The United States Must Airdrop Aid to the Blockaded Regions of Afghanistan

Said Sabir Ibrahimi

With the Afghan economy is on the verge of collapse, the United Nations has warned that half of the population in Afghanistan needs humanitarian aid. The U.S. military’s combat operations in Afghanistan have come to an end but Washington has pledged to remain engaged with the country through diplomacy, development, and humanitarian aid. After the sudden collapse of the U.S.-backed government on August 15, 2021, the Taliban swiftly seized 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces –  the last standing is Panjshir. As Panjshir leads the resistance, it has also become a safe refuge for many Afghans escaping the wrath of the Taliban, as well as a humanitarian crisis.

The Panjshir Valley is surrounded by magnificent mountains and a roaring river at its heart. It has historically been an unconquered territory, be it against the Soviet Union in the 1970s or the Taliban in the 1990s. The current resistance force is led by Mr. Ahmad Massoud, the son of the legendary anti-Soviet freedom fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was tragically assassinated by al-Qaeda in collaboration with the Taliban two days before the horrific attacks of 9/11. Mr. Ahmad Massoud is now leading the National Resistance Front (NRF) of Afghanistan, alongside Vice President Mr. Amrullah Saleh, who has proclaimed himself as care-taker President in the absence of President Ashraf Ghani, who has fled the country.

While people across the country suffer from the shortage of food and basic needs, the situation in Panjshir is dire as the NRF and Taliban are fighting tooth and nail. Notably, several of Massoud’s closest aides have been killed, allegedly by Pakistan’s drones, and there is an active blockade imposed on the valley by the Taliban. The NRF’s attempts to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban, which included some level of autonomy for Panjshir under a decentralized Islamic democratic system were rebuffed. The Taliban insists on a centralized and puritanical theocracy with the group as the dominant power at the center.  While both sides have sustained casualties, reports indicate a devastating toll on the civilian population.

The Panjshir valley has been surrounded by the Taliban from all entry points, and they have callously enforced an active blockade, inhibiting humanitarian relief from reaching the afflicted. Internet and telephone communication lines have been cut off for several days. Mr. Saleh has appealed to the international community for humanitarian assistance, but his pleas for help have fallen on deaf ears. The Taliban has confirmed the blockade, by saying that due to fighting goods and food items have not entered the province for some four days but promised to reopen the supply lines. The Taliban also claimed to have captured the entire province, including the capital Bazarak. However, the NRF reports resumption of fierce fighting across the province. This is at a time when Ahmad Massoud has called for a national uprising which has inspired some movements in other provinces. Additionally, several women have also participated in protesting for their rights in cities like Kabul, Herat, and Mazar e Sharif.

Many amongst the ranks of the NRF are former members of the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). They have risked their lives fighting alongside American troops against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State Khorasan, and many feel abandoned while they continue to resist. While we do not know a lot about the intensity of the issue due to complete media blackout, some with access on the ground report of the catastrophic humanitarian crisis is unfolding in places like Panjshir and Andarab, a district in neighboring Baghlan province. Upwards of a quarter of a million civilians are trapped in these areas,  and desperately need “food supplies, including baby formula, rice, wheat, and other perishables” and medicine.

While the U.S. military’s combat mission has ended in Afghanistan,  America and its allies can provide critical assistance through humanitarian aid as originally planned. Some small amount of aid from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have reached Kabul, but a lot more needs to be done to prevent the catastrophe that the United Nations has warned about. One of the quickest ways to get aid across the country would be through airdropping. The US has conducted several airdrop missions in the past including one in 2014 in Iraq. The US should start with airdropping the much-needed supplies in areas such as Panjshir and other regions where the Taliban has imposed blockades. This can bring great relief to the people in need. Delays in delivering humanitarian aid could risk the lives of many people from starvation and medical attention.

Photo credit: Nonprofit quarterly.

