The New Kabul
One year since the Taliban took over, life in Afghanistan’s capital is a painful reminder of all that was lost when American troops suddenly left the country last year.
The streets are silent. Women and schoolgirls are completely covered, if they are seen at all. Food is scarce for many. But it was not always like this in Bushra Seddique’s home. Before she fled Afghanistan, before the Taliban returned just over a year ago, Seddique had days and nights in cafés with friends, a job as a journalist, and a full life in bustling Kabul.
Seddique’s escape from Afghanistan happened as abruptly as the United States’ withdrawal from her country. Her mother, father, and a sister stayed behind. Her story is a reminder of all that came undone when the United States chaotically left Afghanistan after 20 long years there.
Seddique continues to question why and how it all went down like this. She is not the only one. David Petraeus, who oversaw the U.S. military command in Afghanistan, also argues that America’s involvement in Afghanistan should not have ended this way.
In this week’s episode of Radio Atlantic, Seddique talks about the moment her world changed forever, and The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, interviews Petraeus about what America owes the people of Kabul.
Listen to that conversation and Seddique’s story here:
What follows is a transcript of the episode, edited and condensed for clarity:
Bushra Seddique: Well, I’m trying to explain to everyone, trying to tell them by my words, a picture of how the life back in Afghanistan was. But I can’t find the right words. When I’m saying it was normal, everyone asks me how normal it was back before the Taliban. It was the regular life that everyone has. I mean—we had a home, we had a job, we had friends, we had plans. We know we had a future.
Claudine Ebeid: Bushra Seddique is an editorial fellow at The Atlantic, and I’m Claudine Ebeid, executive producer of audio. In this episode of Radio Atlantic, Seddique gives us a glimpse into her normal life in Afghanistan and how that all changed in an instant.
Seddique: My friends were a really good part and big part of my life, because I spent most of my free time with my friends. We were, all the time, shopping. It’s super crowded. And I imagine those moments walking. And sometimes I remember all the cute smiles of all the people, shopkeepers, and smile. Energy. And everything was like—you can notice those things in everyone’s face in that time.
We were spending our time in a lot of good places. Going to the office. Everyone was trying to do something for themselves. I was a journalist, and I was really in love with my job and what I’m doing for my country and people.
So, we’d spend our time at our favorite places, our favorite restaurants, which we would love to go to together with our family. Or cafés, going with our friends, having your favorite drink and sometimes listening to music and playing music loud in the cafés.
Everyone has their own tastes, what they usually like. I like pop music and old music. I mean, from the 1970s, 1980s: that time of music. So I remember sometimes when I was playing that music, a lot of people say: “Oh, come on, change it.” And some say: “Wow, can we have another song of this singer?”
I love the music by a singer named Ahmad Zahir. He’s not alive. He died many years ago, but in that time, he was famous in Afghanistan as Afghanistan’s Elvis Presley. And I love his songs. They are so good. And he’s one of my favorites.
Sometimes I remember the noise of the crowd, the noise of the cars, the noise of really good music played in shops. And sometimes people are playing loud music in the cars. And those sounds, those voices of people, with our pure language, is such a good moment, which I miss a lot.
And this is not just in my case. It’s for everyone. For all those in Afghanistan, they have the same story. [Or] different stories, but the same feelings.
Everything was normal, despite knowing that the war is going on in parts of our country. We know everything is going on, but we love those moments. I still don’t know how to explain how life was normal at that time.
I remember the very first day that the Taliban came to Kabul, on 15 of August. I was coming from downtown Kabul, and I was coming back home. Then I receive a call from my brother. He told me: “Where are you?” And I said: “Uh, why?” Because he never asked me where I am. He normally never did that. And he asked me for the second time: “Where are you?” And I said: “Why?” So he said, the Taliban came to the Kabul center, and it’s not safe anymore to be outside. “Where are you? Come home as soon as you can. Right now.” Those were my brother’s words. And I said: “You are joking.” He said: “I’m swearing. I’m swearing. Come right now. It’s not the time to joke. I’m serious. Come home right now.”
