Understanding Afghanistan, the Navel of Eurasia

Following the fall of Kabul, the former Japanese Ambassador to Afghanistan gives an interview for an inside view of the country.

By Hiroshi Takahashi (Interview by Makiko Takita)


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– Takahashi-san, you are well known as the expert on Afghanistan. I have heard so much about you when I was covering the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as my stint in New Delhi as a correspondent. Could you tell us how you became involved in Afghanistan?

Takahashi: As soon as I graduated from Takushoku University, I went to study at Kabul University. It was 1975. I was originally interested in history, and wanted to study the Great Game, the conflict between the British and Russian empires in the 19th century. I learned Dari at the university’s Foreigner Department that existed at the time. I witnessed the Communist coup in 1978. People were telling me, “you’ll get caught too,” so I left Afghanistan in 1979 before the Soviet invasion. I was there for almost five years.

– Did you immediately join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

Takahashi: No, I studied at the University of London, then earned an MA at Sophia University in Tokyo. My professor at Sophia was an Afghan, and my thesis was on “Leftist Ideology in Afghanistan” (laughs). I was planning to go back to London to get my Ph.D., but the Soviets were about to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the Takeshita Cabinet at the time and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was looking for an Afghan expert, and they asked me to come.

I’m not a bureaucratic type, but I wanted to save up for my Ph.D. I thought, if the Soviet withdraws, Afghanistan will become peaceful, so I decided to see it through. But it didn’t turn out that way. Conflicts continued after all. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I worked in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan. This was a great experience for seeing the geopolitics of this region.

– You have to view the region as a continuum to understand it.

Takahashi: Exactly. Because neither the specialist in Russian nor Persian are focusing on this.

– Have you retired from the Ministry completely?

Takahashi: Actually, I left the Ministry in 2016, but after that, I became the Special Assistant to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Even though I was the Special Assistant, the head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Afghanistan Office invited me, and I engaged in farming in Afghanistan. For about two years, I was having a good time with the tribesmen in the western Herat province.

Afghanistan won’t get anywhere without farming. The Afghan people are originally farmers. They don’t really want to take up guns. If they were properly engaged in farming, they wouldn’t be in a state like this.

The Fall of Kabul Was Foreseeable

– Kabul fell on August 15, 2021, President Ghani fled the country, and the Islamist Taliban militia seized power.

Takahashi: The political season in Afghanistan is usually spring. Coups and political upheavals have occurred in spring. During the winter, there is deep snow, so when the snow melts in spring, the Taliban comes out and starts shooting, and as if in response, political movement emerges from the administration; that’s the usual pattern. We knew the Ghani administration would collapse at some point, and things were getting out of hand around June, so I thought the Taliban would seize power sooner or later.

– What made you think that the administration would collapse?

Takahashi: Because of corruption. It was utterly corrupt. As the Japanese ambassador, I was summoned by President Ghani who took office, so I told him, “Mr. President, if you really want to do it properly, you have to stop the corruption. Then the Taliban would lose steam.” But he didn’t believe me.

– He didn’t believe you?

Takahashi: Because he himself was involved in corruption. The cabinet members who were present asked, “Who are the corrupt ones?” so I gave them the names. They said, “We’ll look into it immediately,” but they never did.

– So the cabinet members were also involved.

Takahashi: Yes. Corruption occurs, because President Ghani is someone who’s been outside Afghanistan for a long time and doesn’t have connections within the country. His only acquaintances were the powerful former mujahideen (Islamic militants who fought against the Soviet troops). He had to rely on them, so he tried to solve it with money. It was the same with former President Karzai.

– President Ghani is said to have taken a huge amount of cash when he fled to Tajikistan.

Takahashi: He’s been spotted by a Russian diplomat. I heard a rumor that as President Ghani was fleeing from the presidential palace, he was stopped by the guards at the main gate. When the guards asked, “Where are you going?” the president said, “To Dubai.” The guards said, “If you’re going to Dubai, take us with you.” The president replied, “I’ll be back soon.” But the guards said, “If you won’t take us with you, we can’t let you pass.”

