On the 20th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, while the names of the dead were being read aloud one by one in a somber New York ceremony of remembrance, the terrorists, child abusers and drug dealers responsible for the atrocity celebrated their victorious return to power in Afghanistan.
It was no coincidence that September 11 was the date the Taliban originally picked to inaugurate their new government in Kabul — but wiser heads in China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan prevailed; even for America’s worst enemies, such blatant contempt was a step too far.
Instead, the Taliban held a flag-raising ceremony inside the tessellated walls and manicured grounds of the presidential palace, “officially” replacing the Islamic Republic’s black, red and green flag with the white banner of their Islamic Emirate. And the new regime’s armed enforcers continued as they began a few weeks before, hunting down opponents to torture and kill.
The Taliban are a criminal cartel who produce and traffic most of the world’s heroin. They beat women, torture journalists, and murder at will, all in the name of God. They kidnap children and then brainwash them in religious schools that churn out platoons of suicide bombing foot soldiers for their brutal jihadist crusade.
All this they do now with impunity, pumped up with what a friend in Kabul calls “victory madness,” after vanquishing the United States and its “puppet” government in one of the greatest humiliations of modern history.
I have just spent three months in Afghanistan, reporting on the end of the war, just as I reported on its beginning two decades ago. I have spent years on the ground in this war-torn country, witnessing and reporting on that historic arc of hope and despair, of violence and courage, of corruption, lies and hubris, covering all sides of America’s longest war.
I watched as America bombed the Taliban into submission, securing “victory” for the West on October 7, 2001 — and I found myself aboard the last commercial flight out of Kabul on August 15 this year, aghast as the same band of unreformed Taliban thugs swarmed in to retake the capital city.
In the intervening years, I strove to tell the story of this war. I saw men, women and children shot, blown up, maimed, cut down as they ran from American bombs, or were beaten to death by their fellow Afghans, their bodies thrown away like so much garbage. I saw corruption on a breath-taking scale, and poverty that made me cry – and I reported on it all. I was regularly threatened and am now designated a “high value target” for revealing the Taliban’s sex slavery practices. I was even chased by Taliban gunfire across wheat fields lit only by stars. I have lost friends and colleagues to guns and suicide bombers.
For 20 years, I chronicled how this war was being fought. Now I can tell you how it was lost.
Squandered Lives, Treasure and Trust
After two decades, billions of American dollars and over 100,000 American and Afghan lives, Afghanistan is now a symbol of surrender, retreat, and failure.
The balance of global power has shifted — away from the West and towards dictatorship — and there is nothing the United States can do to regain its moral authority. The trust of the world is lost, for generations to come. And the people of Afghanistan, left standing in shock, grief, anger, and disbelief at their betrayal, are now the living symbols of America’s shame.
After two decades of promising the people of Afghanistan that they would never be abandoned, the United States and its 29 NATO allies have done just that: turned their backs on the people who believed them. Afghanistan’s 35 million people — most under the age of 35 and heavily invested in America’s promise of democratic rights and freedom — have just been betrayed by their “best friends.” Many are now living in fear and horror, which is all the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies and Pakistani secret service sponsors have to offer.
Every day, I am bombarded with desperate calls from people trapped inside Afghanistan. They are living in fear for their lives, pleading for my help to get out of the prison their country has become. Every day, I am sent photographs and videos of the senseless and barbaric cruelty of the Taliban — and of the bravery of ordinary Afghans, most notably women, who dare to stand up to these violent new rulers only to be beaten, detained, tortured and killed. Every day, terrified friends whisper the latest atrocities over the phone as they wait for the knock on the door that tells them their turn has come.
The West’s Self-Delusion
The West was shocked by what happened in Afghanistan this summer because the Taliban and their fellow travellers in academia, media, diplomacy, politics and aid have been gaslighting the world. The reality of the Taliban is being wilfully ignored. Experts are shouted down on live television if they address the Taliban’s embrace of terror and crime, or their close association with al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network (terrorist groups that they swore to former President Donald Trump they would cut ties with, and then never did).
