Q&A About the Crisis in Afghanistan with Professor Jason Lyall

We speak with government Professor Jason Lyall about what you should know regarding the situation in Afghanistan.

by Meghan Powers | 9/22/21 2:15am

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Source: Courtesy of Jason Lyall

The current chaos in Afghanistan is a result of decades of global politics — in trying to understand the situation, it’s difficult even to know where to begin. Jason Lyall is Dartmouth’s James Wright Associate Professor in Transnational Studies in the Government Department. Since 2009, he has traveled to Afghanistan around a dozen times in order to study humanitarian aid and conduct popular surveys, among other things. 

Lyall’s most recent trip was in 2017, though he won a Carnegie Grant to improve humanitarian aid in Afghanistan and was supposed to return to the country in 2020, until COVID hit and prevented him from going. Below, Lyall shares how his years of firsthand experience in Afghanistan shape his understanding of the current crisis, and offers advice on how those interested in learning more can navigate what the media has to offer.

Would you mind running me through your background with politics in Afghanistan and how it became an area of interest for you?

JL: Actually, it was mostly by accident. I was trained in graduate school as a Russianist and I was working in the Caucuses on insurgency in Chechnya. I actually got thrown out of the country and I had a friend who was serving in the U.S. Army who said: “Why don’t you come to Afghanistan? We have mountains, we have Islam and we have insurgency — the things you study. Maybe you can come in and try to understand what’s going on here, get some data, things like that.” So my first trip was in the summer of 2009 and with the U.S. army, and I ended up just loving the place. I loved the country, I loved the people, I loved the history and I thought that there was a lot of opportunity to do some really interesting work that would be helpful. 

I just kept on going back. I did a couple of trips with the military, and then I quickly moved over to the United States Agency for International Development and worked on development projects and humanitarian aid. I did my own survey work there, too. I had my own research agenda and I was running public opinion polling — people’s support for the Taliban, things like that — and I was working with non-governmental organizations like MercyCorps to figure out if their aid was working. Sometimes, I’d talk to the Air Force, so I’ve seen the military side, the civilian side and the aid side, and I’ve kind of moved between these communities for a decade now.

I won this Carnegie Grant that was supposed to be on improving humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, and then COVID hit. Afghanistan had a really bad COVID outbreak. Now, with the Taliban taking over the government, it’s not clear when I’m going to be able to get back in. I’m not sure if my career in Afghanistan is over or not, but I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do a lot of work.

How much time have you spent in Afghanistan?

JL: I’ve done about a dozen trips. I think the shortest one I ever did was about ten days in the country to fix a survey that was going wrong. Other times, it has been up to a couple of months in a certain location, things like that. I’ve gotten to travel pretty extensively. I haven’t been everywhere, but I’ve been lucky to be in lots of places in the East and North — sort of the central part of the country.

How would you summarize the crisis in Afghanistan to someone who knew nothing about the situation? 

JL: It’s hard. It’s a two-decade war, and what’s so hard about summarizing it is that it’s not just one thing. It’s a foreign occupation, it is a proxy war, it is the largest and most expensive reconstruction of a state since World War II. It’s probably the most corruption we’ve seen in a state since World War II. It is an attempt to build an army and a state and a nation all at once. It is incredibly complicated, but if I had to summarize it, I would say: It’s an attempt by a foreign occupier to build a state and an attempt by a certain part of the population to defeat it. And that certain part of the population has won, and has toppled what was put in place in the last 20 years or so.

Do you think there’s anything uniquely complicated about Afghanistan ?

JL: The ethnic and the tribal composition of the country is extraordinarily high. Much more so than we traditionally see in insurgent settings. The population is extraordinarily diverse — and part of the population isn’t even in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan. So the conflict is not just confined to Afghanistan. That makes it not necessarily uniquely complicated, but on the high end of the complicated spectrum I would say.

Do you think it’s important for U.S. citizens to be informed on the subject, especially those in my generation, who are still becoming acquainted with global politics?

JL: Absolutely. I’m writing a book right now on the lessons of the war, and it’s in part because U.S. policymakers and the U.S. public have a tendency to kind of turn the page and move on. It happened after Vietnam and I think it’s going to happen again after Afghanistan. What’s super interesting about Afghanistan is not just the country itself, but many of the things that were tried in Afghanistan. Everything from drone strikes, to aid, to the nature of humanitarian aid, to the nature of anti-corruption drives — Afghanistan was a test bed for all of this. We’ve picked up all these tools and implements, and now we’re putting them around the world. But we don’t know if they work or not. 

