I recently returned from two weeks in Afghanistan. I went there to meet with officials from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, local leaders and educators, to discuss emergency humanitarian assistance to rural areas and a digital learning program for secondary education. During the trip, almost everything I saw was 180 degrees different from what has been portrayed by the Afghan experts in the media, or articulated by policymakers.
I was persuaded to make the trip by Shohaib Hakimi. He is the founder of a humanitarian organization that has operated in Afghanistan since the 1980s. We worked in some complicated districts in Helmand and Kandahar provinces when I was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and had kept in touch.
Shohaib has a nuanced view of the Taliban. He sees them as no monolithic force, but a movement reflecting many hues, responsible now to govern a country with a long history of rebellion against central authority, an economy on life support, and plenty of mistrust. He thought, paraphrasing Joseph Nye, we could get them to “want the outcomes we want” using soft-power investment in clinics, schools and infrastructure with funds already in the humanitarian pipeline. I didn’t believe him, but after a few months, he persuaded me to travel to Afghanistan to see things for myself.
Using tribal networks, village connections and bonds established long ago fighting the Russians, Shohaib and his team coordinated meetings with four Taliban ministers, the official spokesperson for the Emirate, and an opposition politician advocating reforms and elections. I traveled by car over 1,000 miles without a security detail to meet four provincial governors. Quite a difference from my last few months at the embassy, when we had to travel 3 miles to the airport by helicopter because even that short a distance was unsafe.
I found Kabul secure and much cleaner. It was strange to see Taliban manning checkpoints, many with U.S. equipment, but their primary tasks seemed to be traffic control and static security. Women and children openly moved about … girls, too. There was plenty of food for sale and schools were open.
Everyday life in Kabul, however, masks an economy still reeling from decades of war and continuing international sanctions. It has been especially cruel for the rural poor. The government’s focus on agriculture and infrastructure projects is a recognition that if they do not fix this soon, there could be bigger problems. For everyday Afghans, it seemed they would tolerate a slowly reforming Taliban government for now, but they need help. Many expressed genuine regard for America. While confused about the departure, they spoke wistfully of America.
The official meetings included health care, education and economic advisers. Every office had someone from the previous administration. Sometimes, they would joke about being with the government before the collapse. The Taliban seemed eager to engage since many noted I was the first American to meet with them in Afghanistan. The governors were not shy about discussing politics and world events. They also seemed closer to the people and more aware of their concerns.
An issue frequently mentioned was the hundreds of unfinished international development projects, either frozen by the corruption of the previous government or halted because of its change, dotting each province. Some officials expressed fatigue with the limitations of emergency relief and seemed unaware of the funds we already provide through the United Nations. They also spoke of Afghanistan’s vast natural resources and welcomed investment from U.S. companies. I would tell Elon Musk there is an opportunity for the bold and we should not just let the Chinese take over by default.
At each meeting, I asked about the sixth to 12th grade exclusion for girls. Their explanation made me think there were lingering internal security concerns. They spoke of complicated cultural issues and maintaining the support of their base during the “stability” phase. They had passed the “security” phase after taking the keys to Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal. Officials spoke of reforms, including in education, as stability permitted. One expressed concern about boys being trafficked to Iran and Pakistan or sent as laborers in Afghanistan to help rural families survive. While the extent of the problem is unclear, it underscores the desperation in the countryside.
The two best quotes came from the governors. The Parwan governor said, “when you are good to us, we are good to you, when you are bad to us, we are bad to you.” The Kapisa governor added, “you tested us for 20 years during the war, why don’t you test us now that there is peace?”
I also met four times with Afghan educators. If there were ever a reason to reengage in Afghanistan, it is the educators. You cannot leave a meeting with them without feeling that something has to be done.
Another surprise from the trip was a meeting with an emerging commission of Afghan “gray beards.” Members have decades of association with the West and connections within the Taliban. Their agenda includes elections and eliminating international sanctions. They think sanctions hurt the wrong people and make the suffering of everyday Afghans seem without end. Their biggest issue is the lack of action against former government officials who fled with millions and live openly around the world. They wonder aloud about accountability and justice. Is there no international commission that can investigate? Why aren’t their bank accounts frozen? The gray beards also worry the international community will actually dialogue with them on Afghanistan’s future.
We said “no mas” and left Afghanistan. We might want to obliviate our Afghan experience, but we neglect it at our peril. Taliban intentions are not easy to discern, so why not test them in peace? Let’s see how they fulfill their commitments and obligations. The alternative is civil war and regional instability fueled by an armory of guns, courtesy of the Red, White and Blue. We can still salvage something from our enormous sacrifices and strategic blunders in Afghanistan, but we have to engage.
• Ron McCammon was a Department of State political-military officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul from 2011 to 2014 and is working to establish the Afghan Digital Learning Academy, the first online secondary school program in Afghanistan.