What happened to news about Afghanistan? After their spectacular sweep of the entire country and overnight victory, there is no news now. And Taliban websites remain closed. Just human interest stuff about traitors/ cowards/ whatevers fleeing to the US or wherever. A convening of Afghan women parliamentarians, holding a mock Afghan parliament in exile (a Greek refugee camp). The hysteria about girls schooling ignores the well-documented but little known fact that almost all the schools (80%) that were supposedly educating girls throughout the country were non-functioning or even non-existent. And those teachers who were actually being paid were just pocketing the money (much of it first taken by local officials, who in turn funneled a portion to warlords).
In fact, all schooling was mostly nonexistent, even for boys, so Afghanistan is actually less literate now, thanks to the US invasion, than it was 20 years ago, and even less literate than in 1978, the last year of peace, when women were going to university and those in Kabul were hijab-less, let alone birqa-less.
Of course, the fault lies entirely with the nasty Taliban, though they didn’t even exist before 1978. War is nasty business and it’s always the other guy’s fault. And when you lose, you just move on, try to forget. So what if you left the scene-of-the-crime a basket case? Where is Afghanistan anyway?
The US has a standard operating procedure: bomb the enemy to smithereens. If that doesn’t work, bomb some more. Then find some civilians who have been riddled with your bullets, fly them to Bagram air base for (the best) emergency treatment, try and fit the body pieces together, and presto! a human interest story highlighting how noble you are, how scientific. If that still doesn’t work and you’re getting flak at home, then cut your losses, pull out, and move on to the next enemy (all the time, boycotting the old enemy so it can’t threaten you). Eventually, as you are the world’s sole superpower now, the enemy will come begging and you can relent a bit.
That was how Vietnam panned out, though it took 20 years to get around to recognizing the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It’s a bizarre kind of win-win: even if you lose, the target is reduced to a failed state which is a model for no one, rather a warning for anyone contemplating trying to get out of US clutches. If you win, you can decide just how prosperous the new client state will be. Japan, Korea, and of course Germany got the VIP treatment. (WWI lesson learned: don’t ‘fail’ a big, powerful state). Vietnam managed to recover, and since it is happy to join the US-controlled world economy, it has been allowed to prosper. Reparations are never an option.
That these horrendous wars never seem to bring any peace, let along goodwill, doesn’t faze US ‘planners’. Bombing is easy, and cheap (given that you have a military-industrial complex that is the very engine of your prosperity). It’s the new US norm. ‘It’s what we do.’
The complementary policy to these senseless, horrible wars is the fanatical anti-ideology, which since the days of McCarthyism, seems to run in American veins. There is only one way to live, the American way, and any other option is by definition wrong, mistaken, evil. In the 1950s anti-communism poisoned US culture, and led the US down the proverbial rabbit-hole, destroying any socialist revolution on the globe before it could catch hold, cutting off the one path that can save our civilization from its current road to oblivion. Afghanistan provided the perfect battlefront for the latest US obsession (far away, mostly desert and mountains, good for target practice).
Oh, almost forgot. Lie to enemy, even when they want to surrender. Most Taliban wanted to give up after the US invaded. They weren’t idiots. After a blanket offer by top Taliban leaders to resign was rejected, individuals tried to broker a deal for themselves. After a dozen agreed and were promptly arrested and sent to Bagram, Guantanamo or just tortured and killed, others realized their only future lay in resistance, so they regrouped, some in Pakistan, most just locally where they lived. Sleeper cells were activated and by 2003, as the corruption and murder/ torture by Afghan yes-men blossomed, the rural population started to support the Taliban. Soon half of Afghanistan was being administered by them, providing justice, collecting taxes.
So why no interest in what’s happening now that the US is gone? And was the US project doomed from the start? Were all those trillions of dollars, 100,000s of lives for naught? Is there a Rosebud?
Taliban ‘won’ in 2002
The best way to answer that and what’s happening now is to see what happened under US occupation, but from the Afghan point of view. The Taliban have been governing most of Afghanistan for 15 years now. Anand Gopal’s No Good Men among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War through Afghan Eyes (2014) does this. He follows the lives of a few local heroes from 2001 to 2010, and presents events through their eyes.
