Was America really surprised by the quick return of the Taliban to Afghanistan? Is there some hidden truth or is it just that everything happened much faster than anticipated, as US President Joe Biden said a few days after the Taliban regained control of Kabul on 15 August? Was this a defeat, surrender, withdrawal or retreat; or was it a departure, a return and an agreement? Many questions remain unanswered.
It will be interesting to see how genuine the two negotiating parties are in implementing what has been agreed. And to see what the repercussions will be for the Afghan people over the coming days and months, in comparison to the situation in Iraq. For if the actions of the Taliban are the new benchmark where does that put America's actions in Iraq?
Having followed the US-Taliban negotiations in Doha it is hard to believe the surprise and chaos in Afghanistan as the race is on to "save" the Americans and the British, and other NATO forces and those Afghans who cooperated with the occupation forces. Members of the general public, women in particular, have also been clamouring to leave their country, terrified by the reputation of the Taliban and the revenge it may seek. Panicking crowds at Kabul Airport provide the most prominent media images.
All of this is hard to believe because the US is portrayed in the media as a superpower in terms of capabilities and organisation skills. Moreover, the withdrawal of US forces did not just appear as a possibility overnight; it has been on the agenda for more than ten years of continuous negotiations at all levels. The official decision was signed by former President Donald Trump, who set 1 September as the date by which the withdrawal should be completed; his successor Joe Biden approved this with minor adjustments.
Withdrawal negotiations actually started at the end of 2013, ten years after the US occupation of Afghanistan, when, according to Robert Grenier, America realised that it had not accomplished very much, and that its intervention was symbolic at first as it relied on the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban. However, US arrogance had pushed it towards a different policy in 2005. Grenier was the CIA station chief in Islamabad during the most dangerous period in the aftermath of 9/11. He was responsible for planning and running covert operations in support of the invasion of Afghanistan. After that he was in charge of coordinating covert operations in support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He has also headed Camp Peary, known as "The Farm", a training facility run by the CIA. Most recently, he was the Director of the CIA Counterterrorism Centre.
When I went to an international cultural conference in India in November 2013, I happened to attend an important interview between Robert Grenier and Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, one of the founders of the Taliban, and the Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan. Zaeef was arrested and basically sold to the Americans (as many of those accused of terrorism were) by the Pakistani intelligence services after the US invasion of Afghanistan. He was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for four and a half years. The former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had announced a general amnesty for the Taliban, as a step towards restoring security, but the US administration froze the decision a week later, thus aborting the possibility of reconciliation between the various Afghan forces.
The interview was moderated by Shoma Chaudhury, editor-in-chief of the Indian investigative newspaper Tehelka, and Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef's participation caused an uproar because it was the first time that someone like him had been allowed to visit India and speak in front of an audience. Grenier spoke of America's intention to withdraw its forces and negotiate with the Taliban. Zaeef elaborated on the importance of security and political stability in Afghanistan and the need to resort to diplomatic negotiations to achieve this; he focused on the failure of the democracy that America was trying to impose by force of arms, and which was not allowed to grow organically from within society along Islamic lines.
The interview is available online, and I have watched it again. It has answers to the same questions that are being asked today, ten years later; they are identical to the current questions asked about the Taliban's change or its ability to change. This is specifically true regarding the Taliban's position on women.
Zaeef emphasised time and time again the importance of educating women because they make up half of society. At the insistence of the moderator, he condemned the bombings and attacks on schools. He also warned of the presence of "other parties" trying to distort the image of the Taliban. As for the future of Afghanistan, he talked about the inevitable withdrawal of the US occupation forces, noting the complexities of the situation due to the geographical location of the country, sandwiched as it is between China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan. The American intervention, he suggested, will take other forms, such as the establishment of militias. This, of course, is what has happened in Iraq.
The irony is that, now, after the humiliating military withdrawal, we hear official claims of "an enduring commitment to Iraq" by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, without any explanation what this means, and ignoring the great crime committed by Britain and America with their aggressive invasion and occupation, the violent repercussions of which Iraq is still experiencing. The double standards are overwhelming when almost all Western media outlets, mirrored by those in the Arab world and Facebook sites, either deliberately or naively focus on caricatures of Taliban fighters and their outward appearance, using vulgar language to demean them. This is reminiscent of the language used by US invasion forces in Iraq, which described the Iraqis as "rag heads" among other things, a tactic that made it easier to strip them of their humanity, torture and kill them. The degradation of human values by criticising appearances is not limited to the tabloids and cheap media outlets; even BBC Arabic has fallen into the same trap, prejudging according to stereotypes: "The Taliban did not change their clothes, their hair or their beards… how can they change their ideas?"
Boris Johnson told Parliament that the British government "will judge the [Taliban] regime by its choices and actions rather than its words, its attitude to terrorism, crime and drugs, as well as humanitarian access and girls' rights to education." Isn't this the benchmark that the British government and the US administration failed to achieve in their "liberation of Iraq"? Double standards indeed.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 23 August 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.