Afghanistan: The way out the crisis. Interview with Assadullah Keshtmand, former Afghan diplomat

Afghanistan is facing a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis following the Taliban’s seizure of power last August in the wake of the end of the US’ 20-year occupation. A solution to the crisis can only be found through meaningful negotiation and a genuine political transition mandated by, and rooted in, the Afghan people themselves, argues progressive former diplomat Assadullah Keshtmand

Liberation: The reports from Afghanistan point to a deep and multi-dimensional economic and humanitarian crisis. Human rights and opportunities for justice, peace, and progress, appear to be at their lowest ebb. How durable and stable is the Taliban regime and the general setup that currently prevails in Afghanistan?

Assadullah Keshtmand: First of all, the Taliban’s seizure of power in the provinces, culminating in the downfall of the government in Kabul last August, must be evaluated in the context of the complex and covert designs of the US. Common sense cannot hold that the Taliban, with the forces they had at their disposal, could so easily and quickly have overthrown a twenty-year-old occupation regime backed by the world’s most powerful country and presiding over a 350,000-strong professional combat force, and proceeded to take control of all its military facilities. This simply stretches the limits of credibility.  Today, it is no secret that there has been widespread and extensive collusion between the US and the Taliban. It is only by bearing in mind this vital context that the current events in Afghanistan can be effectively analysed.

To answer your question, it should be said that the current situation, which will more than probably lead to a huge humanitarian crisis, was utterly predictable in the first days of the Taliban’s return to power. For those who foresaw regime change in Afghanistan in the policies of the US, it was also predictable that the US would not allow the Taliban’s rule to subsequently collapse as a result of the ensuing economic problems and the revolt of the Afghan people.  We now observe the US and its allies reach into their pockets, in the name of obligatory assistance to the people of Afghanistan and to save them from famine, though such aid perhaps owes more to the good luck of coincidence with US and Western interests – and keeping afloat the Taliban regime which would otherwise collapse – than genuine goodwill towards the Afghan people.  If such aid was borne of a genuine and real humanitarianism, the question can be legitimately asked as to why similar support is not forthcoming to the beleaguered and starving people of Yemen who are already staring famine in the face. Surely, they are deserving of similar urgent assistance?

Of course, as an Afghan national, I welcome aid that would serve to alleviate the suffering of my people, though I remain fully cognisant of the other interests and motives behind such assistance.

I have stated many times before, and repeat here once again, that power in Afghanistan was consciously and deliberately transferred to the Taliban based upon a calculated and long-term plan from which those involved expect to reap its “benefits” in the not-so-distant future.  Such “benefits” could include the fomenting of internal conflicts and wars within the former Soviet republics in Central Asia as well as the Xinjiang region of China – to create obstacles for, and thwart the legitimate interests of, both Russia and China. The Taliban regime will be instrumental in such designs behind the scenes. Extreme Islamist movements, including I.S. Khorasan, comprised of combatants from Chechnya, the wider Caucasus, Central Asia, and Xinjiang, will form the battalions of this insurgency. These fighters are already battle-hardened from their experiences in Iraq and Syria, and have been moved by the Americans to Afghanistan “for the rainy days”, where they have established their bases in the remote north and north-eastern areas of our country.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s progressive forces, which have been driven into weakness and isolation during the twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan, will not play a significant role in the coming changes. However, the popular resistance to the Taliban’s fundamentalist and authoritarian policies will certainly continue to grow in the future.  It cannot be disputed that the Taliban have temporarily returned a relative “peace and quiet” to the country, as was the case during their previous time in power.  However, it is the “peace and quiet” of the cemetery and the uneasy unsettling calm before the proverbial storm.

L: What is your opinion about the freezing of foreign aid to Afghanistan – aid that until August 2021 amounted to 75% of the country’s public spending budget? Was the international community right to do this?

