There has been much talk in recent weeks about the sudden takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. In the end, for all the money the United States has spent and the blood spilled, the corrupt government that was there received so little support that it fell without a sob.
The Western side’s “expert analysis” seems to miss the central reason for its debacle. But one of my clients in Guantánamo, Sanad al-Kazimi, easily recognized it in a recent conversation with me. Few have more reason to regret the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 than he does, as he has suffered for 16 years without charge or trial.
He said he thought President Joe Biden had spoken wisely in defending the decision to end the longest war in US history. He reminded me that the Arabs also have a saying, “Better late than never.” But Sanad went on to say he’d rather take the aphorism a step further: “It’s often better to never be.” It would have been better never to invade Afghanistan.
There is another tired cliché that tells us that the first thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. What the British called the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) came to be known as “the disaster in Afghanistan.” The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), the Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919) and the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) all had one thing in common: they all ended in tears, with nothing but chaos achieved. There was little reason to believe that the US-Afghan war (2001-2021) would have a different outcome.
Just before the pandemic, I was in Kabul to rally support for Asadullah Haroon, an Afghan who has languished in Guantánamo for the past 14 years. I spoke to people from all sides of the chaotic political scene. If there was one thing everyone agreed on, it was that no one wanted the invaders to stay. In fact, they didn’t want them in the first place.
Still, the US invasion took place in 2001. It would always be difficult to turn a killing field into more than a cemetery. There are few instances in history where the military invaded a country (labeled “the enemy”) and then turned it into a respected friend.
A rare example could be the Allied response at the end of World War II. The Germans had committed the most heinous crimes imaginable (the Taliban could never match them even in the wildest dreams of a western neocon), the US gave a small group of Nazis a fair trial and acquitted some of them . Then, through the Marshall Plan, the US gave huge sums—more than $100 billion in current money—to help rebuild Europe and extend this generosity of spirit to West Germany.
It would have taken an extraordinary effort to create a political structure in Afghanistan that could have dispelled the smell of the foreign imposition and survived the withdrawal of the US military. It would have taken a truly humane attitude. And that’s what we never showed.
First, we responded to Al-Qaeda’s atrocities by torturing prisoners and sending others halfway around the world to Guantanamo. After that, we spent a lot more money on bombs than on reconstructing the damage they caused. Third, we never pretended to treat Afghans as equal partners.
In Kabul, I had dinner with Hajji Din Mohammed, an elderly man who had held various government positions. He had fought against the Russians and with the Americans. I asked him to compare the two. Referring to the Russians, he showed me where they had shot him and described their phenomenal cruelty.
But he said he respected them in two ways: First, they were intensely loyal to their fellow soldiers and came to their aid no matter the odds. And second, when they were finally expelled from Afghanistan, the Russians were loyal to those who had helped them and welcomed them to Moscow. He indeed pointed out another person at our dinner who had already received his education at Russian expense.
I asked him about my fellow Americans. He was understandably not rude, but I begged him for his true opinion.
“The Americans were never even loyal to themselves,” he said. “If their soldiers were pinned down by the Taliban, they had to get an edict from Washington before anyone would help them.”
But then he described how the Americans treated the Afghans. In an ironic twist of racism, no Afghan citizen was allowed to book a room at the heavily fortified hotel where I was staying, and while I could get in without being searched, my host couldn’t. But more to the point, he said, based on his wavy beard and battle scars, the Americans considered him a deranged “jihadist.” “No American has shaken my hand as a friend in the past 18 years,” he concluded.
I had already decided that I liked and respected this man, and I was shocked when I heard his words. I immediately asked if I (as an American) could please shake his hand as a friend. He burst into tears and declared me a blood brother. I would be honored to be Hajji Din Mohammed’s brother. And that’s what all Americans should do. It’s just a shame we didn’t get to it.
Instead, while at the very least pushing for women’s rights, we have introduced a sense of imperialist racism reminiscent of the First Anglo-Afghan War. We made life unaffordable without increasing people’s wealth (if I wanted to set up a branch of our NGO, it would have cost four times as much in Kabul as in Islamabad). And we created a government so legendary that it was bribed and corrupt that the US military called it the VICE – “Vertically Integrated Criminal Entity”.
Is it any wonder that the Afghans didn’t want to start another civil war to keep what we had offered them?
My father was a rampant chauvinist and homophobe; we didn’t hate him for it; with growing success we tried to make him change his mind. I’ve tried many lawsuits in America where in order to qualify for service, all 12 jurors must pledge that they are willing to inflict the death penalty. We could argue with them and tell them they were wrong, or we could speak their language and remind them of the Bible teaching, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” I found the second course much more effective.
We had the same choice when we first visited our conservative Muslim clients in Guantánamo: we could punish them for the chauvinism they learned in a rural village in Afghanistan and call them “terrorists.” Or we can look for the best in them. Today I count my Guantánamo customers among my best friends in the world. One of them, Asadullah Haroon, wants nothing more than for his 14-year-old daughter Maryam to receive a full education.
We also have that choice with the new Afghan government. The US media has already begun to defame them. For example, as the New York Times reports, Gholam Rulani was detained in 2001 “in Afghanistan with his brother-in-law Abdul Haq Wasiq, a deputy intelligence secretary, after accompanying Mr. Wasiq to a negotiating meeting with US officials. He was taken to Guantánamo on the day the prison opened, January 11, 2002, and was repatriated in December 2007.”
We are now told that Mr. Rulani, who led a group of Taliban that entered the presidential palace on August 15, told one of his abusive Guantánamo guards, “We’ll get you out.” It’s not surprising that someone who is grotesquely mistreated may (or may not) have flipped such a thing out to their abuser 15 years ago. What I can say is that I have a good relationship with my former clients, and they are happy to work with an American like me who stood up for their rights in Guantánamo.
Rather than shouting from afar that they are barbarians, it is more productive to sit down with them and help them rebuild the country, while firmly supporting Asad as he encourages Maryam’s dream of becoming a doctor.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.