Gone from the public discourse is the fact that they are the biggest drugs-producing, trafficking and processing gang in the world. That theirs has been a war for money, power and resources, cloaked in religion and anti-American rhetoric, waged by impoverished and ignorant foot soldiers. That for 20 years and more they have been funded and armed by Pakistan as it sought to build a bulwark against Indian influence in South Asia. That their new best friends are China and Russia. That by leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban, the United States and NATO have created a much more dangerous world, especially for the West.
It’s what HR McMaster, the retired three-star U.S. Army General who was one of Trump’s national security advisers, calls the slick new Taliban public relations machine combined with the West’s “amnesia and self-delusion”. McMaster accurately pinned the Taliban as hypocrites who preach piety but are “sadistic pedophiles … sexual abusers and pimps” who kidnap boys to be indoctrinated into suicide bombers in Pakistani religious schools. Up to a million boys are being brainwashed in these madrassas at any one time, a zombie army I watched these past few months, crossing the border from Pakistan in droves to fight and die for the Taliban.
“The boys, having been subjected to the most extreme forms of abuse during their childhoods, are taught to consider their own lives worthless. For them, abuse and horror in life confirm that death is a blessing — and a suicide bombing that kills their enemies the best possible way to die. They recognize that they are merely ammunition to be expended or ‘tools to achieve God’s will’, as one Taliban commander put it,” McMaster writes. “The cost of helping the Taliban will include the abuse and brainwashing of millions of boys, the elimination of education for girls and the consignment of future generations of Afghans to the Dark Ages.”
My Return to Kabul
I returned to Kabul in May this year after four years in London, where I now live after reluctantly leaving the role of Afghanistan bureau chief for the Associated Press in 2017. As soon as I landed in Kabul, old friends and colleagues stepped forward to reunite, a testament to the true and enduring nature of Afghan friendship. Chief among these former colleagues and friends is Massoud Hossaini, Afghanistan’s Pulitzer prize-winning photographer. We have worked together for more than 10 years, and trust each other implicitly. We immediately agreed to “get the band back together” and cover the end of this war, America’s longest.
Massoud was there in early 2016, when I’d received death threats in apparent retaliation for a story I’d written about a mobile radio station broadcasting into Nangarhar from Pakistan. A text signed by IS-K, the local franchise of the Islamic State group, read: “Warnin! (sic) Because of your article our Radio Station was bombed. Wait for revenge soon. IS KHORASAN.”
I knew the broadcasting truck had been hit by a U.S. drone strike a few days after my story was published, killing at least five people. I also knew that ISIS don’t waste time sending death threats; they just kill.
As bureau chief for The AP, I was pretty high profile, and investigations by both Afghan and US police and intelligence agencies immediately got underway. Very soon, it was concluded — as I’d expected — that the threats had come from inside my own bureau. Any large group will include extremists, and there were a couple of men among the 40 or so who worked for me who didn’t like having a foreign woman as their “Boss.”
Despite episodes like this, I’d truly enjoyed the years I’d served as bureau chief in Kabul, from 2009-2017 — and I was glad to get back to Afghanistan this summer. My return to cover the Taliban’s advance couldn’t have been better timed. Massoud and I traveled across the country, visiting front lines and areas the Taliban had overrun and then lost. We went places no other reporters were going, covered stories no other reporters were covering. We had access, knowledge, and contacts, and were unrestricted by the “security” rules that news organizations rely on. Now, we could cover what we believed were the important stories.
“What would happen after the guns went silent?”
Before Massoud and I hit the road, I spent a few weeks in Kabul meeting with as many people as would have me. I was astonished by my welcome. I’d tweeted a photo of the “Welcome to Kabul” sign at the airport when I arrived, and immediately people began getting in touch. Officials in the Republic’s government sent me armoured cars with armed guards to bring me to tea and lunch, organized big formal dinners for me, and dropped by my place for long, frank discussions about the war and the peace talks that had been grinding on since September 2020. The then-insurgents were stalling negotiations while they rolled out their battlefield strategy, using the threat of escalated violence to extract concessions.