We don’t have any good sense of what worked well or what didn’t, and if we turn the page, we’re going to lose all of this. In a sense, it’s not just an Afghan problem, but a world problem, because all of these tools are being used today, and being used uncritically, without any rigorous study. So you need to know what happened in Afghanistan if only to understand what the next five to 10 years of American statecraft are going to look like.

What do you imagine the next few years will look like for Afghanistan?

JL: The lesson I’ve learned is not to try and predict the future in Afghanistan, because you’re going to be wrong. I think my best guess right now is that you’re going to see the Taliban institute a government that’s going to look pretty much like it did in the early ’90s or late ’90s when the group first came up. It’s going to be pretty theocratic and there are going to be low levels of violence in Afghanistan; it’s kind of going to experience another round of this civil war with ISIS. I think there’s going to be a kind of more-or-less stable Taliban government, with the United States looking in periodically, conducting drone strikes or special operations raids to try and keep the terrorism threat low. 

I think there are two dangers. One is that the government doesn’t hold, and it splits, and you get fragments of the Taliban fighting against each other, and the other danger is that the neighbors are all drawn in. You’ve already got Pakistan involved, Iran is involved, Russia is involved and now China’s coming in. The danger is that Afghanistan becomes this playground again for these different competing interests.

My day-to-day concern right now is frankly humanitarian and development aid. The U.S. froze the Afghan accounts, so right now, the Taliban government is out of money and can’t pay anyone. The state is not really functioning and there’s just a massive humanitarian crisis. It’s this huge population with no money, no economy and no aid coming in, so I don’t think we’re ready for the epic level of humanitarian need in Afghanistan. And I think, frankly, there’s not a lot of enthusiasm by the world to give money to the Taliban, understandably. But if the United States and other countries don’t give money, then you’re going to have an absolutely epic humanitarian crisis, and it won’t stay in Afghanistan. It will pour over to Iran and Pakistan, and then it will come to Europe.

What do you think about the role of the U.S. in the creation of the current crisis in Afghanistan?

JL: I came in with the so-called “civilian surge.” So this is around 2009, the idea was at that time that Afghanistan was slipping out of control, but it could be redeemed if the United States just put more troops and had more civilian specialists come in. You knew then that this was going to end badly, so the outcome we’ve seen in the last couple months is not super surprising. I had a pretty close seat watching things like the Afghan army being created, and you just knew it just wasn’t working. There were high rates of desertion and lots of hazing and violence towards their own soldiers. You saw epic amounts of corruption. You can see in the opulence in certain parts of Kabul that all the aid money was just pouring to these warlords and criminals, and they were creating enormous palaces. 

Then you’d go out in the countryside and they didn’t have electricity and water. There was this growing frustration that the United States was hurting civilians, the same people they said they were there to help, and not even acknowledging that they were making mistakes. Each trip I would go, and as I got out into the countryside, I could feel the population turning away from the Afghan government. 

Early when I would go, the aid was welcomed: People were a little bit suspicious, but people would be more or less receptive. By the end, there were places we couldn’t go anymore and villages that wouldn’t accept aid, even if there had been an air strike there. There was just anger, frustration and violence against the convoys. You got this sense that you weren’t welcome there anymore. So to see it end this way isn’t really surprising.

Where do you get your news? When you don’t have first-hand experience of being in Afghanistan, who do you trust?

JL: Honestly, the best source for me has been Twitter. I have a curated collection of Afghan journalists and reporters, and Western reporters as well, that I follow. That’s been really helpful because Afghan reporters have been able to get out into the countryside in a way that Western reporters can’t. There are still a lot of people on the ground, but it’s dried up considerably since a lot of people left. A lot of journalists are friends and people I know.

Right now, it’s problematic, because since the fall of the government, there’s been a lot of noise on Twitter — a lot of misinformation. I’m lucky that I know enough to be able to triangulate it. I also like The New York Times and The Washington Post — the classic big papers. They have been useful, and particularly if they have an Afghan journalist involved, the stories tend to be better quality. 

I would say that I watch almost no TV or cable news — that stuff is just useless. They often have people who don’t know anything about the country, but a lot of it has also been reputation laundering by the people who are responsible for the war going sideways. Now they’re on TV telling us about the way forward, and it’s like: “Dude, you’re responsible for this.”

There is one great organization that does really good public outreach stuff. They’re known as the Afghan Analysts Network, or AAN, and they write public-facing short pieces that are incredible. I’d recommend them, but don’t rely on TV news!

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