Afghanistan one year on
Reposted from Jamhoor, August 10, 2022.
In the last year a lot of nonsense about Afghanistan has been written in Britain and the United States. Most of this nonsense hides a number of important truths.
First, the Taliban defeated the United States, with the Americans leaving Kabul in a shambolic retreat on August 30 2021.
Second, the Taliban won because they had more popular support.
Third, this is not because most Afghans love the Taliban. It is because the American occupation was unbearably cruel and corrupt.
Fourth, the War on Terror has also been politically defeated in the United States. The majority of Americans favoured the withdrawal from Afghanistan and are now against any more foreign wars.
Fifth, the greatest military power in the world was defeated by the people of a small, desperately poor country. This weakens the power of the American empire all over the world.
Sixth, the rhetoric of saving Afghan women was widely used to justify the occupation, and many feminists in Afghanistan chose the side of the occupation. The result is a tragedy for feminism.
A military victory
The US withdrawal of 2021 was a military victory for the Taliban. For at least two years leading up to it, the Afghan government forces were losing more people dead and wounded each month than they were recruiting. So those forces shrank.
Over the previous ten years the Taliban took control of more and more villages and some towns. And they had taken all the cities in the country in the final twelve days before Kabul fell.
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 Arabs.
The Taliban of 2001 were overwhelmingly Pushtuns, and their politics was Pushtun chauvinist. By contrast, in 2021 Taliban fighters of many ethnicities had taken power in Uzbek and Tajik dominated areas. The important exception is the Hazara dominated areas in the central mountains.
This is also a political victory for the Taliban. No guerrilla insurgency on earth can win such victories without popular support.
But perhaps support is not the right word. It is more that Afghans had to choose sides. And more of the Afghan people chose to side with the Taliban than chose the American occupiers, the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, or the old warlords. Not all of them, just more of them.
This was a war against foreign invaders, but it was also a civil war. Many fought for the Americans, the government or the warlords. Many more have made compromises with both sides to survive.
Why so many Afghans chose the Taliban
The fact that more people chose 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 came to hate that occupation.
When the Taliban came to power in 1994 many Afghans supported them. But when the Americans invaded in 2001, after seven years of Taliban rule, almost no Afghans were willing to fight for either the Taliban or the foreign invaders. Pakistani military intelligence negotiated a settlement, in which the Americans could take Kabul and formal power, but almost all the Taliban officials and fighters could go to Pakistan or back to their homes in the villages. This negotiated peace was not widely publicized outside Afghanistan. But it held.
For two years after the invasion there was almost no resistance to the American occupation. 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.
This time 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.
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, refugee camps, poverty, so many kinds of grief, and endless fear and anxiety. People were desperate for peace and development.
The US delivered war
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. The US units saw it as their mission to root out the remaining ‘bad guys’, who were obviously still there. They began a new war.
Night raids crashed through doors, humiliating and terrifying families, taking men away to be tortured for information about the other ‘bad guys’. Outraged relatives and villagers took a few potshots at the Americans in the dark. The Americans called in airstrikes and their bombs killed family after family.
War returned across the south and east of the country.
Afghans had hoped for development that could lift both the rich and the poor. And indeed, American money poured into Afghanistan. But it went to the people in the new government, to those working with the Americans and the occupying troops, the warlords and their entourages, and the workers in foreign-funded NGOs.
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.
And as the Taliban re-emerged as a force fighting against the American occupation, they offered their countrymen two things. The first was that they are not corrupt, as they were also not corrupt in office before 2001. Of course they have been accused of corruption in some cases, but they are the only political force in the history of the country that has ever been regarded by most Afghans as basically fair and honest.
Second, critically, the Taliban ran an honest judicial system in the rural areas they controlled. Their reputation became so high that many people involved in civil lawsuits in the cities agreed that both parties would go to Taliban judges in the countryside. This allowed them swift, cheap and fair justice without massive bribes.
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. Rich and powerful men, warlords and government officials could seize, 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.
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 who lived by farming and herding animals in the north of the country in the early 1970s. 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. That reality was complex, bitter, oppressive and full of love.
