Afghanistan then and now is a critical stage for global political changes. During a period of two weeks, three events happened in Afghanistan simultaneously such as the defeat and retreat of the American-led NATO invasion, the collapse of the Afghanistan regime and the advancement of Taliban to the capital city Kabul.
The region of Afghanistan, which has witnessed super-power rivalries, has long been a landscape of instability and impoverishment. As a constellation of more than 14 tribal groups and linguistic communities in a terrain of hills and mountains, the state of Afghanistan has always exerted its strength through its own indigenous tribal coalitions and codes. Afghanistan has a legend that, despite the fact that the occupying forces have gone one after the other in the course of centuries of history, they all have been erased by decades of sustainable resistance.
Afghanistan – the graveyard of empires- had survived the onslaughts of the Mongol army of Genghis Khan, the British colonial rule and the Russian occupation in the past, and resisted the U.S.-led NATO imperialist-occupation in recent times.
Soviet Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979 during the height of the Cold War. The invasion of Russia, one of the world’s great powers at the time, naturally provoked its adversary, the United States. The United States formed a parallel front against the Russian Communist Socialist regime during a world order of austerity and the balance of power. As the Afghan people came forward to defend Afghanistan, where Muslims are a majority, the anti-Russian war took on the religious dimension of jihad. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States provided financial and armed support to the Afghan Mujahideen.
Muslim youth have migrated (hijra) from all over the world for the Afghan jihad. To promote jihad, the United States granted a visa to then prominent leader Abdullah Assam and supported a trip to the United States to raise financial aid. Camps were set up to provide military training for Mujahideen in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden, a Saudi citizen, was at the forefront of controlling the practicalities of jihad. It was in this context that Al Qaeda was formed in 1988 under the leadership of Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri. Although the coordination of world powers had put an end to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in 1991, the country was later dragged into a prolonged civil war.
Afghanistan was instrumental in the collapse of Soviet Russia and the end of the Cold War. The economic loss and political defeat of the war, which lasted for ten years in a row, led to a unilateral Russian retreat.
A similar political phenomenon can be seen in the American retreat. Mujahideen forces seized power in Kabul in April, following the resignation of Soviet-backed President Mohammed Najibullah in 1992. They signed the Peshawar Accord and declared Afghanistan an Islamic state. But the local tribal-linguistic differences between them led to civil strife and infighting. The Taliban proved their strength by conquering the provinces during the civil war that lasted from 1992 to 1996.
The Taliban, led by Muhammad Mullah Omar, was founded formally in 1994 as an organization of Deobandi Madrasa students. Although the main supporters of the Taliban were members of the Pashtun tribe, they represent a variety of Afghan communities. Describing the term ‘taliban’ as a common denomination in relation with the students of madrassas, Abdul Salam Zaeef (2010) observes that, “the Taliban were different. A group of religious scholars and students with different backgrounds, they transcended the normal coalitions and factions. They were fighting out of their deep religious belief in jihad and their faith in God. Allah was their only reason for being there, unlike many other mujahedeen who fought for money or land”. In just two years, the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996 and declared Mullah Omar as Amir al-Mu’minin (the Leader of the believers).
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognized the Taliban regime, which in 1997 renamed the country as ‘the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’. The Taliban regime, which lasted for around six years, established a relatively stable regime. They carried out successful anti-drug operations and halted production of opium in Afghanistan by 99 percent.
The Taliban government, which has sought to redevelop the devastated economy as a result of the long-running civil war with the help of global powers, has come under fire for its extreme stances. Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist arrested by the Taliban in September 2001, reveals facts that contradict the mainstream state-media propaganda. Pleased with the Taliban regime’s treatment of prisoners, Ridley later converted to Islam and brought the ground realities of Afghanistan to the global attention. Ridley’s (2021) question “why girls outperformed boys in the 2002 Kabul University entrance exams” is enough to interrogate the liberal allegations against the Taliban”. (Ridley 2021)
Colonial thought since Orientalism has carried out the ‘white man’s burden’ by demonizing organizations and nations with indigenous and geopolitical positions. The “war on terror” in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has often been equated with Samuel Huntington’s idea of the “clash of civilizations” and the Crusades. Talal Asad sees this war as an invasion of the ‘civilized’ over the ‘uncivilized’ and calls it a tactic by the liberal state to enact “a combination of cruelty and compassion”, in which the ‘legitimate’ violence of the imperial power would be unleashed under the garb of care for democracy and modernity (Asad 2007).