Most worrying about all of these meetings — and a two-hour interview with the Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid — was that no one seemed to have a plan. Not one person in government or the armed opposition with whom I met — ministers, deputy ministers, senior advisers, spokesmen, former officials, political activists, rights advocates, as well as the Taliban’s representative — could answer my question: “What’s the plan?”
Truth is, there was no plan. No one had any idea what was going to happen in the next round of peace talks, or on the battlefield, even as the Taliban began gaining ground at an alarming rate. Nor could anyone comment on the likelihood of a ceasefire — which the Republic had been calling for and the Taliban had made conditional on President Ashraf Ghani leaving office. What would happen after the guns fell silent? What would a government that included the Taliban look like? I don’t believe they were holding their cards close. They mostly stayed off the record — except for the Taliban spokesman — and talked openly. They simply had no clue. So why were they so intent on talking to me? I can only conclude they had nothing better to do. Their phones didn’t ring, or were on silent and went unanswered. I suspected I was the entertainment, a diversion from doing nothing, someone who would listen. I found it very disturbing.
Even more disturbing was the phenomenal extent of corruption. Brazen, blatant, profound, unimaginable in its scale, and, I believe, one of the main causes of the government’s collapse. Ghani, installed as president after not one but two flawed elections that he probably didn’t rightfully win, enabled a culture of graft in the yes-men around him that meant his administration was incapable of performing the most basic obligation of government: keeping the people of his country safe.
Ghani was self-obsessed, arrogant and stupid. “He was isolated and paranoid, and it was this paranoia that led to the collapse of the country,” said a friend who worked with him. Ghani believed he was the smartest person in every room he walked into, and he refused to listen to experts on everything from fighting the war to Covid-19. He fired those who dared question him; turnover at every level of government — cabinet ministers, district police chiefs, and every post in between — was astonishing. Consequently, there was no consistency in policy and no strategy. He burned through officials with any ability and was left with people who were corrupt, inept or both.
Instead of dealing with endemic poverty and persistent hunger — the United Nations says that one million Afghan children are currently in danger of starving to death — Ghani enabled corruption on a grand scale, either by benign neglect, via specific policies that allowed his cohort to skim vast amounts of money from procurement budgets, or by active involvement in embezzlement and money laundering schemes. Investigations now underway may determine where all those billions went; as I learned, the money certainly did not go to support the military, despite U.S. taxpayers having spent more than $80 billion intended for developing, training, equipping and maintaining Afghan troops.
Congress had actually created a Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction to follow the $145 billion allocated since 2002 “to build the Afghan National Security Forces, promote good governance, conduct development assistance, and engage in counter-narcotics and anti-corruption efforts.” In that time, SIGAR warned repeatedly that too little was being done to combat corruption, which it described as an “existential threat” to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. And so it turned out to be.
The Last Stand
In July, I went to Bamiyan province in the central highlands. My plan had been to ride through the mountain passes to meet with a rebel militia leader called Ali Pour. He’d denied shooting down an Afghan National Army helicopter a couple of months earlier, but after some investigation, I decided that he probably had. And so, along with Massoud, I went looking for other stories.
What we found and reported shook the Taliban to its core, unleashing a vitriolic campaign aimed at undermining me as a professional journalist. The story I wrote, accompanied by Massoud’s photographs, drilled down to the very basis of who the Taliban are. What we are seeing in Afghanistan today is the truth of that reporting.
Bamiyan is the center of a region called Hazarajat, populated mostly by people of the Hazara minority, who are Shiite (most Afghans, including the Taliban, are Sunni). Hazaras have been demonised and discriminated against for more than a century — especially in recent years by the Taliban and others, like IS-K and the Haqqani network. Their lands have been stolen, the women kidnapped, the men enslaved, and they have been slaughtered in huge numbers. A wizened man wearing rags and plastic sandals picking through garbage on the side of a Kabul street, a common sight, is more likely than not to be a Hazara. It is the cruel pecking order of Afghan society.
In Bamiyan province, however, Hazaras have created a haven. They’ve even developed a tourism sector that attracts people from all over the world to an annual skiing competition, for instance, and a gorgeous national park with turquoise lakes called Band-i-Amir. It is where the exquisite giant Buddha statues once stood, until the Taliban destroyed them in early 2001 by order of al-Qaeda.
