Afghan Generals and the Taliban: The Fall of Afghanistan and Realities of Life Under the Taliban
The rapid collapse of the Afghan republic was one of the worst foreign policy fallouts since the fall of Saigon in 1975. During the past twenty years, Afghan Lieutenant General Khosal Sadat, Lieutenant General Sami Sadat, and Green Beret Thomas Kasza, along with hundreds of thousands of other coalition forces, fought a long and brutal war against the Taliban. Lieutenant Generals Khosal and Sami Sadat were key members of the Afghan military who worked and fought alongside the U.S. military until the disastrous evacuation of Kabul in 2021.
In partnership with the Asia Society Texas, Lieutenant Generals Khosal and Sami Sadat and Green Beret Thomas Kasza provided unique and insightful commentary regarding their own personal experiences of the war; the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul; the collapse of the Afghan military, and the potential outlook of Afghanistan and the diaspora community. The World Affairs Council of Greater Houston was honored to host the three men and create an environment where community members were able to not only listen, but also interact with the speakers.
What Went Wrong?
At the start of the lecture, three distinctive clips from the documentary, Retrograde, were shown. Combined, the clips created a personalized feeling and a melancholy mood that represented the final days of the war in Afghanistan. LTGs Sami and Koshal Sadat provided their analysis and interpretation of the war.
After 9/11, U.S. forces allied with the Northern Resistance to defeat the Taliban government. The newly created Afghan republic became a vital ally that not only went after the remnants of the Taliban, but also confronted both militarily and politically the U.S.’s regional adversaries, including Al Qaeda and Pakistan. LTG Sami Sadat made note that Pakistan had a huge role in the conflict. The incursion of the United States into Afghanistan instilled fear in the Pakistani establishment that the United States was seeking to disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons. Pakistan also viewed the emergence of a stable and republican Afghan government as a threat, as historically, both nations have threatened each other over claims to territory. As a result, Pakistan became a private supporter of the Taliban. LTG Sami Sadat made clear that the Afghan government had no intentions to pursue territorial demands, instead countered that a stable Afghanistan was good for the region since terrorism could not threaten the neighboring countries. LTG Koshal Sadat added a similar perspective: the Taliban was able to survive and reorganize due to Pakistan’s hospitality. The continuous existence of the Taliban’s leadership within the periphery and American and Afghan government presence in villages and cities soured the population’s view of the new republic.
Within Sergeant First Class Thomas Kasza’s view, the constant policy shifts and iterations made long-term strategy difficult to formulate and follow. Afghanistan, unlike other warring nations, simply could not be won through objectives. The taking of a hill or securing of a road or town did not guarantee victory. The constant rotation of military units made institutional knowledge unmaintainable. This was paired with the fact that the United States did not fundamentally understand the local populations at hand or how to properly interact with them. Consequently, an American approach brought discontent and hate to the established conservative and tribal pillars of Afghan society.
Sins of Four Administrations
Over the course of the war, four different presidential administrations, each with differing views, policymakers, and strategies, took charge of the war. Each administration also engaged in policy that damaged the war effort in Afghanistan. From George W. Bush’s opening a second front on terror in Iraq, to Obama and Trump spearheading negotiation efforts with the Taliban, to Biden formally withdrawing American troops, the U.S.’s long-term involvement was doomed from the very beginning. LTG Sami Sadat viewed the Bush administration as the most favorable. In two-hundred years of foreign policymaking, the United States was a newcomer; being the first time that the nation was directly involved in this area of the world. Initially, with the ousting of the Taliban regime during the Bush years, the United States and Afghan republic shared a secured partnership where a potent Afghan military and police force was being built up while a successful counterinsurgency campaign was taking place. However, according to LTG Sadat, it was during the Obama presidency that the war shifted to an unfavorable direction. Clashes between the then Afghan president and Obama soured the relationship, culminating with an anti-American paranoia within Afghan political circles and the pursuit of negotiations by the Obama administration with the Taliban. Negotiations climaxed in 2020 with the signing of the Doha Agreement and subsequent withdrawal the following year.
An overreaching sin, as LTG Khosal Sadat noted, was that the United States did not have clear objectives for Afghanistan: there was no long-term outlook for the country. On the ground, the American military relationship with the Afghan National Army was strong. The cyclical nature of national policy making did not impact the layers of partnership that the two forces held. The fighting continued regardless of what was taking place between Kabul and Washington. Yet, with the Doha agreements, the two decades of trust building immediately fell apart and the new generation of Afghans who fought alongside the United States were not given a chance to lead their country into a new era.
What ultimately made nation-building and legitimization of the government much more burdensome was the prevalence of corruption. LTG Khosal Sadat, who was Deputy Interior Minister and directly dismissed provincial police chiefs for corruption, presented two sources for this sin. Stemming from Washington, contracting agencies, who provided various services, partnered frequently with Afghan officials. These officials used subcontractors to maximize their own power and wealth rather than improve the country. Within the population itself, petty corruption created roadblocks to economic and political progress. Bureaucratic backlogs, especially seen with the police force, made services unreliable and the development of local institutions unfeasible.