In a deep sense, it was no different from the complexities of sexism and class in the United States or India. But the tragedy of the next half century would change much of that. That long suffering produced the particular sexism of the Taliban, which was not an automatic product of Afghan tradition.
The history of this new turn started in 1978. The 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.
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 only way they could deal with the rural Islamist resistance were arrest, torture and bombing. And the greater the cruelty of the communist led army, the more the revolt grew.
Then the Soviet Union invaded to prop up the communists. 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. In total about half the population were killed, wounded or driven from their homes.
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.
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 Soviet 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, corruption and the endless useless war. They also disliked the exaggerated sexism the Mujahidin had encouraged, in part because it was favoured by their rich Muslim backers among the leaders in the Arab Gulf.
The class and refugee background of the Taliban
In the autumn of 1994, the Taliban had arrived in Kandahar, a mostly Pashtun city in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban were like nothing before in Afghan history.
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 Islamist leaders 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. 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.
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. But the Taliban’s Pashtun chauvinism put them at odds with the members of other ethnic groups. They were sectarian and unable to control the country, and, in 1996, the Americans withdrew their support.
At the same time that the Americans withdrew their support, they unleashed a new and deadly version of Islamophobia against the Taliban. At that moment, and almost overnight, Afghan women were deemed helpless and oppressed, while Afghan men – the Taliban – were execrated as fanatical savages, paedophiles and sadistic patriarchs, hardly people at all. By the time the American bombing started after 9/11, everyone was meant to understand that the Afghan women needed help.
But 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?
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. Laura Bush and Cherie Blair lamented the plight of the veiled Afghan woman, using the full weight of the Orientalist paradigm to blame the victims and justify a war against some of the poorest people on earth. ‘Saving Afghan Women’ became the persistent cry of many liberal feminists to justify the American war.
With the election of Obama in 2008, Islamophobia became hegemonic among American liberals. That year the American anti-war alliance effectively dissolved itself to aid Obama’s campaign. His surge against the Taliban began almost immediately after he took office.
The feminist spin was a clever ploy. It 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.
We believe another feminism is possible. But it remains true that the Taliban are deeply sexist. Misogyny has won a victory in Afghanistan. But it did not have to be that way.
Stereotypes and confusions
Outside Afghanistan, there is a great deal of confusion about stereotypes of the Taliban elaborated over the last twenty-five years. They are seen as feudal, brutal and primitive. Not as 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. 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.
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”. But reality is what it is. The Taliban are a movement of poor peasants, against corruption and an imperial occupation, deeply misogynist, supported by many women, sometimes racist and sectarian, and sometimes not. They are 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.
A historic change in America
The fall of Kabul marks a decisive defeat for American power around the world. But it also makes clear a deep turning away from the American empire among Americans.
In 2001, right after 9/11, between 85% and 90% of Americans approved of the invasion of Afghanistan. The numbers have dropped steadily. By April of 2021, 58% approved of Biden’s withdrawal plan, and only 25% disapproved.
This rejection of the war has been 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. A majority of Democrats also support withdrawal from Afghanistan.
There are people who support further military intervention in other countries. They include many Obama democrats, Romney republicans, generals, many liberal and conservative professionals, and most people in the Washington elite. But the American people as a whole have turned against the American Empire.
The international consequences
Since 1918, 103 years ago, the United States has been the most powerful nation in the world. The ‘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-19 pandemic and the Afghan defeat make the last three years a turning point.
The pandemic has revealed the institutional incompetence of the ruling class and the government of the United States. This chaotic and shameful failure has been 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 who had nothing but endurance and courage.
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 which dominates the global financial system. The second is a reputation in many quarters for democracy, competence, and cultural leadership. The third is that if soft power fails, the United States invades 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.
This is the beginning of the end of the American century.
One year later
What is the situation now, a year after the American defeat and the Taliban victory?
First, we can see the effects of the American defeat on the world stage. Almost immediately after the Taliban victory, Vladimir Putin saw his chance in the wake of the obvious weakness of the United States and invaded Ukraine.