The answer starts in the dying days of the communist government, which had started out much like the US occupation, brokering peace with local warlords, having scaled back its development projects as things deteriorated. It held on, annoying the US, but then the peace was signed in 1988, ending arming of both sides–which US promptly ignored. For 3 years after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the CIA kept weapons and money flowing to the mujahedeen, working to block any peace deal between them and the Soviet-funded government. When President Najibullah ran out of arms, the mujahideen took over. That was Bush I’s thank you to Gorbachev for dismantling the Soviet Union. (Lying is ok if you’re lying to the enemy.)
When 9/11 came, Akbar Gul was already a star Taliban fighter, battling the Northern Alliance to the end. When the US invaded, he quit and tried exile, but after being robbed several times in Karachi, he returned to his native Wardak, learned how to fix mobile phones by trial and error, becoming well known as ‘mobile-phone Akbar’. But the US offered no amnesty for those who wanted to leave the movement, and the thieving and violence of the police and Karzai’s stooges, who now were in power and seeking revenge or just riches, became intolerable. A phone call from an old comrade to ‘get to work again’ was heeded.
Between 2003 and 2010, he was the commander in Wardak, just southwest of Kabul, responsible for assassinating government officials, kidnapping policemen, deploying suicide bombs, killing US soldiers. He even hijacked two tanker trailers full of gas, paid off the drivers, bought arms on the black market, and divided the booty among his team. When interviewed the last time in 2010, he was disillusioned with the stressful life and the increasing intra-Taliban squabbles and one-up-manship. But it was also clear that the US had lost almost from the start with its mania to wipe out the enemy, just as it failed in Iraq to wipe out the Baathists, merely turning them into insurgents.
Gopal describes the background to this. The lure of the Taliban in the 1990s held much the same allure by 2003, as ‘a home for unsettled youths,’ repulsed by the chaos their country was descending into. It provided ‘a sense of purpose, a communion with something greater.’ Akbar recalled receiving some instruction once on bomb-making from an Arab, presumably al-Qaeda, but otherwise had no interest in international politics, was barely able to read and write. He resented Mullah Omar’s support for bin Laden and his call to martyrdom following 9/11. Instead, he disbanded his men: ‘Go home. Don’t contact each other.’
How close the US was to victory! If only they had left with their al-Qaeda spoils in 2002, amnestied the Taliban, with a solemn promise not to promote terrorism.
Heela Achakzai graduated from university in the 1990, married her suitor Musqinyar, an idealist but a secular one, a communist. Though not interested in politics, Heela liked the communists for providing services and freedom for women, but as the Soviet troops retreated, the writing was on the wall, and they fled Kabul to Musqinyar’s family home in Khas Uruzgan. Although she was now effectively under house-arrest, complete with burqa and meshr (male guardian), she liked the Taliban for putting an end to tribal practices, including using females to settle feuds. And they didn’t kill her communist husband either. They lived in safety.
When 9/11 brought US soldiers and a return of anti-Taliban warlords, her village descended into violence. Her husband was assassinated by a Karzai crony, local warlord Jan Muhammad Khan. She would have had to marry her brother-in-law as second wife, give him her home and possessions. No way. Her story is rivetting. She fled to the US base in Tirin kot, eventually worked promoting elections and and as a midwife. One villager elder told her that while this type of work wasn’t good for ‘our women, the the villages’ it was fitting for ‘educated women like you.’
Heela also provided medicines to Taliban when they asked, thinking ‘Given Jan Muhammad and Commander Zahir and the others on the government’s side, why wouldn’t they fight?’ Then she was nominated and became a senator, having quietly worked with the Americans. (I presume she was evacuated in August, though she could well return. She is no traitor-coward.)
Jan Muhammad Khan, Khas Uruzban warlord, plotted with Karzai after the Taliban came to power in 1996, and was about to be executed when 9/11 happened. He was appointed governor of Khas Uruzgan and moved quickly to amass wealth, feeding the US intelligence about Taliban, all of it fabricated (there were no Taliban), used to target his rivals. The US was blind to this but the people of Khas Uruzgan weren’t, and the US attempt to rebuild Afghanistan ended up only enriching the new US-backed elite, and turning most people against the Americans.
