An Afghan Perspective: The West Chose Wrong Problems to Solve, Wrong Methods to Solve Them

Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks via Wikimedia
Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks (via Wikimedia Commons)

Twenty years after Donald Rumsfeld decided to Make America Alexander the Great Again, Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban.

But you already knew that.

Twitter is on fire with hot takes from armchair epidemiologists now moonlighting as foreign policy and military experts.

Instead of overheating ourselves scrolling facile opinions from the Internet's inexhaustible supply of overnight PhDs, we revisited interviews we've conducted over the past two decades with writers and reporters who offer a more informed perspective on the Afghanistan war—David Rieff, Tamim Ansary, and the like.

The most in-depth discussion may come from Robert Birnbaum's 2003 interview with Saira Shah, a part-Afghan reporter who appeared in Beneath the Veil, a documentary of pre-9/11 Taliban Afghanistan...

"The West really picked the wrong problems to solve and the wrong methods to solve them": An Excerpt from Saira Shah's 2003 Identity Theory Interview

Saira ShahSaira Shah: There were two separate wars being fought in Afghanistan. There was the Superpower conflict. But there was also the mujahidin who were fighting a really different war. Pakistan was fighting a really different war for Islam. We really didn't recognize it at the time. It's exactly what I was saying about people not seeing things that they are not set up to see. In the book I say that we'd be in Peshawar and dead bodies with their throats cut would come floating down the canal. These were the victims of intra-mujahidin fighting—different factions were fighting among themselves, and there would be explosions in the town, and we never really looked into them. We didn't look and we didn't perceive. It seemed to me that history had come around and we were again in a position where I got a second chance, if you like. And again in the '80s Afghanistan was considered important because it was the front line in the Superpower conflict and now it was considered important as the front line in the war against terror. It seemed like that there was a real danger of the same mistake being made and the wrong things being looked at. So it just seemed to be symmetry and also my story…

Robert Birnbaum: Has it not in fact already happened, these mistakes two years later?

SS: I think it is happening.

RB: Just today I came across this: "We have executed a private assessment of Afghanistan, available to both civilian and military elements of the USG, and these are our key judgements: 1) Taliban is back in force, strong in the south, and opening a northern front. 2) Goodwill for US and NATO has collapsed. 3) Support for the Afghan government is in flux—the US Government is largely to blame. 4) Refugees unable to return home are aggravating instability and poverty and so on…" So what's changed?

SS: Says it all, doesn't it? I couldn't agree more. The West set out to solve a series of problems in Afghanistan. The West is a very problem-solving culture. And one of the problems of Afghanistan is that it doesn't lend itself readily to being sorted out on the West's terms. And I am afraid that the West really picked the wrong problems to solve and the wrong methods to solve them. In being very fixated on the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, they neglected the cause of the Taliban and the causes of bin Laden. The Taliban particularly are not a homogenous group.

RB: But mostly they are Pashtuns

SS: Mostly Pashtuns, yeah. Even in something like this [the above-mentioned assessment]. "The Taliban could take power…" as if there is this kind of creature called Taliban. In fact, the Taliban are a very ad hoc sort of thing. For want of a better word you could almost call them a mind set. 'Taliban' just means students. It's not that the Taliban are coming back, they have never gone away. They are still there. There is a massive culture of warlordism in Afghanistan, as is quite well known. Where do they get those weapons? Well, they got them from the Soviet occupation—both from the Soviet Union, in captured weapons and the United States. So I fear for Afghanistan. I fear now is a little window and things will get very grim again unless there is a very different sort of commitment and that's not only for money but a commitment to attention.

RB: The Afghan worldview seems to me to be almost untranslatable into English. There are some values that don't seem to cross over the linguistic barrier. And for all the talk about the fanaticism of the Taliban towards the end of your book you quote someone, Abdul Haq, claiming that the Taliban could have been bought off. Why didn't the US do that?

SS: Oh yeah, he said that to me, tragically, a few days before he was killed. He said it a couple of days before the US bombing [of Afghanistan] started. He was pulling his hair out and he was saying, "It would cost a fraction of the price." At that point it was a political thing for the States. I am sure they were very well aware that they could have bought off the Taliban.

RB: Are you sure about that?

SS: Yes, because Pakistan knew that. Pakistan, had already, with Saudi money, bought them off. And Pakistan was desperate to avoid a war in Afghanistan and would certainly have been saying that to the US. But that wasn't the point. The point at that time was that it was just post-9/11 and they needed to be seen to go in and be doing something. Just giving a whole lot of money to a lot of warlords would not have gone [over] too well, even if it had been covert. But it would have worked. It's like that old fable I grew up with—I think it's an Aesop's fable and it's in Rumi as well. The Sun and the Wind were having an argument about the horseman, about who could take the cloak off the horseman. And the wind blew and blew and the horseman just drew his cloak tighter. And then the sun came out and the horseman thought, "Oh what a lovely day, I'll just take my cloak off and sit down." That is more the approach you need in Afghanistan. If you go in with an army, Afghanistan is the graveyard of armies. It's not going to work. If you are perceived to be an occupying force, it's not going to work. I remember going in to Chitral as the US bombing started and there was a sign up saying, "To America, we yearn for death as you yearn for life." You are not going to beat a people like that. It's not worth. It's just not worth it. There are different ways. There are different ways to try…

Read the entire conversation with Saira Shah in our interview archives.

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