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Thursday Briefing

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I covered the war in Afghanistan and went back after the Taliban took over.

General Abdul Raziq was one of the United States’ staunchest allies in the fight against the Taliban. Young and charismatic, he was a brave fighter who won the loyalty and respect of his men. He helped push back the Taliban in the crucial battleground of Kandahar, even as Taliban fighters were advancing inside Afghanistan.

But until his assassination in 2018, his success was built on torture, extrajudicial killings and kidnappings. In the name of security, he turned the Kandahar police into an unfettered fighting force. His officers, trained, armed and paid by the United States, had no regard for human rights or due process, according to one official. The Times investigates thousands of cases. Most of his victims were never seen again.

Washington’s strategy in Afghanistan is aimed at defeating the Taliban by winning the hearts and minds of the people it is supposed to be fighting for. But Razik exemplified a flaw in the plan. The United States empowers warlords, corrupt politicians, and outright criminals in the name of military expediency. The agents it chooses tend to do whatever it takes to achieve their ends.

I will explain in today’s newsletter how the use of people like Raziq has turned many Afghans towards the Taliban. It has also led others, including those who may be sympathetic to U.S. goals, to believe that a U.S.-backed central government cannot fix Afghanistan. If the United States ever has a chance to root out the Taliban, the war strategy will make that goal much more difficult.

My colleague Matthew Aikins and I have been covering Afghanistan for years. After the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, we were suddenly able to visit people and places that had been off-limits during the war. We went there hoping to understand what really happened during America’s longest war.

Together with a team of Afghan researchers, we combed through more than 50,000 handwritten complaints kept in the books of the former U.S.-backed government in Kandahar. We found details of nearly 2,200 suspected disappearances. From there, we traveled to hundreds of families in Kandahar.

We have tracked nearly 1,000 people who say their loved ones were abducted or killed by government security forces. We have confirmed nearly 400 cases, often involving the abduction of witnesses. We also corroborated their claims with Afghan police reports, affidavits and other government records they submitted. In each case of enforced disappearance, the whereabouts of the missing person remain unknown.

Even then, U.S. officials were aware of Raziq’s ill intentions. “Sometimes we would ask Raziq about alleged human rights abuses, and when we got answers we would say, wow, I hope we’re not incriminating ourselves in war crimes just by hearing about this,” recalled state Rep. Henry Ensher, a department official who has served in several roles on Afghanistan. “We knew what we were doing, but we didn’t think we had a choice,” Ensher said.

It would be too simplistic to say that Raziq’s tactics were entirely futile. They worked in some ways, reasserting government control over Kandahar and pushing the insurgents deeper into the hinterland. Raziq won the admiration of many who opposed the Taliban. More than a dozen U.S. officials said the Taliban’s advance would have been much faster without him.

But Razik’s methods took their toll. They inspired such hatred among their victims that the Taliban turned his brutality into a tool to recruit new fighters. Taliban officials posted videos of him on WhatsApp to attract new fighters.

Many Afghans began to denounce the U.S.-backed government and everything it stood for. “None of us supported the Taliban, at least not at the beginning,” said Fazur Rahman, whose brother was kidnapped in front of witnesses during Raziq’s rule. “But when the government fell, I cheered and ran through the streets.”

Even some who applauded Raziq’s brutality lamented the corruption and crime he unleashed — a key part of the Afghan government’s collapse in 2021. After Raziq’s death, his commanders went further. They extorted ordinary people and stole their own men’s salaries and supplies. “What they brought in the name of democracy was a system in the hands of a few mafia groups,” said one Kandahar resident who initially supported the government. “People started to hate democracy.”

Historians and scholars will spend years debating whether the United States could have pulled it off. The world’s richest country invaded one of its poorest and tried to reshape it by installing a new government. Such efforts elsewhere have failed.

But America’s mistakes — enabling ruthless killers, turning allies into enemies, fostering rampant corruption — have made the defeat of the longest war at least partly self-inflicted. Mathieu and I will tell this story from across Afghanistan over the next few months.

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