AK: It is my belief that foreign countries – first and foremost the U.S. and its allies – in light of the prevailing global public opinion, had no other realistic course. However, as I have already stated, if this is left unchecked it will lead to the fall of the Taliban regime – something the US and NATO cannot countenance, having expended much effort and having lost considerable face in bringing about this situation in Afghanistan in the first place. The delay in the provision of aid can be explained, on the one hand, by the weight of world public opinion and revulsion against the Taliban and the aforementioned need of the US and Western powers to save face – and, on the other hand, by the disunity and lack of cohesion within the Taliban, with the Pakistan-influenced current in the ascendancy, and the chaos and fallout that has ensued.  However, fortunately, we can see that the prospect of famine is being averted.  Though, of course, this also means that the internal crisis will not spiral in a way that threatens the Taliban regime’s control.

L: Will there be lasting realignment of Afghanistan’s allies under the Taliban and what implications will this have for the people of Afghanistan and the wider region?

AK: By essentially overseeing the transfer of de-facto control and power back to the Taliban, the US has begun playing a complicated and risky game. Will the Taliban, for their part, be able to play this game well until its end? Only time will tell. Part of the Taliban’s leadership (which had been based in Qatar) has pitched this disunited and incongruent movement into the whirlwind of the global developments. So far, they have been able to play this game skilfully and cautiously. However, in the future they will face great challenges, the likes of which it is hard to believe they will be able to overcome. On another level, outside of Afghanistan, there seems to be a complete harmony between the different international actors and the specific roles they play,   whether Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, NATO, the US, and the EU.

While the outcome of this game might appear to favour the Afghan people – in that the “consensus” would serve to prevent famine, a new catastrophic level of poverty, and the complete breakdown of Afghanistan’s social fabric – the consolidation of the Taliban’s power will actually drive the country further into the abyss and the tragedy of endless regional wars.

L: Given the sharply deteriorating situation for women in Afghanistan since August, it seems that little, if anything, has changed regarding the Taliban’s backwards and reactionary bent, particularly on this issue, despite their insistent claims to the contrary. Would you agree?

AK: The Taliban do not any longer have the same scope to assert their “vision” for Afghanistan that they enjoyed during their first reign from 1996 to 2001. On the one hand, they have covert dealings and obligations vis à vis the US and NATO, whose role and activity in Afghanistan is by no means finished despite the current rhetoric – and without whose backing the Taliban really cannot do much. On the other hand, there is some degree of divergence of views within the Taliban itself over the right approach regarding these issues in Afghanistan. Thus, everyday one can witness an about-turn or significant change in their approach to the role of women and other social strata in the economy and life of the country. That is not to say that the Taliban’s instinctive regressive stance towards women will not continue to be manifest in their actions. Their resistance to even basic notions of women’s rights will remain firm. However, on the other side, especially amongst the courageous and vigilant women’s movement in Afghanistan (and a generation of women who have come of age since the last reign of the Taliban), such notions are resolutely held to.  And, fortunately, the overwhelming majority of countries that can influence and impact developments within Afghanistan have seemed to make any leniency they afford to the Taliban conditional upon their respect for women’s rights.

Indeed, it is apparent that the current Taliban regime’s initial approach to these issues has been more restrained than that of their predecessors back in the mid-1990s. This seems to point to the existence of obstacles that act as a restraint on the Taliban reverting to its default.

L: Considering the increasing threats to freedom of expression; effective sudden suspension of the academic-university scene, including its financing; and the decision this week to resume the issuing of exit papers, can a mass emigration of intellectuals be expected?  And, if so, what will be the impact upon Afghanistan?

AK: The first wave of migration in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover back in August was sudden and unexpected, in response to the shock of those events and the manifest designs of the West and NATO. for Afghanistan. That wave mainly comprised of Afghan professionals and intellectuals – with the necessary connections and means to leave – who were integral to the development of the country but represented a nuisance for the incoming Taliban regime. The field was effectively abandoned to the Taliban. Going forward, this is unlikely to remain the case as the vast majority of Afghans who remain are living in deep poverty and do not have the means to get out. However, the powers that be, who “wrote the script” of events in Afghanistan, have factored in the Taliban’s following of a more moderate policy that effectively checks any opposition from those who remain behind in the country.  Thus, gradually, the people in Afghanistan adapt to cope with the reality of life under the Taliban.