The Taliban Do Not Accept an Evolved Afghanistan as a Reality

After nearly two decades of war and military stalemate, the US negotiated an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw its troops in exchange for counterterrorism cooperation. However, the Taliban continue to fight and insist on establishing a rigid “Islamic order.” A Taliban commander, Mullah Fazel, recently told a gathering in Pakistan: “The amir or leader of [a future government] will be ours. There will be an Islamic Emirate, and there will be a system based on Shari’a.” This is when Afghanistan is already an Islamic Republic and society has evolved in many ways since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. Going back to the Taliban order is not an option for many and could further complicate peacemaking efforts in the country.

The post-2001 system with its shortcomings has many achievements including 9 million children enrolled in school, 35% of whom are girls; the freest media in the region with a dozen private TV and radio stations, newspapers and magazines; 20 million cellphone users; and a dozen private universities. Afghans also progressed in the areas of arts, culture, and sports from cricket to martial arts, which includes female participants. These numbers do not merely represent a temporary change but a profound shift in many Afghans’ thinking on sociopolitical matters. Under the Taliban regime, Afghans could not imagine a day when they would witness an elected president or a peaceful transfer of power. But both happened in 2014 when Hamid Karzai handed over the presidency to Ashraf Ghani. Today’s Afghanistan encourages accountability for elected officials, critical thinking, volunteerism, feminism, environmentalism—the unthinkable under the “Islamic emirate.”

Certainly, the post-Taliban regime is far from perfect. Afghanistan has held four presidential elections and three of them were marred with massive electoral irregularities. Afghanistan remains one of the top ten most corrupt countries in the world with a narco-economy that produces a large chunk of global demand for opium. The quality of education and healthcare need dire improvement. The country remains vulnerable to environmental challenges. The society remains ideologically conservative. Things can easily be interpreted as against Sharia. We remember the beating and burning of Farkhunda, a young woman falsely charged and killed by a mob for heresy on the streets of Kabul. Recently, Afghan author Zaman Ahmadi was released after spending 7.5 years in prison for an unpublished article deemed blasphemous.

However, many Afghans still prefer the post-2001 quasi-democratic system over the Taliban’s theocratic regime. The Asia Foundation survey also found that 65.1% of Afghans are “very or somewhat satisfied” with the way democracy works in the country; 86% of Afghans support women’s education, and 76% support women working outside the home. The return of a draconian regime will make Afghanistan a much more closed society. The threat is real and the Taliban are preparing for such a scenario. In a recent interview Taliban official, Hakim Akhunzada, said the Taliban did not see the environment as conducive for women to go to school beyond the age of puberty.

The Taliban have been seeking a puritanical “Islamic order” in an already Islamic nation where the constitution holds Islamic laws above any other law. From Mullah Omar in 2004 to Mullah Haibatullah in 2019, the group has rejected democracy and boycotted elections. The Taliban has killed and maimed voters and bombed voting sites. Now many in the group see the US-Taliban agreement as a victory and their trolls on social media threaten folks who disagree with them with their return to power. The narrative is that the Taliban is the best alternative. The rest of Afghanistan and the ideas of other Afghans do not matter and are seen as misguided and corrupt.

Additionally, what is casting more doubts on the peace process and the intentions of the Taliban is the level of violence amid a global pandemic – COVID19. Despite a brief reduction of violence (RiV) period in early March, the Taliban have launched hundreds of attacks on the Afghan security forces. In one instance, the Taliban killed 24 Afghan soldiers in their sleep in Zabul. The Afghan security forces, who had earlier paused offensives hoping to maintain the RiV, have now vowed to revenge. Furthermore, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Khurasan launched several attacks, the latest of which was on a Shia Hazara gathering and a Sikh temple in Kabul, mercilessly killing dozens of men, women, and children. In another horrific incident, eight civilians, many of them children, died in Gereshk district of Helmand when a roadside bomb struck their car.

