DOHA, Qatar — In the twilight months of the United States’ war in Afghanistan, Americans fought the Taliban, not over fields or villages or hearts and minds, but over spreadsheets.
Since February 2020, when the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban laying out the terms of withdrawal from Afghanistan if certain conditions were met, the insurgent group has recorded its every perceived violation of the deal, totaling well over 1,000 incidents laid out in Microsoft Excel.
Practically every week, the Taliban delivered these lists of infractions to U.S. diplomats and military officials in Doha, Qatar, who took the complaints — investigating some and dismissing others as inaccurate.
In a way, the spreadsheets’ very existence supported President Biden’s rationale for pulling out completely, even when his generals wanted to stay: A conditions-based withdrawal, as the Pentagon wanted, seemed bound to fail because neither side could agree on whether the other party was even meeting the conditions they had signed on to.
foundation to further negotiate a reduction in violence that would last 90 days. The plan is a last-ditch attempt to stave off a deadly summer insurgent offensive and stabilize the battlefield as the last American forces leave — if the Taliban are willing to come back to the table.
By announcing the withdrawal, the Biden administration has given up much of the United States’ negotiating leverage, but it still has one last carrot and stick up its sleeve that could get the Taliban onboard: U.S. envoys could agree to push for the release of 7,000 Taliban prisoners (though the Afghan government is likely to refuse to comply, especially in the wake of the announcement) and the removal of United Nations sanctions against the insurgent group.
It seems possible the end of America’s longest war on foreign soil will not end in a bang, or a whimper, but instead with representatives from an insurgent group and those of a superpower sitting across a table, debating spreadsheets.
Afghan war casualty reports, and was able to verify seven of the incidents that involved civilians, out of the more than 110 violations claimed by the Taliban for the month. (The Times does not record reports of Taliban casualties, of which many of their documented offenses claim to be. In the past, the Taliban have exaggerated or lied about casualty claims, so The Times is only printing the incident items it was able to verify, though the Taliban’s details differ from government or local accounts.)
A look into four of these seven incidents show that even when these cases are put under a microscope, the bare facts of what happened and who’s to blame are still almost impossible to discern — the byproduct of the war’s unending stream of competing narratives.