The Once and Future Defeat in Afghanistan

“Everyone is failing us.” These were the first words that Ashraf Ghani uttered — not as he fled the advancing Taliban on Aug. 15, 2021, but in March 2002 as we sat down to dinner on a chilly and wet night on my first post-9/11 visit to Kabul. I had known him since 1984, first as an academic colleague and then as a World Bank official. We had collaborated as informal advisors to U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi during his first assignment from 1997 to 1999, and then as part of the United Nations team in 2001, when the two of us served as Brahimi’s advisors during the Bonn Conference that set the framework for the post-Taliban government.

Soon after, Ghani had left for Kabul, where he established the Afghanistan Aid Coordination Agency, which he said would align international aid with Afghan priorities. Over dinner, he described how the Bush administration had allocated no new money for rebuilding the country, which was then devastated by (a mere!) 24 years of war. International agencies had presented gross underestimates of reconstruction costs, and their uncoordinated operations were marginalizing the destitute government. The U.N. political mission was virtually alone in pressing for the broadening of the interim administration at the upcoming Emergency Loya Jirga. Ghani became finance minister at that jirga three months later and ultimately president in 2014, only to discover that the policies that he prescribed in his book, Fixing Failed States, ignored political realities in both Afghanistan and America. Even after the United States signed a February 2020 deal with the Taliban, promising to leave by May 1, 2021, he refused to believe in or plan for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. As late as Aug. 2, 2021, he boasted to the Afghan parliament that he would get the situation “under control” in six months.Become a Member

A few days after my 2002 dinner with Ghani, following a few thin leads, I found Amrullah Saleh, who I had first met in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in January 1996. Defense Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud had sent him to meet me as I traveled on a mission for the Open Society Foundation to evaluate the situation of refugees from Tajikistan in northern Afghanistan. Saleh was then the 23-year-old deputy spokesman of the Defense Ministry. I found him again five years later in his office in the upscale (for 2002 Kabul) Shahr-i Naw neighborhood, from which he directed the counter-terrorism department of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency. Then, Saleh said of Ghani, “To us [Tajiks] it is obvious that he has an ethnic [Pashtun] agenda.” In 2004 he became Afghanistan’s intelligence chief, only to be fired by President Hamid Karzai in 2010. In 2019, he apparently set his prior reservations aside and agreed to become Ghani’s first vice president in his second term. In August 2021, as Kabul’s defenses crumbled, Saleh evacuated the capital with some trusted men, alongside Massoud’s son Ahmad, to their native Panjshir Valley to make a stand against the Taliban. After Ghani fled, Saleh briefly claimed to be acting president, until he and Massoud were forced to flee to Tajikistan.

After our initial meeting in his office in March 2002, over lunch in the Marco Polo Chinese restaurant across the street, Saleh told me that he was spending half of his time trying to repair the political harm caused by the civilian casualties and mistaken detentions that had resulted from U.S. raids based on false intelligence. In September 2002, when I quoted his warnings without attribution at a conference in the United Kingdom, a confident British minister responded sarcastically, “I’ve just heard the voice of doom!” Saleh came up to me afterwards and said, “You used my words!” “I spoke, because you could not,” I answered.

Read the full article in War on the Rocks.