The Asia Foundation survey also found that 93.1% of Afghans fear to encounter the Taliban. For over two decades, Afghans have experienced the tyrannical reign of the Taliban in their midst. In the 1990s under the “Islamic emirate,” the economy also collapsed. The disgustingly salty bread rations by the United Nations were the only source of nutrition for many in an isolated Afghanistan. People would need to go to a Public Call Office to make an international call from the capital, Kabul. The Taliban moral police beat women in public for “immodesty” and jailed men for trimming their beards. They severed the hands of thieves, stoned the “adulterous,” and executed the condemned during soccer matches. These primitive practices continue to this day in areas under Taliban control.

Despite all these atrocities, the Afghan people favor negotiations with the Taliban to end this endless suffering. The Asia Foundation survey found that 89% of Afghans favor talks with the Taliban. The Afghan government offered to recognize the Taliban as a political party and enter negotiations. However, the Taliban rejected talks until a US-Taliban agreement was reached. Now that there is an agreement, the intra-Afghan negotiations are yet to begin while the Taliban have denounced the recently proposed Afghan negotiation team. 

The Taliban represent one of the many factions in the country, yet they aspire to rule all Afghans. The group either does not seem to realize an evolved Afghanistan as a reality or simply the goal is to establish the so-called “Islamic emirate” — an order that will take a heavy toll on the economy, pluralism, media freedom, women’s liberties, civil society, freedom of expression, and could be the end of the democratic experiment in the country. It will also leave no room for factional political participation and power-sharing, which will bring the country to the brink of yet another civil war. If the Taliban want to have a future in Afghanistan, they will need to accept the rest of the country as a reality, pursue a peaceful political struggle and not repeat their mistakes of the 1990s. The Taliban excuse for their jihad was “foreign occupation” – now foreigners are leaving – it is the Taliban versus the rest of Afghanistan.

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Previously he has worked with several developmental organizations in post-2001 rehabilitation efforts in Afghanistan. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Comments and follow at @saberibrahimi

The article was originally published on Tolonews.

Can There Be A U.S.-Afghanistan Relation Beyond the Realm of Security?

Said Sabir Ibrahimi

Pundits who urge the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan argue national security interests and point out to threats emanating from Afghanistan. Indeed, 17 years ago, it was national security that took the U.S. military to Afghanistan. To date, the presence of more than 20 transnational terrorist groups in the region continues to justify the American military involvement in the country. However, a broader question that is rarely asked is whether counterterrorism is the only issue that brings the two nations together?

The U.S. military has said that there are some 20 transnational terrorist groups operating in and around Afghanistan that can pose a serious threat to the U.S. national security interests. However, less emphasized is the fact that the majority of these terrorist groups are not based in Afghanistan or directed by the Afghans. Data from the U.S. intelligence and other sources show that an overwhelming majority of these jihadi groups, including what is left of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K), have either originated from or have safe havens in Pakistan. Even the Afghan Taliban (and the Haqqani Network), arguably the only Afghan “nationalist” insurgency, is also based in Pakistan. Other insurgent groups from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan (IMU), and East Turkmenistan’s Islamic Movement (ETIM), who are seeking autonomy from China for Xinjiang province, are all also foreign.

Nevertheless, some of the aforementioned groups, famously the Taliban and IS-K, are widely operating in Afghanistan. In addition to the insurgency, Afghanistan also has a warlord problem. The country has become the hub for insurgency and instability because of continuous external support for the insurgent groups from abroad, as well as a divided Afghan political elite and weak Afghan state institutions. Under these circumstances, pundits are right,  an abrupt U.S. withdrawal could lead to the dissolution of the system created post-2001. As such, the security issue requires a long-term U.S. counterterrorism engagement, however, security engagement is not all there is for the U.S. to engage.

