The Guests at Kabul's Garden Parties
The Guests at Kabul's Garden Parties
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Op-Ed / Asia

The Guests at Kabul's Garden Parties

Summer in Afghanistan is the fighting season, and the time for Kabul garden parties. At diplomatic, military, and donor agency receptions it is always interesting to count the number of known and rumored drug lords and human rights abusers in attendance.

This socializing sits incongruously with calls from the international community for President Hamid Karzai to stand up to the very same people. The Afghan administration does indeed need to demonstrate a real commitment to combating corruption and narcotics, so as to build accountable and sustainable institutions. But it will cost Karzai real political capital to move against high-level corruption and abuse, particularly in an environment of increasingly entrenched patronage, approaching elections, and vulnerability heightened by the insurgency.

Yet while the international community demands that Karzai take the tough measures, its member states are not prepared to do the simplest of things themselves. They need to stop inviting such people to receptions; and take them off the itineraries of visiting high-level delegations; stop providing them with visas and travel to Western capitals; raise questions about the foreign properties and assets they buy that are way beyond the means of someone on a government salary; and target senior officials, instead of their minions.

One of the most striking examples of everything wrong in Kabul is Sher Pur, a suburb right next to the main diplomatic enclave. Ministry of Defense land - public land - was parceled out to a number of members of the transitional government in 2003 for nominal fees, and existing occupants were forcibly removed. The UN special rapporteur on the right to housing raised the alarm at the time, but was criticized by others in the international community who didn't want to cause waves. Massive, gaudy mansions - many it is widely assumed funded from questionable sources - have now been built on this land. And who are the new tenants? Embassies and foreign contractors, putting thousands of dollars a month in these landlords' pockets.

The use of private security firms is another example of double standards. Foreigners demand that Afghans disarm their militias - and have paid millions for disarmament programs. But these groups often reinvent themselves as private security firms, and in many cases are then employed by foreign companies and organizations. It is the networks, rather than the guns in a country awash with weapons, that are important. The militia structures are kept intact, with the salary tab picked up by members of the international community.

The international community continues to seek to co-opt warlords and commanders, turning a blind eye to their abuses and perpetuating the deeply flawed strategy of the past six years. Some say that now is not the time to demand accountability for past abuses - but this often appears to be code for ignoring illegal activities by those prepared to mouth allegiance to the government and the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The UN drug agency has pointed out that the international military continues to ignore the involvement by some "allies" in the drug trade, in exchange for information.

The result of all this is that nascent institutions are corrupted from the outset. This creates incentives against stable and effective government, as corrupt government officials require instability to continue their illegal trade. Their interests are not those of the international community - nor those of the ordinary citizen. Cronyism and corruption among the favored few feed Taliban recruitment, fueling the insurgency, not quelling it.

The population watches with increasing dismay and anger as those responsible for so much of the country's recent violence entrench themselves and share out the spoils of billions in foreign assistance and state assets. And as foreigners fete and fund them, Afghans understandably view them as complicit. Foreign powers must now set an example in words and actions, as well as by placing demands on the newly entrenched Afghan elite.

Most of the population still sees the international community's intervention as the best chance of a life free from entrenched violence. But sometimes we make it very hard for them to trust us and the system we are helping build.


Former Deputy President and Chief Operating Officer
Former Senior Analyst, South Asia
Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

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