The American occupation, which began under the title ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, was justified in the name of democracy, human rights, women’s freedom, and the breaking of the ‘axis of evil’. While criticizing a variety of discourses around the Afghan war, Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood (2002) ask, “why conditions of war, militarization, and starvation were considered to be less injurious to women than lack of education, employment, and, most notably, Western clothes”. On the other hand, they question the liberal toleration over the debarring of 25,000 women from colleges in Turkey between 1998-2000 for refusing to obey the veil-ban imposed by the government.
Here, the Afghan groups were identified as ‘terrorists’ who are the propounders of a ‘public religion’ based on ‘fundamentalism’ and the American policies of brutal violence and oppression can be justified in terms of ‘liberation’. Hence, many people find the American retreat as betrayal and disappointment, whereas they demand a continuation of occupation in Afghanistan without any remorse or apology.
The US occupation lasted for 20 years since the September 11 attacks, which apparently had nothing to do with the Afghan people. Mullah Omar, who had given asylum to Osama bin Laden, also asked the United States to legally interrogate and punish Osama bin Laden under the jurisdiction of Afghanistan. But with the arrest of Osama, the US mission also wanted to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
While pointing out many mistakes of the U.S invading army, Zaeef argues that their biased and propagandist understanding of Afghanistan made life miserable in the country. He observes that, “many of the rules and laws that were imposed on Afghanistan interfere with its culture, a mistake that has been made over and over again by foreign invaders and Afghan rulers alike. Disrespect for religious values, and the use of religious symbols to pressure prisoners, both these things were coupled together with a policy of hate and bias toward religious madrassas which has alienated much of the rural population” (Zaeef 2010: 239).
Even Though the proposed U.S. objective was finished in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban regime, the United States formed a puppet government under Hamid Karzai in order to conquer Afghanistan for a longer period with its political, military and economic goals in mind. Even when Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011, the United States did not withdraw from Afghanistan. It may seem paradoxical that the U.S. arrived in Afghanistan by promising not to allow global terrorist groups to turn Afghanistan into a hub, the Islamic State group also dominated the province of Nangarhar when the US returned defeated.
It should also be noted that the Taliban regime, which was overthrown by the United States for allegedly harbouring an Al Qaeda leader, is returning. The fact that the US interacted with the Taliban, not with the Afghan government, in recent peace talks exposes the propaganda of the US occupation.
The Afghan people still bear the remnants of the American occupation that lasted twenty years. President Biden says Afghan nation-building is not their agenda, by apparently hiding the consequences of the US foreign policy, which has resulted in the deaths and flight of millions of people. The United States has always been a nightmare for Afghans who have been subjected to inhumane treatment at Guantanamo Bay and Bagram prisons (Begg 2021).
Russia has described the Taliban, during the Afghan peace treaty process in which India was a member state, as a geopolitical organization similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Therefore, engagement with the Taliban should not be held by seeing it as a ‘terrorist-non state’ party, but as a state actor. Soon after the American retreat, the Taliban declared Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as the chief, secured territories and ensured a public amnesty for the opponents and previous government officials considering the Doha Accord.
Many liken their defeat in Afghanistan to the retreat following the American defeat in Vietnam in 1972. That means, a possibility of redevelopment of Afghanistan in the post-invasion era could be predicted. It remains to be seen whether the scrolls of Afghan politics will unravel through the means of empowerment and progress of the Afghan people.
Asad, Talal. (2007), On Suicide Bombing, New York: Columbia University Press.
Hirschkind, Charles. And Saba Mahmood. (2002), “Feminism, the Taliban and Politics of Counte-insurgency”, Anthropological Quraterly, 75(2): 339-354.
Zaeef, Abdul Salam. (2010), My Life with the Taliban, New York: Columbia University Press.