It is hoped that peace negotiations underway between the U.S. and the Taliban could lead to a deal between the Taliban, the U.S., and the Afghan government. This way a major threat (the Taliban) could be defused by bringing them into the political fold. Such a solution would be the best-case scenario, about which many are skeptical. Worst would be the continuation of war with or without the U.S. that could lead to yet another Afghan civil war reinforced by Afghanistan neighbors and other regional powers. Assuming the U.S. is successful in convincing Pakistan and the Taliban to cease hostilities against Kabul, it is likely that there is a peace deal. For such a deal to become a success and become viable, the U.S. would engage with Afghanistan beyond the realm of security.

The U.S.-Afghanistan relations could be expanded to the areas of economic development and democracy. This is not to say that the U.S. has not been involved in these sectors before, but the issues have been that the American involvement in economic development and democratization has been in support of America’s counter-terrorism mission in the country. Now is the time that support for economic development and democratization is made a priority and given as much importance as counter-terrorism. 

Kabul is making great leaps in terms of economic connectivity. From a landlocked country often dependent on one neighbor, Afghanistan is now connected to Central Asian, India, Europe, and China. The Afghan mineral wealth is estimated at about $1 trillion that is untouched, which could be utilized to benefit both the local people and investors. Afghanistan can also offer human capital – 70% of the population is under the age of 40. The U.S. already supports some of these programs but more could be done. For instance, encouraging the U.S. private sector to invest in Afghanistan. 

The U.S. is advocating for the democratization of countries such as Iran and Venezuela while in Afghanistan the U.S. has remained less vocal about it. This is when Afghanistan has embraced democracy and has held three presidential and parliamentary elections, noting that all had transparency issues, but people participated in these elections with enthusiasm. The Asia Foundation and other surveys show that a majority of Afghans favor democracy. These studies also show that Afghan men and women do not want to go back to the era of the Taliban. The U.S. can help Afghanistan develop a stronger democracy, including creating a professional and unbiased election commission, decentralization of power and building on the gains of the last 17 years. In a region plagued with dictatorships, military rule, and theocracies, the U.S. has a golden chance to help Afghanistan become a flourishing democracy and an ally.

Photo credit: AP.

The article was simultaneously published on the Small War Journal.

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan Regional Project at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Opinions expressed in this essay are personal.

Trump Gets the Accounts of Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan Wrong


US President Donald Trump’s unique brand of historical analysis — whether referring to events that happened yesterday or decades ago — is often understood as part of his post-truth appeal to the political base that supported his 2016 election campaign.

But whoever he was attempting to impress with his infamously inaccurate take on the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the beginning of the year, the comments went down a stink in the South Asian country.

In 1978, the communist factions Khalq and Parcham, backed by the Soviets, conducted a coup in Afghanistan, assassinated then-president Sardar Daud Khan, and massacred his family.

The country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA). The coup set in motion a cycle of violence from which Afghanistan has arguably never recovered.

Trump, however, had a different take. At a January 2 cabinet meeting he described the invasion as follows:

Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. Russia. … The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. (The Soviet Union) was right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt; they went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer part of Russia, because of Afghanistan.

The statement earned scathing responses from Afghan President Ashraf GhaniForeign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, and former national intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil, as well as several informed retorts from Afghan ambassadors.

One of the best of these came from Waheed Omar, the country’s Ambassador to Italy, who offered a short history of foreign meddling in Afghanistan via neighbouring Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), an institution that many Afghans blame for the emergence and sustained presence of the Taliban.

The USSR’s Cold War ambitions in Afghanistan set the stage for nearly two decades of internecine fighting and the emergence of the Taliban. Map by Matthew White.

Afghanistan’s communism disaster

Afghanistan has been invaded repeatedly throughout its history, most recently in 2001 by US-led coalition forces that Trump is now keen to pull out of the country completely.

In an article for Mangal Media, Mohammed Harun Arsalai, co-founder of Documenting Afghanistanexplained why the expansion of Soviet-backed communism into Afghanistan marked perhaps the most cataclysmic of all foreign interventions in the country.  

