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Afghan Scholar: The U.S. Can’t Distance Itself from Chaos Unfolding Now After 20 Years of War

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Thousands of Afghans who worked for the United States and other foreign countries remain stranded in Kabul two days after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. Military flights out of the Kabul International Airport have resumed a day after thousands of Afghans raced to the airport with hopes of leaving the country. President Joe Biden has defended his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after 20 years of occupation and criticized the U.S.-trained Afghan military for collapsing “without trying to fight” the Taliban in many cases. Afghan law professor Haroun Rahimi, who was en route to Kabul when he heard the news of the Taliban takeover and stayed in Turkey, says Biden must take responsibility for the U.S. role in Afghanistan. “He was not willing to accept any responsibility. It’s as if the U.S. was there as a bystander,” says Rahimi. “The way that President Biden was distancing the U.S. from everything that happened over the past two years was just disingenuous and just inaccurate.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Thousands of Afghans who worked for the United States and other foreign countries remain stranded in Kabul two days after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. Military flights out of the Kabul International Airport have resumed a day after thousands of Afghans raced to the airport with hopes of leaving the country. They filled the tarmac, and some even tried to grab on to departing planes. At least seven people died, including several who fell to their deaths after trying to cling on to U.S. planes as they flew out. U.S. troops also shot at least two people dead at the airport.

On Monday, President Biden defended his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That’s why we’re still there. We were clear-eyed about the risks. We planned for every contingency. But I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you. The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, the Biden administration pledged to spend $500 million to help refugees and others trying to flee Afghanistan. But Biden is facing growing pressure to do more to help Afghan civilians. On Monday, Congressmember Ilhan Omar tweeted, “There will be plenty of time for confronting the repeated failures of Afghanistan policy over the course of 4 presidencies. The urgency of the moment now demands we marshal an international coalition to evacuate every Afghan citizen who is fleeing for their lives.” Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai urged all countries to help Afghan refugees.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: I think every country has a role and responsibility right now. Countries need to open their borders to Afghan refugees, to the displaced people. And I have sent a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan asking him to allow refugees, but also to ensure that the refugee children and girls have access to education and have access to safety and protection, that their futures are not lost, that they can enroll into local schools, they can receive education within those refugee camps. … I have not yet made contact with president — Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But, you know, whoever can hear me right now, I think it’s important for them to remember that they have such an important strategic leadership role to play right now. And they must take a bold stance for the protection of human rights right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 after being shot in the face by the Taliban in Pakistan when she was 14 years old for advocating education for women and girls.

Since seizing Afghanistan, the Taliban has sought to present a more moderate face to the world. Earlier today, they announced an amnesty to all government officials and urged them to return to work. The Taliban also encouraged women to join its government. And today a female journalist from the news outlet TOLOnews conducted a televised interview with a Taliban official.

We begin today’s show with Haroun Rahimi, assistant professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan. He was en route back to Kabul when the Taliban seized power, so he’s joining us now from Istanbul, Turkey.

Professor Rahimi, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

HAROUN RAHIMI: Thanks to be here. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you respond to all that has taken place, the extremely fast seizing of the provincial capitals and then taking Kabul without hardly a bullet? Can you talk about the significance of the Taliban victory, who they are, and what you expect?

HAROUN RAHIMI: So, obviously, there’s a lot to unpack there. In terms of the general fact that the Taliban took over Afghanistan, it’s important to have a context — to have context here. The Taliban have been growing in strength, and the government was losing ground for a very long time. It did not start matters of months. And underlying it, underlying those trends, were a series of political problems that were sustaining the insurgency and weakening the government’s legitimacy, and many other aspects of governments were suffering, but also a military component to it. There were technical, logistical and military issues and bad leadership that affected the — contributed to the overall trend. And towards the end, they exacerbated even further and resulted in the quick collapse of Afghanistan into the Taliban hand. There was also a psychological component to all of this. The way that the Taliban were perceived by the — were received by the United States, other countries, the way they were conducting their propaganda underground, that all played a role in the matter. We just have to go — I mean, it’s going to take years to unpack what happened and how it happened, but it’s a very complex picture.

And just commenting on what President Biden said, I would just like to point out, because you were just playing his clip, just a few points before I go talk about who the Taliban are and what it means now, where we are right now. First of all, he’s — I think the decision to withdraw troops is a decision made by the U.S. president. I will not comment on that. But just there was some inaccuracy in what he said.

First of all, the fact that Afghan soldiers were not willing to die for Afghanistan. Just don’t have to take my word for it; go look at the UNAMA, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the report, the casualty reports of war. For a very long time, the U.S. had almost no casualty in Afghanistan, whereas there were thousands of soldiers dying every day fighting for the republic, for the government side. So, the idea that soldiers were not willing to fight is just — is not just true.