L: To what degree are the Afghan progressive forces able to organise and how? And, what are their demands?

AK: At the moment, it seems unlikely that the main established and veteran progressive forces of Afghanistan – whose activities even before the Taliban takeover were restricted to limited areas – will be able to do much. However, newer spontaneous forces have arisen among Afghan intellectuals and cultural intelligentsia that offer some glimmer of hope for the future. These emerging forces, unlike the veteran political left, draw upon the advancements made around the world in the humanities and information technology, while adopting the traditions of the progressive struggle of the Afghan people, especially the communists – and have had a significant impact on the collective spirit of the society. These new forces therefore certainly carry and represent the hopes of the Afghan left movement.

Of course, their demands are certainly in accordance with what the international progressives call for in respect of Afghanistan.

L: In view of the catastrophic situation in Afghanistan, it is expected that many more Afghans will seek refuge in the West – including in the UK.  Yet an unchecked mass exodus is neither feasible nor desirable for Afghanistan in the longer term. What must progressives do in the UK to support solutions that will not force Afghans to flee their country in the first place?

AK: Yes, I know that the progressive forces in Britain have rushed to help the Afghan refugees with great effort and sincerity and, accordingly, have gained the profound respect of the Afghan progressive forces.

I believe that British peace-loving and progressive forces can play a major role in influencing today’s developments in Afghanistan. The world is very attentive and opposed to the Taliban’s monopolistic and discriminatory policies. This creates an environment conducive to the growth of the activities of British progressive forces in defence of the Afghan people and in support of their legitimate demands.  I believe that progressive forces in Britain should focus their actions and solidarity on the struggles for women’s rights; against single ethnic rule [Pashtun supremacy]; against ethnic cleansing, especially that being perpetrated against the Hazara people; religious discrimination, especially against Shi’as and Hindus; against the terrible policy of discrimination against the Farsi language, the historical and common language of the majority of people of Afghanistan; and, the forced migration by the Taliban of Hazaras and Tajiks from their abodes. Then, overall, progressives in Britain can defend the rights and freedoms of the Afghan people effectively and in a balanced manner.

As an Afghan national and patriot who remains tied to, and concerned with, the fate of people, I sincerely thank Liberation, the progressive organisation that has always steadfastly defended the oppressed people of the world and who today continues to stands with the people of Afghanistan.

Assadullah Keshtmand was born in 1949 to a family of humble background in Kabul province.  He completed his secondary schooling in Afghanistan before attending university in France where he completed his undergraduate and postgraduate studies.  During this time in France, he joined the French Communist Party.  He was later elected to the Central Committee of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and was the first Editor-in-Chief of the Haghighat-e Enqelab-e Saur newspaper (the government organ of the PDPA) in 1980.  He also served for several years as the Deputy Head of the International Relations Bureau of the Central Committee of the PDPA.  In the final 5 years of the PDPA government, Mr. Keshtmand served as the Ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan to Hungary, Iran, and Ethiopia. He currently resides in London.