There’s a lot of traffic, and there’s no way to hail a taxi. I was, like, 15 minutes away from my home by walking. So, I run. And I run as fast as I can. Then I notice all the people around me. Men, women, girls, boys, kids. They’re also running.
That was the time I noticed: Okay, there is something serious. It’s real, not a joke.
So I run. And I remember when I got home, all my siblings were already inside, including my parents. After a few hours, the sun goes down. There were no cars on the streets, not a single person on the streets. Nobody. And it was really shocking for us. Where are these people? Where are the cars? What happened?
And that was the time we saw the news: that our president escaped and the government collapsed. We watch on the news that the Taliban are in our presidential palace, sitting on our president’s chair.
I remember my father told me: “Turn off the lights of our apartment, especially the rooms that have windows outside. Turn off the lights. I don’t want any of you to be visible.” So we turn off the light. But from our room, we were, like, observing and watching the streets.
The only thing I remember of that time was the Taliban’s motorcycles and the very special kind of their own music—which is all about the war, how to fight, how to kill.
And I can still see their flags. That was the very first time I noticed their flags, which was really scary.
And I remember that, on that night, when we were doing our dinner, we cried. All the family—including my father, me, my siblings, my mother—everyone cried. My father is very obsessed with his country. He’s always telling us: “I will never leave my country, whatever happens.” And I went to him and put my hands on his shoulders and asked, “Why are you crying, my dear father?” And he was, like, telling me nothing. But I know why he’s crying. He can’t imagine how the life he made disappeared in seconds. He never imagined that. And my father never cries. That was really heartbreaking for me, so I can’t control my tears because I can’t see my father crying like this.
It was a moment of losing what you have in your hand, losing your achievements, losing your past, losing your kids’ futures. It was a moment of a lot of losings. That was the time not only me, but both my parents felt that they lost everything.
David Petraeus: Like many others who were engaged in Afghanistan—of course, I was privileged to be the commander there—it became more than a bit emotional, I think, for many of us who had served there. A lot of comrades and fellow travelers and those I was privileged to lead were really quite depressed by this.
Ebeid: Seddique’s story is one that has a vantage point from the ground in Afghanistan, where big decisions made halfway around the world and out of her control upended her life, and the lives of so many others.
Someone who also questions whether the U.S.’s withdrawal from Afghanistan made sense is retired General David Petraeus. The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, talked with him about that decision and mistakes made in Afghanistan.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Are you angry at the Biden administration for the way it went down?
Petraeus: You know, I think that is among the emotions. Very disappointed, certainly. In part because, of course, the title of the piece was “Afghanistan Did Not Have to Turn Out This Way.” I really believe that we never even got the inputs right in Afghanistan for nine years, and not until the end of 2010 with the buildup that was approved by President Obama. And then, of course, we started drawing down within eight months of that. We didn’t have the right big ideas in the beginning.
Not just the right level of forces—but also diplomats, development workers, intelligence officers, etc., didn’t have the right organizational architecture. All of these. The preparation of our forces. There were so many shortcomings over the years. But with all of that, there still were alternatives at the end. Contrary to what is asserted, we could have kept 3,500 or so troops there. We hadn’t even had a battlefield loss in about 18 months. And it was not just because of the agreement with the Taliban, which I think has to rank with among the worst diplomatic accords we’ve ever reached. And of course, we negotiated it with our enemies.
Goldberg: And that wasn’t the Biden administration.
Petraeus: That was the Trump administration, right. And we did that without the elected Afghan government that we were supporting being at the table. But the fundamental issue is that we just did not have the strategic patience. The resolve. We didn’t even have consistency within administrations. None of the three administrations were consistent within their administration, much less from administration to administration. And of course, if you keep telling the enemy that you want to leave, and you’re in a contest of wills with that enemy, and that enemy has sanctuaries in a neighboring country—Pakistan won’t eliminate those sanctuaries, nor allow us to do that—you’re in the most challenging of all contexts. And so we had to recognize, Jeffrey, at some point, that we couldn’t win. But that we could actually manage.
