In the fall of 2001, as the United States and its allies swept through Afghanistan, the Taliban collapsed with surprising speed. Although the Taliban army is largely intact in many places, its soldiers often simply crossed the lines and changed sides. The victorious fighters of the US-backed militia, the Northern Alliance, frequently embraced the surrendering Talibs, as if welcoming rebel family members into the fold.
This summer, the same phenomenon took place in reverse. The Afghan army soldiers surrendered, not because they were defeated but because they could see which way the wind was blowing. Why continue? After forty-two years of war, the Afghans are experts at survival. In 2001, American leaders were pleasantly surprised; in 2021, they were appalled.
When the Taliban rulers took over the country, they suggested that they had changed since the 1990s, when they became known to have stoned women to death and knocked down brick walls on those accused of homosexuality. A spokesperson announced that “no prejudice against women will be allowed”. An official named Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemad agreed to be interviewed by a presenter on the TOLO News channel. “I am always amazed that people are afraid of the Taliban,” he said.
Giving credence to these assurances would be a fool’s game. Even though the Taliban leaders are sincere, their movement is torn apart by factions. While Hemad was being interviewed, men in the streets painted on posters depicting the faces of women. In the newly conquered areas, fighters carried out door-to-door searches, executing people suspected of collaborating with the Western-backed government. In Kabul’s cosmopolitan bubble, the Talibs were greeted less as a liberating army than as some sort of theocratic biker gang: rough gunmen flocked to town, claiming allegiance.
When the Taliban last captured the capital in 1996, Afghanistan was emerging from decades of desolation. A declining occupation by the Soviet Union had killed more than a million people, and the civil war that followed killed at least fifty thousand more. The population was impoverished and illiterate, and the cities were in ruins. In Kabul, the city’s busiest place was a Red Cross clinic, run by a big-hearted Italian expatriate who made prostheses for amputees. The men were mostly dead or at the front; the women, invisible behind the burqa, searched the debris for remains; and packs of orphans roamed the streets. Taliban ministries were run by ideologues who did little in governance. But, if Kabul was desolate, it was also peaceful, and its weary citizens were grateful.
In the 2001 invasion, the United States destroyed the state of Afghanistan as it was. The initial objective was simple: to avoid a repeat of the September 11 attacks, led by Al-Qaeda terrorists living under the protection of the Taliban. But even the most basic type of counterterrorism requires a government, and therefore a government had to be built. Diplomats and commanders were eager to build a democratic state, and aid workers set out to build schools, irrigation systems and roads. Billions of dollars have been stolen and thrown away. Yet the country was being remade, especially the cities; Kabul has become a bustling metropolis, with French and Lebanese skyscrapers and restaurants. Millions of Afghan girls, prevented by the Taliban from going to school, have seen their lives transformed.
The Americans and their partners were happy to hand out the money, but they refrained from running the country. Either way, they didn’t know the languages. Desperate for allies, they turned to the strongest Afghans immediately available: the cynical, seasoned commanders who had risen up in the chaos of the past two decades. The combination of warlords and American largesse, sanctified by Western-style elections, produced a state whose rulers’ main objective was to get their hands on as much foreign money as possible. Enriched by the transplant, the Afghan elite began spending weekends in the United Arab Emirates, where they gathered in chic villas on an island called the Palm Jumeirah. US officials had a funny name for the phenomenon: vertically integrated criminal enterprise, or VICE. The venal and predatory Afghan state has become the main engine for recruiting the Taliban.
The other main support for the group came from Pakistan. Intelligence officials there, who had helped mobilize the Taliban in the 1990s, helped them regroup and plan attacks after the US invasion. It was a transparent double game, but successive US Presidents, especially Bush and Obama, have refused to confront Pakistan in any meaningful way. Instead, they invested resources to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield. As the American effort became increasingly militarized, the war overwhelmed good works and Afghan support began to run out.
In recent weeks, the hasty and ill-planned US withdrawal has done the Taliban one last favor. By wreaking havoc on the capital and abandoning those who had risked their lives to help the United States, it surely inspired many Afghans to wish someone would restore order. But the towns the Taliban control now bear little resemblance to the ones they left twenty years ago. The urban population, perhaps a quarter of the country, is energized by a contingent of sophisticated young people, who are proficient not only in Dari and Pashto, but also smartphones, the internet and travel in the West. Even in the countryside, many women and girls have experienced far more freedom than their mothers.
The United States has failed to build a functioning state in Afghanistan. Instead, he favored state within state, outposts of relative liberalism in an otherwise deeply conservative country. Now these outposts will have to join the others, either through improbable compromise or through ruthless force. The Taliban have numbers for them. They are predominantly ethnic Pashtuns, who make up almost half of the population – in the countryside, a dominant force. But the remaining Afghans, including the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens, have their own allegiances, some alongside the Taliban and others against them. Former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, a Tajik, has declared himself the legitimate leader of the nation and commands a loyal group of armed men. A resolution without bloodshed is hard to imagine.
As the Biden administration recklessly left Afghanistan, it left behind the possibility of a deeper calamity, not only in the country but in the region. The president’s embarrassing speech last week, in which he blamed the debacle on everyone but himself, ends America’s twenty-year effort. As Biden withdrew his forces, he urged the Afghans to fight for the future of their country. It seems alarming that they will have to do this. ??