Note: Hopefully a version of this piece will be making its way on to The Oxford Blue website in the next few days. For readers of the blog, this is an early preview.
Last month, the Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School in west Kabul was attacked. 85 people, most of them female students between the ages of 12 and 20, were killed when a suicide-bomber and two improvised explosive devices detonated outside the school gates.
It was planned meticulously. The bomber had approached the school in a Toyota sedan, and timed his explosion to coincide with the end of Saturday afternoon classes. Ul-Shuhuda teaches boys and girls in separate sessions, and he hoped to catch the girls as they left for home.
Sayed Ahmad Hussaini, who had arrived to pick up his two daughters, spotted a man parked in a car near the school. He seemed to be shaking from nervousness, and when Hussaini asked what he was doing, he replied: ‘None of your business’. The car exploded a few moments later. The two IEDs, set off at staggered intervals, were designed to finish the wounded and kill any first-responders brave enough to run towards the carnage.
Until the bombs went off, it had been a pleasant spring afternoon. The photos of the wreckage are filled with a soft evening light. Just outside the school lies what’s left of the bomber’s sedan. It’s a heap of blackened axle and sticky, melted upholstery. Twisted and charred, it looks more like a squashed insect than a car. The sturdy school gates, painted white, have been buckled inwards by the force of the blast. The arch over the gates has been blown clean away.
There are piles of exercise books by the side of the road. They will never be written in again. Some of them have their pages splayed open. Handwriting is visible, perhaps a few ticks from a teacher. Everything is covered in brown grime. Some of the books have ragged punctures in their covers and pages – shrapnel tears. There are also piles of clothes – a pair of pink slip-on shoes has been stained black with dried blood. In one picture, a boy in a grey Nike t-shirt and blue jeans clutches his sister’s backpack with both hands. He looks lost and afraid.
The next day, uncles, brothers and fathers gathered on the hills overlooking Kabul to bury their nieces, sisters and daughters. Not all of the dead had been accounted for. The blast was so powerful that little remained of the people closest to it. ‘Some of them could not be found’, said an Afghan official.
The men dug graves with pickaxes, scooping out the soft brown earth. In full sun, high above the city, it was difficult work. Finally, they offered prayers, and lowered bundles wrapped in colourful blankets into the ground. One uncle described his niece for journalists:
‘She was 15…she was very intelligent and didn’t miss a single day of school. Yesterday her mother told her not to go to school but she said “No, I will go today”…She told the truth, and we buried her here today.’
The attack on Ul-Shuhuda, carried out on the 8th of May, deliberately targeted the Hazara ethnic minority who inhabit the Dasht-e-Barchi district of western Kabul. The Hazara are Shia Muslims, and in the eyes of the Sunni extremists who constitute the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other terrorist networks, they are infidels. So there was a double motivation for the atrocity: not only were the girls killed for daring to aspire to an education, they were killed for being the wrong sort of Muslim.
The high school in Kabul was targeted almost exactly a year after a maternity ward run by Médecins Sans Frontières was attacked in the same neighbourhood. 24 women and babies were murdered, including three mothers in the delivery room. Their unborn children could not be saved. If anything provides an insight into the mind of the terrorist, surely it is this. Their cult of death is so complete that they will deliberately target new life.
In the summer of 2012, a group of men gathered for a meeting in the hills of north-east Afghanistan. They were senior members of the local Taliban leadership, and their topic was the activism of a 15 year old schoolgirl.
The girl had been fronting a high-profile campaign in favour of women’s education in her hometown of Mingora, in the Swat valley of northern Pakistan. After the Taliban seized control of the valley in 2009, she had begun writing a blog for BBC Urdu, documenting life under the militants. In May, the Pakistani military launched an offensive, and succeeded in driving the Taliban across the border to Afghanistan. But an underground insurgency remained active.
By 2012, the girl was making regular press appearances, including on international networks, and her campaign for girl’s education rights was gaining momentum. She had continued her activism despite a stream of death threats from local terrorists. They dumped corpses near her family home, but she was not cowed.
So the local Taliban council had assembled to decide on a course of action. She could not be allowed to continue undermining their ideology – extremist Sunni Wahhabism cannot abide the education of women. The vote was unanimous: for the good of their movement, she would have to die.