The soldiers did surrender en masse, especially towards the end. It was a complex dynamic. You can go into it. There was some political decisions made to keep outposts, soldier outposts, that could not be supported. And Taliban isolated those posts and were able to pressure the soldiers to surrender. And that kind of caused a momentum, that other soldiers were looking at their fellow soldiers surrendering en masse, and they got demoralized, and often they were feeling that they may not and they should not be actually fighting that hard and just may surrender, because they were afraid that if they fight hard, they would also not be supported, and they would be isolated, and they will be — and the Taliban always also proved very brutal when they actually ran over a post.

So, just that aspect of it, the fact that the soldiers were not — Afghan soldiers were not willing to fight for the government, is just inaccurate. Just you can look at the UNAMA data and see how many soldiers were dying every day, until the very end. And compared to the American troops, which, towards the end, the U.S. — that’s a good thing — U.S. had no casualty in Afghanistan, almost no casualty in Afghanistan.

The other issue from his speech was that he was not willing to accept any responsibility. It was as if the U.S. was there, just bystander, these soldiers were there, and for some reason the Afghans were in charge of everything, and they failed, and now U.S. had to leave. It’s just a very disingenuous statement. And the U.S. and Afghans, and the Afghan leaders he mentioned, who are to blame — they absolutely must be blamed for what happened — they both contributed to what happened in Afghanistan — many aspects of governance, important policy decisions, conduct of war. All sort of governance issues were either — Americans advised on. They were making staff involved. There was an army of consultants and NGOs, development service providers and such, that were involved in all aspects of governance, from health to education to finance — any aspects that you can imagine — similar with the military, worked closely together.

I do admit and I absolutely believe that the responsibility to protect Afghanistan ultimately was on the Afghan government and Afghans, but whatever the outcome was in terms of failed leadership and corrupt government, which were all true, the U.S. had a role to play. It doesn’t mean that the U.S. should have stayed in Afghanistan longer. That’s not what I mean. But I’m just saying that the way that President Biden was distancing U.S. from everything that happened over the past two years is just disingenuous and just inaccurate.

And finally, with regard to the withdrawal, as I said, I’m not going to comment on whether it was the right or wrong thing, but I do believe it was not handled well. It was handled in a way that created a logistical gap in Afghan security forces. It was handled in a way that demoralized Afghan forces and created a kind of negative psychological environment for them. It was handled in a way — U.S. in rush to actually get out troops forced the Afghan government to make many concessions to the Taliban without getting much in return. For example, 5,000 Taliban troops were released, under immense pressure from the United States. So, I mean, we can talk about how it was handled. And towards the end, the way the evacuation was handled and such was just horrible.

Now, to your question of who the Taliban are, it is a complex movement. It has its history. It has been morphing into different things at different times. What you can say is that it has been an effective insurgency, and they were able to cause the Afghan government to collapse. That’s certain. That is something we’ve witnessed. It’s really not debatable. In terms of why and how they did it and what they want to do, that’s a murky picture. They had a narrative they presented to their fighters to recruit and motivate them to fight. It involved establishment of Sharia, their understanding of Islamic law, which is not shared by most Afghans, is shared by some Afghans but not most. They also talk about getting the foreigners, whom they consider occupiers and invaders, out of the country. Those were kind of the motives that they presented for the soldiers. But also, on the ground, it was a very complex picture. People join the Taliban for different reasons, sometimes often for local dynamics, for protection, for also just taking advantage of the opportunities that would be given to someone who was part of the Taliban in terms of power and other aspects that come from being a militia that has support on the ground. It’s a complex picture. There are obviously ideologically motivated actors on the ground, as well.

In terms of how — what they’re going to be when they actually come into power, we have one reference point. When they were in power — that’s in '90, 1990s — they ruled brutally. And there are, obviously — I mean, more world is familiar with it, and Afghans have experienced it firsthand, how they ruled. That's one reference point. The question is: Have they changed? Will they govern differently?

You pointed out that there have been different messaging. They have announced national amnesty. They have said that they, in principle, believe that women can continue education and work, under certain conditions that are not clarified yet. They have done some positive gestures so far. For example, as you pointed out, a Taliban representative talked to a presenter, a woman presenter. That’s a welcome development.

They also allowed the Shias of Afghanistan, which are a minority — they don’t follow the dominant sect of Islam that is in Afghanistan, Salafi. They are a minority, a sizable minority, in Afghanistan, Shias. They allowed them to continue their rituals of Ashura, which is an important ritual for the Shias, involves — allowed public acts of self-flogging and other aspects, happens every year Afghanistan, that the Taliban allowed it. There were pictures coming out that they went, actually, to some of those events, and they showed solidarity. That’s a very positive thing. They also met with the Hindus and Sikhs representative of Afghanistan, some Talibans did, and they gave them assurance that they will be protected, they will safe, in Kabul — both of these happened in Kabul — and in Herat, where I also have family members in Herat, and I’ve talked to them, and I also have seen reports of that happening in Herat. I cannot talk to the entire country. So, those are good, positive messaging.

