A long but rewarding read. There is so much rubbish being presented concerning Afghanistan, but few insightful analyses like this.
Nancy Lindisfarne taught anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies for many years
Jonathan Neale worked for ten years as abortion counsellor and six years as an HIV counsellor
The following essay first appeared on Anne Bonny Pirate
A lot of nonsense about Afghanistan is being written in Britain and the United States. Most of this nonsense hides a number of important truths.
First, the Taliban have defeated the United States.
Second, the Taliban have won because they have more popular support.
Third, this is not because most Afghans love the Taliban. It is because the American occupation has been unbearably cruel and corrupt.
Fourth, the War on Terror has also been politically defeated in the United States. The majority of Americans are now in favor of withdrawal from Afghanistan and against any more foreign wars.
Fifth, this is a turning point in world history. The greatest military power in the world has been defeated by the people of a small, desperately poor country. This will weaken the power of the American empire all over the world.
Sixth, the rhetoric of saving Afghan women has been widely used to justify the occupation, and many feminists in Afghanistan have chosen the side of the occupation. The result is a tragedy for feminism.
This article explains these points. Because this a short piece, we assert more than we prove. But we have written a great deal about gender, politics and war in Afghanistan since we did fieldwork there as anthropologists almost fifty years ago. We give links to much of this work at the end of this article, so you can explore our arguments in more detail.
A military victory
This is a military and political victory for the Taliban. It is a military victory because the Taliban have won the war. For at least two years the Afghan government forces – the national army and the police – have been losing more people dead and wounded each month than they are recruiting. So those forces are shrinking.
Over the last ten years the Taliban have been taking control of more and more villages and some towns. In the last twelve days they have taken all the cities.
This was not a lightning advance through the cities and then on to Kabul. The people who took each city had long been in the vicinity, in the villages, waiting for the moment. Crucially, across the north the Taliban had been steadily recruiting Tajiks, Uzbeks and others.
This is also a political victory for the Taliban. No guerilla insurgency on earth can win such victories without popular support.
But perhaps support is not the right word. It is more that Afghans have had to choose sides. And more of the Afghan people have chosen to side with the Taliban than have chosen the American occupiers. Not all of them, just more of them.
More Afghans have also chosen to side with the Taliban than with the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani. Again, not all of them, but more than support Ghani. And more Afghans have chosen to side with the Taliban than with the old warlords. The defeat of Dostum in Sheberghan and Ismail Khan in Herat is stunning evidence of that.
The Taliban of 2001 were overwhelmingly Pushtuns, and their politics was Pushtun chauvinist. In 2021 Taliban fighters of many ethnicities have taken power in Uzbek and Tajik dominated areas.
The important exception is the Hazara dominated areas in the central mountains. We come back to this exception.
Of course, not all Afghans have chosen to side with the Taliban. This is a war against foreign invaders, but it is also a civil war. Many have fought for the Americans, the government or the warlords. Many more have made compromises with both sides to survive. And many others were not sure which side to take and are waiting with different mixtures of fear and hope to see what will happen.
Because this is a military defeat for American power, calls for Biden to do this or that are simply silly. If American troops had remained in Afghanistan, they would have had to surrender or die. This would be a even worse humiliation for American power than the current debacle. Biden, like Trump before him, was out of options.
Why so many Afghans chose the Taliban
The fact that more people have chosen the Taliban does not mean that most Afghans necessarily support the Taliban. It means that given the limited choices available, that is the choice they have made. Why?
The short answer is that the Taliban are the only important political organization fighting the American occupation, and most Afghans have come to hate that occupation.
It was not always thus. The US first sent bomber planes and a few troops to Afghanistan a month after 9/11. The US was supported by the forces of the Northern Alliance, a coalition of non-Pushtun warlords in the north of the country. But the soldiers and leaders of the Alliance were not actually prepared to fight alongside the Americans. Given the long history of Afghan resistance to foreign invasion, most recently to the Russian occupation from 1980 to 1987, that would just be too shameful.