The commander, Maulana Fazlullah, gave his orders. A two man hit-squad would intercept the girl on her way home from school. A bullet to the head would finish the job.
Of course, you know the rest. Malala Yousafzai didn’t die on the 9th of October 2012. She survived, and has become one of the world’s foremost women’s rights campaigners.
But take note of what the Pakistani Taliban said about her in the aftermath of their failed assassination: She ‘is a symbol of the infidels and obscenity’, proclaimed their spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan. Obscenity. The Taliban believe that a woman who desires an education is obscene.
Five years earlier, the Taliban had succeeded in killing another prominent Pakistani woman: Benazir Bhutto. The former Pakistani President – the first woman to hold the post – is, like Malala, an alumnus of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. On the 27th of December 2007, she was out campaigning in the city of Rawalpindi, in anticipation of the upcoming general elections.
Just after giving a speech, her SUV was sprayed with machine-gun fire before a suicide bomber detonated himself next to the vehicle. In addition to Bhutto, 22 people were killed. This successful assassination came after a failed attempt on Bhutto’s life just two months before. A suicide bomber attacked her motorcade in Karachi. 180 people had died, and over 500 were injured.
The United States has decided that its war – and the war of its allies – is over in Afghanistan. Trump, and now Biden, have all but admitted defeat. The Doha Peace Agreement, signed at the end of February 2020, states that ‘The United States and the (…) Taliban seek positive relations with each other’. Far from being party to a balanced settlement, the Taliban know that they have achieved total victory – the US is leaving. In response to the Doha deal, the Taliban’s multimedia chief declared ‘the imminent defeat of the arrogance of the White House in the face of the white turban’.
A commitment to abandoning Afghanistan appears to be an area of rare bi-partisan agreement in the US. The Doha deal was negotiated by Trump’s administration, and Biden has simply trailed in his predecessor’s wake. His only change has been to announce that the last US troops will leave the country on September 11th; a tasteless attempt to derive some pleasing circularity from a humiliating withdrawal.
It has been clear for months that the peace agreement – upon which the US has justified its exit – is worthless. Even before Biden took office, military experts were warning that the Taliban would not abide by their commitment to reduce violence, or to cut ties with al-Qaeda. Back in November, I reported the comments of former US National Security Advisor H.R McMaster, who called the deal ‘disastrous’. The agreement was negotiated without the elected Afghan government at the table. Given that the Afghan National Army (ANA) has done the vast majority of the fighting and dying for the coalition forces in the war, this was a betrayal. McMaster said as much: ‘We have sided with the Taliban against the Afghan government’ was his assessment.
Escalating violence in the country as the US draws down its troop presence has proved McMaster right. In May, at least 247 pro-government personnel and 170 Afghan civilians were killed. When Biden announced that US troops would be leaving the country before the end of the year the response from military commanders was distinctly uneasy. They know that the ANA is not yet capable of holding back the Taliban without US support. General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the UK defence staff, expressed himself as strongly as he dared by remarking that the commitment to withdraw was ‘not a decision we hoped for’. The Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib has made it clear that his country needs more time to develop its defences, particularly its air force. Even Hilary Clinton has warned of ‘huge consequences’. It is an open secret that the Afghans will not be able to successfully resist the Taliban without US support, and this underscores how negligent the withdrawal really is.
The Doha agreement contained no guarantees of protection for the Afghan people, it only specified that the Taliban will not use the territory they control to launch attacks on US service-personnel or civilians. It is a monument to selfish, short-sighted foreign policy.
28,000 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed in battle with Islamist extremists since 2015. Tens of thousands more have suffered terrible wounds. This year has brought a significant escalation in the violence, as the Taliban seeks to expand the 20% of Afghan territory it already controls. Each month, the ANA loses between 200 and 300 soldiers. Combat losses are incurred every day.
Since 2014, the Afghan army has taken the lead in fighting the Taliban, and the US, UK and other coalition forces have assumed a training and advisory role. As a consequence, US and British casualties have fallen dramatically. British troops ceased combat operations in 2014 and have not lost any personnel in Afghanistan since 2015. In 2020, more US troops died in training accidents in the US than in Afghanistan. For years now, it has been the Afghans who are shedding their blood in defence of their country.