As the Taliban were the only other choice, they gained support. US backers like Jan created nonexistent Taliban to keep the dollars and arms coming. For a country that prides itself as a model to be emulated around the world, it is hard to understand how the US could be so easily hoodwinked for 20 years at a cost of trillions, almost all of it wasted, enriching a handful of corrupt cronies, creating Potemkin villages and spiriting ill-gotten gains abroad. And, in a final irony, warlords like Jan spirited out at the last minute (Jan was assassinated in 2011) along with girls football teams and other Afghans who trusted the US.
Gopal concludes: the Americans were not fighting a war on terror at all, they were simply targeting those who were not part of the Sherzi clan [another warlord, also later killed by a bomb] and Karzi networks.
US troops fueled insurgency, ISIS
Interestingly, Karzai did not flee in August, as did his successor, Ghani, who fled to Dubai with several suitcases full of cash. Karzai was never an easy ally for the US. During an interview with Voice of America in 2017, he claimed that ISIS in Afghanistan is a tool for the US, that he does not differentiate at all between ISIS and the US. In May 2021, he told Der Spiegel he sympathized with the Taliban, and saw them as “victims of foreign forces” and said that Afghans were being used to be ‘each against the other.’ Clearly hedging his bets.
There were more than a few mass killings by crazed US soldiers, recalling My Lai. Gopal documents the case of Master Sergeant Anthony Pryor, awarded a Silver Star for his cold blooded murder of innocents in Khas Uruzgan. A Google search only turns up glowing reports of Pryor’s heroism, but the truth is he murdered 21 pro-American leaders and workers (which the US admitted), with 26 taken prisoner. Which is not much better than a bullet in the head.
That US troops meant more terrorism, killing, was explained by Eckart Schiewek, political advisor with the UN mission. The same jockeying for power by warlords Dostum and Atta in the north never boiled over. ‘There were no American troops. You couldn’t call on soldiers to settle your feuds.’ By allying with various warlords outside the puppet government, the US undermined the puppet, syphoning funds to pay endless bribes to warlords, and created the petri dish for feuds over who’s closest to the US. A truly vile scenario, especially for a people as fiercely proud and independent as Afghans. By 2005 US fatalities doubled from previous year, and kidnappings and assassinations came in record numbers. Already it was too late. As for poppy elimination, that too became a program to wipe out other tribes’ competition and keep prices high.
Gopal concludes that there were almost no Taliban or ISIS among Guantanamo prisoners, that most prisoners there and in Afghanistan were casualties of warlord-governors’ phony intelligence whose sole purpose was power and money.
Considering the general news blackout or deliberately anti-Taliban stories, we must look to events during the occupation through the eyes of such as Gopal, Jere Van Dyk, and memoirs of Taliban leaders, and the role of Islam itself in shaping Afghanistan’s future, as this is the bedrock of Taliban thinking and action. To not only respect Islam, but welcome it. “The Taliban was now a part of our family,” said Bowe Bergdahl’s mother Jani, as she waited stoically for news of her hostage son (eventually released). She was just stating a fact and dealing with it, not rejecting or despising it.
First, ‘jurisprudence is part of the Taliban’s DNA, even to a fault,’ as that is their training (12 years for judges). Governing means providing justice. In a village under Taliban control for two years, the malek (mayor) told Gopal that ‘in that time crime had vanished.’ Taliban ‘police’ had captured a known child molester and turned him over to Islamic justice, with ‘judges tarring his face, parading him around Chak, and forcing him to apologize publicly. If caught again, he would be executed.’ People preferred Taliban austerity to government and foreign impunity.
Real world political and economic troubles are pushed aside, or dealt with cavalierly, especially anything smacking of western decadence, as the road to hell is paved with seductive music, images, foods, drugs, etc. So that is what’s happening now. Cleaning the slate, exorcizing society of the demons who latched on to the rich heathen invaders. The Taliban are busy dismantling the US puppet infrastructure, finding warlords and bringing some justice to villages and cities.
Times have changed. Whereas in 1999, it was still possible to smash TVs and radios, keep women off the air, it no longer is. And whereas Afghanistan’s fabulous musical traditions and non-Islamic culture were repressed, destroyed, they are not pushing this any longer. Gopal listened to the Taliban insurgents’ music, watched tapes of Taliban fights with the invader.
All Taliban websites were banned in August, but Deputy Minister for information and broadcasting of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan-IEA Zabihullah Mujahid now has a twitter account. The most recent messages (with lots of insulting comments):
- West should not impose its civilization on us, we have an Islamic civilization, and the system of Islamic society that already exists.
- Islamic Emirate announces complete ban on the use of foreign currency in the country.
- ISIS attack on 400-bed hospital fails, 4 ISIS killed.
There is another twitter account the Emirate, even charging westerners with a Trumpian ‘fake news’ for suggesting ISIS will grow again if sanctions continue. Voice of Jihad was the Taliban’s main English language site till it was closed. Googling Voice of Jihad Islamic Emiirate of Afghanistan, I found
https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/topic/Islamic-Emirate-of-Afghanistan which includes more unfiltered news of Taliban. Otherwise Al-Jazeera is the best source.
So what about girls’ education? With no jobs waiting for high school graduates, villagers could only see potential ruin in allowing their daughters outside. Which is the cart and which the horse?
It is wrong to think the Taliban are anti-education. They are ‘students,’ and the highest calling is teaching and administering justice. But they don’t want the US determining what is taught and to whom. They follow sharia, not tribal law, which is much better for women.
The moral of this story?
Justice is the main thing a government can provide, but for Muslims, it means a strict, god-fearing government. Iran, though Shia, had an Islamic revolution too, and as such is in US crosshairs, much like Afghanistan. It has survived 40 years of US-Israel bullying and worse, so its experience will be important for the Taliban. It is big on the death penalty, and the Emirate of Afghanistan most likely will be too. Women must wear scarves but study freely. Music and the arts are low key. This is most likely how Afghanistan will develop.
The US can’t accept that Islamic justice is a worthwhile alternative to our very flawed systems of justice. Just as it couldn’t accept the truth that it’s better to be poor in a socialist society than in a capitalist one. Just ask 70% of Russians and the other orphaned ex-Soviets. The 1% needs to be brought under control, tamed to meet society’s pressing needs. And to take away the unease, resentment that eats away at society where the super rich flaunt their wealth and despise the common folk. This is not an easy task. The Taliban have stated recently there should be limits on wealth. They understand the truth behind the Lorenz curve.
Gopal recounts meeting a one-eyed malek of a village, Garloch, that no longer existed. ‘Nothing you see here in this country belongs to us. You see that road out there? That’s not ours. Everything is borrowed and everything can be taken back.’ Gopal was intrigued by this Sufi wisdom. Garloch’s malek explained the vagaries of existence: First came the Taliban, then US soldiers, then planes killing the wrong suspect, then Taliban, then … until the villagers gave up and left, leaving the old mayor living under a plastic sheet in a gully. His message to Obama: ‘I don’t give a shit about your roads and schools! I want safety for my family.’
Now comes the hard part. While Talib mullahs are busy righting wrongs and bringing a harsh but just communal peace, factions within the Taliban are also marshalling their forces, vying for power, not to mention the many collaborators, dreaming of another invasion. The revolutionary honeymoon is soon over, and the US continues to sit on Afghanistan’s meagre reserves, thinking about giving them away to 9/11 and other victims.
Which of course would leave the Taliban nothing to feed Afghans, who will turn again to poppies to survive, which will lead to more US-led boycotting, etc.
What’s happening now in Afghanistan demands our attention. And not the CNN version of events. It is heartening that such hardy, devoted souls like Gopal really care what happens to Afghans, and truly want the best for them. I want to know what has happened to the villains and heroes of his tale of life behind the lines. Sadly, our age of internet is letting us down on. I can only wish the Taliban well.
Warlord Zaman: This whole land is filled with thieves and liars. This is what you Americans have made. I know this game. I went to the Americans and said, ‘I can find bin Laden. Give me $5m and I’ll bring you his head. Then I went to al-Qaeda and told them, ‘Give me $1m or I’ll turn you over the the Americans.’ So they gave me $1m, and I convinced the Americans to stop the bombing for a little while. I told them we could use the time to find Osama, but really it was so those Arab dogs could escape to Pakistan. Then I went to the ISI and said, ‘Give me $500,000 and I’ll give you al-Qaeda.’ They pulled a gun and told me to get out of their face. You see, they don’t play this game. You can’t buy them. Gopal, p148.