You can see that even the guards didn’t trust the president. Because Ghani fled the country without transferring power, people thronged the Kabul Airport, and became the target of the bombing—his escape was the direct cause of the tragedy.

– If the president is the first to flee, you can’t expect the soldiers to stay behind and protect the presidential palace.

Takahashi: On August 12, with the Taliban closing in, the governor of the southern Kandahar province calls the president from Kandahar Airport and asks, “What should we do?” Ghani says, “Come back to Kabul immediately. Let the Taliban take control.” The governor reveals this exchange after arriving in Kabul. No one trusts Ghani anymore. Sure, he was a miscast, as was former President Karzai, but the international community, that is, the U.S., put such a person in power.

– Besides Kabul, there were other bloodless occupations. Were these also foreseen?

Takahashi: Yes. When Ismail Khan, a prominent figure in the western Herat province, was fighting the Taliban, the local Afghan military commander told him to attend a meeting. When he went, he was captured by the Taliban. The commander and the Taliban were connected.

– Why would such a thing happen?

Takahashi: Because all the posts are gained by bribery. The soldiers know how much money the new commanding officer or commander passed out to buy that position. Who would commit their life to such persons? It’s so corrupt, soldiers don’t have loyalty.

Ismail Khan wasn’t the only one—similar cases occurred in other regions. From around May 2021, I’ve been observing the situation within the country, anticipating a domino effect. The situation intensified and in July, I thought it’s come to an end. At one time, though, it seemed to hold up, but nothing could be done. What’s more, along the border with Pakistan, Afghan soldiers were surrendering to the Pakistani army.

– Afghan forces surrendered to the Pakistani army that they don’t trust. The situation must have been that desperate.

Takahashi: It shows the degree of chaos. The diplomatic corps in Kabul are astounded by the sudden change of the situation, with the president gone, and the Taliban entering Kabul. None of the Western countries, as well as President Ghani, could foresee the shifting situation in Afghanistan.

Many Afghans rushed to the airport to escape abroad. These were the people already deprived of decent living with the corrupt government. We could say that, for the urban residents who were having a tough life under the Ghani administration, the government’s collapse was an opportunity to leave the country.

– In the last two decades, the international community aimed to establish democracy in Afghanistan to prevent it from becoming a terrorist hotbed. But didn’t this go against the traditional Afghan order, in which tribal societies and their own rules prevailed?

Takahashi: Exactly. And money also ruined Afghanistan. The Afghans are not mere money-hungry people, but when cash flows in, they become undisciplined. Why did the Taliban emerge in the first place? The Taliban, when it came out in the 1990s, was originally a social reform movement, because the mujahideen was rotten with corruption. The Taliban stood up to this, in Kandahar.

This is something I heard in 2011. Before the fall of the Taliban regime, they had checkpoints in various places, and anyone passing them after 5:00 p.m. had to say the password to be let through. The password had to be obtained from the Taliban headquarters before 5:00 p.m. each day, and the operation was so strict that even the Supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar would not be allowed to pass without the password. In other words, they were properly maintaining public order.

Meanwhile, in northern Afghanistan, under the control of the Northern Alliance, public order was a mess. I also faced dangerous situations many times. They were the former mujahideen. So, it was entirely different from solving everything with money, like former President Karzai.

– I heard from Afghans that people supported the Taliban at first, because the mujahideen had committed considerable brutal acts.

Takahashi: Most people supported the Taliban, since the majority of the Taliban were Pashtuns, and almost half of the Afghan populations are Pashtuns. The Pashtuns are originally nomads and there are some that walk 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) during a year.

They divide their herd into flocks of 50, 80, or 100 sheep and take them on the move. At the grassland where they go, the herdsman and the owner of the sheep have to negotiate with the sedentary people, or farmers, so that they could eat, and let their sheep drink water and graze. If there is fighting going on ahead, they won’t be able to move on, so they mediate. It is actually politics.

