The Return of the Taliban
Afghanistan is a central Asian country with landmass of 652,864 km2 and a population of 32.9 million. It is a poor country with a GDP of $21.7 billion and a per capita income of $493. It is a Muslim country, even if a rather heterogenous one. There are 14 ethnic ethnic communities — Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Balochis, Turkmens, Nooristanis, Pamiris, Arabs, Gujars, Brahuis, Qizilbash, Aimaq and Pashai. While the majority are Sunni, there are Sufis and Shiites.
For 18 years, America fought the Taliban on land and from the air. Americans were to discover that the Taliban are tenacious fighters for whom warfare has become a way of life. The United States has lost more than 2,300 of its military personnel, with more than than 20,000 others wounded. More than 500,000 Afghans have perished in the cauldron. America has spent more than a $1 trillion of its treasure on what has turned out to be a fruitless campaign.
The rapidity with which the Taliban took over Kabul soon after the American withdrawal was quite shocking. Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan fled to Dubai, allegedly with a humongous fortune. The Afghan military capitulated without firing a shot. Ashraf Ghani was a well-educated and highly westernised technocrat, with a doctorate in Anthropology from Columbia University. He was a tenured professor at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland and had stints with the UN and the World Bank. I listened to him speak passionately on several occasions on the challenges of rebuilding his country. He had even co-authored a book on state building (Ashraf Ghani & Clare Lockhart, “Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World”, Oxford University Press, 2009). We assumed he knew what he was doing.
But something always warned me that this man is a wimp. Under him, the country was blighted by corruption and the drugs business. The institutions of state remained weak. He failed largely because he had never learned one of the maxims of Nicolo Machiavelli regarding prophets and the state: “when they depend upon their own resources and can employ force, they seldom fail. Hence it comes that all armed Prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed Prophets have been destroyed.”
Governing a stiff-necked people like the Afghans requires both enlightenment and superior force. He should never have allowed so-called “repentant Taliban” to be enrolled in the regular army; a mistake we are already making with Boko Haram in Nigeria. The so-called “repentant Taliban” benefitted not only from better training with the regular army; they also had an opportunity to under-study the weaknesses of the army from within, they better to defeat them. And now they will inherit the massive arsenals left behind by the Americans.
It is easy to look askance at the failure of American state-building efforts in Afghanistan. Lest we forget, America’s hegemonic power was central to the post-war recovery of Europe. Through the Marshall Plan, America shored up the war-torn nations of Western Europe; helping them to recover economically while building viable democratic institutions that could withstand the onslaught of communism. America helped in rebuilding Japan after 1945, including the drafting of a new Japanese constitution that outlawed war itself. After the Korean War (1950—1953), the United States again played a crucial role in that country’s post-war economic recovery and in laying the foundations for a prosperous democracy.
It is sufficient for the present to record that these things are evil. That persecutors and persecuted, hunters and hunted are in the grip of the powers of darkness.
Unfortunately, recent American military interventions and state-building efforts have failed disastrously in Iraq, Libya and in Afghanistan. It is a result of a tragic cognitive dissonance between understanding and reality; between ambition and hubris. The West have never quite understood the Muslim world and how they valorise their extremist ideologies more than life itself – and who are prepared to wage a war for an entire century to achieve their ambitions.
In the words of the distinguished LSE Arabist, Elie Kedourie, “Be it sufficient for the present to record that these things are evil. That persecutors and persecuted, hunters and hunted are in the grip of the powers of darkness. It is enough to elucidate how this came to pass, for the story can at least have this moral, that the consequences of action are incalculable, and that out of the desire to do good, good may not in fact ensue.”
With the benefit of hindsight, the Afghan war was unwinnable from Day One. That country has been the graveyard of ambitious military adventurers from the Mughal Emperors of India to Genghis Khan, Timur and the Soviet communists. Geopolitically, Afghanistan stands at the strategic crossroads between Central Asia and South Asia. Any world power that controls that treacherous landmass is likely to achieve mastery over the Asian heartland.
The return of the Taliban is bad news for the Afghans and bad news for the world. In killing Osama bin Laden in May 2011, America only succeeded in cutting off the tail of the serpent while leaving his head and body. The New Taliban are going to be stronger and more vicious than the old. They have already ordered women to leave the universities, colleges and schools. They are systematically decimating Christians and adherents of other faiths. They have indicated that they join their brethren in Nigeria to enforce Sharia law throughout our country and the rest of our glorious continent. We must sharpen our swords and wait for them.
The German sociologist Max Weber anticipated such dark times when he had his bleak prophecies long ago: “Ahead of us is not the bloom of summer, but, rather, a polar night of icy darkness and hardness, no matter which group may triumph externally now”. Weber went ahead to warn that what we must not do is capitulate through a “dumb acceptance” of the world and our place in it. Our lives, our liberties and our land are our most sacred possessions. Those who want to dispossess us of these must be regarded as enemies forever. If they are prepared to fight for a century, we at the receiving end must arm ourselves and our children to fight them for a thousand years. Under international law, they still have a debt to settle with America. They must be quarantined back into the stone age.