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4 September 2021


Tag(s): Foreign Affairs, Politics & Economics, History
My sister-in-law lives in the USA and, like many in that country, is very upset over the developments in Afghanistan, not just in the recent few months but over the 20 years since 9.11. Here is my reply to her email:
“The lessons of history tell us that we should never get involved in Afghanistan. When the British were the most powerful Empire in the world, they had a major disaster in Afghanistan in the 1830s and were badly beaten. They won the second Afghan war in the 1870s and basically ruled Afghanistan peacefully for the next 40 years but then in 1919 the Afghans took advantage of the fact that the British Army were exhausted after the First World War and beat them in another fight. This led to a treaty in which we recognised them as an independent nation.
The Soviet Union backed the Communist government in the 1980s and fought a nine-year war against insurgent groups known collectively as the Afghan mujahideen. They were backed primarily by the US, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and the UK. The conflict was essentially a Cold War-era proxy war. Between 6% and 11% of Afghanistan’s population were killed and millions more fled the country as refugees. The war caused grave destruction in Afghanistan and contributed to the Soviet collapse and the end of the Cold War.
You are quite right that 9.11 led to the US and others getting involved but they did not need to. Having identified where Bin Laden was, they could have taken him out in a covert mission as they eventually did in Pakistan.
However, Biden is simply carrying out what Trump was going to do, just four months later. Trump foolishly believed the Taliban when they said they would act in peace if US troops left. Their negotiators in Dubai just pulled the wool over his eyes and still do, while the Taliban takes over. It would seem that for all their efforts, the US, the UK and others have totally failed to train the Afghan army to the point where it can fight the Taliban off.
You are quite right about the women. They are already being told to give up their work and stay at home, only to leave the house if accompanied by a man. This is bad enough, but what is worse is that Afghanistan will again become an Islamic medieval state and will be a home for all the Islamic terrorists just as before.
This is a colossal betrayal by the West and also means that hundreds and thousands of Western troops have given their lives for nothing.”
In a recent article in The Sunday Times the excellent journalist Matthew Syed explains that liberal democracy was never going to work in Afghanistan, where ethnic affiliation is paramount.[i] I had the pleasure of meeting Matthew on the occasion of the launch of his excellent book ‘Rebel Ideas - the Power of Diverse Thinking’[ii] which was the subject of two blogs that I published two years ago.[iii] Matthew’s father is Pakistani and his mother is Welsh which I think gives him valuable insight into racial and cultural differences.
He says the failure of Western policy is not merely about short-term stakes in a bungled withdrawal; it is a story of a cumulative naïveté, a failure to understand the tribal context, mistake piled upon well-intentioned mistake. Perhaps we all now know that Tony Blair and George W Bush believed that working with the Northern Alliance would eliminate the Taliban, seemingly unaware that the Taliban aren’t just a religious group but an ethnic one, dominated by Pashtuns who were terrified that the Uzbek and Tajik-dominated alliance would exact terrible reprisals – a belief that was amply vindicated. In 2002, as Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, was proclaiming, “The Taliban regime is out of business, permanently”, they were already surging back.
Matthew explains that the British Isles were once as tribal as Afghanistan and after the departure of Rome, Germanic tribes invaded, with their own traditions. But these groupings disappeared during the Middle Ages largely because of the Christian ban on cousin marriage (a prohibition that extended to sixth cousins by the 11th century). The edict forced people to marry across tribal lines, thus blurring and ultimately dissolving sectarian divisions. This led to the development of the rule of law and other Western examples of progress.
But Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of cousin marriage in the world, which reinforces the intensity of kinship. Westerners talk about defending democracy in Afghanistan as if this is interchangeable with democracy in the liberal West. What we fail to see is that in a tribal society, democratic institutions are hijacked for sectarian purposes, as has happened in many other countries from Iraq to Kenya. In the presidential election in 2019 in Afghanistan only 1.6 million people voted in a population of over 30 million. We are proud, and rightly so, about the rule of law but this is not synonymous with a written constitution. We fail to see that in a tribal society judges favour their own kin.
President Biden seemed to suggest that Afghans lacked the “will to fight for their future”. Probably the future he had in mind is a freedom-loving democracy of the Western style. But 99% of Afghans favour sharia law, 85% support stoning for adultery and 79% support execution for apostasy, according to the Pew Research Centre.