For Green Beret Thomas Kasza, the push and pull between counterterrorism and nation building proved to be difficult to balance for regular infantry soldiers, especially younger servicemen who had no experience or understanding of local norms and culture. Inevitably, as Kasza pointed out, there was a lack of imagination in objectives and the creation of a psychological impact that might have assured victory never sufficed.
The capitulation of the republic and ushering of a new Islamic emirate in 2021 created questions regarding the future of Afghan society. To some outsiders, the Taliban of the modern age is different from the one that dominated Afghanistan during the 1990s. The Doha negotiations produced an image that the Taliban were articulate delegates, not terrorists. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the American delegation presented a Taliban 2.0; an organization that has moved past its archaic extremism and should be given a chance. Both LTG Khosal and Sami Sadat were inclined to give peace a chance, based on the mythos that the Taliban might have reformed. Moreover, the peace talks impacted troop morale and questioned whether continued fighting was desirable. Nevertheless, the idea of a Taliban 2.0 quickly dissipated as the republican government fell apart. Terrorist groups, most notably Al Qaeda and its longtime leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, took residence in Kabul, the former beacon of Afghan democracy. The liberties that Afghan women enjoyed disappeared, food insecurity skyrocketed, and ethnic tribalism replaced Afghan unity. The new generation of Afghans, who embraced ideals of republicanism and supported liberal values, had now lost their chance at governance to religious extremists, ethnic entrepreneurs, and avaricious warlords. LTG Khosal Sadat concluded that this new status quo of Taliban rule is unacceptable.
LTG Sami Sadat stated that there is no division between terrorism and the Taliban. The growing perception that the Taliban has outgrown its terrorist ambitions is fundamentally wrong. Instead, the Taliban were and will be the reason for the existence of regional and global terrorism. From aiding the attacks on the World Trade Center to being the modern-day sponsors of Al Qaeda’s activities in the Sahara, the Taliban continue to pose a major security risk.
A New Resistance
Since the fall of Kabul, both LTGs Khosal and Samit Sadat have materialized plans to rally the diaspora and form a new fighting force to retake Afghanistan from the Taliban. The two decades of fighting created a valuable experimentation with democracy, liberalization, and prosperity, as seen with women’s education. The people of Afghanistan recognize the threat that the Taliban pose in destroying the central tenants of the 2004 Constitution. The two generals have begun leadership mobilization and hope to organize the Afghan diaspora community and the new generation of soldiers and politicians to contest the power held by the Taliban. They emphasized that Afghanistan is not lost and that the Afghan people need support the same way that the United States needed help when 9/11 took place.
Yet, the prospect of contesting the Taliban is much more difficult than it was back during the 1990s and early 2000s. Even with this reality at hand, LTGs Khosal and Samit Sadat remained hopeful. The popular support for an anti-Taliban group is crucial, but what makes the difference is the lack of foreign interference. Pakistan and Iran, formerly pro-Taliban, have engaged in border skirmishes with the Taliban and are actively supporting minor opposition groups. They’ve recognized that collaboration with the Taliban is harmful since the group doesn’t obey established norms and are not loyal to the rule of international law. In breaking with the past, the new generation resistance does not seek American financial or material support, meaning that Western invader narratives that were heavily used during the war are impractical. A final key aspect, according to LTG Samit Sadat, is that the new generation of Afghan resistance members will only include individuals who truly seek to create a better future for Afghanistan.
After twenty years of warfare, many Americans, both citizens and policymakers, are tired and disillusioned. The prospect of supporting a new fighting force or even mentioning Afghanistan is a potential domestic and foreign policy death blow. However, Afghanistan, as the three speakers noted, is still vital to the United States. First Class Sergeant Thomas Kasza made a stark prediction that the inherent hidden division within the country will likely lead to civil war, as entities and factions will split to gain power, thus creating a potential breeding ground for terrorism. The alternative for the United States is the resurgence of the republican government to prevent continuous chaos and conflict. On a personal level for Kasza, he wants the war to have meant something for the millions of Americans, Afghans, and other coalition members and that their sacrifice was truly worth it. LTG Khosal Sadat expanded by providing a strategic rationale. China has taken advantage of the situation by expanding its Belt and Road initiative into Afghanistan. China is also seeking to provide contracts to exploit the abundance of natural resources and connect oil pipelines from Iran through the country. LTG Sadat pointed out that the Afghan people will not be the beneficiaries of this transaction, rather that it will be Taliban and Chinese authorities gaining wealth, legitimacy, and power in the region. Therefore, not only is there a moral responsibility, but a strategic one as well, as the return of the republican government will benefit the United States in terms of hegemonic competition. LTG Samit Sadat supported LTG Khosal’s raison d’état; Afghanistan’s proximity to nuclear powers and adversaries makes it an essential ally for the United States. LTG Sami Sadat reminded the audience that it was the Afghan Mujahideen who gave the death blow to the Soviet Union and helped usher in an age of American unipolarity. Therefore, the new generation of Afghans will need American citizens and policymakers, akin to those during the 1980s like Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring, to support the future fight for a free and prosperous Afghanistan.
The event concluded with a key question:
Who will be the Charlie Wilson of this new generation of freedom fighters?
By Andrew Paumen