FMy friends keep asking me to sign petitions urging President Biden to change his mind about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Everyone agrees that the United States cannot stay in the country forever, but they say this is not the time to leave – the Taliban are on the rise, and the social gains of the past 20 years are in jeopardy.
I have not signed any of those petitions. Yes, the Taliban have committed horrible crimes and they will not stop. And they must be stopped. The other day I saw a video of villagers in northern Afghanistan burying a dozen civilians killed by a bomb: an old woman cried because her entire family had been wiped out. Oh but wait … that bomb It was launched by the government, delivered by drone.
Both sides in this war kill civilians. He would sign any petition that would stop the fighting and bring peace. Furthermore, when this war is over, I hope that the Kabul government will be victorious. I hope that the Afghans will resume their social and material progress on all fronts. But I cannot forget a pattern of Afghan history so blatant that it amazes me that it is not central to this conversation.
The Kabul government has never been able to secure authority in Afghanistan as a whole when it is held in place by the armed forces of an outside power.
In 1839, the British replaced the Afghan monarch Dost Mohammed with his rival Shah Shuja, who had as legitimate a claim to the throne as he. But the British had put him in power, so the country caught fire and two years later the entire British community in Kabul had to flee on foot, most of them dying on the way out.
In 1878, the British tried again: this time, they overthrew the Afghan ruler Sher Ali and tried to rule the country through his son, Yaqub. Indeed, the British cantonment was looted, its representative was assassinated, the country caught fire. The British had to surrender and leave the country to a strong man, Abdul Rahman, who knew what he had to do to secure his position with the Afghans: he made a deal with the British and Russia to keep them both out of Afghanistan.
Skip to 1978: The Soviets helped the Afghan Communists overthrow the last member of the Afghan ruling family and raised their own man, Nur Muhammad Taraki, to power. What happened? The country caught fire. The Soviets sent 100,000 soldiers to keep the Communists in power, but that only turned the fire into a bonfire. The war lasted 10 years until in the end the Soviets simply left, with the country gutted.
Then the Americans came. They left a fully formed government in Kabul, elected Hamid Karzai to rule the country, and dressed him in all the recognized markers of legitimacy in Western democracies: constitution, parliament, elections. Under Karzai, girls went back to school, women’s rights were improved, infrastructure was restored, and progress was made.
However, as with all previous attempts by great powers to manage Afghans through Afghan proxies, Kabul proved unable to ensure legitimacy throughout the country. Resistance was brewing in the villages and spreading to the cities.
In its war with the field-based forces, the Kabul government was hampered by a great disadvantage: external military forces that helped it maintain power. Therefore, he did not have a narrative to counter the one that the Taliban were running, which said: the Kabul government is not Afghan, it is a bunch of puppets and representatives of Americans and Europeans whose main agenda is to undermine Islam. Drones and bombs couldn’t defeat that narrative, only fuel it.
The United States and NATO cannot stay in Afghanistan forever, but is this the time to go? The answer has to be yes if, as I am arguing, the US and NATO military presence in Afghanistan is causing the same problem that it is supposed to solve.
Many people assume that the Taliban are the face of what Afghanistan would be without the help of the United States. But the US military presence could be hiding the most crucial fact: the Taliban do not represent Afghan culture. They are also, in a sense, a strange force.
Before the Soviet invasion 40 years ago, it is fair to say that most Afghans were deeply devoted Muslims. The underlying problem among Afghans was not Islam or not Islam, but which version of Islam: the urban and progressive version of Kabul or the conservative version of the villages. The Afghans involved in that debate were the ones who rose up against the Soviet invaders.
But the Taliban are not those Afghans. The Taliban originated in refugee camps in Pakistan. His worldview was shaped in religious schools funded by elements of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency. They were armed by Islamists from the Arab world, some of whom are now in the country and call themselves the Taliban. If the Western military presence were removed, the Afghan energy that refuses to allow outsiders to tell them who they are could recognize the Taliban as the alien force.
The great irony of the Western project to bring democracy and social progress to Afghanistan is this: Afghans have a powerful progressive stream of their own. It is Islamic, not secular, but it is progressive. In the six decades after the country gained independence from the British and before it was invaded by the Soviets, Afghanistan was ruled by Afghans. During that time, what did that Afghan government accomplish? He freed Afghan women from the formerly mandatory burqa. He promulgated a constitution. He created a parliament with real legislative power. He established elections. He built girls’ schools across the country. He promoted coeducation. It opened women’s access to a university education at Kabul University and opened public employment opportunities for them in professions such as medicine and law. It’s amazing to look back at that time.
As the withdrawal of the United States and Britain progresses, the country is surrounded by outside forces eager to enter: Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India, China. Before any of them are successful, there should be a global conference where international players can find a way to stay out of Afghanistan. Because what Afghans really need help for is for others to leave them alone.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism