In the year 2000, five years after the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, nobody elsewhere cared what happened in that land-locked, benighted country.
It was ruled by angry rural fanatics who tormented the local people with their demented rules for proper “Islamic” behavior, but it was not a military or diplomatic priority for anybody.
It is about to return to that isolated and isolationist existence. Neither then nor now do the Taliban even have a foreign policy. They are more like a franchise operation whose various elements share certain basic principles — e.g. foreigners, women and democracy are bad — but whose members are primarily focused on local issues and personal ambitions.
This is not the first time that the country has been in such a mess, and about the only useful thing that the current lot of foreign invaders can do on their way out is offer refuge abroad to as many as possible of the Afghans who trusted their promises. That will certainly not be more than 10% or 20% of those who earned their protection.
The Russians and the Americans share the blame for this catastrophe. It’s hard to believe that an uninvaded Afghanistan could have peacefully evolved into a prosperous democratic society with equal rights for all, but “uninvaded” is the only condition in which it could conceivably have approached that goal.
There was the germ of such a locally led modernization process in the overthrow of the king in 1973 and the proclamation of an Afghan republic. Other Muslim-majority states have made that transition successfully — Turkey did, for example, despite its current government — but the Afghan attempt did not prosper.
Violent resistance by traditional social and religious groups started at once, and the tottering new republican regime was overthrown in 1978 by a bloody military coup. The young officers who seized power were Marxists who imposed a radical reform program.
They gave women the vote and equal access to education, carried out land reforms and even attacked the role of religion. By 1979, the Marxist regime was facing a massive revolt in conservative rural areas, and one faction asked for Soviet military help.
The moribund communist leadership in Moscow agreed, and 100,000 Soviet troops entered the country. The subsequent war devastated the country for a decade — with much help from the United States.
“The day that the Soviets officially crossed the (Afghan) border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War,” said former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. He immediately started sending money and weapons to the rural rebels who later became the Taliban.
It took 10 years, $40 billion of clandestine U.S. military aid and around a million Afghan dead, but by 1989 the Taliban and their various Islamist rivals forced the Russians to pull out. Shortly afterwards the Soviet Union collapsed, and Brzezinski arrogantly but implausibly claimed credit for it.
“What is most important to the history of the world?” he asked. “The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” In reality, the Soviet Union was heading for collapse anyway, but the “stirred-up Moslems” turned out to be a fairly large problem.
The Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996 after a long all-against-all war between the various Islamist groups and ruled most of the country badly and brutally for five years. Then an Arab Islamist called Osama bin Laden abused the hospitality of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar by launching the 9/11 attacks against the United States in 2001.
Bin Laden may not even have told Mullah Omar about the attacks in advance. The need-to-know principle for secret operations argues against it, as does the possibility that Mullah Omar might have forbidden the attacks because he didn’t want to be invaded.
An American invasion was inevitable after 9/11 because some spectacular retaliation was politically necessary. That led to another twenty years of war: the Taliban against another set of foreigners who understood little about the country’s recent history and why it made local people profoundly mistrustful of “helpful” foreigners.
Even now Americans don’t realize how closely they have recapitulated the Soviet experience in the country. The ending that is now unfolding was foreordained from the start, although it has taken twice as long to arrive because the United States is much richer than Russia. Nevertheless, the aftermath will also be the same.
The various factions of the Taliban will split, mostly on ethnic lines, and another civil war of uncertain length will follow. The rule of the winners will be as cruel and arbitrary as it was last time. And the rest of the world will rapidly lose interest, because Afghanistan won’t pose a serious threat to anywhere else.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist. His new book is “The Shortest History of War.”
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