And the Pashtuns are skilled at this. Eventually, they began exchanging gifts and bartering with the local farmers, which developed into trade, and some married and gained connections with the local magnates. So, the Pashtuns know everything about the region. This environment has nurtured the Afghan identity. Besides the Pashtuns, there are other ethnic groups, such as the Hazaras and the Tajiks. But if you ask at any village or town, they’ll tell you they are Afghans.

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The Taliban Deceived by Al Qaeda

– The origin of the Taliban was a social reform movement, but they are attacked by the U.S. for harboring Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, who was the leader of the international terrorist organization Al Qaeda and the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.

Takahashi: Before the 9/11 attacks, Taliban’s leader Omar seemed a bit out of his head. Later, Omar said that he was “deceived” by Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. The Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud told me that Omar came up to him and said, “We want to invade Central Asia, so don’t get in our way.” I was like “What?” Omar seriously considered planting the Taliban flag in Kremlin, as if he was in the Middle Ages.

– Do you mean Al Qaeda tricked him into such delusions?

Takahashi: It’s true that he thought they could get it if they went for it. That idea amplified when he met Bin Laden. I heard this in 1998, but Massoud was desperately trying to prevent the Afghan civil war from extending into Central Asia. The Taliban claimed they want to go to Central Asia and lost track of their original social reform movement. They were influenced by Al Qaeda.

– Weren’t there any corruption in the Taliban at the time?

Takahashi: There was a big mistake. In 1996, when the Taliban seized Kabul and began governing, it had zero bureaucratic structure, and there was no one in the Taliban who could create one. Karzai became the president, but there were no bureaucrats. Yet, the international community thought a nation would be established. That was a big mistake. Karzai depended on mujahideen and tried to solve everything with money. So did Ghani. But you can’t control Pashtuns with cash. If there’s no one with an iron fist, everyone will do what they like.

I was the political advisor for Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations Special Representative for Afghanistan, but since he intended to make Karzai the president, I opposed and quit after just five months. I thought that just won’t do. Well, the personnel office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was angry at me for walking out on my job.

– The Taliban is claiming it has “changed.” We can’t trust them yet, but how do you see it?

Takahashi: There are Afghans yelling, “The Taliban hasn’t changed,” “We’re afraid of them,” “We can’t live under the Taliban regime.” They also say, “It’s the international community that caused the Taliban to regain power.” They also lament the current situation, and claim “It’s our right to flee abroad.” I already mentioned the cause of this situation, but we must not forget that it is the Afghans that overlooked the corruption. And the terrifying Taliban that regained power by force from the corrupt government are also Afghans.

It’s uncertain what the Taliban rule will be like, but their second regime is obviously different from the first one. It is against the Islamic tradition to take pictures or have pictures taken, but now even the image of the Taliban supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, is available. How much these changes will be reflected in their policies, we will have to judge from the future management of the administration.

– As for women’s rights, Takeshi Matsui, an anthropologist who has long worked on field studies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, writes in his book, “Desert Culture in Southwest Asia: from the ethos of livelihood to the conflicts of today” (in Japanese, from Jimbun Shoin):

“The Taliban regime’s Islam-oriented policies are not that far removed from Afghanistan’s past situation. While the treatment of women may seem to go against the times in some urban areas like Kabul, in most rural areas of Afghanistan, we could say the oppression of women remained consistent throughout the old kingdom and even during the recent kingdom.”

Pashtunwali, the Pashtun tribal law on men’s honor, is essential when talking about Afghanistan. Matsui explains, “The honor of a man is maintained by his own virtues such as bravery, generosity, and faithfulness, and by the sexual chastity of his female relatives, mother and sisters, wife and daughters.” With the Taliban, these rules are “strongly connected” with the Islamic faith.

