Everything You Need to Know About What’s Happening in Afghanistan

Derek Davison

The rapid collapse of Afghanistan to Taliban rule has created a chaotic, complicated situation. But here’s the fundamental point: the US has nothing to show for two decades of bloodshed and occupation.

Taliban members are seen near Hamid Karzai International Airport as thousands of Afghans rush to flee the Afghan capital of Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 16, 2021. (Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Bessner

What’s going on in Afghanistan?

Mere weeks after the United States began pulling out troops, the Taliban took the capital of Kabul and proclaimed itself the new government. The US-backed president fled the country. Hand-wringing comparisons to the “fall of Saigon” in 1975 immediately circulated in elite circles.

To make sense of it all, Daniel Bessner and Derek Davison, cohosts of the new left-wing foreign policy podcast American Prestige, spoke over the weekend. The following is an edited and condensed version of their conversation; you can find the full episode here.

Daniel Bessner

Why has Afghanistan fallen?

Derek Davison

The short answer is that the Afghan army and Afghan government were a house of cards. We’ve known this. The special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction has been saying this over and over. Two years ago, the Washington Post published “The Afghanistan Papers,” this scandalous tranche of documents that basically said everything the United States has been saying about the capabilities of the Afghan military, and about how the war has been going, is a lie.

The upshot is that the Taliban, in a couple of weeks, has taken the entire country. The president of Afghanistan has fled the country, supposedly to avoid bloodshed (I’m sure it was to avoid his bloodshed, at least). Things are a bit in limbo because they haven’t installed their new government yet, but it’s probably going to look very similar to the last Taliban-led government. There’s a rumor that Maulavi Abdul Hakim, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, will be named president of this new government.

What’s really adding to the chaos here is the status of Western embassies. A lot of governments, including the United States, have evacuated their embassies and moved their personnel to Kabul airport, and supposedly they’re racing to get people out of the country. It’s unclear what the capacity is for that beyond getting US nationals out. It’s unclear what’s going to happen to the translators and the other Afghans who’ve worked with the US military and other US institutions. They should have been evacuated years ago, but we’re trying to race to get them out of the country now, after the country’s already fallen.

Daniel Bessner

I think our perspective is that the best foreign policy on Afghanistan is a domestic policy organized around accepting refugees. The US government could essentially allow anyone into the country at any time and could link it to a jobs program. But I think we’re unlikely to see that, except maybe in certain symbolic circumstances.

Before we continue, I want to emphasize the speed of the collapse. I think you’ll hear in the coming days and weeks a lot of comparisons to Vietnam. But the South Vietnamese government fell after about two years. The incredibly rapid collapse in Afghanistan just underlines the ridiculousness of the entire nation-building project that the United States claimed to have embarked upon after the invasion and occupation. The best one could hope for is that this is the final nail in the coffin of the entire nation-building idea.

Derek Davison

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on the Sunday morning shows and emphatically rejected comparing this situation to the fall of Saigon, which I would agree with, because this is even worse than the fall of Saigon. It is more self-inflicted. In December 2001, the Taliban offered to surrender Kandahar, the last city they held. All they asked for was that their leader at the time, Mullah Omar, be held in house arrest instead of being shipped off to Abu Ghraib or wherever. The Bush administration said, “No, we’re not interested,” and embarked on another nineteen and a half years of going backward.

There was no point like that in Vietnam, where the north Vietnamese offered to surrender, and the United States said no and extended the conflict. So, if anything, this is far worse and more embarrassing and humiliating than Vietnam.

Daniel Bessner

It seems the only people who “benefited” from the US invasion of Afghanistan have been private military contractors, heroin dealers, and people associated with various powerful factions of the US-backed Afghan government over the years. Is that correct? Has anything “good” come out of this?

Derek Davison

The private military contractors, certainly. The heroin trade has certainly benefited from the last twenty years.

