The last time the Taliban entered Kabul, 25 years ago, one of their first stops was at the UN compound in the city. There they abducted one of the country’s previous presidents, Mohammad Najibullah, and, after torturing and shooting him, they dragged his castrated body behind a truck through the streets of the city. Then they strung him up from a lamppost and stuffed his genitals into his mouth.
The Talibs are not nice people. But amid the general opprobrium being heaped on President Joe Biden for heading for an American exit from Afghanistan, it’s useful to think about what the alternatives were. On the BBC some British military figures have argued, with a straight face, that a more softly-softly drawing-down of American forces in the country might have hoodwinked the Taliban into thinking that we were still committed to the country. Then there’s our own Lawrence of Arabia, Rory Stewart, whose first encounter with the country was to walk across it at lightning speed and then write a book. Now he bemoans the tragedy of leaving behind thousands of Afghan contractors while Americans slink away from their positions in the dead of night.
None of it gets to the root of what went wrong. Twenty years’ worth of blood and treasure have been expended on this latest Afghan imbroglio, and there’s little or nothing to show for it. Some Afghans have tasted greater freedoms thanks to our presence, argues Tony Blair, but now many of them are cowering at home or fighting through the crush at Kabul airport, in fear for their lives. The point of staying any longer than it took to root out international terror, remember, was to bring to progress to the country, not to help its brightest and best become refugees.
The dark heart of our Afghanistan adventure, however, isn’t just that it was useless—it is much worse than that. When the west goes to war in the 21st century, it’s not only military victory that it’s supposed to achieve. Within less than two months of the invasion of the country in 2001 it had been decided that our mission was also to civilise the locals into becoming democrats, technocrats and bureaucrats in the image of the west. It didn’t work. The same military humanitarians—a combination of adventurers, NGO types, lawyers and former soldiers—who spent permissively to engineer democracy and a flourishing civil society in the country have discovered that their efforts can be rolled up, like a cheap Afghan carpet, in little more than a week.
Few who’ve been part of this lucrative new military-humanitarian complex will have any idea that Afghanistan was already making fitful steps towards becoming modern and democratic before the Soviets, and then international Islamists and Americans, dragged it into their Cold War. They should have known that the institutions for which they stand can’t simply be exported at the barrel of a gun, but have to be built patiently by their beneficiaries from the ground up. What’s worse, the west’s funneling of huge amounts of money to military cut-outs, local notables, dodgy businessmen and NGO entrepreneurs is exactly what fueled a backlash against its presence, and what drove people back into the hands of the Taliban. It’s not that we didn’t stay long enough. We, and our corrupt new war economy, became part of the problem.
What might have persuaded Afghans to our cause was help with elementary infrastructure and development—the chance of a future. But of the over $2 trillion spent in Afghanistan by the United States, only £24bn went on economic development, and most of that was mired in kickbacks and corruption. Amid the chorus of indignant punditry in the last few weeks, one of the most clear-eyed pieces of analysis came from a former NPR correspondent in the country, Sarah Chayes. “Afghans did not reject us,” she wrote on her blog. “They looked to us as exemplars of democracy and the rule of law. They thought that’s what we stood for. And what did we stand for? What flourished on our watch? Cronyism, rampant corruption, a Ponzi scheme disguised as a banking system, designed by U.S. finance specialists during the very years that other U.S. finance specialists were incubating the crash of 2008.”
Faced with this absurd facsimile of a functioning democracy, and realising which way the wind was blowing, it’s hardly surprising that the Afghan security forces simply melted away. By the end their government was reduced to relying on old warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose human rights abuses in the past were worse than those of the Taliban. In recent days, Talibs have been roaming around Dostum’s gaudy, gold-encrusted palace in Mazar-e-Sharif, taking videos for the local audience of what he left behind.
“It’s not that we didn’t stay long enough. We, and our corrupt new war economy, became part of the problem”
The reason why all this is happening now is that the United States made a peace deal with the Taliban 18 months ago which, much like the deal that it made with the Vietnamese in 1973, was a diplomatic fig-leaf for the military rout which inevitably followed. That 2020 deal gave fresh legitimacy to the organisation as the guarantor of national sovereignty. With new friends in Qatar and Turkey, the Talibs are emboldened, and more in control of the country than ever. For some years now they’ve also been fighting an ugly little war with the local Islamic State franchise in Northern Afghanistan, whose millenarian Islamism and international terrorism are every bit as threatening as al-Qaeda was in the past. The final irony of our attempt at nation-building is that these throwbacks are going to become our newest allies in the war on terror, leaving ordinary Afghans wondering what just happened.
All the same, and despite its chaotic execution, Biden’s decision to exit Afghanistan was, on any reasonable criteria, the right one. In decades to come it might even be seen as one of the high points of his presidency: he drew a line in the sand and, standing up to his critics, brought Americans home. But the reaction to it in this country is also proof that war economy juggernauts too easily create their own internal momentum and institutional bases for support—that, in the humanitarian era, wars are much easier to start than to stop.
Speaking on Radio 4, General Nick Parker, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, articulated a humility so rare that it bordered on euphemism. Lamenting that all of our efforts to bring democracy and freedom to Afghans had come to nothing, he hoped that “over the next months, experts and our political leadership look into each other’s eyes and work out how do we do this better. Because it hasn’t worked very well in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan. We don’t have a particularly good record at this, and we probably need to work out how to do it better.”
It’s important to get our friends out of Kabul, and to manage our exit in the least painful way possible. But it’s also important to understand what we got wrong, so that apologising for the present doesn’t lead us to repeat the mistakes of the past.