On the other side, though, almost no one was prepared to fight to defend the Taliban government then in power. The troops of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban faced each other in a phony war. Then the US, the British and their foreign allies began to bomb.
The Pakistani military and intelligence services negotiated an end to the stalemate. The United States would be allowed to take power in Kabul and install a president of their choice. In return, the Taliban leaders and rank and file would be allowed to go home to their villages or into exile across the border in Pakistan.
This settlement was not widely publicized in the US and Europe at the time, for obvious reasons, but we reported on it, and it was widely understood in Afghanistan.
For best evidence for this negotiated settlement is what happened next. For two years there was no resistance to the American occupation. None, in any village. Many thousands of former Taliban remained in those villages.
This is an extraordinary fact. Think of the contrast with Iraq, where resistance was widespread from Day One of the occupation in 2003. Or think of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, met with the same wall of anger.
The reason was not simply that the Taliban were not fighting. It was that ordinary people, even in the Taliban heartland in the south, dared to hope that the American occupation would bring Afghanistan peace and develop the economy to end the terrible poverty.
Peace was crucial. By 2001 Afghans had been trapped in war for twenty-three years, first a civil war between communists and Islamists, then a war between Islamists and Soviet invaders, then a war between Islamist warlords, and then a war in the north of the country between Islamist warlords and the Taliban.
Twenty-three years of war meant death, maiming, exile and refugee camps, poverty, so many kinds of grief, and endless fear and anxiety. Perhaps the best book about what that felt like is Klaits and Gulmanadova Klaits, Love and War in Afghanistan (2005). People were desperate for peace. By 2001 even Taliban supporters felt a bad peace was better than a good war.
Also, the United States was fabulously rich. Afghans believed the occupation could lead to development that would rescue them from poverty.
Afghans waited. The US delivered war, not peace
The US and UK military occupied bases throughout the villages and small towns of the Taliban heartland, the mainly Pushtun areas of the south and east. These units were never told of the informal settlement negotiated between the Americans and the Taliban. They could not be told, because that would shame the government of President Bush. So the US units saw it as their mission to root out the remaining “bad guys”, who were obviously still there.
Night raids crashed through doors, humiliating and terrifying families, taking men away to be tortured for info about the other bad guys. It was here, and in black sites all over the world, that the American military and intelligence developed the new styles of torture that the world would briefly glimpse from Abu Ghraib, the American prison in Iraq.
Some of the men detained were Taliban who had not been fighting. Some were just people betrayed to the Americans by local enemies who coveted their land or held a grudge.
The American soldier Johnny Rico’s memoir Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green provides a useful account of what then happened next. Outraged relatives and villagers took a few potshots at the Americans in the dark. The American military kicked in more doors and tortured more men. The villagers took more potshots. The Americans called in airstrikes and their bombs killed family after family.
War returned across the south and east of the country.
Inequality and corruption spiralled
Afghans had hoped for development that could lift both the rich and the poor. It seemed like such an obvious, and such an easy thing to do. But they did not understand American policy abroad. And they did not understand the deep dedication of the 1% in the United States to spiralling inequality in their own country.
So American money poured into Afghanistan. But it went the people in the new government headed by Hamid Karzai. It went to the people working with the Americans and the occupying troops of other nations. And it went to the warlords and their entourages who were deeply involved in the international opium and heroin trade facilitated by the CIA and the Pakistani military. It went to the people lucky enough to own luxury, well-defended homes in Kabul they could rent out to expatriate staff. It went to the men and women who worked in foreign-funded NGOs.
Of course people in these groups all overlapped.
Afghans had long been used to corruption. They both expected it and hated it. But this time the scale was unprecedented. And in the eyes of the poor and middle income people, all the obscene new wealth, no matter how garnered, seemed to be corruption.
Over the last decade the Taliban have offered two things across the country. The first is that they are not corrupt, as they were also not corrupt in office before 2001. They are the only political force in the country this has ever been true of.
Critically, the Taliban have run an honest judicial system in the rural areas they have controlled. Their reputation is so high that many people involved in civil lawsuits in the cities have agreed that both parties will go to Taliban judges in the countryside. This allows them swift, cheap and fair justice without massive bribes. Because the justice was fair, both parties can live with it.