Photo by USAID on Pixnio / Creative Commons


1838Britain wants buffer between India and growing Russian empire and invades Afghanistan to affect regime change. Does not gain hold.
1878-1880Britain again attacks Afghanistan.
1880War ends with treaty ceding control of Afghan foreign policy to Britain.
1917Revolution in Russia brings down Tzar’s empire and establishes a peoples’ socialist democracy. Events deeply influence Afghanistan.
1919 (May to August)Britain is at war with Afghanistan – Afghan War of Independence. Britain bombs Afghan cities.
1919 (August)Treaty of Rawalpindi brings  Afghan War of Independence to an end, establishing recognised border between the Emirate of Afghanistan and the British Raj (the Durand Line) and gives Afghanistan independence (on paper) from all British interference in its affairs.
1919 onwardsEmir of Afghanistan pursues foreign policy independent of Britain, while the latter tries unsuccessfully to prevent the conclusion of an Afghan/Russian treaty
1921Afghanistan signs friendship treaty with nascent socialist republic in Russia.
1929 – 1933Afghan monarch, Mohammed Nadir Shah, institutes limited modernisation programme.
1931/2Kabul University is founded.
1933 (8 November)Mohammed Nadir Shah is assassinated.
1950sSocial reforms take place, influenced by the Soviet Union.
1950Kabul University opens doors to women students.
1953Restrictions are lifted on burqa wearing in public.
1964Constitutional monarchy established. The Constitution (on paper) gave the vote to all and set down the right of women to stand for public office, enter the professions, etc.  
1965People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) formed.
1967First trade unions in Afghanistan are formed.
1973Monarchy deposed. Afghanistan becomes a republic under the presidency of Mohammed Daoud Khan.
1978 (April)The PDPA comes to power (Sowr Revolution). Foreign-armed insurgency begins in southern provinces.
1978Central Council of Afghan Trade Unions, the CCATU, is established.
1979The PDPA invites Soviet Union support against foreign attempts to destabilise the government. Soviet Union comes to government’s assistance in December 1979.
1986 (May)Mohammad Najibullah becomes leader of the PDPA.
1986The US arms the Mujaheddin opposition fighters with state-of-the-art Stinger missiles.
1987Mohammad Najibullah becomes president and attempts to initiate a national reconciliation process. Begins process of constitutional reform.  
1988WIDF delegation visits Afghanistan. Barbara Switzer represents the NAW.
1989 (February)Soviet military personnel leave Afghanistan, ending their nine-year mission.
1990CCATU is renamed as the National Workers’ Union of Afghanistan – NWUA.
1992Government of PDPA – by now renamed Homeland (Watan) Party – is brought down by Islamist opposition backed by US, Britain, and allies. President Najibullah seeks refuge at UN headquarters. Islamic State of Afghanistan is declared.
1992The NWUA is closed down.
1992 – 1996Fighting continues. Government unstable.
1994Taliban come to forefront as faction in Afghan civil war
1996 (September)Taliban seize power and impose Sharia law. Country now styled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Catastrophic era for women begins.
1996 (27 September)Najibullah is taken from UN headquarters and executed by the Taliban.
1996 – 2001First Taliban government
2001 (September)Al-Qaeda attack on World Trade Centre, New York.
2001 (7 October)US, Britain, and allies declare war on Afghanistan – bombardment then invasion. Start of 20 years of civil war and US occupation during which the infrastructure and services are forced to depend on foreign aid and Afghanistan becomes one of the poorest countries in the world.
2001 (November)The Northern Alliance supported by US and Britain ousts the Taliban
2001 (December) – 2014 (September)Presidency of Hamid Karzai backed by US, Britain, other regional allies
2003 (August) – 2014 (December)US/NATO operation to ensure ‘security’ in Afghanistan. Mission ‘completed’ in 2014. Afghan National Defence and Security Forces are handed the task.
2010 (July)Wikileaks – Tens of thousands of top-secret military documents reveal the true nature of the US occupation, a catalogue of carnage.
2015 (from January)New US/NATO intervention – Resolute Support Mission – to ‘help’ the Afghan defence forces ‘fight terrorism’
2014 (September) – 2021 (August)Presidency of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. Corruption is rife, the government is weak and the economy dependent on the US. Situation of women one of the worst in the world.
2020 (29 February)US signs deal with the Taliban on their reinstatement in government in Afghanistan after a long period in which the two tried to reach agreement.
2021 (15 August)Taliban return to power and announce return to Sharia Law. Ashraf Ghani leaves Afghanistan for the UAE.
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