, the US should have held Pakistan accountable for aiding the Taliban, and thus denied it safe harbor. Third, President Obama began the surge with a publicly-announced 12-to-14-month deadline for its completion and withdrawal. Appeasing the American public rather than responding to conditions on the ground, was a fatal mistake. The Taliban’s ranks grew as they anticipated the US exit. “You have the watches, we have the time,” goes the Afghan proverb. Fourth, greater focus on and transparency about the weak state of the Afghan national army and police might have led to wiser decisions about when and how to leave behind security forces that could hold off a resurgent Taliban. 

How would you describe the pullout from Afghanistan?

The pullout in August 2021 was a catastrophe. The Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020, but in the subsequent seventeen months, neither the Trump nor Biden administration set the stage for an orderly transition of power. They did not plan to support the Afghan national army and police going forward. They did not condition withdrawal upon a cessation of Taliban attacks on Afghan civilians. The major Taliban concessions—eliminating a base for al-Qaeda and other terrorists inside Afghanistan and compromising with the Afghan national government—were never enforced. The “peace” deal was rooted in American impatience, naivete, and a commitment to withdrawal no matter what. 

By any standard, the logistics of withdrawal would be daunting after the US had built a 20-year presence in Afghanistan. Moreover, Afghanistan’s truculent President Ghani was uncooperative. Nonetheless, little was done to minimize the inevitable fallout. By summer 2021, neither the Trump nor Biden administration had ascertained a concrete count of how many Americans or Afghans working for the US would need evacuation and relocation. Poor planning meant that thousands of American soldiers, contractors, and civilians and tens of thousands of Afghans working for the US were ultimately evacuated amidst utter chaos. Hundreds of Americans and many more Afghans were left behind. Thousands of evacuated Afghans remain stranded today, housed in “temporary” locations. 

Neither President Biden nor the US military seemed prepared for the Taliban’s rapid return, despite continual warning signs that the Afghan government would fall quickly. Although debate existed about exactly how soon that would be, the administration refused to admit the Taliban’s rapid military gains since January 2021. District after district fell to its surge last spring and summer, leading the Afghan army—unable to effectively operate without US intelligence, air support, and contractors to service equipment—to steadily flee. 

Despite Taliban gains, US leaders inexplicably closed Bagram airbase, the center of US operations, in early July, leaving in the dead of night and unbeknownst to Afghan military commanders. This strategic and symbolic mistake left Americans far more vulnerable to attack. By mid-August, the Taliban simply rolled into Kabul, and the US was forced into an emergency evacuation from Kabul airport. 

The devastating consequence of these mistakes was the loss of thirteen American service members and almost 200 Afghans on August 26th in an IS-K suicide bombing at Kabul airport’s Abbey gate. The US soldiers killed were among those who had been struggling for days to control a frantic crowd attempting to flee the Taliban, to admit those Afghans with permission to enter the US, and in the process to find shelter for Afghan orphans amidst the chaos. The Marines managing the gate had brought 33,000 Afghans through the gate to safety before the bomber struck. The haunting images of that tragedy are already becoming fodder for radical jihadist propaganda. After twenty years of lost blood and treasure, the US let the Taliban dictate the conditions of our final withdrawal. 

What is your prognosis for the future of Afghanistan, the Taliban, and human rights? 

The future of Afghanistan is bleak, far worse than several months ago. Despite its many failures, in some areas, the US and international presence had made significant strides. A free press had developed. Ethnic and religious minorities were legally protected and had some political representation. Women had the right to vote and work. Many were elected to parliament and served in other government ministries, as well as in health care and education. 

Overall literacy, and especially female literacy, increased substantially over the past 20 years. In 2000, just 8% of girls attended school due to Taliban oppression. By 2020, female enrollment had increased to 80% of all girls. International agencies estimated that only 6-15% of women and 27% of men were literate in 2000. Twenty years later, an estimated 30% of women and 55% of men were literate. Today, many of those gains are being erased. The Taliban has ordered women to stay out of the workforce until they have issued a final ruling about what they will permit for “women’s safety.” Teenage girls and university students are now barred from school in most places. Younger girls have stopped attending school because their parents fear for them. The right to protest and to free speech, much less elections, has been crushed. The Taliban have beaten and arrested those who contest their rule. My hope is that the US will use frozen Afghan government assets as leverage to push the Taliban to recognize basic human rights,

What is the humanitarian situation today?

An even more dire consequence of the Taliban’s takeover was the evacuation of most aid workers, the freezing of Afghan government assets, and the end of foreign funds. The US, World Bank, European Union, and IMF stopped funding or froze accounts once the Taliban seized total power, in violation of the 2020 accord. Without these resources, the country faces a humanitarian disaster. Thousands upon thousands lost their jobs and incomes when the international community left. According to the UN, nearly 23 million Afghans are now facing acute food insecurity. It is crucial that international actors find a way to get aid directly to the Afghan people to avert mass starvation this winter.

What about terrorism today? Is it a threat?

Tragically, terrorism inside Afghanistan has continued. IS-K is growing again and, since August, has waged multiple suicide bombing attacks on the minority Shia population, killing scores. The Taliban regime, which also views the Shia as apostates, has not protected them. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda, whose 9/11 attack triggered the US war in Afghanistan, remains harbored by the Taliban, in blatant violation of the peace accord. Both al-Qaeda and IS-K are believed to be again expanding their operations and strike capability.  With no military bases in the region, the US will have limited ability to thwart them.

Can you tell us about teaching about Afghanistan? What did students take away from your courses? 

Last spring, my students in POL 3475 (Islamist Politics) traced the rise and evolution of both al-Qaeda and the Taliban from the 1980s to the present, and the growth of transnational Salafi-jihadism.

In April, they wrote policy papers that made the case for either US withdrawal or continuing a presence in Afghanistan. Many of those student papers identified the challenges that played out in August this year!

This fall, in POL1911 (Central Asia), we have studied Communist party repression, and how it triggered Islamist resistance in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. We examined Taliban rule in the 1990s and implications for today. Watching the Afghan-produced film, Osama, led students to grapple with the effect of the Taliban’s rule on women, who were denied work and an education. We also discussed the differences between Islam as a belief system and the Taliban’s radical politicization of Islam. 


Kathleen Collins' published work on Afghanistan

  • Pioneer Press op-ed, August 2021
  • Politicizing Island in Central Asia: Isalm and the State from the Russian Revolution to the Syrian Jihad, Collins' new book examines Uzbek and Tajik Islamist movements that have operated inside Afghanistan since the late 1990s. Some of these Islamist militants have been allied with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, while others joined IS-K beginning in 2015. 
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