The Failed War on Terror

Opinion piece by journalist and war correspondent Lynne O'Donnell
Dehi Kalan in Afghanistan
Dehi Kalan, Afghanistan © Sven Gückel

Afghanistan is the symbol of the failure and shame of the Western alliance. Since August 15, the country has been controlled by one of the world’s biggest criminal gangs and its terrorist cohorts. The economy is in freefall, millions of people face starvation. Women and girls are being beaten on the streets, forced out of work and education. There are no jobs, no civic services, no cash, no aid. Inflation is soaring as food and fuel become increasingly scarce. People are destitute, desperate and afraid.

After 20 years, billions of euros, tens of thousands of lives, and interminable promises of enduring Western support, Afghanistan is now approaching failed state status, friendless, abandoned by those very nations that said they would never leave -- including Germany. The United States and NATO have turned their backs on Afghanistan.

In doing so, they have ceded the country to jihadism. Afghanistan is now, effectively, an ungoverned space where terrorism can, and doubtless will thrive. The invasion of 2001 removed the Taliban from power in retaliation for their collusion with Al Qaeda in the attacks on the United States that killed almost 3,000 people on September 11.

The so-called “war on terror” came full circle on August 15, 2021, when the Taliban re-entered Kabul and claimed victory over America and the Western allies. Two decades of insurgency ended in humiliation. All moral authority has seeped away. The trust of the world has been lost for generations to come, if not forever.

I have just spent three months in Afghanistan reporting on the country’s war and collapse. When I arrived, in May, fighting was fierce in the southern poppy-growing belt, coinciding with the harvest and the need of the then-insurgency -- which controls opium production -- to secure the roads while moving its produce into storage, to heroin processing plants, and over the border into Pakistan. It was seasonal and to be expected.

Soon, however, the fighting moved up north, and the Taliban began threatening and then taking control of border crossings into Tajikistan. Soldiers and police fighting for the republic began to flee. Special Forces commandos were being left without air support to be slaughtered by the Taliban. Army bases were surrounded and besieged for weeks on end, until they ran out of ammunition and food. Government sources would admit off the record that between 300 and 500 fighting men were being killed every day. It was clearly unsustainable.

It was certainly sustainable for the Taliban. As H.R. McMaster, the retired four-star U.S. Army general and one of former president Donald Trump’s national security advisers, has eloquently pointed out, the madrassas of Pakistan have for years trained up to a million young boys at any one time to be cannon fodder and suicide bombers in that country’s war on Afghanistan.

These are the foot soldiers of the old-new Taliban now in control of Afghanistan. They have no values, no principles, no self-respect. They cannot be integrated into modern life -- the life that the Western alliance had promised to all Afghan people for the past 20 years. It cannot be any surprise that we see video footage of Taliban beating women on the streets of Kabul for no other reason than that they are women. These men have been taught since childhood to hate and to kill. They are now the enforcers for a “government” of terrorists, drug dealers, killers and thieves.

That this was happening was clear to me as I witnessed and reported on the Taliban’s advance across the country. The border crossings were closed, cutting off vital trade, and revenues, into the landlocked country. Provincial capitals were surrounded as the districts (administrative regions similar to counties) were taken over. First the country was isolated, and then the major cities were besieged. And then the rollover of the provincial capitals began at such speed that there was no time to run.  

Nevertheless, the signs were there for the giant brains of Western intelligence to see. Indeed, the U.S. administration of President Joe Biden was warned that the government of former president Ashraf Ghani could fall in a matter of months without the support of international military. This appeared as news on the front pages of American newspapers. It was ignored, not only by Biden’s administration and the U.S. military -- which kept up the spin of imminent success -- but by the entire Western alliance.

There has been much apologia in the weeks since the Taliban took over Kabul from the embarrassed civilian and political leadership of the Western world. General Sir Nick Carter, the British Army chief, said that the Taliban had changed, implying that they had suddenly been transformed into a modern political entity we could do business with.

He was rightly criticised for his foolish comments, which have since been proven so woefully wrong as to be laughable. But there is nothing funny about the Taliban. Many people I know, and love, are living in fear of a knock at the door that will mean the Taliban have come for them, as they have come for many people across the country since August 15. This is a reign of terror.

It was the fatuous Donald Trump who set in motion the events that have led us to this point of horror. He decided that the way to end the “forever war” was to cut a deal with the Taliban so that he could pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and portray himself as a hero to American voters weary with the apparent lack of progress in defeating the insurgency. No thought to the schools, hospitals, roads constructed across the country; no thought to the millions of children receiving proper education, going to university, winning international scholarships, entering the workforce; no thought to the vibrant media, the cell phone towers, the solar panels on roofs across the country. No thought to the aspirations of one of the youngest populations of any nation on earth, where most people are aged under 35 and the mean age is 18. 

He bypassed the government that the Western alliance had been supporting for 20 years. He ignored the Afghan people who had invested in the democratic experiment and overwhelmingly did not want the Taliban to return to power. Not only did he do a bilateral deal with the world’s biggest criminal cartel, he forced the republic’s government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters from prison, who then promptly returned to the battlefield.

