Lisa Owen: This is the Nation... and it's said that the number one rule of international politics is never invade Afghanistan. More than a decade after the US and New Zealand began the longest war in their histories, that point has been rather underlined. Multi-award winning journalist Christina Lamb has watched it unfold on the front-line…from the caves of Tora Bora to the notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay...and detailed it in her book Farewell Kabul. She's in New Zealand... and when I sat down with her earlier, I asked about President Barack Obama's decision to delay withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan.
Christina Lamb: Well, I think it's a recognition that the situation isn't very good, which was brought home recently when Kunduz in northern Afghanistan was suddenly captured by the Taliban and we had Taliban selfies of themselves on top of the district government building. And that really surprised a lot of people because that was in an area that the Taliban were not thought to be traditionally very powerful. Usually, their stronghold is in the south and the east, so capturing this city in the north – it's the fifth biggest city in Afghanistan and very strategic – was a huge shock for some people. Actually, it shouldn't have been, but it did come as a shock, and I think that was exactly at the time when Obama was looking at what to do and how quickly to pull out the rest of his forces, and that obviously affected the decision.
Why shouldn't it come as a shock?
Because it happened, really, because the Taliban took the city from inside. They'd been infiltrating the city for some time. And, actually, I've been covering this year a lot of the migrants coming into Europe, which is, as you know, a huge issue there. And back in August, in Budapest I was meeting Afghans who said they were fleeing Kunduz because the Taliban were moving into the city, and I was a bit surprised because I didn't know anything about it at the time. And they talked about how people were very fed up in the city by the Afghan security forces, at the way that they were treating people – police abusing people. And this is a huge problem, I think, for the future of Afghanistan because if the security forces which we in the West have spent a huge amount of money creating are actually seen as a problem by the local people,…
Rather than part of the solution and stepping into that breach?
…then the Taliban can sort of move in quite easily.
Well, the thing is the United States and New Zealand has spent a lot of blood and treasure on reconstruction – you know, building schools, building wells, that kind of stuff. Has that not taken root?
Well, some of it. I mean, some things have improved, for example, education. There's a lot more children at school in Afghanistan, so there's about eight or nine million today compared to one or two million when we went in there in 2001. And the health system has improved a lot. But the real problem, in my view, is Afghanistan is a very young population – 70 percent under 28 – and there's no work for people. So it's no good educating children if there's nothing for them in the future. And you go to any Afghan village or town, and it's just full of young men hanging around with nothing to do. So, you know, it's not a huge leap for them to then think, 'Well, the best option is to either go grow poppy – opium poppy – or go and join the Taliban.' And we, I think, really failed in providing any options for those people.
The thing is, in your book you talk about, I think, the numbers – how much aid or assistance we've put in there, and you worked it out at about I think it was $20 a head versus places like Timor and Kosovo, where the investment was much higher. Is that part of the issue as well?
Well, that was true early on that we weren't committed enough, particularly the United States, to reconstruction of Afghanistan, but now if you look at it, it's been 14 years; the estimates are a trillion dollars have been spent in Afghanistan. It's very hard to see where all that money went. I mean, you'd expect the country to be transformed for that kind of money.
Where do you think it went?
Well, a lot of it was wasted. A lot of it went on foreign consultants who were paid huge amounts of money to go and work in Afghanistan when that money would have been much better spent training Afghans to do those jobs. A lot of it was spent on buildings, rather than actually…so, you know, you built schools and things rather than actually training people to teach. So I think the priorities were wrong but also the way that it was done, so the amount that was spent on some of these buildings was astronomical compared to what really it should have cost. So there was basically no accountability for a long time. Huge amounts of money was being spent.
So how can the West be— or help out properly or be successful here, then?
Well, I think that first of all the West needs to listen much more to what Afghans' priorities are. I mean, we went in there trying to turn Afghanistan into some kind of Sweden or something and focused a lot on elections, on gender rights. And I didn't meet any Afghans who said to me, 'The real problem in this country is we need an election.' And, you know, we do some things—
They were worried about more fundamental issues?
Yeah, they want security. They want it, you know, like anybody does. I mean, if you haven't got security, you haven't got anything.
Well, I want to look at some of the things you write about in the book in more detail. You talk about Tora Bora just months after 9/11 when it seems like a huge opportunity was missed then to get Osama bin Laden. Now, he was holed up in some caves there. Could the US have got him then, and whose fault was it that he wasn't captured then or killed?
