Washington: Noam Chomsky - legendary American historian, political activist, and founder of modern linguistics - believes that the most basic reason for US failure in Afghanistan was America’s intelligence information, which is rarely accurate. One of the most influential public intellectuals in the world with over 100 published books, he shared with Gulf News his views on some of the most pressing current global issues.
In an interview in early 2021 when Chomsky was asked about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, he had predicted the pullout would cause the fall of the Afghan army and the government. The 92-year-old’s predictions would turn out to be accurate.
I contacted Chomsky to gain his insights on the ongoing events in Afghanistan and his predictions for the future of the war torn country.
During our Zoom interview, Chomsky shed light on why the fall of Afghanistan was inevitable, argued why he does not believe the Taliban would allow extremist groups to spread their influence in Afghanistan and passionately stressed the importance of collaboration between China, Russia and the US to help Afghanistan recover from its humanitarian and economic crises.
Total collapse of Afghan government and army
We kicked off the interview with why the US administration proved to be so wrong on the consequences of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, with President Joe Biden going as far as completely rejecting the inevitability of a Taliban takeover in a press conference as late as July 2021.
“The basic problem is one that is familiar, in other circumstances; Vietnam, Iraq. The executive branch of the government, the top of the government, is burdened by intelligence information which is rarely accurate. The people on the ground know what’s happening but as the information filters up to the top it gets modified, adapted to what people want to hear and they literally don’t know what’s happening. We saw that over and over again. If you are not burdened by intelligence and you are just looking at the facts it was pretty plain what was going to happen,” said Chomsky.
He pointed to the Afghans’ lack of support for their government as well as flaws in the army’s methods and numbers as clear indicators of the unavoidable outcome. “The army was largely on paper, about half of it wasn’t even there, (they were) ghost soldiers. Others were trained on the American military model where you rely on very heavy air power ... to try and prevent soldiers from entering into combat. You are not going to win a guerilla war that way.”
Anyone who is familiar with Chomsky’s work knows the cognitive scientist will use history to draw parallels in world affairs. He reviewed specific events in Vietnam and Iraq that he said should have served as lessons for Afghanistan.
With Vietnam, he highlighted the disconnect between the US generals who were advising Washington they had “won the war and it was all over” only for the Tet Offensive, a coordinated series of North Vietnamese surprise attacks in South Vietnam, to occur several weeks later in January 1968. The South Vietnamese were well equipped with an army of 700,000 soldiers, trained by the US. The US and South Vietnamese managed to hold off the attacks but North Vietnam scored a strategic win and the event marked a major turning point in the war.
“Nobody had one word about the fact that a huge popular uprising took place all over the country, completely surprising everyone.
Take Iraq, the Iraqi army that the US had created had about 350,000 well armed soldiers according to the statistics. Eight hundred Daesh extremists, “coming in pickup trucks, waving rifles. They (Iraqi army) disappeared.
It happens over and over again and you never learn from it,” Chomsky said.
Views on potential Afghan ‘civil war’
Biden had asserted throughout the US withdrawal that he would not involve the US in Afghanistan’s internal politics or civil war. Did Chomsky agree with that policy? “Whatever the policy should be, it should be determined by Afghans. They are the ones who are going to have to live with the situation. Their responsibility. They should be brought actively into the arrangements.”
He delved into history again for a reminder that over 20 years ago, the anti-Taliban resistance inside the country was opposed to the US invasion of Afghanistan. The US invasion, when it came, resulted in growth of support for the Taliban.
“The people who were at the wrong end of the bombs, they often know what’s happening. So right away the most respected of the anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan, Abdul Haq, had an interview, he was asked about the invasion, he was bitterly opposed to it. He said the invasion will just kill a lot of Afghans, it will undermine our efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within.
"The United States is doing it because they want to show their muscle and want to intimidate everyone. It’s pretty accurate. By now the evidence is overwhelming that the American strategy of bombing villages, sending in special forces to break open people’s doors in the middle of the night and arrest somebody, all of this was creating Taliban. Very well known.”
