Thursday briefing: How the ‘American monster’ operated in Afghanistan

I covered the war in Afghanistan and returned after the Taliban took power.

General Abdul Raziq was one of the United States’ fiercest allies in the fight against the Taliban. He was young and charismatic, a brave warrior who earned the loyalty and respect of his men. He helped push back the Taliban in the crucial Kandahar battlefield, even as the insurgents advanced across Afghanistan.

But his success, until his assassination in 2018, was based on torture, extrajudicial executions and kidnappings. In the name of security, he transformed the Kandahar police into an unrestricted fighting force. His officers, who were trained, armed and paid by the United States, failed to take note of human rights and due process, according to a Times investigation into thousands of cases. Most of his victims were never seen again.

Washington’s strategy in Afghanistan aimed to defeat the Taliban by winning the hearts and minds of the people they were supposedly fighting for. But Raziq embodied a flaw in that plan. Americans empowered warlords, corrupt politicians, and outright criminals in the name of military expediency. He chose representatives for whom the ends often justified the means.

In today’s newsletter I will explain how the use of men like Raziq drove many Afghans towards the Taliban. And he persuaded others, including those who might have been sympathetic to U.S. goals, that the U.S.-backed central government could not be trusted to fix Afghanistan. If there was ever a chance that the United States could uproot the Taliban, the war strategy made it much more difficult.

My colleague Matthieu Aikins and I covered Afghanistan for years. After the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, we were suddenly able to visit people and places that were off-limits during the fighting. We traveled there hoping to learn what really happened during America’s longest war.

Together with a team of Afghan investigators, we reviewed more than 50,000 handwritten complaints kept in ledgers by the former US-backed Kandahar government. In them we find the details of almost 2,200 cases of alleged disappearances. From there, we went to hundreds of homes in Kandahar.

We located nearly 1,000 people who said government security forces had taken or killed their loved ones. We corroborated almost 400 cases, often with eyewitnesses to the kidnappings. We also substantiated their claims with Afghan police reports, affidavits, and other government records they had submitted. In each of the forced disappearances the person remains missing.

Even then, American officials understood Raziq’s malevolence. “Sometimes we would ask Raziq about incidents of alleged human rights abuses, and when we got answers we would say, ‘Wow, I hope we haven’t gotten involved in a war crime just by hearing about it,'” Henry Ensher recalled. a State Department official who served in multiple positions in Afghanistan. “We knew what we were doing, but we didn’t think we had a choice,” Ensher said.

It would be too simple to say that Raziq’s tactics were totally in vain. They worked in some respects, reasserting government control in Kandahar and pushing insurgents inland. Raziq earned the admiration of many who opposed the Taliban. More than a dozen US officials said that without him the Taliban would have advanced much faster.

But Raziq’s methods took their toll. They provoked such enmity among his victims that the Taliban turned his cruelty into a recruiting tool. Taliban officials posted videos about him on WhatsApp to attract new fighters.

Many Afghans came to vilify the US-backed government and all it stood for. “None of us supported the Taliban, at least not at first,” said Fazul Rahman, whose brother was kidnapped in front of witnesses during Raziq’s reign. “But when the government collapsed, I ran through the streets rejoicing.”

Even some who applauded Raziq’s cruelty lamented the corruption and criminality it engendered, a key part of why the Afghan government collapsed in 2021. After Raziq’s death, his commanders went further. They extorted money from the common people and stole the wages and supplies of their own men. “What they brought under the name of democracy was a system in the hands of a few mafia groups,” said a Kandahar resident who initially supported the government. “People came to hate democracy.”

Historians and scholars will spend years arguing whether the United States could ever have succeeded. The richest nation in the world had invaded one of the poorest and attempted to remake it by installing a new government. These efforts elsewhere have failed.

But America’s mistakes—empowering ruthless killers, turning allies into enemies, allowing rampant corruption—made the loss of its longest war at least partly self-inflicted. This is a story that Matthieu and I will spend the coming months telling across Afghanistan.

Read Azam’s investigationand watch him explain how it joined.

Photographer Emile Ducke took this photograph of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian advance in the Kharkiv region. A woman, looking out the window, left without her husband. “He didn’t want to leave,” she said.

Others had packed their belongings into as many bags as they could. There was not time. Read the stories behind this image.

If you’re looking to make the switch to vegetarianism or simply a more plant-based diet, you may have questions, even concerns. We can help you get started.

Veggie your favorite foods: Giving up meat does not mean leaving behind beloved flavors. If you love Chicken Parm, opt for one made with mushrooms or eggplant.

Don’t worry about protein. We spoke with a nutrition expert who recommended including at least one serving of a protein-rich food at every meal, such as beans, lentils, nuts, nut butters, seeds, tofu, eggs, and dairy products.

See the full list of tips in our guide on how to eat vegetarian.

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