Those warlords who were enriched by the United States and amassed a fortune have mostly all lost it now. There were videos this weekend of Taliban members rifling through the unspeakably decadent mansion of Abdul Rashid Dostum, the former vice president, who was also a militia leader and was mustering the defense of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, which fell on Saturday and was the first big domino to go this weekend. He had just a ridiculous opulent palace that he was living in, but he’s lost it now. He’s off in exile. (Dostum really should be on trial at the Hague — he’s a war criminal.)

Ashraf Ghani, though, will probably live very well in exile, having mismanaged Afghanistan to the point where the people he’s abandoned will suffer for it. He’ll probably be feted, he’ll go to all the cocktail parties and do the lecture circuit and get some sinecure somewhere, and he’ll do quite well. So he’s benefited, certainly.

But yeah, I struggle to think of anybody else beyond that.

Daniel Bessner

Has anything in particular characterized Taliban rule so far?

Derek Davison

The Taliban’s made a lot of promises that, “Hey, we’re not the old Taliban. We’re not going to rule the same way. We’re not going to suppress women. We’re not going to mistreat marginalized populations.” But they governed in a very repressive style [in the 1990s], and that’s likely what will happen again.

Now, there are some diplomatic considerations for the Taliban. They have to be careful about how they treat the Hazaras, the large Shia minority group, because they could wind up antagonizing Iran. They have some considerations that I don’t think necessarily entered into the equation in the 1990s. They may try to do things differently this time around. But that kind of thing is much too early to say.

Daniel Bessner

When one is thinking about an Islamic revolution, one thinks necessarily of Iran, and after the revolution, there was a large diaspora. Are we likely to see something similar in Afghanistan?

Derek Davison

To some degree, we’ve already seen it. There’s been a wave of refugees, mostly going through Iran and into Turkey. I think it will continue to happen.

And what will continue, likewise, will be the United States, the UK, the governments of the West that pretend to care so much about the Afghan people, holding these refugees at arm’s length and trying to force them into substandard living situations in places like Turkey or other countries in the region.

The Taliban now controls a lot of these borders, so it’s going to be more difficult for people to get out, but I think it will still happen.

Daniel Bessner

What do you think the United States will do in the coming days and weeks? And second, what should it do?

Derek Davison

What we’ll do is we will talk a lot about, “Oh, Afghan women, civil society, we hope the Taliban doesn’t do anything to harm these people. We call on the Taliban to honor the will of the Afghan people” — you know, the same sort of platitudes about democracy and freedom and justice. We’ll probably make some threats about possible sanctions and possibly try to organize an international boycott to not recognize this new government. But you’ve got at least two major regional powers, China and Russia, who want to have a relationship with this government, because otherwise there are security concerns for them. So I don’t know if that’s going to work.

What we should be doing is what you said earlier. We should be taking in refugees. That should be the entire focus of the US government. Everybody who’s worked in any capacity that puts them at a threat for violence — get them out of the country, get them into the United States, stop messing around with visa lingo and legalese.

We should be taking in refugees from all over the place, not just Afghanistan. We have the capacity for it, we just don’t want to. But certainly here, in a conflict, in a situation that we have caused, we should take responsibility for taking in people who are seeking asylum.

Daniel Bessner

Let’s end on this one. I saw someone posted on Twitter something about how the United States should abide by the “Pottery Barn rule” — if you broke it, you buy it — which has been used to justify the United States staying in Afghanistan forever. What do you think of that argument?

Derek Davison

I don’t think it applies to a situation where we never stopped breaking the thing. I mean, we went in and broke Afghanistan, and then we’ve been there for twenty years breaking it a little more, every single day, every single year. There’s no point at which we allow these countries to actually come back together. We just simply sit there and prevent them from being repaired. And that’s really what is happening here.

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Derek Davison is a writer and analyst specializing in the Middle East and American foreign policy.

Daniel Bessner is the Joff Hanauer Honors Associate Professor in Western Civilization in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is also a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a contributing editor at Jacobin.

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