By June, Hazarajat had been surrounded by Taliban forces. The former head of the Afghan government secret service, Rahmatullah Nabil, and I had a long conversation about the Taliban’s strategy, which was starting to become clear as it picked up speed. First, they took border crossings, cutting off trade and revenues. Then they took districts — administrative regions like counties — surrounding provincial capitals. In this way, first the landlocked country and then major cities were besieged. The Population panicked. Soldiers and police were overwhelmed, sometimes slaughtered; more and more they surrendered, sometimes without firing a shot. As the U.S. military drawdown mandated in Trump’s deal with the Taliban accelerated, the air support that fighters on the ground depended on (their only real edge over the insurgency) faltered, as Americans doing the maintenance on jet bombers and helicopters left the country.
Hazarajat had been left to last, Nabil told me. When I landed in Bamiyan’s provincial capital, also called Bamiyan, in mid-July, the city was almost empty. More than 25,000 families, I was told, had left — terrified the Taliban were coming and would kill them, as they had done to Hazaras in the past.
Bamiyan wasn’t yet lost, however; Hazaras had formed militias to fight alongside the police to push the Taliban back. But what I saw and heard from the police on the frontline in Du Ab district confirmed the extent of the corruption that was crippling the country’s fighting forces and which led to the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. The young men there had repelled a Taliban onslaught, with the loss of one man, after retreating under orders for a few days while the militants overran and ransacked their base. When I met them, they told me they hadn’t eaten meat or eggs for a month. They ate three-day-old bread brought to them in a sack from the nearest town. For dinner there was only boiled rice.
All the members of this unit wore different uniforms; when I asked why, they said that, like all police in Afghanistan, they had to buy their own uniforms. This dog’s dinner of fatigue patterns was what they found at the local bazaars. One of them slapped his 10-year-old Kalashnikov rifle; another showed me a helmet with the holes of a bullet that had gone in one place and out another. “The Taliban have M4s,” he said, the very M4s that the United States had supplied to Afghanistan’s police and army. Many of the firearms and other military supplies were stolen and sold on the black market, much of it ending up in the Taliban’s arsenal.
When the police in Du Ab were paid, irregularly, they didn’t receive their full salary, they said; it was pilfered before it reached their bank accounts, despite high-tech systems designed to prevent fraud. By the time the Taliban entered Kabul victorious, the police nationwide, of all ranks, hadn’t been paid at all for three months.
“We Fight for Ourselves”
When I asked the frontline fighters in Du Ab if they fought for the government of Ashraf Ghani, the answer was comically immediate: No. We fight for ourselves, for our families, for our property, to keep the Taliban out of Bamiyan. The answer to that question was the same everywhere I went. The choice between the government propped up by the West for 20 years and the Taliban was between “bad and worse,” as more than one person put it. A friend whose foundation was doing nationwide polling said that nowhere in the country did Afghans of any age approve of the government. But even more, he said, no one wanted the Taliban back in power.
The reasons for the hatred of the Taliban were not just rooted in the collective memory of their brutal, autarkic 1996-2001 regime. Reports had been filtering out from districts they had rolled over of how they treated the residents, especially women. Anecdotal stories were emerging of girls’ schools closed, women forced to stop working and remain indoors, only allowed out with a male relative and then only fully covered. Most terrifying, the Taliban were said to be kidnapping girls and women to “marry” to their fighters. None of these reports had been definitively confirmed — until I went to Saighan district, in a remote valley in Bamiyan.
Residents in Saighan, as well as the provincial governor, Tahir Zohair, and senior security officials, told me that the Taliban fighters who took control in mid-July had demanded the names of all the local girls and women, including the wives and widows of men in the armed forces. The orders were issued from the mosques, they said. They wanted the names so they could track down the girls and women, and then give them as prizes to the young men who had rampaged across the country with them. The girls and women of Saighan were the booty, the reward for winning the war, the sex slaves of success.