Matthew goes on to say that “At the Bonn talks of 2001 we should not have sought a central state along western lines, but a regional arrangement based on ethnic realities. The main reason American casualties had fallen in recent years is the deal struck with the Taliban. Afghans have still been dying at a horrific rate and the Taliban were gaining more control. We lost this war years ago.”
Another excellent commentator is Bruno Maçães, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, and a former politician in Portugal. The author of Belt and Road; History Has Begun; and The Dawn of Eurasia, he advises some of the world's leading companies on geopolitics and technology.
He wrote an article in The Sunday Telegraph, also on 22nd August, headlined “On the streets of Kabul, the damage caused by two decades of American hubris is all too obvious.”[iv] He was in Kabul during the week before the Taliban arrived when. based on his own observations and discussions with important Afghan officials, he concluded that America in Kabul was distant, yet all powerful. One official recently complained to a news outlet that the coverage was too critical of the United States. The editor responded that America had left, to which the official replied: “They have not left, they never leave, they are everywhere!”  He goes on to explain that Afghanistan is a country that has been under foreign rule for 20 years.  Afghan officials are dropped out of nowhere into the halls of the presidential palace through American intercession.  American power in Afghanistan was so immense it existed on a different planet.
“The Afghan military never develop the capabilities necessary to fight the Taliban, but is that really surprising? Technology and skills were never transferred to Kabul because the system in the US is based on private contractors, whose business model is to keep full control of the key technologies and intellectual property. When these contractors were ordered to leave, the Afghan defence forces were rendered useless: a smart phone without software or even battery. When you mould the Afghan army to match the way American forces operate and then suddenly pull its air support, intelligence and contractors, its collapse becomes inevitable.”
He goes on to explain that the main political figures were never able to bring the country together but that was because everyone regarded them as foreigners. There are photos of John Kerry when he was Secretary of State deciding who should become president of Afghanistan.
While in Kandahar he was told by a former Afghan minister, there was supposed to be 13,000 policemen. In reality, there were only 900. The rest were ghost policemen, never hired in the first place and the respective funds simply transferred elsewhere. It was the same with the national army in theory numbering 300,000 men but in reality, only 10% were hired and operational with vast resources transferred to corrupt officials and others.
So, it is not surprising that the Taliban move with such confidence and speed when they were the ones best placed to understand they are not fighting an army or a state, but rather a fiction projected from Washington onto the screen of Afghanistan.
Maçães sees alternative strategies that can work. “Two years ago, I visited Somaliland, a breakaway Somali region still unrecognised by the international community. What I saw changed my views about the role of Western power and aid. Somaliland is an obvious success story. The region boasts one of the most vibrant democracies in Africa, and the terrorist networks that destroyed neighbouring Somalia have so far been comprehensively defeated. How can this be when Somaliland receives almost no support from the global community, with the exception of United Arab Emirates? I had to conclude that the lack of support and recognition actually played a role in that success. Without foreign interference, the region was able to build the political model rooted in its own traditions. The Parliament has an upper house representing the local clans, and it is this upper house that helps maintain stability and national cohesion.”
Maçães is not arguing that Afghanistan or Somaliland can live without Western support.  but there is a need to radically rethink how this support is to be offered and, more fundamentally, how Western democracies should project their influence abroad. Somaliland shows that political progress does not follow a single, uniform path. Western democracies need to recover the humility to understand that the political model they have created at home may not be the best for other parts of the world.

[i] “In a land with 14 tribes named in its anthem, we were played like a violin.” Matthew Syed. The Sunday Times. 22nd August, 2021
[ii] Rebel Ideas – The Power of Diverse Thinking Matthew Syed John Murray 2019
[iii] The Power of Diverse Thinking 9 November 2019
The Power of Diverse Thinking 16 November, 2019
[iv] “On the streets of Kabul, the damage caused by two decades of American hubris is all too obvious.”
Bruno Maçães, The Sunday Telegraph, 22nd August 2021

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