Magnanimity in Defeat: Time to Pay the Taliban
The Biden administration has announced that it will invoke emergency powers to deal with $7 billion of currently frozen assets held by the Afghan central bank in New York. The aim is for $3.5 billion to go toward humanitarian relief in Afghanistan; the remaining assets will stay in American hands with a view to being accessed by relatives of victims of the 9/11 attacks.
As a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s been hard to tolerate the political and military general class that bears so much responsibility for the disasters that unfolded in those countries. President Biden’s confusing move regarding the $7 billion of assets appears right up there with all the other cack-handed handling of and disregard for Afghans.
Fortunately, when it comes to the current situation in Afghanistan, that sees about eight million people at risk of starvation, including a million children, a retired general has spoken out to state the obvious that so many, including the president, it would appear, are continuing to ignore:
“That fact is, they defeated us and we have to come to terms with that inconvenient fact,” former U.K. defense chief General Sir David Richards said recently in the BBC’s Afghanistan: a Country at Breaking Point, a searing watch that parses how the economic sanctions imposed by the West since the Taliban took over have contributed to economic collapse. “They are now the government of Afghanistan. They are responsible for 40 million odd people. The Taliban are a very broad grouping and there’s no doubt within that grouping there are many that we can and must come to terms with and deal with.”
What Richards is doing—unlike many others—is seeing the wood for the trees in Afghanistan. Afghanistan and its economy have imploded because $10 billion in Afghan assets has been frozen by the international community since the Taliban came to power. Sanctions against Taliban leaders still classified by the U.S. as terrorists have also stopped almost all foreign investment.
The net result: The Taliban don’t have any funds with which to manage the country and pay salaries. There’s no safety net—75 percent of public spending in Afghanistan came from Western aid. A stunning 97 percent of Afghans are currently living around the poverty line. It’s a perfect storm, again, basically created by the West. It means that after two decades of visiting devastation on Afghanistan, the international community is following up all too effectively in compounding the betrayal and misery. It couldn’t be more ill-timed, as the country is suffering the worst drought in 30 years, alongside a bitterly cold winter. So there are Afghan farmers who have lost most of their harvests because of the drought, swathes of the population who worked on military bases that are now unemployed, and government workers whose salaries can’t be paid. The World Food Program (WFP) says it needs $2.6 billion to feed nearly 23 million Afghans in want. It has received $700 million so far.
“Afghanistan is facing an avalanche of hunger and destitution the likes of which I have never seen in my twenty plus years with the World Food Programme,” WFP Country Director in Afghanistan Mary-Ellen McGroarty commented in a news release.
It’s all a long way from another point well made by the general: “There’s a great phrase, to be magnanimous in victory. I think this is an occasion for us to be magnanimous in defeat.”
This includes taking the Taliban seriously and treating them respectfully. Obviously, we must watch them like hawks and hold them to account. The exact way of managing this, I appreciate, is as much a riddle as anything. But something has to be done.
“There’s just not enough cash in the country for [it] to function,” Save the Children’s Fiona McSheehy tells the BBC. “It’s really striking that the world is allowing things in Afghanistan to deteriorate to such an extent and at such a speed that an entire population is at risk. It’s unconscionable to be honest; I genuinely can’t see how this situation can change unless there’s a massive shift in thinking at the international level.”
Another Panorama interviewee, former U.N. official Mark Lowcock, acknowledges the conundrum represented by handing billions of dollars over to the Taliban.
“Every country in the world has reservations about the ideology, the past behaviors, so I entirely understand why some restricting measures and sanctions should remain in place,” Lowcock says. “I don’t think anybody wants the Taliban to get hold of free foreign exchange, dollars or pounds, to go and buy arms from arms dealers around the world.”
But he also notes that the world can’t engage in “collective punishment, into starvation” of an entire population. That point about collective punishment is well made. The sheer scale of suffering that many Afghan families have endured previously and which now intersects with a new round of suffering manifested by the latest crisis is beyond our cognitive abilities. A recent article by Christina Lamb, one of Britain’s leading foreign correspondents, manages to convey a sense of it.