For people in Taliban-controlled areas, fair justice was also a protection against inequality. When the rich can bribe the judges, they can do anything they want to the poor. Land was the crucial thing. Rich and powerful men, warlords and government officials could seize or steal or cheat their way into control of the land of small farmers, and oppress the even poorer sharecroppers. But Taliban judges, everyone understood, were willing to rule for the poor.
Hatred of corruption, of inequality, and of the occupation merged together.
20 Years On
2001, when the Taliban fell to the Americans after 9/11, is twenty years ago now. Enormous changes happen to political mass movements over twenty years of war and crisis. The Taliban have learned and changed. How could it be otherwise. Many Afghans, and many foreign experts, have commented on this. Giustozzi has used the useful phrase neo-Taliban.
This change, as publicly presented, has several aspects. The Taliban have realized that Pushtun chauvinism was a great weakness. They now emphasize that they are Muslims, brothers to all other Muslims, and that they want and have the support of Muslims of many ethnic groups.
But there has been a bitter split in Taliban forces over the last few years. A minority of Taliban fighters and supporters have allied themselves with Islamic State. The difference is that Islamic State launch terror attacks on Shias, Sikhs and Christians. The Taliban in Pakistan do the same, and so do the small Haqqani network sponsored by Pakistani intelligence. But the Taliban majority have been reliable in condemning all such attacks.
We return to this division later, as it has implications for what will happen next.
The new Taliban have also emphasized their concerns for the rights of women. They say they welcome music, and videos, and have moderated the fiercest and most puritanical sides of their former rule. And they are now saying over and over again that they want to rule in peace, without revenge on the people of the old order.
How much of this is propaganda, and how much is truth, is hard to tell. Moreover, what happens next is deeply dependent on what happens to the economy, and on the actions of foreign powers. Of that, more later. Our point here is that Afghans have reasons for choosing the Taliban over the Americans, the warlords and Ashraf Ghani’s government.
What About Rescuing Afghan Women?
Many readers will now be feeling, insistently, but what about Afghan women? The answer is not simple.
We have to start by going back to the 1970s. Around the world, particular systems of gendered inequality are entangled with a particular system of class inequality. Afghanistan was no different.
Nancy did anthropological fieldwork with Pushtun women and men in the north of the country in the early 1970s. They lived by farming and herding animals. Nancy’s subsequent book, Bartered Brides: Politics and Marriage in a Tribal Society, explains the connections between class, gender and ethnic divisions at that time. And if you want to know what those women themselves thought about their lives, troubles and joys, Nancy and her former partner Richard Tapper have recently published Afghan Village Voices, a translation of many of the tapes that women and men made for them in the field.
That reality was complex, bitter, oppressive and full of love. In that deep sense, it was no different from the complexities of sexism and class in the United States. But the tragedy of the next half century would change much of that. That long suffering produced the particular sexism of the Taliban, which is not an automatic product of Afghan tradition.
The history of this new turn starts in 1978. Then civil war began between the communist government and the Islamist mujahedin resistance. The Islamists were winning, so the Soviet Union invaded late in 1979 to back up the Communist government. Seven years of brutal war between the Soviets and the mujahedin followed. In 1987 the Soviet troops left, defeated.
When we lived in Afghanistan, in the early 1970s, the communists were among the best people. They were driven by three passions. They wanted to develop the country. They wanted to break the power of the big landowners and share out the land. And they wanted equality for women.
But in 1978 the communists had taken power in a military coup, led by progressive officers. They had not won the political support of the majority of villagers, in an overwhelming rural country. The result was that the only ways they could deal with the rural Islamist resistance were arrest, torture and bombing. The more the communist led army did such cruelties, the more the revolt grew.
Then the Soviet Union invaded to prop up the communists. Their main weapon was bombing from the air, and large parts of the country became free fire zones. Between half a million and a million Afghans were killed. At least another million were maimed for life. Between six and eight million were driven into exile in Iran and Pakistan, and millions more became internal refugees. All this in a country of only twenty-five million people.
