On Dec. 9, after this issue went to press, The Washington Post released “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.” The confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post after a three-year legal battle “reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable,” wrote Craig Whitlock, who noted that interviews with over 400 insiders “bring into sharp relief the core failings of the war that persist to this day. They underscore how three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and their military commanders have been unable to deliver on their promises to prevail in Afghanistan.”
Since this issue went to press, President Trump announced he was resuming peace negotiations with the Taliban, surprising the Afghan government and the Taliban, which Trump said would agree to a ceasefire as part of the talks (a claim the group denied). On Dec. 4, he dispatched his envoy Zalmay Khalizad to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban to resume talks, which would reportedly include the possibility of a ceasefire — a key demand of Ghani’s government.
Roya Rahmani can barely recall a single day of peace growing up in Afghanistan.
In 1979, the year after she was born, Soviet troops invaded her country, launching a never-ending cycle of occupation, revolution, religious extremism and terrorism.
The first woman ever to represent Afghanistan as ambassador to the United States, Rahmani, 41, is still haunted by those early memories.
“During the Soviet occupation, I couldn’t always go to school because missiles were hitting the city, and as I was growing up in Kabul, I never thought of visiting any other province because it was simply too insecure,” said Rahmani, interviewed Oct. 29 as part of The Washington Diplomat’s Ambassador Insider Series.
“Starting in the ’90s, there was famine and drought, and during the 1992-96 civil war, we were literally pushed out of our homes. I remember our family hugging each other, thinking this would be the last night of our lives,” she said. “Then the Taliban took over, and I could forget about the university. As a woman, you weren’t even allowed to go to school. This is how things went from bad to worse.
“The reality is that for us, this war has lasted over 40 years,” Rahmani told us. “It’s been my entire life — starting with the Soviet invasion, then the collapse and withdrawal of Soviet forces, then a civil war from 1992 to 1996.”
That’s when her family fled to Pakistan, where Rahmani attended a Saudi-funded school for refugees in the town of Peshawar. That school was so crowded, the ambassador told NPR in March, that she and her classmates had to study on the roof for an entire school year.
By the time Rahmani returned to Kabul in 1998, the Taliban were in charge, and she refused to leave her house rather than put on a burqa as required under strict Islamic law.
But a scholarship from the World University Service of Canada changed her life. She enrolled at Montreal’s McGill University and earned a bachelor’s degree in software engineering. In 2004, Rahmani returned to Afghanistan representing a Canadian nonprofit dedicated to educating Afghan women and girls.
Eventually she got a master’s degree from New York’s Columbia University and joined her country’s government, first at the Ministry of Education and then at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Before her December 2018 appointment by President Ashraf Ghani as ambassador to the United States, she was posted to Jakarta as ambassador to Indonesia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Rahmani is one of four female ambassadors in the Afghan Foreign Service. Besides her native Dari, she speaks Pashto and English, with a basic understanding of Urdu and French. She’s also married and the mother of a little girl, Bareen.
The ambassador, who in mid-November was included in the 2019 Time 100 Next event, is a powerful voice advocating for Afghanistan at a time when a war-weary American public wants to forget about it.
U.S. troops have now fought in Afghanistan for 18 years; it ranks as the longest war in American history, surpassing the Vietnam War by nearly 10 months. Since President George W. Bush announced the invasion of Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001 — less than a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — roughly 150,000 people have died in battle, according to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. That includes over 38,000 civilians, 58,000 members of the Afghan military and police forces, and 2,400 U.S. troops (two of whom died just last month in a helicopter crash).
In all, over 750,000 U.S. troops have fought at some point in Afghanistan, and U.S. taxpayers have spent nearly $1 trillion on military operations, along with economic, social and educational initiatives, according to a new report by the Watson Institute.
Many Americans question where that blood and treasure went. The central government in Kabul is still heavily reliant on international military and economic assistance; living standards in Afghanistan are among the lowest in the world; more than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day; and less than half the country can read.
But Rahmani counters with statistics of her own that she says show her country’s enormous progress. In 2001, Afghanistan had 50 miles of paved roads and only 20,000 digital phone lines, half of which weren’t even working. Today, it boasts over 10,000 miles of roads, and 85% of all Afghans have access to mobile phones. Meanwhile, in the past 18 years, annual per-capita GDP has jumped from $120 to $608, while access to health care has risen from 9% to more than 70%. At the time of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, no girls went to school; today, 4 million do, and the Afghan security forces include 4,000 women volunteers.
