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As the United Nations Security Council holds an emergency session to discuss the crisis in Afghanistan, we speak with Polk Award-winning journalist Matthieu Aikins, who is based in Kabul. The Taliban have been seizing territory for months as U.S. troops withdraw from the country, and the group is now on the verge of taking several provincial capitals. “In the 13 years I’ve been working here, I’ve never seen a situation as grim,” says Aikins.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We turn now to Afghanistan. The United Nations Security Council is holding an emergency session today to discuss the ongoing crisis in the country. This comes as Taliban fighters are attempting to seize three provincial capitals: Kandahar, Herat and Lashkar Gah. The Taliban has also taken responsibility for a major attack Tuesday outside the home of Afghanistan’s defense minister in Kabul that killed eight people, though not him. On Thursday, the European Union condemned the recent Taliban offensive and demanded, quote, “an urgent, comprehensive and permanent ceasefire,” unquote. In recent days, the United States has stepped up airstrikes targeting the Taliban in an effort to support the Afghan miliitary. This all comes as the United States is on pace to withdraw its ground troops by the end of August.
We go now to Kabul, where we’re joined by the journalist Matthieu Aikins. He is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. In 2013, he won a Polk Award for exposing U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. He has a book coming out on refugees in February.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Matt. It’s great to have you back. Matthieu, if you could start off by describing the situation on the ground as, what, I believe the U.S. now says they’ve pulled out 95% of their troops?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Thank you, Amy. It’s always a pleasure.
Well, in the 13 years I’ve been working here, I’ve never seen the situation as grim. Kabul has been quiet for the last few months. That was shattered a couple days ago with this massive suicide attack. The provinces are falling to the Taliban. There’s a number of provincial capitals that are encircled. Just today, this afternoon, in fact, we had news that the Taliban have taken over Zaranj, which is the capital of Nimruz province in the southwest of the country. It’s a strategic province in terms of its borders with Iran and Pakistan. And the Taliban have entered the city. We are seeing images of that now, and it’s the first time that they’ve seized a provincial capital since the fall of Kunduz in 2015, when the government was able to take it back with U.S. help, including troops on the ground. So, it’s a very significant moment, and the bad news just seems to continue.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who the Taliban are?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: The Taliban are a rurally based insurgency. I mean, at this point they’re setting up an alternative government to the Afghan state in their territories. They want to establish an Islamic system, an Islamic emirate. They claim to be fighting to be removing foreigners from their country, foreign troops, foreign occupation. So they call themselves the mujahideen, which is the same name, of course, that was used by fighters against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the areas of the country that they have control of, and talk about Kabul and also the significance of this latest attack that the Taliban has taken responsibility for outside the defense minister’s home.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, up until now, the Taliban have largely controlled rural areas. And that really has to do with a split between Afghanistan’s cities and its countryside. The cities have benefited a lot more from the last 20 years of foreign military and development presence, whereas the countryside, they’ve borne the brunt of the violence, and they haven’t really benefited as much from development. So, you’ve seen this rural-urban split. The Taliban have captured a lot of these districts.
Now they’re trying to encircle cities, and it’s going to be a much harder battle for them, because they have less support there, and the government now has fallen back upon its centers, where they have less problems about logistics. They’re also getting support from American airstrikes, which have been stepped up in recent days. I think one reason is because American troops are largely out of the country now, so there’s less targets for the Taliban to retaliate against. Instead, what they’re going to be doing is they’re going to be hitting the cities. They’re going to be hitting government targets in the cities, like the defense minister’s house, which was hit by a massive suicide bombing, as well as a member of Parliament next door. Apparently there was a hundred people meeting in that parliamentarian’s house, and it was, you know, very lucky that they were able to actually escape onto the roof, where there was a sort of bridge to a neighboring house. So only eight people were killed, but it could have been an incident with much higher casualties. And we’re likely to see more of that as the Taliban start to retaliate and bring pressure on the internationals and the government in response to these airstrikes.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the U.N. is meeting now to deal with this issue. The U.N. warned, in a new report that civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the first half of 2021 reached record levels, including a sharp increase in killings and injuries since May, when the international military forces started pulling out. “[W]ithout a significant de-escalation in violence,” the report says, “Afghanistan is on course for 2021 to witness the highest ever number of documented civilian casualties in a single year” since the U.N. records began. So, can you talk also about the effect of the U.S. air attacks? They say they’re supporting the Afghan military. They’ve intensified recently. And are they going to end by the end of August?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, so far, the Biden administration has not said whether they’re going to end by the end of August. They’re reserving that right.