Takahashi: I think Professor Matsui gives a brilliant analysis. He explains in detail the problems of modernization that even Afghans are unaware of. I guess no other researcher has so clearly pointed out the problems of Afghan society. Perspectives like this are extremely important to develop and modernize Afghanistan.

In this regard, I think Dr. Tetsu Nakamura’s irrigation project in the Gambari Desert (eastern Afghanistan) is a good example. I once had a discussion with Dr. Nakamura that, although it seems like a roundabout way, agriculture is the shortest path to stability in Afghanistan.

NHK Overlooks Previous Government’s Corruption

Takahashi: When I see the reporting by NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, I often hear comments saying we need to keep a strict eye on the Taliban, which I find really strange. The previous administration is responsible for letting the Taliban seize power to begin with. As I already mentioned, corruption is the cause. Why is the NHK hard on the Taliban, but was easy on the previous government? It’s really puzzling.

Reports say the Taliban confiscated over 12 million U.S. dollars in cash as well as gold bars from the former government officials. And about half of that, 6 million U.S. dollars and 17 gold bars were found from the home of the former First Vice President Amrullah Saleh in Panjshir valley.

– A video of Taliban soldiers neatly filling a suitcase with huge stacks of banknotes went viral.

Takahashi: As long as these corruptions continued, I felt the administration would collapse at some point. Afghan society values balance. You mentioned earlier that, “The honor of a man is maintained by his own virtues, such as bravery, generosity, and faithfulness.” It’s not just the Pashtun men, but many men in Afghanistan share this awareness.

– So it’s their view of morality.

Takahashi: I have another episode. I was to meet with a notorious high-ranking officer for a business matter. When I researched his reputation beforehand, no one said good things about him. However, one of my friends told me that, “Even a bad guy like him would be faithful if he likes you.” So, I decided to invite him to dinner.

There, he tells me how greedy his immediate commander is, and the appalling way of how he sprawls on a huge sofa while two servants send him air with large fans. He also said that even with whopping wealth, the commander endlessly demands money and amasses a fortune, so although he is the boss, he just can’t take it. I grinned, thinking who is he to say so, quite a villain himself. He seemed to realize what I meant, and said, “Takahashi, there are limits. A person shouldn’t exceed the limits,” and I burst out laughing.

– How should Japan engage with Afghanistan in the future?

Takahashi: It’s been said many times before, but in the field of development, not just in Afghanistan, but in developing countries in general, we need to consider assistance suitable for the country’s circumstances; what’s necessary and what it will bring to both sides. I believe that in providing assistance, while ensuring accountability, we need to have candid discussions on the national interests of Japan and the recipient country.

When we consider the relationship between Japan and Afghanistan, since Afghanistan is in the center of the Eurasian Continent, many think it has little to do with Japan in the Far East. But I don’t think so. Movements in inland Asia are not something Japan can ignore. I believe that trends in Eurasia have been important since ancient times.

An archaeology professor I respect taught me that Afghanistan is important because it is in the middle of Eurasia. I didn’t quite get it. Seeing my skepticism, he added, “Afghanistan is the navel of Eurasia. The navel is important, right?” That’s when it sunk in me.

– So it’s the navel. And the navel is next to China and near Russia. Just realizing these points tells you the weight of Afghanistan.

This is a translation of the Japanese article published in the November 2021 issue of the Seiron magazine.

Hiroshi Takahashi is a visiting professor at Takushoku University, Institute of World Studies and former Japanese Ambassador to Afghanistan. After studying at Kabul University, he joined the Japanese Embassy in Pakistan. He served in the Second Middle East Division of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UN Special Mission to Afghanistan, the Japanese Embassy in Uzbekistan, UN Peacebuilding Office in Tajikistan (2000-2001), and UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (2001-2002). He was the Chargé d’affaires ad interim of the Japanese Embassy in Tajikistan, the Japanese Ambassador to Afghanistan (2012-2016), and Special Assistant to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.


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