Rahmani also disputes estimates suggesting that the Taliban controls roughly half of the country’s territory.
“The reality is that out of 420 districts, the Taliban controls only 16, and that’s down from 23 last year. And even in these districts, if somebody needs a passport or health services, they have to go to a government office,” she told The Diplomat. “Our NATO partners have decided they’re not even going to measure control based on territory, because we’d rather put our security forces around centers of population than completely vacant, uninhabited land.”
Even geographically, Afghanistan’s status is in dispute. Rahmani said the World Bank considers her country part of South Asia, the IMF says it belongs in the Middle East and her own government views Afghanistan as part of Central Asia.
What is not in dispute, however, is President Trump’s determination to keep one of his core campaign promises: to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and end America’s “endless wars.”
At present, about 20,000 foreign troops, including 14,000 U.S. soldiers, are on the ground in Afghanistan as part of the U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces.
To reduce those numbers, Trump dispatched former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad to negotiate a peace settlement with the Taliban. After nearly a year of talks, the two sides seemed close to a deal that would’ve seen a partial U.S. troop withdrawal in return for Taliban pledges not to allow Afghanistan to become a launching pad for terrorism.
But those talks came to a halt on Sept. 7, when Trump surprised everyone by canceling them after a Taliban car-bombing in Kabul killed 12 people including a U.S. soldier. (Trump’s invitation to host the Taliban at Camp David shortly before the 18th anniversary of 9/11 also generated significant backlash.)
Many Afghans expressed relief that the talks were called off — at least for the time being. There were widespread fears that in his eagerness to withdraw from Afghanistan, Trump would leave behind a security vacuum or pave the way for the Taliban to return to power and re-impose its harsh Islamist rule over the country.
Trump also came under fire for excluding the Afghan government from the talks. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has repeatedly said that the Taliban must negotiate directly with Kabul to achieve an enduring peace, but the Taliban has refused to sit down with what it calls a puppet of the U.S.
While appearing reluctant to criticize the Trump administration directly, Rahmani said it’s a huge mistake to leave her country out of talks that directly affect its future.
“The only way to achieve peace is if a settlement is achieved by the Afghan people — specifically their elected representatives — and the Taliban. You need the beneficiaries’ buy-in and their trust. Without that, it’s simply not possible to have a sustainable deal,” she said.
Rahmani urged a sweeping review of the U.S.-Afghan partnership to achieve a lasting peace that preserves the hard-fought sacrifices of U.S. soldiers — and the hard-fought gains of Afghanistan’s 35 million people.
“We need to understand this relationship better and know what the U.S. wants and how we can bring that about,” she explained. “I believe there’s a convergence of interests. The U.S. wants to end the war and ensure that the gains are preserved and that human tragedy does not continue. This is exactly what we want too. We want to reach a peaceful settlement with the Taliban, to achieve economic self-reliance. Today, for the first time, we have the vision, the will and the human capital to achieve that. This is not pie-in-the-sky.”
Rahmani cited Afghanistan’s Sept. 28 presidential elections as proof that Afghanistan is making tangible progress. Speaking Oct. 16 at the Atlantic Council, Rahmani praised the elections — whose results have yet to be announced because of disputes over the recount — as “a critical step in our evolution as a new democracy and our path toward self-reliance.”
Afghanistan’s nascent democracy, she added, is key to America’s counterterrorism strategy because it ensures that her country will never again become a breeding ground for extremism.
Noting that this was Afghanistan’s fourth presidential election since 2001, Rahmani said that 70,000 Afghan security forces ensured the safety of voters, while another 200,000 Afghans worked the polls, more than 10,000 of them women.
While turnout was lower than previous elections, over 3 million Afghans cast their vote “in brave defiance of terrorist threats from the Taliban,” Rahmani said, declaring that the elections were “a turning point” for the country and that “for the first time in a very long time, I see the path to peace and prosperity clearly visible before me.”
A seven-point plan pushed by Ghani’s technocratic government outlines that path to prosperity and long-term security, although it also includes “adjustments in our partnership with the United States moving forward,” Rahmani said without elaborating.
In addition to the U.S., “we need to have a discussion with our regional partners. Without that, sustainable peace will not be achieved,” she said.