Once these (communist) factions were in control they began summarily killing just about anyone they remotely suspected of being in opposition. Going to the Masjid too often was enough for them. They were also killing each other. The mass, violent repression and extrajudicial killings that the communists were carrying out pushed Islamic groups in Afghanistan into militancy. But it wasn’t until the wanton killings starting in 1978 that the Mujahideen went from being an underground resistance movement to a popular resistance movement.

In December 1979, the Soviet Politburo’s inner circle, fearing then-president Hafizullah Amin’s potential disloyalty, decided to invade Afghanistan. After a week of heavy fighting, the Soviets killed Amin, took over Afghanistan, and installed Babrak Karmal as the DRA’s new Soviet-backed leader. Karmal would eventually resign in 1986, by which point over a million Afghans had been killed and more than six million were estimated displaced by the fighting. 

Finally, in 1988, the DRA, USSR, US and Pakistan signed accords to end the war in Afghanistan, and the Soviet troops’ withdrawal began. In 1989 all Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, effectively conceding defeat.

Soviet troops returning home from Afghanistan. Photo from RIAN archive. Featured on Wikimedia Commons.

President Trump’s statement, “the reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia” is simply wrong. 

In a 1980 speech, US President Ronald Reagan — a man Trump uses as a benchmark to measure himself against — called the invasion an extremely serious threat to peace, given the threat of further Soviet expansion in Southwest Asia.

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, M. Ashraf Haidari, noted after Trump’s comments that “even Russia” would not support his left-field interpretation of the invasion.

The chaos unleashed by the Soviet invasion — and the flow of weapons from both Moscow and the West into the country —  laid the ground for decades of violence and the arrival in power of the Taliban in 1996. 

The legacy of the US’s own invasion of Afghanistan, meanwhile, is a giant, bleak-looking question mark.

The conflict has become more complicated and intense as the Taliban insurgency grows in strength and fighters nominally loyal to ISIS have ramped up attacks on civilian targets in parallel.

Since airstrikes first began in October 2001, Afghanistan has never been as insecure as it is now.

Eighteen years, trillions of dollars, and thousands of lives later, the US government is now rushing to leave a war that it cannot win, while Trump is blustering bigly.

Photo credit: The White House.

This article was originally published in Global Voices Online. Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Afghan Affairs, which takes no institutional positions.

Can Qatar Enhance Its Mediation Efforts in the Afghan Peace Process?


Qatar has emerged as a conflict resolution actor in the international arena attempting to mediate political solutions from Lebanon to Sudan, and even for Afghanistan, albeit with mixed results. In 2013, at the request of the US and the Taliban preference, Qatar allowed the Taliban to open their so-called political office in Doha. While the Afghan government never officially recognized the office, the office remained as the de facto address for the group, besides their sanctuaries in Pakistan. In 2014, the US and the Taliban agreed to a prisoners’ swap in which one US serviceperson was exchanged for five Taliban members released from Guantanamo Bay. Doha would facilitate official and unofficial dialogues between the US, the Afghan government, think tanks, and the Taliban for years to follow. However, Qatar would mainly act upon the request of the US or the Afghan government and not take on a proactive mediator role in the Afghan peace making efforts.

Afghanistan has been subject to a chronic conflict for over 40 years; the memories of many Afghans from the Arab world are from the spread of religious puritanism and the Arab fighters who rushed to help in the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. When the Soviet troops withdrew, mediation efforts failed and the Afghan civil war began over power-sharing in the newly formed Islamic government. By the mid-1990s, the Taliban faction prevailed and controlled most of the Afghan territory, establishing the Islamic Emirate, recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Taliban regime hosted al-Qaeda, who had launched terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001 which led to the US retaliation. The US intervention in the country ultimately ended the Taliban regime and established a new, somewhat-democratic system that is recognized overwhelmingly by a majority of the international community.

