Afghanistan: Why Won’t the Taliban Just Go Away?
Billions have been spent on the conflict in Afghanistan. First the object was to liberate the country from the Soviets, at a time no one really thought that would happen as touch upon in Charlie Wilson’s War. But at least would at least make them bleed as the Americans and French had in Vietnam.
Then it was to remove the Taliban, the logical consequence of the sane groups who had been funded and armed before. Now it is to support the Afghan government to construct a virtual reality – pretending there is a functioning administration in a country the government can only partially control, whilst still depending on periodic US airstrikes to keep the Taliban at bay.
Like Al-Qaeda, whose presence in Afghanistan was the original ostensible reason for the US presence there, the Taliban claims responsibility for any act of terrorism to make itself look all-powerful. However it is, as it claims, the most probable suspect in the recent Kabul hotel bombing, which has claimed over 100 lives.
Hotels attract international visitors, even in Afghanistan, and the presence of foreigners is the issue the Taliban has with the Afghan government. The bombing is exactly the sort of symbolic gesture which would satisfy the Taliban’s own supporters and embarrass the Afghan government, which should be guaranteeing the guests’ safety. It also demonstrates to a worldwide audience that the Taliban is still news: and they of all people should know the value of such publicity.
It is unlikely that many ordinary Afghans want the Taliban back in power. But many things the organisation represents, in default of anyone else representing them, do resonate with Afghans. The US probably thought, as the Soviets did in the 1970s, that importing their own vision would give people something new and better to believe in. But they ignored one vital lesson from history: that Afghanistan has never been permanently conquered by any other country, including the great powers who have flocked to it to secure trade routes.
Go into Afghanistan and you take on the whole identity of every Afghan, past and present. Successive military personnel and prospective conquerors have found that this is not a turn of phrase but a concrete reality. As long as the Taliban still represents that identity, however unpalatable many of its actions and teachings are, it cannot be defeated and Afghanistan cannot prosper. But can any of the powers which want to help the country move on make that happen?
Don’t play in our backyard
We were all brought up on stories coming out of Afghanistan. Few noticed or cared when it turned Communist in 1973, when the mighty Soviet Empire was thought to be too tightly controlled to ever disappear. Then the Soviets themselves intervened and removed the local Communists, an action few in the West, and increasingly fewer in the Soviet Union, could explain.
This coup was described at the time as the “will of the people”, as they usually are. But like the rise of the Taliban, it was popular will by default. The 1973 coup which overthrew the monarchy had not achieved many of its aims, and people had begun feeling let down and distrustful of the spate of murders and arrests. So when the Communists took action, where else could the public turn for a saviour? In this sense, the Communist takeover was indeed the “will of the people”
Afghan Communism was essentially secularist. It declared women’s rights and introduced severe repression designed to reduce the influence of Islam. Most Afghans objected to these things because they were foreign, and foreigners can’t tell Afghans what to do and get away with it.
The greatest ever British military defeat was in Afghanistan, and the Duke of Wellington was Commander-in-Chief of the British Army at the time. In spite of three wars, the British had been driven out each time because Afghans make their own rules, they do not respect those imposed from outside.
When various armed groups rose in revolt in 1979 the Afghan government respected the “will of the people” by remaining in power but murdering the president, so the one-party regime could distance itself from Moscow. For the West, this did not signify a political change in the country. But the Soviets objected to this win-win situation and intervened to put a Soviet loyalist in power. Thus began nearly forty years of continuous war, which anyone, at least in policy positions, who knew the history of the place could have seen coming.
Afghans always claim that their ultimate victory over the Soviet Union, with considerable Western material help, was the factor which led to the downfall of the entire Soviet empire. Unfortunately the West then made the same mistake the Soviets had—forgetting the end game and what would come next.
The US stated it would organise free elections to choose the next government but then allowed the particular mujahedeen faction which controlled the part of Kabul where the government buildings are, and few other places, to declare itself the Afghan government. This government was then recognised around the world, without the people being consulted, which was seen as another foreign takeover.
None of the other many groups the West had happily armed had a better claim to run the country, but all disagreed with Burhan Rabbani’s group claiming to be the whole government. As the fighting continued, and alliances between different groups were made and broken weekly, the people lost faith in any of the combatants, who continued their campaigns without popular support, often targeting whole civilian populations due to political changes those populations had not made or even known about.
This is why the Taliban was able to advance on Kabul without fighting a major battle. Rather than preaching radical Islam and further terrorism, it upheld the system of Pashtunwali – the traditional code of values of the Pashtun community, which had been historically dominant. Even if people aren’t Pashtuns, they understand and respect this code. In effect it was Margaret Thatcher’s concept of “Victorian Values” – a morally superior system from a better age which would restore the country to its former glory.
Afghans soon realised that the Taliban is an amoral and corrupt gang of thugs whose radical interpretation of Islam is that of a psychopath justifying his behaviour by quoting scripture. But the alternative is foreigners, or those perceived as taking orders from the foreigners who put them there and have constructed the contemporary virtual state. The Taliban itself is used by the US for its own purposes, as all terrorist groups ultimately are, being part of the drug supply chain which funds ISIS as well as the Taliban itself. But no one else has come along to give Afghans another set of values they can support, shorn of the unacceptable extremes which characterise the Taliban in the West.
The further we get from the days of Taliban rule, the more persuasive its support for Afghan independence and traditional values will seem. These things still are, and always will be, the “will of the people”. The West will not be able to counter them by offering blue jeans and milkshakes in return for joining the Afghan army. It will have to make the preservation and promotion of Afghan values the centrepiece of its own policy – but as we have seen in many other countries, it cannot do that simply because it is the West.
