On the one-year anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the focus is rightfully on the chaotic and deadly evacuation of refugees, allies, and Westerners that swamped Kabul International Airport last summer.
But after reflecting on the Afghans left behind to live under the Taliban, the 10 civilians the U.S. killed on its way out, and the 13 Americans who died by an Islamic State suicide bomber at Abbey Gate, serious thought should be paid to how much the U.S. simply got wrong about the war from the very start.
A new book by Dutch journalist Bette Dam chronicles some of those missteps, such as President George W. Bush’s administration’s decision to reject a Taliban surrender in December 2001, and the dubious Afghan warlords the U.S. allied with over the two decades that followed.
Dam, who lived and worked in Afghanistan for 15 years, may draw ire for the unorthodox findings in her book, “Looking for the Enemy: Mullah Omar and the Unknown Taliban,” especially her reporting on the elusive life and final resting place of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s lodestar.
But if her work makes one thing clear about Afghanistan, it’s how little U.S. leaders, including top generals, diplomats, and politicians, understood about the situation there for 20 years.
U.S. leadership was consistently caught flat-footed, failing to deliver on their perennial promise to “turn the corner” in the war. The same leadership was again shocked by the Taliban’s breezy sweep across the country in summer 2021. Taking stock of the war will require humility at the top echelons of American power, and they could start by reading a book that challenges much of their orthodoxy.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity
One of the biggest top lines from your work is the assertion that Taliban founder Mullah Omar lived out his final days close to a U.S. military base in his native Zabul Province in Afghanistan, and not, as the CIA and other experts have long argued, in Pakistan. How did you come to a conclusion so different from the mainstream here?
Early on, I couldn’t believe Mullah Omar was not in Pakistan. I describe in the book how already in 2012 people from Zabul, whom I knew from my first book, told me one evening when they were visiting friends in Kabul to go and look in Zabul, because it was Omar’s father’s land. I thought, ‘No, that’s not possible,’ and searched in Pakistan.
I made the same assumptions as the CIA, but after five years, my investigation forced me to say: Omar was indeed in Afghanistan. I went in May this year to the location of Omar’s house in Zabul, and indeed the U.S. Camp Wolverine is within walking distance.
The U.S. military even had one of these intel-gathering balloons hanging on top of the base, so they were able to see Mullah Omar sit in his garden. Except, they were not looking. They themselves had a strong bias towards Pakistan. That’s understandable. Most of the Taliban tried to live there. But understanding the underlying narratives of the Taliban would also have led the CIA to Mullah Omar.
What is an example of one of those underlying narratives?
The overall distrust of the Taliban leader, and his men, towards Pakistan, could have led to broader intel-gathering also in Afghanistan. While the U.S. government states that the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban is very good, I didn’t see that in the field. I saw nervousness, distrust.
What should the media, intelligence community and military have done differently, on a day-to-day level?
We too often have secondary sources, we cling to the elite, who mostly speak English — that works the fastest — and most media stayed in Kabul. Traveling into the countryside didn’t happen enough, even though the resistance started in the villages. Surely, we reported criticism — too many civilian casualties, human rights abuses, torture, corruption in elections. We reported on emotion, like the pain of attacks or the pain of war. That’s important. But the more independent questions were not asked enough: ‘Was this a war? Was this terrorism? Is the military necessary here?’
One of the more jarring parts of your book is the scene in which Mullah Omar gives his blessing for a Taliban surrender in December 2001. I didn’t realize this offer occurred or that the U.S. rejected it. Do you think that deal could have succeeded?
It’s unforgivable that we have overlooked such a massive peace offer from the Taliban in 2001. It requires systemic self-reflection. Would it have succeeded? Many of the U.S. officials I spoke to say, ‘Oh, of course not. Kabul would not have been able to hold this peace deal together.’ I find that arrogant.
What we know is that the U.S. singlehandedly blocked the deal. Yes, it’s difficult to say anything in hindsight, but, to me, there is no doubt there would have been a longer moment of calmness.
The soon-to-be president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, would have gone to Kabul, and would have had a solid base to start the new government. He was trying to be powerful and to be in contact with his natural enemies, Northern Afghans, who had already taken Kabul, but had agreed to share power (like many Taliban, Karzai is a Pashtun from Southern Afghanistan). To set up this very sensitive balance of shared power is not easy, and requires patience and time. Sharing power is difficult in any country, let alone in a country with the pain of 40 years of war.
One theme running through your book is how Afghanistan’s complicated tribal relations and business rivalries colored the conflict. How much do you think top Western leaders understood these dynamics?
I think we gave the space to these Afghan leaders to act like that because of our lack of knowledge. What we sometimes forget is that these Afghans have a history, as human beings have. One aspect is decennia-long rivalries, and especially in the first four years, 2001-2004, when there was not a strong Taliban, the U.S. goal ‘to kill Taliban,’ was misused by these leaders to solve rivalries and competition.
The U.S. should have cross-checked their allies much more. But the U.S. knew it all better. Figures like Asadullah Khalid were ‘the strong fighters’ and ideal ‘for killing terrorists’ and these Afghan leaders became supermen. (Khalid is a former Afghan defense minister who was accused of ordering the bombing of a U.N. convoy to protect his narcotics interests).
Mid-level State Department and Pentagon personnel knew something was wrong. But somehow knowledge was not always valued by the top. Ideology pushed it away, and instead, the binary idea of us-versus-Taliban prevailed.
If we had a more independent press, who would have systematically said that the Asadullah Khalid figures in Afghanistan, our allies, are killing rivals, that our U.S. soldiers die because of local rivalry fights and not Taliban, I think that it would have cracked the binary thinking. That would have taken away the urge for military use. The lack of this critical thinking among the American elites is extremely worrying to me, especially since we are now engaging in Ukraine with the same press, a country we also push in this binary, uninformative narrative.
What was an example you saw of the U.S. using force and it clearly not working?
Most leaders who were installed after Sept. 11, 2001, were given carte blanche to attack the enemy, while Taliban had surrendered. Tribal fights and competition between individuals were solved under the banner of terrorism. Police commander Abdul Raziq in Kandahar was proven by in-depth articles a spoiler and created more conflict than necessary. While those feature articles were strongly sourced, the U.S. government didn’t adapt.
It was truly painful for me to see how often the U.S. military let itself be misled in its selection of the enemy in Afghanistan. The intel-gathering was poor. The wrong people were killed, and their families ran immediately to the Taliban. This was systemic, from 2002-on. ... The U.S. picks an ally, and puts its arm around it and says, ‘We are in this together.’
In late July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. Your book describes how the relationship between Osama Bin Laden and Taliban leaders was nuanced in the years before Sept. 11, 2001, and their ties weren’t strong. But some see the presence of Zawahiri in Taliban-controlled Kabul as both a violation of the Doha agreement and an indication that the Taliban and al-Qaida remain close.
We do know from more independent research that there has been a consistent, as I call it, ‘gray area policy’ of the Taliban towards the Arabs present in the country, some of whom are in al-Qaida and some of whom are not. The Taliban’s rule is hospitality until justice proves you are guilty, but you need to lay low and not cause trouble, as Bin Laden did in the late 1990s when he was convicted by the Taliban for giving press conferences against their wishes.
At the moment, a lot is unclear about what happened with Zawahiri. I am not in Kabul at the moment, so I, unfortunately, can’t figure it out. We see that the intel fluctuates.
(Dam pointed to a U.S. intelligence community assessment from mid-August indicating that al-Qaida has not reconstituted in Afghanistan and Zawahiri was the only key al-Qaida figure who tried to reestablish himself in the country since U.S. forces withdrew.)
In the U.S., the overall analysis is that al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul is proof that Taliban are close allies of al-Qaida and a threat for international security. Is that so? You could also include the complexity I describe in the book. ... Learn from history and investigate if it was a way for the Taliban to keep al-Zawahiri silent.
International Crisis Group expert Jerome Drevon talked to sources within al-Qaida recently, who said that al-Qaida agreed with the Taliban to be silent, and not active.
A good portion of your book discusses the international isolation the Taliban faced in the 1990s, and you suggest that this was a mistake. Do you think the Biden administration is making the same mistake today by withholding billions of dollars in Afghanistan’s U.S.-held frozen assets?
I was with a Western journalist in Kabul recently: the journalist tried their best, but at the same time almost lectured the Taliban instead of interviewing. It was only Western narratives the journalist pasted on the country. That’s a small example of something bigger. The West finds listening to the other difficult. ... True, we do have so much to offer. We have peace, money, power to change for the good.
But the Taliban have realities, too, that are as true as ours. ... Taliban is fractured, Islamic, not as anti-western as Hamas or al-Qaida, arrogant, uneducated, extremely tribal, predominantly pro-girls’ education, willing to rebuild Afghanistan, but demanding autonomy.
Would you really say the Taliban are ‘predominantly’ pro-girls’ education? Currently, there is a ban in Afghanistan on girls attending secondary education. Although there is opposition to that ban — and even defiance from some Taliban — it’s still in force.
After my return from Kabul in May I would say the news headline on girls’ education could well be, ‘80% of the Taliban-leaders want girls’ education.’ Or, ‘Taliban-leaders openly revolt against their top leaders who are a minority in stopping girls’ education.’
There is a bigger part of the Taliban leadership who are more pro-girls’ education than anti-girls’ education. What should be investigated is the stubbornness of three or four Taliban leaders in Kandahar. Why are they against this? How big is their leverage? I don’t see calm reporting. I see emotion. Judgmental tweets of diplomats, where any knowledge or reflection lacks.
We, as Western media, embraced the War on Terror, and for that, the enemy of the U.S. government became the enemy of journalism. That is unethical if you look at it from a journalistic perspective. The War on Terror was a creation of the U.S. government and needed cross-check. Also, the media doesn’t have enemies; we have to try to talk to all sides. But because we embraced the War on Terror ideology, we only minimally interviewed the Taliban; mostly, we called their spokesman who had to deny or embrace an attack. That’s amplifying the propaganda channels. How many ‘jihad-watchers’ do not simply retweet Taliban and ISIS channels on Twitter? I find that irresponsible. PR from U.S., from the Taliban, from any organization, needs cross-checking if you take your audience serious. That did happen in feature articles or in some books. But these insights didn’t reach the mainstream narratives the big agencies — like Reuters, AP, etc. — were producing every day.
Kyle Rempfer was an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.