Goldberg: In your mind, the minimum viable number of troops that the U.S. would have to leave in Afghanistan ad infinitum in order to keep stability was 3,500? Or was it going to be substantially more?
Petraeus: I think roughly 3,500. What we would have needed to do, though, was to increase the number of so-called enablers. Add more drones, various types of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance aircraft. These aren’t soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines. It’s more hardware and capabilities. At the end, we were no longer on the front lines, with the exception of occasional counterterrorist-force operations.
Goldberg: Now, you talk about America not having a sustained commitment to Afghanistan. There are a lot of people, including two authors of ours who both served in Afghanistan, Gil Barndollar and Jason Dempsey, who wrote a piece called, not to make too fine a point on it, but: “Don't Believe the Generals on Afghanistan.” Their argument and many other arguments is that two decades is a pretty good commitment. That 2,500 lives of soldiers. A trillion dollars. They hear someone like you saying what we needed was a sustained commitment. And they say: Excuse me, that was a pretty sustained commitment. And it wasn’t working. What’s at the root of this argument that you have with other Americans about the definition of what constitutes a sustained commitment to a cause?
Petraeus: Well, the real issue here is: Is it sustainable? And sustainability, I think, is measured in the expenditure of blood and treasure. And if you have not had an American casualty or a battlefield loss in 18 months, it seems to me that’s sustainable in the 20 to 25 billion out of a defense budget of 800-plus billion [dollars] it will be this year.
Keep in mind, of course, we’ve had 35,000, or whatever it is, troops in the Republic of Korea for over 60 years. We’ve had troops in Europe continuously. We still have roughly 30,000 troops on Japanese soil in various locations—many, many decades, obviously, after the end of World War II. The question is: Is it sustainable? At the point we’d reached, it seemed to me that that was sustainable.
I’d also note that, interestingly, we did actually accomplish what we set out to do at various junctures. During the period that I was privileged to be the commander, our marching orders from President Obama were to halt the momentum of the Taliban, roll it back in critical places, accelerate the development of the Afghan security forces, develop and initiate a concept for transition of certain tasks. And of course, the overriding objective was to ensure that Afghanistan is never again a sanctuary for al-Qaeda the way it was when the 9/11 attacks were planned there and the initial training of the attackers was conducted there.
I don’t see al-Qaeda posing an international threat the way that they did when Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri—the emir who of course was tracked down in Kabul of all places—when they were planning these sensational attacks and carrying out attacks in the East Africa embassy bombings, the USS Cole in Yemen, and, of course, 9/11.
I am concerned about the Islamic State, and I fear that they could build some kind of sanctuary, perhaps even a mini-caliphate, there that we have to keep a very close eye on.
Goldberg: On Iraq, let me put this question bluntly: If the United States had not invaded Iraq and kept its focus on Afghanistan, would it, in your opinion, have been a winnable war?
Petraeus: Again, I don’t know that Afghanistan would ever have been winnable because of the sanctuaries that the enemies of Afghanistan had. Keep in mind, we went into Afghanistan and we didn’t even have a real headquarters on the ground for a period of time. We over-learned the lesson of Bosnia, which is: Never plant a flag, a division flag, because it’s really hard to get out. And so we went into Afghanistan very unconventionally, to put it mildly. Guys on horseback and others with suitcases full of money. We get surrogates, not all entirely the most savory of individuals. They force the Taliban to mass. When the Taliban masses, we clobber them with air power. And the sheer shock effect of that shatters them, and they escape across into Pakistan.
And then, of course, when we have this big operation to try to corner bin Laden in Tora Bora, a week ahead of that, there’s a headquarters sent in that doesn’t even have control over the different types of special-operations forces, much less some of the intelligence assets, et cetera. We finally put a headquarters in, but then we very quickly shifted our focus to Iraq.
And as you’ll recall, Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, used to say: “In Iraq, we do what we must; in Afghanistan, we do what we can.” And “what we can” was never enough. Had we been able to exploit that period of relative peace in Afghanistan—which extended for many years. Staff officers inside Kabul were driving themselves around in thin-skinned SUVs. There was virtually no threat at that time. It was just starting to materialize as the Taliban were putting their foot in the water again in Afghanistan from Pakistan.
