This week the Middle East Institute in Washington published an English edition of the report on Afghanistan that French President Jacques Chirac asked me to complete almost exactly 20 years ago. It appears with a foreword by Gen. David Petraeus, the former head of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My commission came in the wake of Sept. 11 and the assassination, two days before, of Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.
An international coalition led by the United States had just defeated the Taliban and their monstrous regime.
In his office at the Elysée Palace, the French president told me of his regret at not having heeded the warning that Massoud had voiced several months prior (on April 6) during a quick visit to Paris.
And, knowing that I, with a few others, was behind that visit, he assigned me the task of returning to Afghanistan and bringing back, to him, concrete proposals for a French contribution to the reconstruction of a ravaged country that was then showing signs of rebirth.
My mission was to last as long as necessary, to stay in the field and rely on what was left of the resources available in France’s Embassy in Kabul. I was to comb the hidden valleys of the Hindu Kush and the borderlands with Iran, Pakistan, and the former Soviet republics.
On the eve of the report’s republication, I am rereading it with my present-day eyes.
I can picture myself sketching out plans for the constitution of an army, a police force, a draft constitution, a cultural development strategy, national education programs, tribal reconciliation, city planning, public health, agrarian reform, and a road network.
I can picture President Chirac’s enthusiasm when, on April 2, 2002, I presented him with the report that laid out the details of this noble challenge, which, in my view, represented the melding of an ancestral tradition with the essential values of democratic universalism.
I think back to the subset of recommendations that, as noted by Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute, in his introduction to the English edition, were implemented during Chirac’s second term and during the two terms of George W. Bush, despite his customary skepticism about nation-building.
And remembering all this in light of the historic reversal brought about by Donald Trump’s decision, ratified and accelerated by President Biden, to withdraw American troops, to abandon the country to its demons, and, in so doing, to demonstrate, as in Somalia, Syria, Rojava, and Iraqi Kurdistan, that America’s word no longer counts, I am overcome with an immense feeling of waste.
I realize that the Afghans themselves, in allowing the acid of corruption to eat away at their institutions, bear a heavy responsibility.
And I am keenly aware that, as Gen. Petraeus and Dr. Weinbaum note, entire sections of my report remained a dead letter once the initial enthusiasm had passed.
But do we have to throw the baby out with the bath water?
And does the fact that we did not build enough schools, train enough troops, or rein in warlords like Rashid Dostom and Ismail Khan justify handing the keys to power back to the Taliban?
I think of the provincial garrisons that are now falling into their hands, sometimes without a shot being fired.
I think of Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Jalalabad, Bamiyan, and Kandahar—cities where, at the time, a gentle wind of optimism and freedom was blowing, but that the Taliban is now encircling, one by one.
I think of the women whom we encouraged to lower their veils but who now, out of prudence, must consider returning to their cloth prisons.
I picture the French Embassy, which I am so familiar with, having lived there for weeks at a time, that was evacuated on July 16 in an atmosphere of every man for himself.
I think of Ambassador David Martinon, still in place like a captain who will be the last to leave the ship before the storm hits, and I watch the unbearable videos he sends me that confirm the resumption of stonings in the country’s villages.
And I read that the district of Spin Boldak, through which passes the border with Baluchistan, and thus with Pakistan, fell in its turn on July 14. If the information is confirmed, how can we avoid the feeling that we are again on the verge of the nightmare scenario that the war of 2001 raised, and which is now gathering force under the mocking and greedy eyes of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Iran’s ayatollahs, the all-powerful Xi Jinping, and the last surviving leaders of the Islamic State? This is the worst-case scenario in which the pyromaniacs of jihad move like fish in water between the two countries, the nuclear arsenals of the one within reach of the murderous madmen now back in control of the other.
The most distressing aspect of this situation is the paradigm shift that is taking shape.
The sudden disappearance of a time in which a democracy was seen to be playing its proper role when helping a population of scholars, mystics, and horsemen lay the foundations—if it so chose—of a state of law.
And the awful, despicable contrast with another time—our own—in which partisans of the left and right in France, Democrats and Republicans in the United States, workers and the well-off in all countries, isolationists, rejectionists, advocates of a new turn inward, practitioners of woke culture or of a rekindled nationalism, in short, pretty much everybody, seem to accept as normal the victory of a vision in which brotherhood no longer matters, in which respect for the law is reserved for the club of rich countries, and in which the West, from behind its walls, calmly and coolly says goodbye to the world.
A political disaster.
An intellectual and moral debacle.
Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His new book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, was published on October 25, 2021 by Yale University Press.