And these airstrikes are happening now inside of cities, because the Taliban are inside cities. They’re in the outskirts of many of these provincial capitals. So they’re striking buildings. They’re striking heavily populated areas, a lot of civilians, so there are undoubtedly going to be heavy civilian casualties as a result of this urban combat, also on the side of the Taliban, who are, after all, responsible for these offenses into cities. So, the blood of a lot of civilians are going to be on their hands, as well. The fact of the matter is, is if these provincial capitals fall, it might also be quite bloody. It’s a kind of a no-win situation, I think maybe similar to what the U.S. faced in Iraq, where airstrikes were necessary to hold back the advance of insurgents from capturing major cities.
But at the end of the day, there’s very little leverage that the international community or the U.S. has on the Taliban. We’ve been bombing them, assassinating them, sanctioning them for 20 years. So, as long as they’re winning, capturing territory, they have no incentive to come to the bargaining table. So, probably we’re going to see brutal, bloody fighting until there’s a stalemate of some sort that persuades both sides to talk. And I’m afraid we’re quite far away from that. And we’re going to see increased civilian casualties and also a massive wave of displacement. There’s going to be Afghan refugees who are going to be leaving, who are leaving already in heightened numbers for neighboring countries. And ultimately, some of them are going to try to reach Europe.
AMY GOODMAN: And what will happen with them?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, you know, it’s sad to say, because I covered the major wave of displacement of people who were crossing in rubber rafts across the Mediterranean in 2015, ’16. They were walking across mountains and deserts to get there. And since that refugee crisis, what we’ve seen is these countries have actually hardened their borders. They’ve built fences. They’ve built walls. They’ve built concentration camps, with the support of the European Union, just like the U.S. has fortified its southern border. So, the way is going to be a lot harder, a lot more brutal for these people who are fleeing this disintegration of their country.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve reported extensively on U.S. war crimes committed in Afghanistan, in the longest U.S. war in history. Can you talk about the legacy of the U.S. invasion and what the United States military leaves in Afghanistan?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, I think the military was very focused on short-term solutions. You know, there was this adage that we didn’t fight, you know, a 20-year war; we fought 20 one-year wars. With each new troop rotation, people were looking to make solutions that would last to the end of deployment. So, it’s kind of no wonder that things are falling apart so quickly, because nothing was made to last really. And so, that’s one legacy.
The other is that there have been quite brutal human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings committed by Afghan security forces. In Kandahar right now, the Taliban have captured areas like Spin Boldak. They are definitely carrying out extrajudicial killings. There’s been evidence. I’ve heard that from my sources. Many of the people they’re targeting are former members of the government security forces, police belonging to General Abdul Raziq, a commander that I reported on, whose men were engaged in documented extrajudicial killings. So, this cycle of violence, this cycle of war crimes is continuing, it’s accelerating. And I fear that in the coming months and years that we’re going to see as a return to the kind of open, widespread massacres and violations of rights that we’ve seen in previous years during the civil war.
AMY GOODMAN: Although we say U.S. troops are out of Afghanistan within weeks, in fact, thousands of mercenaries will remain there, and other what the U.S. calls support staff. Is this war just going to become much more secret and much more — even less accountable than it is?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: I think that the U.S. role in this war is definitely going to become more secret and less accountable, because it’s going to be largely carried out by the CIA and special operation forces that are operating under secret, covert authorities. So we’re going to know less about it, certainly. And at the same time, though, I think that it’s going to become a much more of Afghan war. There’s not going to be the same presence that we had before. So, it’s very difficult to say what the U.S. will be doing, because we’re not going to have a lot of visibility on it. It’s going to be a much smaller role, but significant nonetheless. I mean, don’t forget that they’re bankrolling the Afghan government, paying their salaries. And without that, there would be an even faster collapse of the Afghan security forces.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think that the U.S. media — of the U.S. media portrayal of what’s happening in Afghanistan right now? What’s missing, Matthieu?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: I think that there is a lack of recognition that what we’re seeing now is the consequence of 20 years of bad decisions, of ignoring corruption, human rights abuses. And for all the violations of human rights, the murders, the massacres that the Taliban are undoubtedly carrying out, the violence that they’re inflicting on Afghan civilians, the suffering that their offensive is bringing, the threat that they’re going to pose to civil society activists, freedom of speech, media — all of which is absolutely real and very condemnable — it is the result of 20 years of violence inflicted on the Taliban in the rural areas, 20 years of interlacing the media and the civil rights, civil society here with this military presence, so that they’ve become kind of indistinguishable in the eyes of the Taliban. And so, what we’re seeing now is the result of two decades, and it’s going to be very difficult to turn that ship around. We’re going to be witnessing some very awful things, but we should try to keep the context in mind while still condemning them.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Matthieu Aikins, I want to thank you very much for being with us, speaking to us from Kabul, Afghanistan, contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine.
Coming up, we will speak with human rights and environmental lawyer Steve Donziger. He took on Chevron for polluting the Ecuadorian Amazon. Today marks year two, two years since he’s been under house arrest. You’ll find out why. Stay with us.