Sean D. Carberry
Thoughts on a Hearing About Afghanistan
This is a bit of stream-of-consciousness post in reaction to the 3+ hour House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing on the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship post withdrawal.
First, I think all Americans should be required to watch one House and one Senate hearing per month as part of their civic duty. It’s important for people to see the theater of government and governance. It’s also important for people to see that the people they have elected to serve them are not exactly Plato’s Guardians. By watching hearings Americans would also learn that hearings are often as much as 90% posturing, grandstanding, and asking the same questions over and over again so each member can have it on the record that they asked a particular question.
This is all to say that there were many questions asked during the hearing, but many were the same, and many were not answerable by the two witnesses, Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Representative on Afghanistan Reconciliation, and Karen Freeman, Acting Assistant Administrator for Asia U.S. Agency for International Development.
I would say that the vast majority of questions asked were variations of the following:
What is going to prevent the Taliban from retaking the country?
What is being done to protect the gains for women and girls?
What is the United States doing to ensure the thousands of Afghans who qualify for Special Immigrant Visas receive them ASAP?
What is the risk that Afghanistan will again become a terrorist sanctuary?
Those are pretty much the same questions that everyone has been asking for the last month since President Biden announced that he was going to honor the deal President Trump negotiated with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan.
There were no new answers or tidbits of information that I heard during the hearing. The United States will continue to support Afghan forces and the Afghan government financially and will provide military and intelligence support to the greatest extent possible through means other than troops on the ground. (By the way, this hearing really should have had a witness from the DOD to address military questions instead of putting Zal on the spot to speak to all of that.)
My perspective is that the Taliban was on a trajectory to retake the country despite the presence of U.S. and international forces, and the withdrawal simply accelerates that. The only thing that can realistically prevent that is for the Afghan government and all of the various anti-Taliban spoilers, power brokers, militia commanders, etc. to finally sit down together and agree on a platform and strategy to work together and fight for their country. Without that, U.S. forces could stay forever, and it would be equivalent to pumping air into a tire with a hole in it.
Regarding the plight of women and girls, if you have been following any of my writing and media appearances, you know I’m cynical for a few reasons. People keep presenting a false dynamic that the Taliban wants to enslave women and the rest of the Afghan people are liberal humanists who support equal rights for all. The fact is, there are millions of Afghans who don’t like the Taliban for one reason or another but who espouse Taliban-like views toward women.
This relates to a bigger sub theme of the hearing and one of my pet peeves about Afghanistan and those who advocate for continued presence and investment: “we must protect the gains of the last 20 years.”
The “gains” are constantly referred to as a matter of fact and record. Questioning the gains is viewed as questioning whether the earth is round—wait, forget that simile.
I have been tilting at the gains windmill for years trying to make people realize that the gains are ephemeral and not necessarily wanted, embraced, internalized, or sustainable by the Afghan government and people.
Questions that should be regularly asked are, what are the gains? What evidence is there to show that gains have been internalized? Do all Afghans agree with the gains and want them all to continue?
There is also a persistent notion that it’s the gains or the Taliban. What is also lacking is a nuanced discussion about who the Afghan people are today.
The Taliban was not an alien race that simply descended upon the country. It is an outgrowth of the country, its people and its traditions. The Taliban represents the most conservative, tribal, and religious aspects of Afghanistan with some religious steroids injected by Saudi and Pakistan during the 1980s. Again, it’s not like those Afghans who are not fans of the Taliban are all progressives. There are many Afghans who share the Taliban’s views on women and society, but simply detest the ruthlessness of the Taliban’s enforcement back in the day.
There is this image of young, educated Afghans who are ready to usher in a new, liberal democratic era in Afghanistan. That is highly oversimplified and overstated. Yes, there are many more educated young Afghans in the country today. Many of them are “western” in their views and values. Many of them are working to make a better Afghanistan. However, they have hardly been able to overturn the entrenched patriarchy and corrupt power broker culture of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is still a patronage system with warlords and unaccountable strongmen controlling fiefdoms.
Many of the educated young Afghans have also developed exit strategies. They have studied abroad and obtained visas or other options to leave the country. It was happening when I was there in 2012-2014 and is still ongoing.
Also, not all the young, educated Afghans are liberal democrats. Like most other Muslim countries, there are young, educated Islamists in Afghanistan. In 2014, I was working on a story about this that I was unable to complete before I left. I had interviewed and met with some Afghan youth and student groups that were well educated, well organized, and advocating an Islamic system in Afghanistan. That was an important part of the story that was ignored by advocates, that there were large numbers of educated Afghans who did not support the freedoms and values that the international community has been imparting on Afghanistan.
Let’s face it, there are countless educated Americans who subscribe to conspiracy theories and hold views that would not be considered “enlightened” in this day and age. So, the notion that education is the cure to the regressive and repressive views of many Afghans does not track.
Furthermore, gains in healthcare and other sectors are real insofar as things like child and maternal mortality have decreased. However, those gains are reversable. Clinics and facilities that have been handed over to Afghans have not continued to operate as effectively as they did when NGOs were running them. Again, I reported on this back in 2014.
The way I picture it is that the international community went into Afghanistan and built the second floor of a house and perched it on rickety pilings. That second floor is the increase in education, the improvements in healthcare, the new opportunities for women, and a democratic system. That second floor looks pretty good. It’s nicely painted, the windows are clean, and the door locks.
However, the rickety pilings represent the nascent capabilities and political will of the Afghans. The international community invested a lot in cement and materials for the foundation and the first floor and has made efforts to fill in below that nice second floor, but after 20 years, there is only a concrete slab, some basic wiring and plumbing, and a few additional vertical supports. There are no load-bearing walls yet. The water and electricity haven’t been connected. The second floor has been gradually sinking because the construction workers from the international community have been handing over the job to a local crew that is still learning how to read blueprints.
It’s one thing to go into a poor, undeveloped country and build schools, clinics, ministry offices, and government programs and help run and administer those things. Building the capacity of one of the most uneducated and illiterate societies in the world to take over those facilities, programs, and institutions takes generations.
As I continue to argue, empowering women by giving them educational and job opportunities is valid, but that sticks them on the second floor of the house. Until you change the views of the majority of rural Afghan males, and many “educated” urban ones about the rights and roles of women in Afghan society, that house is standing on toothpicks. If the Taliban ceased to exist and the international community ended its support for Afghanistan, the conditions for Afghan women would still deteriorate quickly because the foundation has not set.
What does this mean for the United States and Afghanistan going forward? It means people need to be honest about where Afghanistan really is today on the development scale and recognize the limitations of the international community to transform an under-developed nation (let alone the hubris of marching into another nation and telling its people how they should interpret their religion and practice their culture and governance). People need to recognize that if you build a house starting with the second floor, you are going to have a reckoning at some point when you realize you can’t hold it up any longer and the people you built it for are not ready to hold it. That means putting it down as gently as possible, assessing the damage, and then focusing on what can be built and sustained on the foundation that exists.
Closing thought on the hearing, the United States does need to do everything it can to honor the promise it made to the Afghans who risked their lives to work for the U.S. government in Afghanistan.