This barbarous practice is part of the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islam, an academic at the American University of Afghanistan, Omar Sadr, told me. According to their sick doctrine, to the victor belong the spoils, and that includes the women. It is ideologically sanctioned kidnapping and rape. It is also ethnic cleansing — Pashtun Taliban taking women of non-Pashtun ethnicity. It is the very essence of the Taliban’s jihadist evil.
I Knew It Was Over
In August, I went to Herat, the wealthy, cultured province bordering Iran. When Massoud and I landed at the airport, the road into the capital (also called Herat) was closed, occupied by the Taliban. We waited five hours and then hitched a ride with a driver who had just dropped off some officials on their way to Kabul. He barrelled down that highway at about 120 miles per hour. We checked into an empty hotel, put on our body armour and went to meet warlord Ismail Khan. He’d deployed his private army to fight the Taliban alongside the armed wing of the intelligence service. At 72, Ismail Khan was hoping for a political and popular comeback, after being forced into the wilderness for a few years by Ghani. Video footage of him jogging across a bridge at the head of his men had transformed him into a folk hero and the hope of Herat.
That hope was short-lived. We hung out with his fighters for a day, and watched them beat to death two Taliban men they found hiding in a house. They threw the bodies into the street and pumped them full of bullets and shouted “Allahu Akbar,” God is great. Which is what the Taliban chant when their child suicide bombers detonate themselves. That’s when I knew it was over, that Herat was falling and Kabul wouldn’t be far behind. The Taliban’s battlefield atrocities — beheading, dismembering, eye-gouging, and booby-trapping bodies — was no different to how these Taliban prisoners were being treated before me. And God was the justification for unspeakable violence on all sides of this horrible, dehumanising war. We were trapped in Herat for five days, as the Taliban advanced into the city and kept rocketing the airport. When we got back to the capital, Massoud and I bought our tickets out.
We were ambivalent at first. But as the date of our departure drew closer, our conviction that it was time to go became stronger. Bank machines were out of cash. Ghani refused to announce his resignation on live television. Contacts at the highest levels of government were disappearing. Airplane tickets were sold out for weeks. Gunfire got closer to the city. On the morning of our departure, all visible signs of security, the previously ubiquitous “ring of steel,” had disappeared. We were wheels up at 9.10 am; by the time we landed in Istanbul five hours later, Ghani and his closest advisers had run away, and Taliban gunmen had entered the capital.
The world then witnessed the calamitous effort to evacuate tens of thousands of foreigners and Afghans who had worked with the Americans and internationals. I have serious doubts about the veracity of the figures being touted by Washington and London about how many people they got out. One friend says that the Afghan National Army soldiers responsible for letting people into the airport gave preference to their own relatives and friends, whether they were eligible or not. Many people who need to get out did not, and still have not.
The chaos at the airport was, I suspect, orchestrated by the Taliban and the Haqqani network whose goons are in charge of the capital’s security. The suicide attack that killed 13 U.S. soldiers, though claimed by ISIS-K, was also likely Haqqani — too good an opportunity to miss for the bloodthirsty scion of the gang, Sirajuddin, Afghanistan’s new interior minister as well as deputy leader of the Taliban. By blaming it on IS-K, he successfully manipulated the United States into promising to cooperate with the Taliban in wiping out his rival terrorists.
A Black Hole Of Despair
Meanwhile, a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding at warp speed.
Afghan people have no jobs, the banks have no money, food prices are soaring. People who fled to Kabul to escape fighting elsewhere are camping in desperate conditions on any open ground, including parks. There are no public services, no law and order. Resistance is being mercilessly crushed — including an armed effort in the Panjshir Valley, 80 miles northeast of Kabul. Looting of private homes, offices, and embassies continues. Afghanistan has fallen into a black hole of despair.
The educated middle classes have either fled, whisked from danger in the chaotic evacuation program that the U.S. and U.K. governments can’t help congratulating themselves for, or are in hiding, hoping like hell for a chance to leave before they are hunted down and killed. A new class of Afghan refugees is arriving in the United States and Europe, bewildered and traumatized by what they’ve just been through. They ought to be welcomed and thanked and supported and protected; instead they are often made to feel as interlopers, lucky to be amongst us. We played an undeniable role in the destruction of their country, their hopes, their aspirations, their futures. And now we compound that insult as a symptom of our own shame. If we look away, perhaps we can convince ourselves it never happened.