Just 9,600 coalition troops remain. They perform a crucial support role for the Afghan government, and most importantly, they signal to the Taliban that the West is committed to ensuring that their brand of theocratic savagery does not take power again. The low level of coalition casualties only underlines the fact that Biden’s withdrawal is a political rather than a practical measure. The US is not leaving because the Taliban are inflicting terrible damage on its forces. It is leaving because Trump and Biden both judged it would be politically advantageous to be the President who ended ‘America’s longest war’.
And what coalition achievements will be thrown away when the US pulls out? Well, democracy for starters. Presidential and parliamentary elections have been held regularly since 2004, in accordance with the Afghan constitution (another achievement of the intervention). The Taliban view democracy as un-Islamic. Should they topple the Afghan government, the Afghan people will lose any influence they have over how their country is run. In addition, the number of children in primary education has risen radically as a consequence of the intervention – from 1.2 million to 9.2 million by some estimates – and those who’ve benefited most have been girls. This has only been made possible by the defeat of the Taliban in most of the country. In achieving this, Afghanistan ceased to be a terrorist safe-zone, an extremist paradise where atrocities could be planned unmolested.
Unsurprisingly, as the coalition troop drawdown has accelerated, the terrorists have regained momentum. Some analysts judge that they are now at their greatest strength since the 2001 invasion. Withdrawing completely means accepting a high risk that the achievements of the intervention come to nothing.
It’s not just the US and Britain who have capitulated in Afghanistan, but the entire NATO alliance. The military bloc accounts for 57% of global military expenditure. It is equipped with the most advanced warfighting technology available. All backed by some of the world’s most capable intelligence agencies. And it has been defeated by tribesmen equipped with AK-47s, improvised explosive devices, and suicidal fanaticism.
But what distinguishes the NATO alliance and its terrorist adversaries cannot be measured in military spending. It comes down to patience. At present, the Taliban are simply more committed to their cause, and they are willing to fight for as long as it takes to win. They have learnt that Western states are led by politicians with short-term re-election agendas and populations with even shorter attention spans. Countries like the US and UK find it impossible to maintain focus on a single issue amongst the turmoil of domestic politics.
America should have learnt this lesson in Vietnam. In 1966, the North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong laid bare the difference between the American and Vietnamese will to fight. In an interview with New York Times journalist Harrison Salisbury in Hanoi, he remarked:
“How long do you American’s want to fight, Mr Salisbury? One year? Two years? Three years? Five years? Ten years? We shall be glad to accommodate you.”
The comment is chilling in its prescience. America had ceased to fight in Vietnam by 1973, and in 1975, the South fell to the communists.
The Taliban share Van Dong’s attitude. They know that if they remain in the fight, eventually their Western foe will give up and go home. If the US and its allies wish to defeat organisations like the Taliban, then they must be able to shift their strategic thinking from short to long-term as well.
Nation building, the task that the NATO forces in Afghanistan have been engaged in since the invasion of 2001, is far more difficult than winning an open war. But for there to be any chance of Afghanistan emerging as a stable country, then the insurgency which kills civilians and soldiers on a daily basis has to be suppressed. Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, has rightly pointed out that with casualty figures amongst Western nations so low, there’s no good reason to not maintain a military presence in the country. And crucially, making sure that the Afghan government are able to call upon overwhelming US air power delivers them a decisive battlefield advantage.
Biden appears to believe that Afghanistan’s status as ‘America’s longest war’ is reason enough to end it. It is no reason at all. It is an approach which refuses to pay attention to the deteriorating situation on the ground. If America fails to realise that patience is what they lack against groups like the Taliban, then it will always lose eventually. Short-termism threatens not just the Afghans, but the citizens of Europe and America as well. As General McMaster has made clear, if they are left unsuppressed, ‘threats from transnational terrorists do not remain in particular regions’. The Taliban and al-Qaeda see themselves as locked in perpetual conflict with the infidel. We should not be surprised if they seek to visit their violence on the West once again.
What is it that the Taliban want? And what will an Afghanistan returned to their control look like? The first question has a very simple answer. They want the country to be governed by an extremist interpretation of Sharia – Islamic law. The Taliban have no sympathy for ANA personnel they kill – even though they are fellow Muslims – because they believe the Afghan army is defending a regime that is insufficiently devout.
