Sima Samar. Credit: Erik Halkjaer, Svenska Afghanistankommittén

Sima Samar: “Collective failure” allowed for Taliban takeover

News 22.11.2022

Nearly 15 months have passed since the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. In a recent interview, 2012 Right Livelihood Laureate Sima Samar discussed the ongoing human rights crises in her home country and what the international community can do to hold the Taliban accountable. This is the last instalment of a three-part series detailing these crises, drawing attention to the failures that allowed the Taliban to once again take control of the country.

In late August of 2021, the world watched in horror as the Taliban seized Kabul and Afghans were once again forced to flee their country. While Samar was certainly horrified, she was not surprised.

Instead, she saw the takeover as a consequence of the years of failure to rebuild the nation by not only the United States, NATO and other international actors – but the Afghan government.

“There is a kind of silence going on about Afghanistan and trying to not acknowledge the failure in the country after so many years of engagement,” Samar explained.

However, silence is no longer an option, according to Samar, who said that we must understand how and why these failures happened to keep history from repeating itself.  

But, what exactly went wrong? For Samar, it comes down to a lack of coordination, rampant corruption, and a divide-and-rule mentality.

The lack of coordination began as soon as United States and NATO troops entered Afghanistan in the early 2000s, Samar explained. There was never a clear exit strategy and because of this, the Afghan government came to rely on the troops’ presence.

“The Afghan government [had] false hope… they were thinking that the US and NATO troops will not leave Afghanistan, because they have an interest in Asia, and Afghanistan could be the post,” she noted.

This was clearly not the case, as the United States and NATO began exiting the country as early as 2014. 

The international community’s exit strategy was also problematic. Rather than deciding when to leave Afghanistan based on achieving nation-building objectives – such as the establishment of a national education system – the international community followed a fixed timeline, regardless of the reality on the ground, said Samar.

Corruption further hampered the nation-building process. For the international community, Samar explained, corruption was especially rampant within the subcontracting of development projects.

“Each country was giving the project to their own country’s company… and then they were subcontracting to the others,” Samar said. “And that in itself, to subcontract and subcontract, you know, a lot of money goes to those contractors rather than to the development of the country.”

On Afghanistan’s part, corruption took place through nepotism. A clear example of this is former President Ashraf Ghani and former US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

“Khalilzad and Ghani were already class fellows somewhere in Lebanon, at the American University. So they had their own personal interest in the peace process, rather than really looking at the people and the needs of the country,” said Samar.

Former president Ghani’s bias for western educated and raised politicians extended to the selection of his cabinet, Samar explained.

“He chose a few young [people], who were able to speak very good English and capable of using technology,” Samar said. “[He] relied on those who didn’t have strong roots on the ground.”

Not only did Ghani rely on western-raised politicians, but he also followed a divide-and-rule style of governance when selecting his cabinet.

In an ethnically diverse and primarily tribal country like Afghanistan, Samar explained, it is vital that the government is representative of its people. 

Ghani did the opposite, selecting almost exclusively Pashtuns, who make up 42 per cent of the country’s population, for his government. 

“[Ghani’s government] really tried to divide and rule the other ethnic groups,” said Samar. “They caused problems between the Uzbeks, they caused problems with the Hazaras, and they caused problems between the Tajiks.”

Division among the people made it easy for the Taliban to seize power, Samar said. 

“That’s why the army and police collapsed so quickly, because they didn’t have the support of the people,” said Samar. “They were young, didn’t understand, and were so full of themselves rather than relying on the people.”

As a result of this, said Samar, Afghanistan is now in a situation nearly identical to the Taliban’s first period of rule in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“It’s a collective failure. We all failed in Afghanistan. So to acknowledge the failure, and to learn lessons from the failure is important,” said Samar. “You cannot substitute experience with a PhD from the United States.”

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