But also, on the other hand, we have reports of people being taken for questioning, people being killed because of their government connections, and reports of summary executions of forces that surrendered, until recently. And it’s just a very mixed picture, a very unclear picture at this point.

And the uncertainty is fueling the refugee exodus. People are afraid of the future. They are afraid of what may come. And they’re trying to get out as they can, when they can. And you have to remember, Taliban control almost the entire land crossing, and there’s no flight flying out of any parts of the country, except for Kabul airport, which is not under Taliban control. It is under U.S. control. So, people trying to get out, they see this as a window, that if it closes, U.S. leaves, then the Taliban will take over airport. And then you, anyone who would like to leave the country, they would have to go through the Taliban authority. So, if you’re afraid of retaliation, revenge taken by the Taliban, you will certainly try to get out as soon as possible through the Kabul airport, the only kind of departure point left without having to go through the Taliban kind of possible screening of who can leave the country.

Taliban have said they will let anyone who wants to leave leave. But you have to realize, these messages are not very credible, for very good reasons. They are not credible because, until very recently, in matters of like days ago, Taliban considered any civilian judiciary employee of the government a legitimate target. And they had a complex attack not long ago, like a couple of weeks ago, in Kabul that targeted the minister of defense’s home — guest house, which were MPs — where MPs, Afghan members of Parliament, were located, and killed many civilians. It was a complex attack, a car bomb. Buildings were destroyed, to a large radius of the place. And they also had an ongoing assassination kind of campaign of judiciary prosecutors, of female police officers. So, for them to claim that they have transformed in their character in this short period of time doesn’t seem believable to most Afghans, and that’s why you’re seeing the kind of rush to the door. And you have to realize that many, many people believe that it’s a war tactic. As soon as Taliban consolidate power, as soon as the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, international community will not be engaged as it is right now, then there will be a kind of, basically, a purging happening. That’s why people are so afraid. Whether that’s going to actually come true or the Taliban will just come true with the messages of hopes they are giving people just remains to be seen. But the picture is murky, and it is a mixed picture.

Another complication we have here is that there is not a lot of journalism, outside of Kabul, happening. I mean, there has been a chilling effect on journalists, not daring to go out and document what is happening, because you have to realize there is — Taliban have this brutal image in Afghanistan, for good reasons. They have fought a brutal insurgency. They killed aid workers. They’ve beheaded their opponents. They’ve executed many people upon surrender. They mined many people. I mean, it was a brutal insurgency.

Not to say that the government did not cause destruction. The government, through its air bombardments, destroyed many part of the country’s countryside and caused many civilian casualties. And for many of those people, the moments of rest that they’re experiencing, because there’s really no war going on — Taliban just won; they took over the country — the moments of rest they are feeling is very much welcome. And they have a different feeling toward the Taliban victory, if, for nothing else, just the end of war, is celebrated, to large parts of the country, and some of them actually hold the government accountable for the horror they were living. So, not trying to say just the Taliban were the cause of all the destruction that was going on in the country — it was a war — but Taliban were using brutal methods.

So, now what is continuing to happen in areas we don’t have eyes on, because journalists are too afraid to speak out, to document and reflect, just kind of leaves us relying on hearsay, people saying, “I heard this person say this thing happened there.” Unless we have enough journalists on the ground and open journalists who can actually work independently, we will not really know the full picture yet. The other side of it is that the Taliban will have to actually make pronouncement a matter of policy and then follow through. So far they’ve remained vague, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Rahimi, we have to wrap, and we have 10 seconds, but are you afraid to go back right now? You were en route when the Taliban took Kabul.

HAROUN RAHIMI: At the moment, yes. I’m still hesitant. I am afraid of the future for my country and for everyone that’s there. I will go back, if the promise of amnesty holds up. I do want to continue to educate the new generation of Afghanistan. They have taken over our university, American University of Afghanistan. The campus was taken over by the Taliban. We had evacuated already, but they entered the campus. They control the campus. Whether we will be able to resume, and under what conditions, what will be the rules for our operation, is not known. We will continue to teach remotely to our students. But I would, if the promise of amnesty holds up, there is an environment where I feel I can — 

AMY GOODMAN: The Skype froze, but I want to thank Haroun Rahimi, assistant professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan. He was speaking to us from Istanbul, Turkey.

Coming up, we go to investigative journalist Azmat Khan and retired U.S. Army Colonel Ann Wright, who helped reopen the U.S. Embassy in Kabul nearly two decades ago. Stay with us.

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Ret. Col. Ann Wright on Reopening U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2001 & Why She Supports Troop Withdrawal

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