Reporting from western Kabul, Lamb describes a mud-walled dwelling in which a multi-generational family are “all shivering, hungry and coughing.” An “aunt holds a chest x-ray and a diagnosis for tuberculosis, which they have no money to treat, and a photograph of her bloody-faced eldest son killed by a suicide bomb last year. The grandfather tips out a few twigs, scraps of paper and rubbish collected from the street—their only fuel.”
Lamb describes how in 2010 the father had to spend eight months in a hospital after the family house in Sangin was bombed during a firefight between the Taliban and British forces, after which the family was displaced to the Afghan capital. Three months ago, the father sold his eight-year-old daughter in marriage to a much older man for 150,000 Pakistani rupees ($850) to buy food. Recently “things became so desperate, he tried to sell his three-month-old daughter, Naghma, still wrapped in swaddling.”
It’s impossible to tell how many times that sort of situation is multiplied across the Afghan population. Either way, something needs to be done rather than tying ourselves in knots over dealing with people as galling as the Taliban. As Richards alludes, they are not all psychotic brutes as usually portrayed in the simplistic good-guys-versus-bad-guys narrative of much media; and are we really that confident we are the good guys after everything that went down in Afghanistan during the conflict?
The Taliban know Afghanistan has changed significantly and that they can’t get away with the same things as when they first came to power more than two decades ago. Of course, becoming social media savvy, etc., does not mean they won’t abuse power. Gender-based violence remains a serious problem. As Lamb notes, there was a recent report of two young Afghan women disappearing after taking part in protests. But there are also increasing numbers of videos of Afghan women protesting in appropriately brazen style as armed Taliban look on rather sheepishly and do not intervene. Afghan society is in real flux and the Taliban appear to recognize that and are responding accordingly with some flexibility.
I’m not as convinced that we in the West have changed or learned as much over the same time period. Many media and politicians continue to hammer on about respecting the rights of women and girls. I’m not saying that issue needs to be cast aside. I didn’t like that fact of the women and children killed by our bombs, so let’s do all we can now for the living. But telling the men of Afghanistan what to do with their women may need to be handled more adroitly (I’m not convinced that all Afghan women, especially those outside the cities, appreciate being told by us what’s best either—read the New Yorker article “The Other Afghan Women”). Afghans are ferociously independent and don’t like being told what to do in their country by outsiders.
For right or wrong, throughout history, a country’s menfolk have usually proved defensive of their women in relation to outside interference. As recounted by the writer Jan Morris in Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress, the first volume of her incomparable trilogy about the British Empire, a factor in the breakout of the first Anglo-Afghan War in 1839 was the “free and easy behaviour” of British officers with local Afghan women that “made many secret enemies” in Kabul. That war ended infamously with the whole British force wiped out bar one survivor to tell the terrible tale. Us Brits have now fought in four wars in Afghanistan—we have either lost them or managed a vague stalemate that soon unraveled. At least you in the U.S. have only lost one—though perhaps you also vicariously lost the one the Russians lost, since so much sown in that war came back to haunt you, your military partners, and everyone else.
Maybe it’s time to notice the trends in all this? It could be distilled to the following maxim: Don’t piss around with the Afghans—take them seriously. And don’t ride roughshod over their culture, as backward and malevolent as it may appear. Also, international calls for respecting female rights appear rather moot when Afghans of both sexes are starving and likely to die. Let’s prevent that and sort out that crisis, and then consider the great rights conundrum, which we should deal with in a way that might actually be heeded by the Taliban and hence prove effective. We must never again underestimate just how complicated Afghanistan and its people are.
Ultimately, it comes back down to the general’s point about magnanimity, magnanimity in defeat. As veteran BBC reporter John Simpson said at the end of the Country at Breaking Point, as he reflected on his 40 years of reporting on Afghanistan’s woes: “I don’t think I’ve ever felt I might be watching the destruction of a nation. These people have been through so much these past few decades—they simply don’t deserve it.”
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer who splits his time between the U.S., the U.K., and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey and at his website: www.jamesjeffreyjournalism.com.