When they came to power, the first thing the communists tried to do were land reform and legislation for the rights of women. When the Russians invaded, the majority of communists sided with them. Many of those communists were women. The result was to smear the name of feminism with support for torture and massacre.
Imagine that the United States was invaded by a foreign power who killed between twelve million and twenty-four million Americans, tortured people in every town, and drove 100 million Americans into exile. Imagine also that almost all feminists in the United States supported the invaders. After that experience, how do you think most Americans would feel about a second invasion by another foreign power, or about feminism?
How do you think most Afghan women feel about another invasion, this time by the Americans, justified by the need to rescue Afghan women? Remember, those statistics about the dead, the maimed and the refugees under Soviet occupation were not abstract numbers. They were living women, and their sons and daughters, husbands, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.
So when the Soviet Union left, defeated, most people breathed a sigh of relief. But then the local leaders of the mujahedin resistance to the communists and the invaders became local warlords and fought each other for the spoils of victory. The majority of Afghans had supported the mujahedin, but now they were disgusted by the greed, the corruption and the endless useless war.
The Class and Refugee Background of the Taliban
In the autumn of 1994, the Taliban had arrived in Kandahar, a mostly Pashtun city and the largest in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban were like nothing before in Afghan history. They were products of two quintessentially twentieth century innovations, aerial bombing and the refugee camps in Pakistan. They belonged to a different social class from the elites who had governed Afghanistan.
The Communists had been the sons and daughters of the urban middle classes and the middle level farmers in the countryside with enough land to call their own. They had been led by people who attended the country’s sole university in Kabul. They wanted to break the power of the big landowners and modernize the country.
The Islamists who fought the Communists had been men of similar class backgrounds, and mostly former students at the same university. They too wanted to modernize the country, but in a different way. And they looked to the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Alzhar University in Cairo.
The word Taliban means students in an Islamic school, not a state school or a university. The fighters of the Taliban who entered Kandahar in 1994 were young men who had studied in the free Islamic schools in the refugee camps in Pakistan. They had been children with nothing.
The leaders of the Taliban were village mullahs from Afghanistan. They did not have the elite connections of many of the imams of city mosques. Village mullahs could read, and they were held in some respect by other villagers. But their social status was well below that of a landlord, or a high school graduate in a government office.
The Taliban were led by a committee of twelve men. All twelve had lost a hand, a foot or an eye to Soviet bombs in the war. The Taliban were, among other things, the party of poor and middling Pushtun village men.
Twenty years of war had left Kandahar lawless and at the mercy of warring militias. The turning point came when the Taliban went after a local commander who had raped a boy and two (possibly three) women. The Taliban caught and hung him. What made their intervention striking was not just their determination to put an end to the murderous infighting and restore people’s dignity and safety, but their disgust at the hypocrisy of the other Islamists.
From the first the Taliban were funded by the Saudis, the Americans and the Pakistani military. Washington wanted a peaceful country that could house oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia. The Taliban stood out because they brooked no exceptions to the injunctions they sought to impose, and the severity with which they enforced the rules.
Many Afghans were grateful for the return of order and a modicum of security, but the Taliban were sectarian and unable to control the country, and, in 1996, the Americans withdrew their support. When they did so, they unleashed a new, and deadly, version of Islamophobia against the Taliban.
Almost overnight, Afghan women were deemed helpless and oppressed, while Afghan men – aka the Taliban – were execrated as fanatical savages, paedophiles and sadistic patriarchs, hardly people at all.
For four years before 9/11 the Taliban had been targeted by the Americans, while feminists and others clamored for the protection of Afghan women. By the time the American bombing started, everyone was meant to understand that the Afghan women needed help. What could possibly go wrong?
9/11 and the American War
The bombing began on October 7th. Within days, the Taliban had been forced into hiding – or were literally castrated – as a photograph on the front page of the Daily Mail crowed. The published images of the war were truly shocking in the violence and sadism they portrayed. Many people in Europe were appalled by the scale of the bombing and the utter carelessness of Afghan lives.