Drone strikes killing children
On August 29, 2021, the US carried out a drone strike in Kabul against what it said was an Daesh target in response to an attack on Kabul airport by the group that claimed the lives of about 170 Afghans and 13 US servicemen. A family of 10, including seven children, were reported to have been killed in the drone attack, which the US has not disputed. Chomsky, visibly upset by the tragedy, pointed to the effects this could have for the US.
“Consequences? Doesn’t take much imagination, especially when it has been happening over and over for 20 years.
You bomb and you kill a family...you create more Taliban. The relatives who survive and others are going to become Taliban activists. You bomb a village because you think there is some terrorist there, you kill other people, father joins the Taliban. It’s been documented for years. It is not a mystery, I’m sure people who work in US intelligence on the ground know it perfectly well.
“Let’s go back to 2001. Al Qaida and Bin Laden were in a tiny area at the Afghan-Pakistan border. Where is Al Qaida now? All over the world, we’ve given Bin Laden the greatest gift he could have imagined. 9/11 was the most successful action in military history. The United States acted exactly the way he wanted. We accelerated it further when we invaded Iraq, created Sunni resistance, Daesh finally, spreading all over Africa, Philippines, it’s all over the place.”
Will Afghanistan become safe haven for terrorists?
In the agreement negotiated between the Taliban and the US, the group committed to preventing terrorist organisations from using Afghanistan as their base. However, many question whether Taliban will live up to those commitments given their historically close relationship with Al Qaida and other extremist groups. Does Chomsky think Afghanistan can become a safe haven for terrorist groups?
“First of all, why should we assume that Afghanistan will become a haven for terrorists? The Taliban have every reason to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the country. In 2001 they did keep Bin Laden as part of the tribal culture. Tribal culture, yes, you give people protection. It’s a tribal society, they live by the deep-seated tribal culture.”
He refers to the respected anthropologist Akbar Ahmed, author of The Thistle and the Drone, as an expert reference on tribal culture in Afghanistan that should be studied. Chomsky argues sensitivities of tribal culture and works of experts such as Ahmed had been considered in US decision making in 2001, it could have potentially led to a different course of action in the country and perhaps even the handover of Bin Laden by the Taliban.
“Taliban kept Bin Laden there, as part of the tribal culture. They didn’t want him around, he was a nuisance. They didn’t want the US attacking (them). In fact they had pretty good relations with the US, they were working on pipeline arrangements and so on. But they couldn’t just kick him out.
"When 9/11 happened they did begin to make offers to allow him to be moved out of the country somehow, maybe sent to an Muslim state for a trial or maybe to totally surrender if the Taliban leadership could live in dignity. Absolutely not,” he said while referring to leaked Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defence, internal records that showed he rejected negotiations with the Taliban.
China to the rescue“The most hopeful part is that China, which has a real stake in Afghanistan, they don’t want Afghanistan to be a base for terrorists, they will be the victims. They’ll certainly be desperately trying to keep any terrorist groups from forming there. The US could cooperate on that, that would of course mean cooperating with China.
Russian interestsRussia has a major interest there. Afghanistan is far from the United States, but it’s on the border of the Russian federation. Russia has every reason to not want radical Islam to develop in Afghanistan and influence the states to the north, which have been within the Russian sphere. Every reason to not do that.”
The US sanctions on the Taliban, which restricts their access to the global financial system, resulted in the freezing of billions of dollars of Afghanistan’s assets stored in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have also halted access to millions of dollars of loans and other allocated aid to the cash-deprived country. Humanitarian groups have warned holding back funds from Afghanistan, which relies on foreign funds to support more than 75 per cent of its public spending, could result in the complete crash of its economy and a humanitarian crisis.
Chomsky underlined his opposition to the sanctions and rejects the policy as ineffective.
“They (the Taliban) can make the funds from the opium sales to Europe. Europe buys the opium, which funds the heroin, which funds the Taliban. It (sanctions) will hurt the population. Sanctions on Saddam Hussein, extreme sanctions, devastated the population. Did they hurt Saddam Hussein? They benefited him. The population had to shelter under his wing for survival.”
Who will rebuild Afghanistan?
After the Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15, over 100,000 people were evacuated out of Afghanistan by the time the US fully withdrew from the country on August 31. A reasonable portion of those who have left are thought to be scholars and young professionals. Recently, the UNHCR, UN’s refugee agency, predicted there could be half a million Afghans leaving Afghanistan by the end of this year. With the country in desperate need of economic relief and rebuilding, who could carry out the daunting task of nation building?
First and foremost, Chomsky is sceptical as to whether the refugees will be able to leave their country no matter how much they desperately need to, due to the rigorous restrictions Europe and US are imposing on their borders.
“They may want to leave but where are they going to go? To Uzbekistan? Tajikistan? Denmark? France? Fat chance.”
With much Afghan expertise evacuated out of the country and even more planning to leave, Chomsky predicts that the most likely scenario is that China will get involved in supporting the development of Afghanistan.
“Pretty confident they (China) will be trying to help the society develop in some fashion not because they are lovely people but because it’s in their interest.”
Afghanistan’s place in China’s Belt and Road Initiative Those interests will likely include trying to involve Afghanistan in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure project that seeks to connect Asia, Africa and Europe to improve trade and stimulate economic growth, Chomsky says. “Maybe with some development aid, it’s possible. Whatever works out in Afghanistan, should be working with it, trying to help them from outside, not from on top, jointly with China, maybe with Russia.”
Against the status quo He concedes collaboration between the US and China does not have support in the US and it is against the status quo. However, Chomsky is adamant that cooperation is essential, especially on the bigger issues such as the environment, pandemics and nuclear wars for the sake of the survival of the human species.
“We have to [cooperate with China], and Afghanistan is a perfect place. We have the same interests, making sure that some development takes place. That these hundreds of thousands of people who probably can’t leave (Afghanistan) have something there that they can use to build and develop, have some kind of life. We can help with that to some extent.”
Despite the established common interests Chomsky does not expect an alliance between the superpowers to happen on their own. “That’s not their nature. But popular forces could organise, internationally, solidarity, to pressure their governments to act in a humane and sane fashion for once. It will be a break in human history but it could happen.”
Road to recovery
So what does Chomsky see as the way forward for the recovery of Afghans and Afghanistan? “First thing that can be done is the willingness to absorb, properly, the people who are able, who want to flee and are able to flee. Don’t close the doors to them as Europe and the United States are now doing. Look in the mirror, see who we are, recognise that we have a responsibility to accept the people who are able to escape.
“Second - work jointly with others, with China, with Russia, with Tajikistan, with Middle Eastern countries to help Afghanistan recover in some fashion in the way that Afghans will determine, not that we will determine. So let them do it, they’ll make mistakes, they’ll do the wrong thing, we’ll try and help.
“First and simplest thing we can do is release funds. They need the funds for reconstruction. Then jointly, probably mainly with China and Russia, work on some kind of support for internal development programmes. It’s a shared interest. All the imperial powers have the interest in seeing Afghanistan recover somehow and not fall apart and become a base for Daesh which is relishing everything that is happening.
“We can turn to a different course, undermine them (Daesh) by supporting societies where they are trying to establish roots relying on our brutality and violence. It’s not a deep secret, it’s right in front of our eyes. We’ve been watching it for 20 years.”
As Chomsky left for his next interview, I was left reflecting on our conversation and pondered how much of his predictions will prove to be accurate again. In the midst of those thoughts something he had said echoed in my mind above all: “The world is a complicated place. It’s not simple and it’s not pretty.”
Sarvy Geranpayeh is a journalist who reports on international affairs.