But there was a real opportunity. And we missed it, because we did not commit sufficient resources at that time. Again, we wanted to have a very light footprint. And this is where people say it all went wrong in Afghanistan, when we started to do nation building. Well, you know, if you don’t do nation building, how do you end up with the capabilities that are required for you to transition tasks that you’re performing? Afghan security forces of various types; Afghan institutions. The idea that we would have just taken down al-Qaeda and disappeared? Al-Qaeda would have returned in a heartbeat. There would have been a renewed civil war in Afghanistan.
Goldberg: There is this Jacksonian impulse in American foreign-policy making, on a populist level, that says: We don’t care about what you do in your own country; just don’t hurt us. If you hurt us, we’re going to come kill you. And then we’re going to go home again. And then we’re going to come back and kill you if you keep trying to hurt us. That’s the opposite of nation building, obviously. But what is wrong from a technical standpoint with that notion? We go into Afghanistan in October of 2001, kill as many al-Qaeda operatives and their Taliban enablers as we can, and then say, “Don’t do it again.” Then, if they do it again, we just go do that again without all the efforts associated with nation building. What’s wrong with that theory?
Petraeus: Well, of course, that flies in the face of the Pottery Barn concept from Secretary Powell: “You break it, you own it.” And we owned it.
Goldberg: But do you believe in “You break it, you own it”? Or could we just say, “Here, we just broke it. You fix it yourselves. We don’t care. Just leave us alone.”
Petraeus: Well, it seems a little bit contrary to an awful lot of our basic ideals, I guess I would say. Now you can say you should think really, really hard before you go into the Pottery Barn.
Petraeus: And before you break it up. And I think that’s obviously one of the lessons of the post-9/11 period. That’s a lesson more for the previous decade as well. But again, having gone in and shattered the country, it would have been a civil war of enormous violence—keeping in mind that they had just gone through a civil war when the post-Soviet regime collapsed, and we would have been responsible for that.
Goldberg: All I’m saying is that it’s not an unpopular view. And it is this Walter Russell Mead conception that the nature of the American people is actually Jacksonian—which is isolationist, except if you try to hurt us. Then we’ll go out and destroy you, and then we’ll just go back home. We’re not imperialists; we’re not nation builders. We just want to be left alone. And I have to say, I mean, it’s not my view—I’m more in a Pottery Barn kind of mindset—but I can understand after two decades of this kind of activity, it has a kind of attraction.
Petraeus: I can understand it as well. But of course, we have a Wilsonian tradition as well. And this has been a tug-of-war between the different traditions, between realism and idealism. And this is what has always played out. And we are, without question, sliding back more toward the realism state of the spectrum, given our frustrating experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Goldberg: All of this raises the obvious question, which is: Are we, in your estimation, going to have to learn the hard way that leaving Afghanistan the way we left it is going to force us one day to reengage the Afghanistan question?
Petraeus: I don’t know that we will have to reengage. We have consigned a country of nearly 40 million people—actually, millions less now already, because of the refugee flow—to an absolutely horrible future. And I see no prospects for improvement as long as the Taliban are not the kindler, gentler Taliban that folks hoped they would turn out to be. That said, I don’t think we would go in unless there is the kind of caliphate, sanctuary, what have you, that al-Qaeda enjoyed—whether it’s al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, which I think is the more dangerous of the elements now and which is also, again, trying to foment civil war.
Goldberg: There’s just one other subject in this particular Afghanistan withdrawal. It’s the issue of Pakistan, and the impossibility of leading a successful or sustainable effort in Afghanistan when the Taliban has, as a neighbor, a country that will give it refuge. It’s the “friendliest enemy” sort of country. It’s a country that’s playing all sides at once. My question to you is: When you were running operations in Afghanistan back in the day, did it strike you that Pakistan had fundamentally made your job impossible? And what lessons did you learn, if that’s the conclusion that you drew?
