Broken Promises in Afghanistan

Calgary Herald

August 24, 2021

Lauryn Oates, Executive Director

Wars entail layers and degree of blame. But once one sorts out the facts from the propaganda, the truth from the political fabrications, and sees through the fog of war, it is usually a morally necessary undertaking to establish ownership of fault.

Let’s be clear: the Taliban seized power through force, violently overthrew a democratically elected if flawed government and imposed a fascist theocracy over an unwilling population. They have systematically murdered civilians, sexually enslaved women and girls, and committed unspeakable atrocities. They are terrorists. The primary responsibility for the current humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan belongs squarely with the Taliban.

But in the next layer down from the Taliban, the blame lies with the United States. One could go as far back as the U.S. covertly arming the mujahideen to fight the Soviets, funnelling money and weapons via Pakistan’s intelligence services who opted to favour the most extremist factions. Those mujahideen groups would later turn on each other, initiating a brutal and destructive civil war, into which the Taliban swept, vowing to restore order with a ruthlessness the likes of which Afghans had never seen and would suffer greatly for.

But one could merely start as recently as February 2020 when the Trump Administration signed a bilateral peace agreement with the Taliban, the same group it had, rightfully, labelled a terrorist organization. This agreement legitimized and emboldened the Taliban.

This, however, didn’t need to be the thread that would ultimately unravel Afghanistan. The Taliban quickly violated the agreement when they failed to renounce terrorism or abide by a ceasefire. The Taliban did what they have always done: they killed their way through Afghanistan. But rather than back out of the process, the U.S. kept its end of the deal and stuck to the withdrawal plan. When Joe Biden was elected, there was yet another opportunity to course correct and do right by Afghans. Instead, after heavily hinting he would back out of the Taliban deal, Biden not only stuck to it, but in a truly baffling move, he actually withdrew troops earlier than scheduled.

This was the undoing of Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy and two decades of U.S. investments in its army. Afghan National Security Forces were suddenly left without air support, with the closure of the Bagram Air Base, when U.S. Forces literally fled in the night. The Afghan Government had thought it had until September; instead, the U.S. was all but gone by May.

Even at this stage, there was still time to take Afghanistan off its collision course. Rural districts began to fall to the Taliban. Still, the Biden administration stuck to its early withdrawal plan. Then provincial capitals started falling. Then major cities fell: Herat, Mazar-i-sharif, Kandahar. But Kabul still stood. This all happened over the course of weeks. The United States stood by.

And so did its allies, Canada included. The United Kingdom’s defence minister reportedly tried to rally the international community to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal, but “most in that community weren’t particularly interested.”

We all digested the news as city after city fell. We all began to hear of the edicts demanding that families hand over girls aged 15 and over and widows up to the age of 45, of the girls’ schools, libraries and homes burned down, of the women forbidden from leaving home, from workingenforced dress codes, the beatings, the floggings, the looting, the extrajudicial executions, the massacres of ethnic minorities.

And our governments watched too, immobile. Kabul fell, and it was over. Afghanistan had been handed over to the terrorists; the insurgents who had committed these terrible atrocities were now the government, Afghans at their mercy.

So now all that is left is an evacuation mission. Some tiny fraction of the people at risk will get out. Let us not fail in this, too.

Because while the line of accountability for the disaster in Afghanistan leads directly to the Taliban, that line sits within a wider web of complicity that includes the Americans and all their allies, Canada included. Promises were made to Afghans: speak freely, send your girls to school, elect your government. Now the people who took us up on those promises fear for their lives. They sit and wait for the unlikely news of a way out. Let us hope they receive that news, before other news — the knock on the door they all dread.

Lauryn Oates is the executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.