After the American occupation
In Afghanistan the Taliban’s new government, called the Emirate, immediately faced a series of linked problems. First, there was the vengeance of Washington. The US government has a long track record of economic punishment and boycotts to wipe out the shame of military and political defeat. This is what they did to Vietnam for a generation, to Cuba, to Iran and to Somalia for even longer.
The Biden administration did the same, only more so. They confiscated the entire financial reserves of the previous American backed Afghan Republic, held in Washington. They announced that they would punish any banks, anywhere, which allowed any payments to move into Afghanistan, for any purpose.
From the outset the new Emirate of Afghanistan faced an economic crisis. The economy of the towns and cities had grown deeply dependent on foreign aid and military spending over the twenty years of the occupation. When that money ended, there was widespread poverty, unemployment and small business collapse.
Economic hardship in the cities was made worse by the drought caused by climate change in the rural areas, which produced mainly grain, but also considerable amounts of opium.
Climate change droughts in Afghanistan have brought long suffering since the 1960s, and the worst horror is yet to come in what is already one of the poorest and most arid countries in the world.
There was some rain in the north in December of 2021 and January 2022, but since then it has been clear that 2022 will be another year of drought. Crop yields for both years will be an average of about 40% lower. But that average includes many areas in the north which will have seen a deeper collapse in water sources, crop yields and grazing for sheep, and will see worse.
In this situation, the aid agencies and the UN warned of famine likely to follow immediately after the American exit. The Biden administration was warned that millions could starve if he prevented aid. Mercifully, the famine did not happen because the United Nations, international NGOs and the other powers besides the United States stepped in and raised enough money to distribute food to some 13 million people, about a third of the total population. The distribution was uneven, and there was considerable corruption in the NGOs, and there was hunger, but a general famine was forestalled.
In part, prompt action was taken because many governments could imagine the consequences of a general famine for the region. The long term effects would be at least ten million new refugees, enraged and desperate terrorists, and a terrible burden of shame for all the neighbouring regimes. It cost $20 billion to keep the Afghans quiet and at home.
It is not at all clear whether aid will continue on the same level over next winter. The rise in grain and energy prices threatens city people in Afghanistan. But the widespread nature of the disaster may make large donors less inclined to protect the Afghans. So far this year donor countries have only come up with half the amount that is needed.
For the Afghan Emirate, the coming year looks like desperate economic depression at best, and famine at worst.
In any case, for at least thirty years, in many ways Afghanistan has not been an autonomous state. Afghan governments of every kind have been dependent on foreign aid to cover the national budget, and on international NGOs to pay for education, health and food, and to deliver the services as well. This continues to be the case.
There are positive things about what the Taliban have managed to do in the last year. They have remained relatively honest. Being in charge of a government in desperate economic circumstances exerts enormous pressure toward corruption, so far largely resisted. As we said, there is a good deal of corruption in food aid distribution, but local people blame this mostly on the NGO workers and local elders. How long the Taliban will be able to stay mostly clean is another question.
However, the Emirate is a dictatorship. A recent and reliable United Nations report found evidence for 160 killings by Taliban death squads in the last year. Some of these were at the behest of the national authorities, but more seem to have been done by local organizations. Those killed included former government officials and torturers, journalists and demonstrators, and Islamic State activists. There were also thousands arrested, many of whom were tortured.
This is an appalling number. And yet, Afghans, women and men, consider this a time of peace. The streets are relatively safe in Kabul.
The education of women
The education and clothing of women remains a political flashpoint. Here, several conflicting pressures are pressing on the Taliban.
First, they have to contend with the pressure from donor countries. The Afghan government will not survive without their money. In almost constant negotiations in Doha, the donors are insisting on the rights of girls to education.
Currently, girls can go to school for grades one through six. Women can also go to university but must be taught by women, separately from men. One common fix is for men to attend university three days a week, and women three days a week. However, very large numbers of skilled professionals, women and men, are leaving the country for uncertain futures, as are many poorer people.
The education of teenage girls in secondary schools is forbidden for the moment, except in the province of Balkh. Many, but not all, senior government officials are constantly saying that this policy will be reversed. But the Taliban are clearly very divided internally on this.