Petraeus: Well, it was absolutely maddening. We thought at certain times, in particular in 2009, that they actually were, in a sense, with us. And they were going to address the problem of North Waziristan: the “Heart of Darkness,” this tribal, mountainous area in which the Haqqani part of the Taliban, the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, we believed al-Qaeda and others all had sanctuary. And it just didn’t happen. It didn’t materialize. We were just let down repeatedly. And even when I was at the [Central Intelligence] Agency, it was never entirely clear how much they were communicating with, much less supporting the Haqqani, much less the Taliban. That made Afghanistan essentially unwinnable. It didn’t keep it from being manageable, but it kept it from being winnable.
Goldberg: For my last question, let me come back to the beginning. It’s a question that has to do with an emotion. Ideas of morality, public and private. Many, many thousands—hundreds of thousands—of veterans of Afghanistan are quite shocked and depressed by what they see as America’s abandonment of the Afghan cause and their Afghan friends. And of the promises that were made by the United States over more than a dozen years to the women of Afghanistan. Obviously, there is a 20-year period where girls could go to school. And that was brought to you by the United States military. By United States foreign-policy decision making. And that’s all gone.
And I’m wondering two things. One, what does it say about us as a country that makes promises based on shared humanity? Two, is there anything we can do to mitigate the damage that we’ve done by overpromising and under-delivering to the women of Afghanistan?
Petraeus: Well, first of all, I think it is very disappointing to see us walk away. You use the word “abandonment,” which I think does express accurately what it is that we did. And to see what we sought to achieve just disappear in a matter of weeks was shocking. It was hugely disappointing. Now it is very, very difficult to figure out how it is that you can help that 50 percent of a country that used to enjoy certain opportunities in the economy, in society, in education, and now can’t even go to high school, much less to college.
My wife and I funded a scholarship every year for a woman at the American University of Afghanistan. And then, of course, all we are trying to do is get women out of Afghanistan so they can at least continue their education. And there are lots of cases of these that are quite inspirational, about how folks were able to get out and are now studying at great universities in the United States or in Iraqi Kurdistan, or Albania, or what have you. But the bulk of Afghan women just will not enjoy the kinds of opportunities they had before. Not remotely. And I don’t know how it is that we can actually influence the Taliban to provide those opportunities to them, given that they have made decisions that are completely contrary to what they should do if they want to get international assistance.
And we were actually in discussions with them—most recently in one of the Central Asian states—of course, right before we take out the emir of al-Qaeda who’s living in downtown Kabul. Within walking distance of the presidential palace, in a house that was controlled by the acting minister of interior of Afghanistan. So again, the challenges here are enormous. How do you help individuals in a country? How do you help citizens? How do you help the whole population, 90 percent of which is not getting enough to eat on a daily basis? How do you help them without enriching a regime that has put their country in this terrible position?
Goldberg: Right. Let me thank you, General Petraeus, for your time and for your continued commentary for The Atlantic. Thank you very much for doing this today.
Petraeus: Thank you, Jeffrey. It is a privilege to be with you.
Seddique: So I don’t know. I have never imagined that the Taliban is coming and I’m leaving the country like this. We were expecting that everyone from the U.S. is going to leave Afghanistan, but we haven’t pictured anything like this. Shouldn’t be ending like this. But after the president escaped and after we lost almost all the provinces of Afghanistan, we thought: Everything is over.
Ebeid: We’ll have an episode about Bushra Seddique’s escape from Afghanistan in Radio Atlantic coming soon.
This episode was produced by me, A.C. Valdez, Kevin Townsend, and Theo Balcomb, with engineering help from Mathew Simonson. Sam Fentress is our fact-checker. The news audio you heard in this episode was from Al Jazeera.
Visit theatlantic.com to read General Petraeus’s piece “Afghanistan Did Not Have to Turn Out This Way,” as well as “Don't Believe the Generals on Afghanistan,” a counterpoint to General Petraeus’s view. Bushra Seddique’s latest piece, describing her escape from Afghanistan, is: “I Smuggled My Laptop Past the Taliban So I Could Write This Story.”