History shows us that outsiders can never bring peace to Afghanistan
By Tamim Ansary * – The Guardian
The US and British
withdrawal has set off panic, but the truth is they were exacerbating the
problem they were trying to solve
Friends keep asking me to sign petitions urging President
Biden to change his mind about withdrawing
troops from Afghanistan. They all agree that the US can’t stay in the
country for ever but this, they say, is not the time to leave: the Taliban are surging,
and the social gains of the past 20 years are in jeopardy.
I’ve not signed any of those petitions. Yes, the Taliban
have committed horrific offences, and they won’t stop. And they must be
stopped. Just the other day I saw a video of villagers in northern Afghanistan
burying a dozen civilians killed by a bomb: an old woman wept because her whole
family had been wiped out. Oh, but wait – that bomb was dropped
by the government, delivered by drone.
Both sides in this war kill civilians. I’d sign any petition
that would stop the fighting and bring peace. What’s more, when this war ends,
I hope the government now in Kabul emerges victorious. I hope Afghans resume
their social and material progress on every front. But I can’t forget a pattern
of Afghan history so blatant that I’m amazed it’s not central to this
The government in Kabul has never been able to secure
authority in Afghanistan
as a whole when it is held in place by an outside power’s military.
In 1839, the British replaced the Afghan monarch Dost
Mohammed with his rival Shah Shuja, who had just as legitimate a claim to the
throne as he. But the British had put him in power, so the country went up in
flames and two years later the whole 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 ousted
Afghan ruler Sher Ali and tried to rule the country through his son, Yaqub.
Sure enough, the British cantonment was sacked, their representative was
killed, the country went up in flames. The British had to give up and leave the
country to a strongman, Abdul Rahman, who knew what he needed to do to secure
his position with Afghans: he made a deal with the British and Russia to keep them
both out of Afghanistan.
Jump ahead to 1978: the Soviets helped Afghan communists
topple the last of the Afghan ruling family and elevated their own man, Nur
Muhammad Taraki, to power. What happened? The country went up in flames. The
Soviets sent in 100,000 troops to keep the communists in power, but that only
turned the fire into a bonfire. The war raged for 10 years until at last the
Soviets simply left – with the country eviscerated.
Then came the Americans. They dropped a fully formed
government on to Kabul, picked Hamid Karzai to run the country, and clothed him
in all the markers of legitimacy recognised in western democracies:
constitution, parliament, elections. Under Karzai, girls went back to school,
women’s rights improved, infrastructure was restored, progress was made.
Sure enough, however, as with all the previous great power
attempts to manage Afghans through Afghan proxies, Kabul proved unable to
secure countrywide legitimacy. Resistance brewed in the villages and spread to
In its war with forces based in the countryside, the Kabul
government was hobbled by one huge disadvantage – the outside military forces
that were helping it hold power. Because of that, it had no narrative to
counter the one the Taliban
wielded, which said: the government in Kabul isn’t Afghan, it’s a bunch of puppets
and proxies for Americans and Europeans whose main agenda is to undermine
Islam. Drones and bombs could not defeat that narrative but only feed it.
The US and Nato can’t stay in Afghanistan for ever, but is
this the time to leave? The answer has to be yes if, as I am arguing, the US
and Nato military presence in Afghanistan is causing the very problem it is
supposed to be solving.
Many people assume the Taliban are the face of what
Afghanistan would be without US help. But the American military presence might
be obscuring the single most crucial fact: the Taliban don’t represent Afghan
culture. They too are, in a sense, an alien force.
Before the Soviet invasion 40 years ago, it’s fair to say
most Afghans were deeply devoted Muslims. The underlying issue among Afghans
was not Islam or not-Islam but which version of Islam: Kabul’s urban,
progressive version or the conservative version of the villages. 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 the refugee camps of Pakistan. Their worldview was moulded 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 in
the country now, calling themselves Taliban. If the western military presence
were removed, the Afghan energy that refuses to accept outsiders telling them
who to be might recognise 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
current of their own. It’s 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 governed by Afghans. During that
time, what did that Afghan government achieve? It liberated Afghan women from
the previously obligatory burqa. It promulgated a constitution. It created a
parliament with real legislative power. It set up elections. It built schools
for girls nationwide. It pushed for coeducation. It opened women’s access to a
college education at Kabul University and it opened public employment
opportunities for them in professions such as medicine and law. It is
staggering to look back at that era.
As the US and British withdrawal proceeds, the country is
surrounded by outside forces hungering
to get in: Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India, China. Before any of them
succeed, there ought to be a global conference at which international actors
can work out a way to keep one another out of Afghanistan. For what Afghans
really need help with is getting everyone else to leave them alone.
*Tamim Ansary is the author of Games Without
Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan