Amidst all the handwringing, gnashing of teeth and fatalistic prognostications about the future of Afghanistan, we would do well to remember some basic recent history of that place.
The terrible Taliban “ruled” Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, when they were ousted from power by the United States military and mercenary contractors. In the five years they were “in power” they waged constant war with various warlords who had been competing with them before they achieved “power.” They never achieved control over the whole nation.
To call the Taliban “fundamentalist Moslems” is essentially the same as calling Southern Baptists “fundamentalist Christians.” Both groups pick and choose scriptures to justify the tribal customs and business interests that really drive them. The Taliban are predominantly Pashtun tribesmen, trying to enforce tribal social customs that antedate Islam by centuries. The Southern Baptist business was formed by plantation owners in 1845 with the specific goal of contradicting traditional Christian theology, and using religion to defend slavery.
To say that the Taliban “ruled” Afghanistan is to imagine that a bunch of rural, largely uneducated farmer/fighters was somehow administering a national government.
To say that the Taliban “ruled” Afghanistan is to imagine that a bunch of rural, largely uneducated farmer/fighters was somehow administering a national government. The record doesn’t suggest that they did, or that they are now. They were and are a fractious lot of different power groups, maintaining a mostly peaceful coalition and admitting in their public statements that they PLAN TO BEGIN studying how to govern, now that they have triumphed militarily.
We hear pronouncements that the leadership wants a modified rule, “softened” from their 1990s example. Even as the leaders speak, independent groups of Taliban fighters are roaming the streets of cities they have never seen before, and acting as conquering soldiers always act—looting, raping, killing, stealing. Not within the control of a command structure that doesn’t yet exist. This is a group that is setting itself up for a renewal of civil war that wracked the country in the years before 1996.
When the U.S. invaded and “conquered” Afghanistan in 2001, we imposed a puppet colonial government. We allowed our puppet government officials to be as corrupt as they wanted, imposing no conditions on our vast “aid” to the nation. American contractors involved in the process report being cut out of work projects to favor politically connected contractors who would do the jobs that local contractors would do, but at prices orders of magnitude higher than the prices offered by the American contractors already on site, and familiar with the work.
When people, including “progressives” express concern about the plight of women being “abandoned” by U.S. troops leaving, they are buying into Republican and war profiteering corporate framing. In reality, our puppet government didn’t waste any effort trying to protect women from rape, honor killing, child marriages and other traditional Pashtun (and other tribal) behaviors, and there is no reason to believe that they would start now, if they stayed in place.
The Taliban don’t have, and never did have, an air force. It was not Taliban cruise missiles that targeted Afghan wedding parties. It is hard to imagine how anyone familiar with our largely indiscriminate air warfare against Afghan civilian “suspected terrorists” could ever imagine that the U.S. Army would be a protective force for Afghan women. Sure, we allowed them to reenter the workforce and schools from which the Taliban had excluded them. But government jobs which they got often went unpaid, just as the Afghan soldiers often went unpaid, because actually using U.S. aid for its intended purposes, rather than for graft, was never required by the U.S.
Afghanistan is smaller than the state of Texas and has a population less than 10% of the U.S. population. According to official Pentagon records, in the 18 years from 2001 to 2019, the U.S. dropped more than 81,500 bombs on Afghanistan. Imagine 81,500bombs, not 81,500 pounds or even tons of bombs, but 81,500 discrete munitions, raining down on Texas. (The numbers for 2020 and 2021 are still “classified.”)
But in Afghanistan, people are not gathered in big cities like Dallas or Houston. Most Afghanis are rural, impoverished people. They try to eke out existence in the same spaces in which the Taliban thrive and ‘hide.’ So it is on them that the bombs fall. How would Texans, with their vaunted fighting spirit, respond to their ranches and crop lands, livestock and oil wells being bombed, day after day, by a foreign power?
Unlike the plucky Brits in WW-II, the Taliban have no air force with which to rise up against the foreign luftwaffe. RPGs and AK-47s are not effective against B-52s. In a society with thousands of years of fighting as tradition, and mano-a-mano combat linked with issues of personal and tribal honor, death raining down from the skies, from planes too high to see with the naked eye, is neither “fighting” nor honorable.
These realities frame the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afgahnistan, just as they framed the withdrawal that the Donald negotiated with the Taliban, back in February, 2020. The Donald negotiated directly with Taliban leaders, explicitly ignoring the interests of our puppet colonial government. After two decades of paying no attention to the health or other practical needs of the Afghan people, or to their social customs of repressing “their” women, the Donald capped off the adventure by promising the Taliban that we would leave our puppets and our interpreters and other Afghani’s who had helped us, and their families, to the tender mercies of angry Taliban victors. Just as we had with our Kurdish allies in Northern Syria.
Is it any wonder that unpaid Afghan soldiers took their weapons and “deserted” to the Taliban side? To the Afghan side—the Taliban are, after all, Afghans. Is it any wonder that no Afghans clung to any fantasy belief that the U.S. could be relied upon as a “defender”?
None of this has anything to do with the way the U.S. withdrawal was handled. The excuse that no one understood how quickly the Afghan puppet government and Afghan forces would crumble is ludricrous but also revealing. Press reports are revealing that our intelligence analysts were warning of a governmental collapse, months ago. And anyone who has read the reports of Afghan soldiers accepting our training, our modern equipment, and then turning on and attacking and killing occupation forces has seen for years that loyalty to the nation, rather than to an occupying colonial power and its puppet government runs deep within what we pretended were obedient conscripts.
The thought that our military didn’t see this coming further illuminates reasons why our “most powerful military in human history” continue to lose wars to barely armed. colonized peasants, from Vietnam to Latin America and now Afghanistan. But, in fact, our military and diplomatic people did see this coming. It was Republicans in congress who opposed a bill, earlier this year, to allow our Afghan helpers to be brought to the U.S. as refugees.
Did the sandal wearing (and often barefoot) ragheads beat us, or did we beat ourselves with pompous, narcissistic self-imagery and fantasies of invincibility?
Is the same self-imagery about to make Larry Elder the new governor of California, after voters decide to defrock Gavin Newsom, who, like national Democratic leaders have abandoned any pretense of interest in what the mere rabble voters want, and simply tell us what we should believe and vote for?
Larry Elder is on record as saying employers should not have to actually pay workers. He also opposes Social Security, Medicare, public education, and anything that interferes with plantation or corporate profits. But those stances on issues seem not enough to motivate Democratic voters who are weary of being told what to care about, rather than being asked what they care about.
Still, we have to try. Send back your mail-in ballot, or get to your local polling place. Tell your friends to vote. Tell them that it is important, no matter how dispiriting Gavin Newsom seems. And, after voting against the recall, write in Thomas M. Hall, or any other favorite LA Progressive writer as your choice, if the recall ends up removing the governor. Even if the recall fails, as it should, writing in alternate progressive names in the new governor choice space will send a message to the pundits and analysts who study the votes.