I think he could have been captured then, but very few American forces were sent in. There were more journalists there than there were American soldiers. They contracted out the whole attempt to catch Osama bin Laden at that time to Afghan forces and they didn't understand the situation, so they contracted it out to three different Afghan militia commanders who were rivals and who were also trying to make as much money as possible. They were being paid by the Americans, but they also – one of the groups – then got paid by bin Laden and his people to get them out of the country.
So ultimately whose fault was that? Because you talk to people who say that President Bush was asked for more troops for that operation and he wouldn't give them, so does the buck stop with him?
Well, I mean, it's unclear how much information he was actually given, but certainly American military leadership at the time, and why? Because they were much more focused already on another country, which was Iraq...
…and already making preparations for what they were going to do there.
The other thing you write about in detail is Pakistan, the fact that how deeply it was involved in Afghanistan and terrorism, and the president Musharraf said that he was— he committed to cut ties with terrorism groups. But the reality was he didn't, did he?
No, he didn't. They were playing a double game. They were taking money from the Americans in the West – a lot of money. They were paid $31 billion over 12 years. But at the same time, they were using some of that money to support the very people, the Taliban, who were killing our troops, so it was actually a ridiculous situation. But I have spent a lot of time in Pakistan. I lived in Pakistan when the Russians were in Afghanistan, back in the '80s, and left, and Pakistan felt then that they had been completely abandoned by the West, particularly by the US. Literally overnight people lost interest in Pakistan once the Russians had left Afghanistan, and I was there at the time and I saw it. So I understood why after 9/11 when they were asked to help again that they didn't trust the Americans.
But all that aid money, then, that was paid over, was that fool's payment, then, given what they were doing?
I think that it was very clear early on what Pakistan was doing. I was in Quetta in 2003 and could see then that they were – Taliban were – being encouraged to regroup, that there was recruitment going on and that Pakistan's military intelligence, ISI, was coordinating all of this. So that was very early on that you could see they were doing that, and I think at that time the West should've put a lot of pressure on Pakistan.
So could America clearly see that but just chose to ignore it?
Yeah, again, I think they were not committed enough to Afghanistan at that time, and they thought that the Taliban had gone. You know, they'd been toppled very quickly at the beginning. And one of the things that I think is a big problem with Afghanistan was that I think political leaders just didn't understand or didn't know what it was they were trying to achieve in Afghanistan. The first bit, going in after 9/11 as kind of revenge and trying to find bin Laden, getting rid of the Taliban, was straightforward and they succeeded in doing that within 60 days. But after that, they didn't really know what it was they were trying to achieve, and we kept being given different versions.
So in saying that, then, was it a fundamentally flawed decision to go in there in the first place? What if we had done nothing, not gone there?
Well, it's a good question. Maybe what should have been done is much more effort to try and persuade the Taliban to hand over bin Laden, because later on it became clear that, you know, they had been sort of open to possibly doing that. But Bush really needed to be seen as doing something straight after 9/11, and I can understand why they did that. I think the problem came after removing the Taliban and with knowing what it was they were trying to do, and was it reconstruction? Was it just trying to keep minimum security? I mean, they just really didn't seem to know what it was they were trying to get.
Well, if we look now at Syria, what's happening there, it is— I don't think there's any debate that it's a big mess.
And are there only ways to fail in that kind of situation? In your experience, should the West even be wading in there?
Okay, I mean, I would hate to think that the lesson drawn from Afghanistan and Iraq is that we don't get involved anywhere any more. And I can see why people might think that that's the lesson, because, you know, at the end of the day, Iraq is a mess. Afghanistan could still go either way. I don't think the Taliban is about to recapture the whole of Afghanistan, but I think we've still got to stay involved. Libya, where we got involved in removing Gaddafi – I've been to recently – is a huge mess. So it does seem anywhere we've gotten involved has not actually ended up being a more stable situation. In fact, in many of those places, certainly Iraq and Libya, I think many of the people living there would say the situation was better under Saddam or under Gaddafi. However, I think that, at the same time, most people would feel that it wasn't the right decision to do nothing in Syria. We are suffering the consequences of that. I mean, in Europe, we now are faced with this problem of millions of Syrians coming, and the war has literally now come to our shores. So suddenly people are going, 'We've got to do something about Syria.'
All right, we'll leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us. Christina Lamb, correspondent and author of the book Farewell Kabul. Thank you.
Thank you, Lisa.
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