“Regional factors have kept this war going, because the Taliban were taken too lightly, and regional factors were not addressed the way they should have been,” the ambassador said, alluding to Afghanistan’s neighbor, Pakistan, which has been accused of harboring Taliban insurgents and which will be instrumental in any efforts to reach a peace deal with the Taliban.
“We need to ensure that the rest of the region also shares our vision,” Rahmani said, “and for us to do our homework internally, providing better governance and services to our people so that poverty does not push them to violence.”
And addressing the violence is more urgent than ever.
According to statistics, 2018 was the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since the United Nations started keeping track, and this year is shaping up to be the worst yet as both U.S. forces and Taliban insurgents stepped up operations to gain leverage during peace talks.
The Taliban was responsible for 75% of all deaths from terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and 20% of terrorism-related deaths worldwide in 2017. But according to a recent U.N. report, civilian deaths caused by U.S. and Afghan government forces for the first time surpassed those caused by the Taliban and other insurgents, with the U.S. and Afghan forces killing 717 civilians in the first six months of 2019. The deaths were largely attributed to an increase in U.S. airstrikes, which put civilians at greater risk.
But over the summer, Taliban insurgents ramped up attacks, killing 1,174 civilians between July and September alone, according to the U.N.
Rahmani disputed those numbers, but she did agree that the war is becoming more lethal. “Unfortunately, as peace talks were going on, the Taliban were getting beaten on the battlefield. As a tactical shift, they moved to centers of population and targeted more civilians in order to gain leverage at the negotiating table,” she said. “Even as they were talking to U.S. negotiators, they were attacking and killing Afghans and Americans. Finally, President Trump said, ‘I don’t think you’re serious about peace, so let’s call it off.’”
But the recent prisoner swap of two Western hostages and three Taliban leaders suggests that negotiations might be restarting soon. And while some interpreted Trump’s decision to abort the previous talks as a sign that he remains committed to Afghanistan, the president has made it clear that he still intends to bring U.S. troops home, with or without a peace deal.
In fact, the administration has already quietly reduced the number of troops in Afghanistan by around 2,000 over the past year. White House officials say the reductions are gradual and won’t hamper counterterrorism efforts, but critics say that by removing troops, Trump is throwing away an important bargaining chip he can use to extract concessions from the Taliban.
The disclosure came shortly after Trump announced the abrupt pullout of 1,000 U.S. troops from northeastern Syria who had been protecting Kurdish forces from a Turkish invasion. As expected, Turkey moved in and occupied the Kurdish-held territory right after Trump’s announcement, prompting criticism that the president had abandoned a key ally who helped to stamp out the Islamic State in Syria.
Rahmani did not comment on concerns about a possible Islamic State resurgence because of Trump’s decision, although she did say that news of the Oct. 26 death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria’s Idlib province during a U.S. special operations mission was well-received back home because the Islamic State has been an increasingly violent force in Afghanistan.
“The kinds of atrocities they have committed are unimaginable, including the recent bombing of a wedding party that killed over 70 innocent people,” she said. “Some analysts have said the killing of a leader doesn’t mean the group will be disrupted, but at least we’re hoping they’ll be weakened and will start learning their lessons.”
Asked why she’s so optimistic now — given the ongoing bloodshed and Trump’s vow to extricate U.S. forces from the region, possibly abandoning Kabul like he did the Kurds — Rahmani attributed it to “new realities” in the region.
“The Taliban used to say that time was on their side. In 2001, they actually told Khalilzad [who then had a top position on the U.S. National Security Council] that, ‘You have all the watches, but we have all the time.’ I think that equation has been reversed — not because they bought all the watches, but because they no longer have time on their side.”
More specifically, she said, “they cannot push young women back inside their houses, they cannot ask young boys to give up their hopes and surrender to the kind of ideologies they were perpetuating. The recent election was a very clear example of our resolve. Under gunpoint — literally, because the Taliban had declared a war on our election — the people of Afghanistan took the time to register, find their polling stations and vote. We are demonstrating our commitment to democracy, and I hope our partners do the same.”
Rahmani also hopes that as her daughter Bareen grows up, she’ll never have to worry about limits being placed on her dreams because of her gender.
“My work is not a job, it’s a passion, and my daughter gives it even more meaning,” she said. “I think of her every day, and whenever I see children suffering, I see her face.”
About the Author
Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.