If they topple the government in Kabul, then they will have control over the lives of 30 million people. We should expect them to re-establish the Amar Bil Maroof Wa Nahi An al-Munkar, or ‘Department of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’: the Religious Police. In the late ‘90s, this organisation gained notoriety for enforcing its dictates on women’s dress with street beatings. Although according to the Taliban decrees issued after the fall of Kabul in 1996, ideally women should not leave the home at all.
Afghanistan under the Taliban is a place where pleasure and female education are criminalised; where kite-flying and music are banned, and where you can be slammed in jail for sporting too short a beard. And it is also a world of arbitrary execution, and of the all-pervasive fear that it creates.
For ethnic minorities like the Hazara – the community targeted in the school-bombing – Taliban control means the threat of genocide. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the community suffered pogroms and massacres at the hands of Taliban militants.
Victory for the terrorists would doom the country to more years stuck with a medieval rural economy and some of the lowest levels of development in the world. Afghanistan has a shocking infant mortality rate of 107 deaths/1,000 live births, but one can’t see the Taliban doing much to fix that.
But most of all, the fall of the Kabul government and the installation of a Taliban regime would be a victory for vicious theocracy over reason. Taliban-run Afghanistan is a world where the security forces don’t try to bring psychopathic murderers to justice, instead they recruit them to their cause. It means that tens of millions would be subject to the whims of men who believe that blowing yourself up in a crowd of schoolgirls is not an atrocity, or a war-crime, but instead an act of worship. These men do not believe that killing innocents is blasphemous, they believe it glorifies their god.
Often, when people use the word evil, it can seem naïve or hyperbolic. It has its place though. Surely men like this are worthy of the adjective.
In summer 2005, the author Christopher Hitchens addressed a crowd in a Washington bookstore. It was just after the 7/7 bombings in London, and he was asked a question about what he made of the atrocity. He finished his answer like this:
“They will rue the day, we will out-live, and out-kill and out-fight them. They say they prefer death to life. Maybe they do. If they want to be martyrs we’re here to help. Really, here to help. But our love for London will outlive their hatred and their love for death.” (Timestamp: 44:00)
But their love for death has won.
America’s leaders have lost their nerve, amid a nauseous cocktail of apathy and defeatism. Many in the West – a majority even – no longer have any time or attention for the murder of children in Afghanistan. There are marches and protests for the tragic deaths of Palestinian children killed in Israeli airstrikes targeting terrorist rocket sites, but when scores of schoolgirls are deliberately massacred: nothing. There will be no social media posts, or petitions, no outraged television interviews or even calls of sympathy.
The political class across most of the West has decided that distant Afghanistan is simply too difficult a problem to solve. If the Taliban do take the country, it will also be a victory for selfish cynicism. The kind that sees the plight of the Afghans and assumes that stepping in would just be too much bother – too much hassle. ‘Anyway, the Taliban are too fanatical’, say some, ‘they’re just too committed’, ‘how can we hope to beat them?’
What does Biden think the most powerful military in the world should be used for? Does he not regard combatting international terrorism and protecting the lives of innocent civilians to be worthwhile? What more pressing priority would he offer?
Leaving Afghanistan means acquiescing to the Taliban, and all they represent. The Afghan people know it. The Taliban know it too. I’m sure Biden’s White House knows it as well. But they are pretending they do not.
The BBC has done an interview with the families of one of the victims of the Kabul high school bombing earlier this month. The murdered girl was called Basgul, and she was 14 years old. In the video, her older sister – who only narrowly survived – reads some of her Basgul’s poetry. Her mother, Kubra, told the camera that Basgul – like so many children in the UK – had been bitterly disappointed at not being able to attend school during the height of the Covid pandemic. “She was so sad” her mother said, but she started “studying even harder, she was so passionate”.
The mother of a 16 year old killed in the same attack said that “You need to be brave to send them to school”, but if they do not go, “they will remain without a future”. If the Taliban gain control, Hazaras like her daughter will have no chance at any future.
The international response to the ruthless persistence of Afghanistan’s extremists has been to walk away. To leave the country and the people to whatever fate awaits them. A future of unbridled savagery, administered by men who see the deaths of children as noble blows struck against the infidel. A future of death squads, torturers and rapists for hire.
We will watch Afghanistan become that place. And the politicians will say that they did all they could. That the international community tried its best. But they will be lying. The Afghans, in all their suffering, will know the truth.