The Taliban only adhered to the conditions in the deal that suited them; otherwise all concessions went their way. They didn’t even stick to their pledge to halt attacks on U.S. and other international military forces. They certainly didn’t reduce their attacks on Afghan civilians, quite the contrary.

The number of people killed by the Taliban soared, on and off the battlefield. They launched a vicious assassination campaign aimed at journalists, government officials, working women, judges, rights advocates. When it became clear that the only real edge the republic had in the war was air support, the Taliban started killing pilots.

Perhaps most importantly, at least for the Western alliance, Trump and his team betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding, or perhaps a willing ignorance, of the relationship between the Taliban and sanctioned terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network. The essence of the Trump-Taliban deal, as it was sold to the American public, was that the insurgents had pledged to cut ties with Al-Qaeda and not allow Afghanistan to ever again be used to launch terrorist attacks on the United States.

The Taliban have not cut ties with Al-Qaeda, and they never will.  

Al Qaeda is well known for the 9-11 attacks on the United States; those attacks were planned and carried out while Osama bin Laden was resident in Afghanistan as a guest of the Taliban regime then controlling most of the country. The invasion of Afghanistan that began on October 7, 2001, was to remove the Taliban from power in retaliation for their collusion in the 9-11 atrocities.

The Haqqani network should be just as well-known as Al-Qaeda, as it is one of the most brutal terror gangs in the world. It’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is deputy leader of the Taliban and now Afghanistan’s interior minister.

The Trump deal was brokered by his “special envoy” Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan whose career is built on failure. He purports to know and understand the Taliban, and on behalf of the Trump administration set about bringing them in from the cold.

If he ever did understand the dynamics of the insurgency, he certainly didn’t let it hinder him. These groups have a symbiotic relationship that dates back decades; they are intermarried, intertwined and inextricable. As I have said repeatedly, for the Taliban to sever its links with Al Qaeda would be like removing the salt from the sea. It’s just not going to happen.

In 2020, I was commissioned by NATO to write a report on the Taliban’s funding sources; I submitted it on July 1. The report offers a detailed rundown of the Taliban’s position as the world’s smack kings, controlling almost 100 percent of the global heroin trade. They had by then also taken control of Afghanistan’s mining sector, working with other criminal networks to make almost half a billion dollars a year smuggling minerals and gems. I have since written about the Taliban’s new business venture in methamphetamine, which is cheaper and easier to produce than heroin, and so earns much bigger profits.

The NATO report also detailed the Taliban’s relationship with Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani, and warned of the consequences of acquiescing in Trump’s ill-advised venture to pull all U.S. military out of Afghanistan by a deadline of May 1, 2021. I am not aware of what internal distribution the report saw. I do know that it made its way to the U.S. intelligence community, and was circulated at the highest levels of the former Afghan government. It was leaked from sources unknown to some media organisations, including Radio Free Europe.

It contained a range of recommendations that included not taking the Taliban at their word, and to demand evidence that they had indeed cut ties with Al-Qaeda before proceeding with the drawdown. I saw plenty of concern expressed in the months after my report was submitted that the relationship remained as close as it had ever been. I did not see any action, by the United States or any NATO members, to ensure that the Taliban did separate from Al-Qaeda as a condition of the withdrawal of international forces. As it turned out, NATO forces were out long before the United States turned off the lights at Bagram Air Base and left in the middle of the night on the Fourth of July weekend.

The excuse that the allies cannot function without access to American air assets is pathetic, embarrassing, and makes me wonder what the German Luftwaffe or any of the European air forces are for. Are our taxes paying for multi-billion-euro air show ornamentation? For toys to be deployed only for the games we play with each other every couple of years? Are our defence mechanisms just for show? If NATO countries cannot provide air support to their own forces, why do they have air assets at all? To hear the bleating now that the international military should never have left Afghanistan is like rubbing salt into the wounds of the betrayed.

To see the way Afghanistan’s people are being treated in the European countries that have taken them in is to cringe at the appalling hypocrisy of the West. And that comes after the hopelessly botched and inadequate “evacuation “exercise in the aftermath of the collapse on August 15. The new class of Afghan refugee is a middle-class, educated professional who believed in and worked for democracy and the freedoms apparently guaranteed by the international community. Betrayed again, they are reduced to begging for protection from the very people who promised to be their protectors.

Afghanistan is an historic stain on Europe. It is the symbol of NATO’s failure. The fall of Afghanistan into the hands of the criminals and terrorists the country was “saved” from 20 years ago is a shame that Europe should never be permitted to forget. The people of Afghanistan will never forget. And the enemies of the West will never allow us to forget.

This article is an excerpt from the publication "Weltpolitikfähigkeit – What the Afghanistan Moment Means for Germany, the EU and NATO".

What the Afghanistan moment means for Germany, the EU and NATO

Weltpolitikfähigkeit Afghanistan

Twenty years have passed since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, one month since the last withdrawal of Western troops. The country has fallen back into the hands of those the country was "saved" from. On the twentieth anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan, Germany's, the EU's and NATO's Weltpolitikfähigkeit is put to the test.

Read more