Phil Halton is a former soldier whose books include Blood Washing Blood: Afghanistan’s Hundred-Year War, and a novel set in Afghanistan, This Shall be a House of Peace.
When, earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced in Kabul that “we’ve achieved the objective we set out nearly 20 years ago,” he failed to mention that this goal, to defeat al-Qaeda, was achieved nearly 20 years ago as well. Ever since then, the West has stumbled through the war in Afghanistan without truly understanding why Afghans were fighting or having any hope of bringing the conflict to an end.
The common argument that the withdrawal of foreign troops will create a disaster presupposes that their continuing presence is a positive one. Looking at the conflict through a military lens, with a focus on “defeating” the Taliban, gives altogether the wrong impression about what is going on there.
The truth of the matter is complex. The conflict in Afghanistan today, largely fought between Afghans, is not about al-Qaeda or Islamic extremism. Neither is it about the West or Western interests. A military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan has eluded us for so long because there isn’t one. It is a social, rather than a military, conflict.
Its roots extend to 1919, when a young reformer, Amanullah Khan, ascended to the Afghan throne. Inspired by secular reforms in Turkey, he instituted sweeping changes that sound familiar to modern ears: He created a civil law code, advocated for gender equality and attempted to modernize the country. The reaction from large sections of the population was violent, causing years of rebellions that left thousands dead.
Political power in Afghanistan had been shared between three poles: the central government, religious authorities and local authorities such as tribal leaders. Amanullah upset this balance by centralizing and secularizing power. Kings have since been replaced by presidents, and the mantle of religious authority seized by the Taliban. The country’s tribal leadership has largely been replaced by powerful local warlords. The players have changed, yet the essential crisis remains the same, as Afghans fight over how power is shared within their country.
The American decision in 2001 to invade Afghanistan using special forces who would rely on local allies was a fateful one. The Taliban were on the cusp of winning a civil war that had been raging since 1994. American support for their opponents, a motley group of warlords, reversed the Taliban’s fortunes and routed them from the battlefield. Far from an “easy victory,” this amounted to the West picking sides in a civil war and cozying up to allies with poor records on human rights, narcotics trafficking and corruption.
The Taliban practically ceased to exist as a movement in November, 2001, and its members returned to their homes in Afghanistan or to refugee camps in Pakistan. Mullah Omar sent envoys soon after with a letter of surrender to then-president Hamid Karzai, but it was rebuffed. Even still, it took nearly five years of mismanagement and corruption by the government for the Taliban movement to re-emerge, not as an outside force bent on seizing power, but as an organically formed insurgency that is driven by legitimate grievances.
Intra-Afghan conflict has worsened in the past 20 years as a consequence of the war effort. The marginalization of some groups and the empowerment of others is a natural result of Afghan-style patronage politics and also of Western-style counterinsurgency. Despite the vast sums spent on assistance, the main result has been conflict between groups vying for their share. Coupled with a policy of arming civilians in various “local defence forces,” the resulting chaos is as predictable as it is depressing.
The argument that Afghanistan will become a haven for terrorists and extremists if the current government falls ignores history. It’s commonly thought that Afghanistan became a haven for extremists after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. In fact, the Soviet presence acted as a magnet for global jihadis, but when the Soviets left, so did nearly all of the foreign fighters.
The Taliban are extremely parochial, with little interest in the outside world. When a “franchise” of the Islamic State was formed in Afghanistan in 2015, the Taliban fought them as ferociously as the government did. The Taliban’s rejection of terrorism and extremism should be taken at face value.
The Taliban is militarily weaker, in manpower and materiel, than the government. Nonetheless, they continue to win victories on the battlefield because their true strength is in their message. In deeply conservative (often rural) pockets of society, “Taliban values” hold significant appeal and many believe they are a better alternative to the current government.
The international community has a crucial role to play aiding Afghans to find a broadly acceptable solution that balances power between the three poles. A process of truth and reconciliation will allow former combatants to live in peace, while still recognizing the grave crimes that have been committed by all sides. A lasting peace requires Afghans to find it themselves.
September, 2001, wasn’t the start of the war in Afghanistan, just the beginning of the world’s renewed interest in it. Equally, September, 2021, is not when the war will end. It must not be when the international community forgets about Afghanistan, either.
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