But the Taliban made a comeback with sanctuary, training and logistical support by Pakistan, financial support from the Gulf countries, and the illicit economy and extortion inside the country. From 2001 to 2017, the US spent more than $130 billion dollars on reconstruction and creating institutions – this was accompanied by 2,500 casualties of US servicemen and women, and Afghans paying the biggest price of all by losing around 50,000 civilians and thousands of security forces. The region, then, also suffered from illicit drug trafficking that led to more addictions across the region and economic downturns, especially with Pakistan needing an IMF bailout. This grave reality-check brought some consensus for a political solution in Afghanistan. Challenges still remain with the Taliban not wanting to enter into talks with the Afghan government, and gaining support from unusual partners such as Iran and Russia, complicating a regional consensus.

At the same time, Doha enjoys a great degree of good relations with a majority of the parties involved in the Afghan affairs. Pakistan, as the main sponsor of the Taliban, enjoys friendly relations with Qatar. Islamabad and Doha have entered into a strategic security partnership and economicties for many years. Furthermore, Qatar enjoys close relations with Iran. During the Gulf crisis and Saudi led blockade, Iran was one of the first countries that supplied necessary food items and most importantly gave airspace access to Qatari air traffic. Doha has also maintained cordial relations with Moscow, although they had their differences over Syria. Russia continues to remain neutral in the Gulf crisis and offered civilian assistance to Qatar. In return, Doha proposed Foreign Direct Investments in Russia. In March 2018, after a visit by the emir of Qatar to Moscow, Qatar Airways announced that it plans to purchase a 25% stake in Russia’s Vnukovo Airport.

Additionally, Qatar is a close strategic ally of the United States. The peninsula is hosting the largest US military presence in the Middle East. There are some 11,000 US military personnel based at the US Combined Air Operations Center in Al Udeid Base, which serves as the main source of airpower and logistics for operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and several other countries in the region. Doha and Washington also enjoy economic and cultural ties. Qatar hosts branches of some top American educational centers in Doha, including the Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University, and Brookings Institution, and there are robust economic ties between the two countries. During the Gulf crisis, while the White House initially sided with the Saudis, it later toned down its stance and offered to play a constructive mediator’s role. The US has also expressed appreciation for Qatar’s role in facilitating peace talks with the Taliban.

Kabul-Doha relations are limited, but Qatar has helped the country with small-scale developmentaland education projects, as well as participating in international fora on Afghanistan. On a number of occasions, Qatar has offered to mediate between the Afghan actors of the conflict and condemned militant attacks. However, Qatar does not have an embassy in Kabul and operates through its Islamabad embassy. The Afghan government recognizes Doha’s role in the mediation process and curtailing Taliban financing. Kabul has said it welcomes positive peace efforts that are “genuine and tangible.” Afghanistan’s embassy in Doha has even advocated for forging closer economic and cultural relations between the two countries.

Doha can play an instrumental role in creating a regional consensus around the question of Afghanistan and mediating between the Afghan elements. At the very least, Doha can act as an influential balancer. Qatar with its good standing with regional actors can influence Pakistan, Iran, and Russia and the prospects of a regional consensus towards ending the war. Doha can also use its leverage over the Taliban and encourage the group to enter direct negotiations with the Afghan government and agree to a ceasefire – a proposal that was raised by the Afghan government in August. Establishment of Qatar’s diplomatic mission in Kabul can also help in this regard. Overall, Doha can play a more prominent role in Afghanistan by proactively participating in diplomatic efforts and positively influencing the actors. This way Qatar can gain international recognition for its contribution to international conflict resolution efforts that can lead to ending a chronic conflict and boost its soft power in the global arena. But it still remains to be seen whether Qatar will, in fact, take on a more prominent role in the Afghan peace process.

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan‑Pakistan Regional Project at New York University‘s Center on International Cooperation. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Stay in touch on twitter @Saberibrahimi