Yet in the United States that autumn, the mixture of vengeance and patriotism meant dissenting voices were rare and mostly inaudible. Ask yourself, as Saba Mahmood did at the time, ‘Why were conditions of war, (migration, militarization) and starvation (under the mujahideen) considered to be less injurious to women than the lack of education, employment and most notably, in the media campaign, western dress styles (under the Taliban)?’
Then ask again even more fiercely – how could you possibly ‘save Afghan women’ by bombing a civilian population that included, along with the women themselves, their children, their husbands, fathers and brothers? It should have been the question that ended the argument, but it was not.
The most egregious expression of feminist Islamophobia came little over a month into the war. A vastly unequal war of revenge doesn’t look very good in the eyes of the world, so better to be doing something that looks virtuous. In anticipation of the American Thanksgiving holiday, on the 17th of November 2001, Laura Bush, the President’s wife, loudly lamented the plight of the veiled Afghan women. Cherie Blair, the British Prime Minister’s wife echoed her sentiments a few days later. These wealthy war-mongers’ wives were using the full weight of the Orientalist paradigm to blame the victims and justify a war against some of the poorest people on earth. And ‘Saving Afghan Women’ became the persistent cry of many liberal feminists to justify the American war.
With the election of Obama in 2008, the chorus of Islamophobia became hegemonic among American liberals. That year the American anti-war alliance effectively dissolved itself to aid Obama’s campaign. Democrats and those feminists who supported Obama’s war hawk Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, could not accept the truth that Afghanistan and Iraq were both wars for oil.
They had only one justification for the endless wars of oil – the sufferings of Afghan women. The feminist spin was a clever ploy. It precluded comparisons between the undoubted sexist rule of the Taliban and sexisms in the United States. Far more shocking, the feminist spin domesticated and effectively displaced the ugly truths about a grossly unequal war. And it separated those notional ‘women to be saved’ from the tens of thousands of actual Afghan women, and men and children killed, wounded, orphaned or made homeless and hungry by the American bombs.
Many of our friends and family members in America are feminists who believed with decent hearts much of this propaganda. But they were being asked to support was a web of lies, a perversion of feminism. It was the feminism of the invader and the corrupt governing elite. It was the feminism of the torturers and the drones.
We believe another feminism is possible.
But it remains true that the Taliban are deeply sexist. Sexism has won a victory in Afghanistan. But it did not have to be that way.
The communists who sided with the cruelties of the Soviet invaders had discredited feminism in Afghanistan for at least a generation. But then the United States invaded, and a new generation of Afghan women professionals sided with the new invaders to try to win rights for women. Their dream too has ended in collaboration, shame and blood. Some were careerists, of course, mouthing platitudes in exchange for funding. But many others were motivated by an honest and selfless dream. Their failure is tragic.
Stereotypes and Confusions
Outside Afghanistan, there is a great deal of confusion about stereotypes of the Taliban elaborated over the last twenty-five years. But think carefully when you hear the stereotypes that they are feudal, brutal and primitive. These are people with laptops, who have been negotiating with the Americans in Qatar for the last fourteen years.
The Taliban are not the product of medieval times. They are the product of some of the worst times of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. If they look backward in some ways to an imagined better time, that is not surprising. But they have been moulded by life under aerial bombardment, refugee camps, communism, the War of Terror, enhanced interrogation, climate change, internet politics and the spiralling inequality of neoliberalism. They live, like everyone else, now.
Their roots in a tribal society can also be confusing. But as Richard Tapper has argued, tribes are not atavistic institutions. They are the way that peasants in this part of the world organise their entanglement with the state. And the history of Afghanistan has never been simply a matter of competing ethnic groups, but rather of complex alliances across groups and divisions within groups.
There is a set of prejudices on the left which incline some people to ask how the Taliban could be on the side of the poor and anti-imperialist if they are not “progressive”. Leave aside for the moment that the word progressive means little. Of course the Taliban are hostile to socialism and communism. They themselves, or their parents or grandparents, were killed and tortured by socialists and communists. Moreover, any movement that has fought a twenty-year guerrilla war and defeated a great empire is anti-imperialist, or words have no meaning.