I’ve always spelt it that way and always will
Every great empire thinks that its own way of doing things is better than anyone else’s, simply because it rules so many other people. If it wants to conquer more people, it does the same things it always does because those ways are demonstrably superior, simply because it has a larger territory.
When empires start to decline, as Russians remember, their leaders start to question those ways of doing things at look at other models. But this is an internal process: in foreign policy the old ways are promoted with ever greater vigour, to justify the country in the eyes of the world. Belgians always objected to what their King Leopold was doing in the Belgian Congo, which was his own private business, and took it into state hands to stop those abuses, but many of those crimes against humanity continued because Belgium couldn’t admit it was wrong and remain in charge.
The US empire is now in decline due to its economic weakening and military overstretching. Americans themselves are questioning the long-held belief that The American Way is the one every other country would freely choose to follow, given the chance. So how does the US defend itself? By being even more insistent that the US model must be introduced into every nation.
It is this, rather than what Western troops have done, which has led to the Taliban remaining a force in Afghanistan. Afghans respect democracy, but not one they are told to have by a foreign power, structured the way a foreign power wants it. Traditionally they have had different systems of their own, such as the institution of the Loya Jirga, roughly equivalent to the House of Lords. Similarly, though a Pashtun will not be a tenant of another Pashtun they have no problem being a tenant of a representative of one of the hundreds of other ethnic groups in the country, and this spills over into political relations, making a flat universal franchise a nonsense.
Similarly, Afghans have sophisticated trading relationships with each other, and the rest of the world, based on Islamic monetary principles which have been around for centuries longer than the ideas of Adam Smith and David Ricardo which form the basis of modern free trade. Most also pay voluntary taxes under the Zakat system, which has an effect on governmental use of taxation. Above all, if they see a moral case for taking a welfare action they just do it, without seeing the need to do things like register charities and record how the money is used. They will not be told what they can and cannot do by an aid programme, however well intentioned.
The way to defeat the Taliban is to institutionalise the traditional Afghan systems, which are understood even by those who do not like or practice them, in the same way the Orthodox Church and its teachings and practices are understood by non-Orthodox in Russia. If these are made the basis of government practice, and then protected by foreign troops for that reason, this will turn foreign occupiers with their infidel Western ways into friends.
But it will also mean that the US doesn’t have as much to offer as it thinks it has, and call its role in all other countries into question. The US is capable of riding this storm by adopting the same policy everywhere, and encouraging a more diverse global order based on partnership. But there are very few signs the US is thinking in this way – indeed, quite the opposite has been the policy for generations, whatever the complexion of the White House.
As has been pointed out, the countries the US has recently taken a shine to invading, such as Libya, Iraq and Syria, all made one decision prior to the US intervention – abandoning the dollar, and thus becoming more independent of US financial control. Similarly, the Western model, which is the US one coloured differently depending which country is preaching it, is still the only one its friends are allowed to accept. Viktor Yanukovych had his own plans for Ukraine, which needed both Western and Russian help to be realised. However he was told to choose, which meant his plans would have to fit the model of the chosen donor rather than being Ukraine’s, and we all know what happened there.
The West cannot become the guardians of all Afghans think is good, because the West has no respect for those things and cannot develop that respect. However bad the Taliban is in practice, it still defends those values in theory. The good deeds done by the West in Afghanistan only work for as long as people do not see, or care about, the strings attached. But every time the West makes any false step, even in faraway countries, Afghans see the strings and not the good deeds, and they find themselves agreeing with the Taliban, however reluctantly.
Sold out by yourselves
The West’s failure to respect Afghans presents opportunities to both Russia and China. Both of these countries are positioned, either directly or via proxy Muslim states, to do both the things the US won’t do – support a government and system based on Afghan traditions, and remove the radical element from the Taliban whilst leaving its positive values in place. Russia is unlikely to try, given its previous history in Afghanistan. But China will have no qualms becoming the new protector of Afghanistan, provided the price is right.
Evil Red China is as Red as ever. But the West can’t do without its funds, so suddenly this doesn’t matter. If China wants something which is in Afghanistan, like roads, minerals or licorice, the Afghan national plant which isn’t used to make confectionery there, it will pay for it provided it sees the benefit. As it has found, it will not need to tell the government what to do to obtain the influence it needs to achieve its goals, and the West’s kowtowing to it has set the template for how other countries respond to Chinese economic co-operation proposals, which are made by the state-owned companies US economics is determined to destroy as a matter of faith.
The Chinese would approach Afghanistan the way the West can’t – by supporting the locals and their culture from behind the scenes to pursue their own interests. But this also creates a problem for the West. Such is its desire to impose its own ways of thinking that everything good which comes out of Afghanistan must be a Western achievement. The West will be treading a dangerous path if it helps Afghanistan get back on its feet and then flogs off vast array of the new infrastructure to the Chinese, making Beijing the senior partner in any such geopolitical arrangement.
The Taliban found out the hard way that it cannot murder its way into the hearts of the Afghan people. But some of its values are still, unfortunately, the best available from an Afghan viewpoint. Treating it as an irredeemable enemy, which has bombed its way to the negotiating table, won’t solve that. Only a change of political approach and winds would remove the Taliban from the scene, but if the West makes that change, Afghanistan might ultimately be responsible for the death of another Great Empire.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.