There is also confusion over the Taliban rules for how women dress. A recent decree mandated that women should wear veils that covered most of their faces. In practice, this seems to have been mainly aimed at women in Kabul. In other provincial capitals, there was already a great deal of variation in women’s dress, and a great deal of modesty. This does not appear to have shifted. And while there are reports of young Taliban men jeering at women at check points, there is so far no general enforcement of the rules. This is largely because the informal rules about dress were already restrictive under the American occupation.
Dress rules always have been, and we assume remain, different for rural people. A large majority of rural households are poor, and their women have to work in the fields. For this, they are not secluded, and do not wear full body veils. The women of pastoral nomads, about 5% of the population, have always worn traditional forms of head coverings, for they too must work outside. These farming and herding women may now be dressing more modestly, however, when they go to the town or the city.
Official government policy also now says that women must leave urban employments, unless they work in health or education. This policy has been more or less enforced in some places and industries, but there are exceptions.
For the most part, the controversies over dress, education and employment only affect minorities of women. But we should not underestimate the importance of the issue for many women, and for the Taliban.
For the Taliban, the emphasis on the modesty and protection of women has long been a bedrock issue. Moreover, they now have to look over their shoulders at a fundamentalist breakaway from the Taliban, the local affiliate of Islamic State.
In the five years before the American defeat, Islamic State grew more powerful, especially in parts of the Pushtun east. They had three central political differences with the Taliban.
The first was that Islamic State are Sunni chauvinists. They carried out terror bombings of Shias, Sufis, Sikhs and Christians. They continue to do this under the Emirate. The sectarianism of IS in Afghanistan towards Shias comes from the example of IS in Iraq and Syria.
By contrast, the Taliban were Pushtun chauvinists when they were first in power in 1994-2000, and were brutal towards Hazara Shias. In the years of resistance to the American occupation, they learned and changed and now argue for the unity of all Muslims, and the toleration of other faiths. Understandably, this does not mean that Hazaras have forgotten or forgiven. But when the Taliban took Kabul, they immediately sent troops to protect the Shia mosques.
It can also be confusing that many terror bombings done by IS in Afghanistan in the last year are reported in Western media as if they were done by hard core Islamists, and readers are led to assume these are Taliban.
Secondly, Islamic State took a harder line on negotiation with the Americans. The Taliban negotiated the withdrawal with the Americans, which is what drove some to join Islamic State in the first place. Now the survival of the Afghan Taliban state, and the economy, depends on continued negotiations with international powers and the UN.
Thirdly, Islamic State in Afghanistan have taken a hard line on women’s dress and employment.
Once the Afghan Taliban came to power, they were able to break the open power of Islamic State with targeted killings and arrest. Now Islamic State only survives underground and is much weaker. But they have been able to continue to carry out some terror bombings, particularly of Hazara Shia children at school. However, the Taliban remain understandably afraid that in conditions of economic collapse, Islamic State could grow and threaten their rule.
These are the reasons why the Taliban are internally divided and constantly debating what to do about women.
What makes all this more tragic is that we do not believe, and we are sure many Afghans do not believe, that foreign donors will come up with the needed food and money even if the Taliban do let girls go back to secondary school. Of course, different people involved have different motivations, but we think that at base the Western demands about women are largely a cover for a determination to continue to humiliate all Afghans for defeating NATO and the Americans.
And there you have it. For the moment, there is relative peace in Kabul, there is no famine, and this is perceived as the least corrupt government in centuries. These are not small things. But the government is still a dictatorship, and there are good reasons to dread the future.
Looking forward, there are a few key points we would like to leave you with. First, the key reason for the long agony of Afghanistan is the Russian and then the American invasion. Globally much of the left supported the Russian invasion, and the liberals and feminists supported the American invasion. The results are tragic.
Second, in these times, when people resist invasion, they win.
Third, Afghanistan is on the leading edge of the emerging horror of climate change, which stands to get much worse much more quickly. They will need much more help over the years to come.
The first half of this article is a condensed version of a longer article we wrote last year about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The second half is an update on some of the changes since then. Nancy Lindisfarne taught anthropology for many years at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and has done fieldwork in Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey and Syria. Jonathan Neale is a writer and climate activist, and also did fieldwork in Afghanistan. They blog together at annebonnypirate.org.