Reality is what it is. The Taliban are a movement of poor peasants, against an imperial occupation, deeply misogynist, supported by many women, sometimes racist and sectarian, and sometimes not. That’s a bundle of contradictions produced by history.
Another source of confusion is the class politics of the Taliban. How can they be on the side of the poor, as they obviously are, and yet so bitterly opposed to socialism? The answer is that the experience of the Russian occupation stripped away the possibility of socialist formulations about class. But it did not change the reality of class. No one has ever built a mass movement among poor peasants that took power without being seen as on the side of the poor.
The Taliban talk not in the language of class, but in the language of justice and corruption. Those words describe the same side.
None of this means that the Taliban will necessarily rule in the interests of the poor. We have seen enough peasant revolts come to power in the last century and more, only to become governments by urban elites. And none of this should distract from the truth that the Taliban intend to be dictators, not democrats.
A Historic Change in America
The fall of Kabul marks a decisive defeat for American power around the world. But it also marks, or makes clear, a deep turning away from the American empire among Americans.
One piece of evidence is the opinion polls. In 2001, right after 9/11, between 85% and 90% of Americans approved of the invasion of Afghanistan. The numbers have been dropping steadily. Last month, 62% of Americans approved of Biden’s plan for total withdrawal, and 29% were opposed.
This rejection of the war is common on both the right and the left. The working class base of the Republican Party and Trump are against foreign wars. Many soldiers and military families come from the rural areas and the south where Trump is strong. They are against any more wars, for it is they and those they loved who served, died and were wounded.
Right wing patriotism in America now is pro-military, but that means pro-soldier, not pro-war. When they say ‘Make America Great Again’, they mean that America is not great now for Americans, not that the US should be more engaged in the world.
Among Democrats, too, the working class base is against the wars.
There are people who support further military intervention. They are the Obama democrats, the Romney republicans, the generals, many liberal and conservative professionals, and almost everyone in the Washington elite. But the American people as a whole, and especially the working class, black, brown and white, have turned against the American Empire.
After the fall of Saigon, the American government was unable to launch major military interventions for the next fifteen years. It may well be longer after the fall of Kabul.
The International Consequences
Since 1918, 103 years ago, the United States has been the most powerful nation in the world. There have been competing powers – first Germany and Japan, then the Soviet Union and now China. But the US has been dominant. That ‘American Century’ is now coming to an end.
The long-term reason is the economic rise of China and the relative economic decline of the United States. But the covid pandemic and the Afghan defeat make the last two years a turning point.
The covid pandemic has revealed the institutional incompetence of the ruling class, and the government, of the United States. The system has failed to protect the people. This chaotic and shameful failure is obvious to people around the world.
Then there’s Afghanistan. If you judge by expenditure and hardware the United States is overwhelmingly the dominant military power globally. That power has been defeated by poor people in sandals in a small country who have nothing but endurance and courage.
The Taliban victory will also give heart to Islamists of many different sorts in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Mali. But it will be true more widely than that.
Both the covid failure and the Afghan defeat will reduce the soft power of the US. But Afghanistan is also a defeat for hard power. The strength of the informal empire of the United States has relied for a century on three different pillars. One is being the largest economy in the world, and domination of the global financial system. The second is a reputation in many quarters for democracy, competence and cultural leadership. The third was that if soft power failed, the United States would invade to support dictatorships and punish its enemies.
That military power is gone now. No government will believe that the US can rescue them from a foreign invader, or from their own people. Drone killings will continue and cause great suffering. But nowhere will drones on their own be militarily decisive.
This is the beginning of the end of the American century.
What Happens Now?
No one knows what will happen in Afghanistan in the next few years. But we can identify some of the pressures.
First, and most hopeful, is the deep longing for peace in the hearts of Afghans. They have now lived through forty-three years of war. Think how only five or ten years of civil war and invasion have scarred so many countries. Now think of forty-three years.
Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar, the three most important cities, have all fallen without any violence. This is because the Taliban, as they keep saying, want a country at peace, and they do not want revenge. But it is also because the people who do not support, indeed those who hate the Taliban, also chose not to fight.
The Taliban leaders are clearly aware they must deliver peace.
For that it is also essential that the Taliban continue to deliver fair justice. Their record is good. But the temptations and pressures of government have corrupted many social movements in many countries before them.
Economic collapse is also quite possible. Afghanistan is a poor and arid country, where less than 5% of the land can be farmed. In the last twenty years the cities have swelled immensely. That growth has been dependent on money flowing from the occupation, and to a lesser extent money from growing opium. Without very substantial foreign aid from somewhere, economic collapse will threaten.
Because the Taliban know this, they have been explicitly offering the United States a deal. The Americans will give aid, and in return the Taliban will not provide a home for terrorists who could launch attacks like 9/11. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have accepted this deal. But it is not at all clear that the US will keep that promise.
Indeed, something worse is entirely possible. Previous US administrations have punished Iraq, Iran, Cuba and Vietnam for their defiance with long running and destructive economic sanctions. There will be many voices raised in the US for such sanctions, to starve Afghan children in the name of human rights.
Then there is the threat of international meddling, of different powers supporting different political or ethnic forces inside Afghanistan. The United States, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, Russia and Uzbekistan will all be tempted. It has happened before, and in a situation of economic collapse it could provoke proxy wars.
For the moment, though, the governments of Iran, Russia and Pakistan clearly want peace in Afghanistan.
The Taliban have also promised not to rule with cruelty. That is easier said than done. Confronted with families who have amassed great fortunes through corruption and crime, what do you think the poor soldiers from the villages will want to do?
And then there is climate. In 1971 a drought and famine across the north and center devastated flocks, crops and lives. It was the first sign of the effects of climate change on the region, which has brought further droughts over the last fifty years. Over the medium and long term, farming and herding will become more precarious.
All these dangers are real. But the often insightful security expert Antonio Giustozzi is in touch with the thinking among both the Taliban and foreign governments and the Taliban. His article in The Guardian on August 16 was hopeful. He ended it:
“Since most of the neighbouring countries want stability in Afghanistan, at least for the time being any fissures in the new coalition government are unlikely to be exploited by external actors to create rifts. Similarly, the 2021 losers will struggle to find anybody willing or able to support them in starting some kind of resistance. As long as the new coalition government includes key allies of its neighbours, this is the beginning of a new phase in the history of Afghanistan.”
What Can You Do? Welcome Refugees
Many people in the West now are asking, “What can we do to help Afghan women?” Sometimes this question assumes that most Afghan women oppose the Taliban, and most Afghan men support them. This is nonsense. It is almost impossible to imagine the kind of society in which that would be true.
But there is a narrower question here. Specifically, how can they help Afghan feminists?
This is a valid and decent question. The answer is to organize to buy them airplane tickets and give them refuge in Europe and North America.
But it is not just feminists who will need asylum. Tens of thousands of people who worked for the occupation are desperate for asylum, with their families. So are larger numbers of people who worked for the Afghan government.
Some of these people are admirable, some are corrupt monsters, many lie in between, and many are just children. But there is a moral imperative here. The United States and the NATO countries have created immense suffering for twenty years. The least, the very least, they should do it rescue the people whose lives they have wrecked.
There is another moral issue here too. What many Afghans have learned in the last forty years has also been clear in the last decade of the torment of Syria. It is all too easy to understand the accidents of background and personal history which lead people to do the things they do. Humility compels us to look at the young communist woman, the educated feminist working for an NGO, the suicide bomber, the American marine, the village mullah, the Taliban fighter, the bereaved mother of a child killed by American bombs, the Sikh money changer, the policeman, the poor farmer growing opium, and to say, there but for the grace of God go I.
The failure of the American and British governments to rescue the people who worked for them has been both shameful and revealing. It is not really a failure, but a choice. Racism against immigration has weighed more strongly with Johnson and Biden than the debts of humanity.