All this could have been avoided if the departure of the United States and its allies had been better managed. While President Biden is largely to blame for the collapse of the Afghan state, President Trump bears much responsibility for the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. Like it or not, his desire to end the “forever war” led him into a flawed bilateral deal with crooks and terrorists.The Taliban did not stick to their pledges, like ending attacks against U.S. troops and cutting ties with al-Qaeda. They escalated the violence on the battlefield as leaders sat down for “peace talks” in Qatar and dinner receptions in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Islamabad. At no stage were the people of Afghanistan consulted about Trump’s plan to put the Taliban in power. Indeed, Ghani was pressured by Trump’s envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, most of them battlefield commanders who promptly returned to the fight.
Biden’s decision to stick with the deal was greeted in Kabul with shock and dismay, but should have come as no surprise: his views on large military footprints, and his preference for small counter-terrorism forces are well known. By the time he took office, American troops in Afghanistan were down to just 2,500. He stretched the deadline for completing the drawdown from May 1 to August 31, which should have given Ghani time to finally allow his generals to come up with a strategy. Biden even summoned Ghani to Washington in June to tell him that no matter how fervently he might pray for it to be otherwise, the United States’ presence in Afghanistan was over. Again, Ghani failed; he never developed a strategy And the Taliban marched on.
When Those in Power Run Away
Why was there such a need to leave Afghanistan? Bagram Air Base was one of the best security assets in the world, just several hundred miles from the borders of Pakistan, Iran and China. The American security presence in other parts of the world has endured since World War Two. Yet the U.S. military turned the lights off in the most contentious part of the world and left in the middle of the night ahead of the Fourth of July. A military kit, estimated to be worth billions, was left behind and is now in the hands of the Taliban, the Haqqani, and probably al-Qaeda.
The Biden administration ignored intelligence warnings that Afghanistan’s fighting forces were in danger of collapsing — even as they were collapsing before my eyes. Instead, the White House repeated the lies of two decades, through the Bush, Obama and Trump years, of progress and stability and victory — that there would be no “Saigon moment” in Afghanistan. Until, of course, there was.
Just like the last commercial jet that flew me out of Afghanistan on August 15, President Ashraf Ghani and his closest associates also fled their country that day, in helicopters that took them and their wives to Uzbekistan. They’d heard gunfire outside their palace in Kabul, guards shooting in the air to disperse a bank run, and thought the Taliban had entered the city. They hadn’t.
Ghani was supposed to meet his generals at the defense ministry on August 15 to announce he was stepping down in order to enable talks about a power-sharing deal with the Taliban to go ahead. The understanding was that Taliban gunmen would not enter the capital until the deal was done. But Ghani blew it. He betrayed his office and his country, and by running away he left a power vacuum for the Taliban to fill.
Cruelty is now official government policy. Since declaring victory in Kabul, the Taliban have looted at will. They hunt down their enemies and kill them. They beat women in the streets. As they stifle the media that the United States spent $1 billion developing, the Taliban are getting away with rape and murder. It should be no surprise. Their “government” includes men sanctioned as terrorists by the United States and the United Nations; the interior minister is wanted by the FBI with a $10 million bounty on his head.
With terrorists in charge of Afghanistan, gunfire is now inside the palace and figurehead leaders have gone missing. The leaders of the Taliban and Haqqani gangs are fighting each other over the spoils of America’s longest war. Their victory is fissuring along tribal and factional fault lines. After a chaotic few weeks that have seen governance replaced by revenge, panic, fear and despair, we don’t even know who is in charge in one of the world’s most strategically important countries. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan citizens are now at the mercy of murderous criminals. And we in the West are entirely to blame. We have ceded Afghanistan to jihadists intent on our destruction.
As for what happens next? Whatever comes, and whenever it does, no one can say we weren’t warned.
Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist, author and analyst. Between 2009 and 2017, she was bureau chief in Kabul for The Associated Press and the French news agency AFP.
Massoud Hossaini is a freelance photojournalist. In 2012, his work in Kabul won him the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.