Campaigns to welcome Afghans are still possible. Of course such a strong moral argument will come up against racism and Islamophobia at every turn. But in the last week the governments of Germany and Netherlands have both suspended any deportations of Afghans.
Every politician, anywhere, who speaks in support of Afghan women must be asked, again and again, to open the borders to all Afghans.
And then there is what might happen to the Hazaras. As we have said, the Taliban have stopped being simply a Pushtun movement and have gone national, recruiting many Tajiks and Uzbeks. And also, they say, some Hazaras. But not many.
The Hazaras are the people who traditionally lived in the central mountains. Many also migrated to cities like Mazar and Kabul, where they worked as porters and in other low paid jobs. They are about 15% of the Afghan population. The roots of enmity between Pushtuns and Hazaras lie partly in long standing disputes over land and rights to grazing.
But more recently it also matters a good deal that Hazaras are Shias, and almost all other Afghans are Sunnis.
The bitter conflicts between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq have led to a split in the militant Islamist tradition. This split is complicated, but important, and needs a bit of explanation.
In both Iraq and in Syria the Islamic State have committed massacres against Shias, just as Shia militias have massacred Sunnis in both countries.
The more traditional Al Qaeda networks have remained staunchly opposed to attacking Shias and argued for solidarity between Muslims. People often point out that Osama Bin Laden’s mother was herself a Shia – actually an Alawite from Syria. But the necessity of unity has been more important. This was the main issue in the split between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
In Afghanistan the Taliban have also argued strongly for Islamic unity. The sexual exploitation of women by Islamic State is also deeply repugnant to Taliban values, which are deeply sexist but puritanical and modest. For many years the Afghan Taliban have been consistent in their public condemnation of all terror attacks on Shias, Christians and Sikhs.
Yet those attacks happen. The ideas of Islamic State have had a particular influence on the Pakistani Taliban. The Afghan Taliban are an organization. The Pakistani Taliban are a looser network, not controlled by the Afghans. They have carried out repeated bombings against Shias and Christians in Pakistan.
It is Islamic State and the Haqqani network who have carried out the recent racist terror bombings of Hazaras and Sikhs in Kabul. The Taliban leadership have condemned all those attacks.
But the situation is in flux. Islamic State in Afghanistan is a minority breakaway from the Taliban, largely based in Ningrahar province in the east. They are bitterly anti-Shia. So are the Haqqani network, a long-standing mujahedin group largely controlled by Pakistani military intelligence. Yet in the present mix, the Haqqani network have been integrated into the Taliban organization, and their leader is one of the leaders of the Taliban.
But no one can be sure what the future holds. In 1995 an uprising of Hazara workers in Mazar prevented the Taliban gaining control of the north. But Hazara traditions of resistance go much deeper and further back than that.
Hazara refugees in neighboring countries may also be in danger now. The government of Iran are allying with the Taliban, and begging them to be peaceful. They are doing this because there are about three million Afghan refugees already in Iran. Most of them have been there for years, most are poor urban workers and their families, and the majority are Hazaras. Recently the Iranian government, in desperate economic straights themselves, have begun deporting Afghans back to Afghanistan.
There are about a million Hazara refugees in Pakistan too. In the region around Quetta more than 5,000 of them have been killed in sectarian assassinations and massacres in the last few years. The Pakistani police and army do nothing. Given the long support of the Pakistani army and intelligence for the Afghan Taliban, those people will be at greater risk right now.
What should you do, outside Afghanistan? Like most Afghans, pray for peace. And join protests for open borders.
We will leave the last word to Graham Knight. His son, Sergeant Ben Knight of the British Royal Air Force, was killed in Afghanistan in 2006. This week Graham Knight told the Press Association the UK government should have moved quickly to rescue civilians:
“We’re not surprised that the Taliban have taken over because as soon as the Americans and the British said they were going to leave, we knew this was going to happen. The Taliban made their intent very clear that, as soon as we went out, they would move in.
“As for whether people’s lives were lost through a war that wasn’t winnable, I think they were. I think the problem was we were fighting people that were native to the country. We weren’t fighting terrorists, we were fighting people who actually lived there and didn’t like us being there.”