Whether deemed acceptable or not, the idea of including the Taliban in any settlement and international exit strategy in Afghanistan is much more the outcome of a fait accompli on the grounds than of long-term diplomacy.
Beyond the Mubarak mosque in Kandahar, the historic capital of Afghanistan, is a shrine with a silver coffer that contains a cloak which, according to tradition, once belonged to the Prophet Muhammad. There is a story that in spring of 1996, in the Islamic year 1416, Mullah Omar, the legendary and mysterious leader of the Taliban, got access to the cloak, brought it to a mosque in the city centre, and donned it in front of an ecstatic crowd of followers. The privilege to see and wear the garment is traditionally reserved for leaders who take on a mission to save the country and the faith from great disaster. And disaster there was. At that time, Afghanistan was already torn by the years of civil war that had followed, or more correctly, began during the decade-long occupation by the Soviet Union in the ‘80s.
The eventual Soviet retreat heralded not hope, but instead, brought disillusionment and a nightmare. Mullah Omar’s performance with the cloak stimulated his Taliban to continue their expansion from Kandahar to other parts of the country to restore order and establish what they saw as a true Islamic State. The state, which arguably became the Orientalist embodiment of evil in much of international opinion, only existed for a few years and never consolidated under the course of global circumstances. More than 15 years later, the army vehicles of NATO and the International Security Assistance Forces in the streets of Kandahar and the rattling sound of helicopters in the distance constantly remind one that Afghanistan is again experiencing the last years of an occupation. At the same time, it is fascinating to see how daily life in neighborhoods and villages and in and around the markets quietly continues, despite the almost mythical frontline status that this country and its conflict have obtained over the years. It says a lot about the tenacity of human nature.
The graveyard of social engineering
In the collective imagination, literature, and media reports, Afghanistan is often bombastically called ‘a graveyard of empires’. The cliché of a history consisting of a constant stream of invaders who are confronted with wild, freedom-loving tribes indeed stimulates the imagination, if not phantasms, among some. This image became enhanced by the fact that the retreat of the Soviet Union, which occupied Afghanistan during most of the ‘80s and propped-up a socialist regime there, near-coincided with the demise of the Soviet super-state itself. In reality, throughout its history, Afghanistan constantly experienced some form of empire. In one way or another, the areas that constitute Afghanistan today, were almost always part of a political entity or at least of a sphere of political and ideological influence, ranging from sub-regional city states and tribal entities to wider global spheres. There is even one global ideological sphere which has not only lasted for hundreds of years and survived scores of dynasties and occupants, but which is also part of the deepest fabric of society − Islam.
In that capacity, it is Islam that will ensure continuity in any social order that might come up in Afghanistan. What we are experiencing now, is not the death of a world power. As was the case with the failure of Afghan socialism in the ‘80s, we are witnessing the end of the illusion of social engineering, this time, however, with regards to neoliberalism. For despite the obligatory lip service to ‘local culture and customs’, neoliberalism, in this stage of conflict in Afghanistan, is definitely the doctrine of counter-insurgency and the framework for reconstruction, outsourced as it is to a range of private companies and non-governmental organizations. The country became a social laboratory for anyone who operates at the intersection of good intentions and naive arrogance, especially, though not exclusively, in the field of gender and women’s rights which serve as the main fetish cause. That does not mean that there were no achievements at all. There are. Yet even among groups and sections of society who detest the Taliban, there is a general feeling that people somehow serve as a mere backdrop for agendas and interests of Kafir foreigners and of course of what they see as the profiteers and opportunists who work with them.
Some sort of lesser evil, after all?
Whether one likes it or not, Islam will be part of the future of the country and its society, without outsiders determining, under the guise of ‘promoting moderate Islam’, what kind of Islam is suitable or appropriate. Quite a few Afghans are convinced that things in their country started to sour from the moment that others, supported by local opportunists and idealists, started to impose social and developmental models; first Socialist, and later neo-liberal, both against the very nature of Afghan society and even that of the wider Islamic Ummah for that matter. Modern history does not prove them wrong. From their experience, Afghans perhaps understand the meaning of the Qur'anic verse 8:73 best. "The infidels are protecting friends of each other”, it says, “and if you follow them, there will be great disorder and mischief on Earth."
Although opinion polls are by far no gospel and are often subject to the agendas of those who commission them, research conducted over the last two years suggests that the idea of engaging the Taliban in some sort of arrangement or power-sharing enjoys broad support in Afghan society, even, surprisingly perhaps, among women. This obviously has more to do with war weariness than with active sympathy for the movement. Still, not a few seem to think that the Taliban have learned from the mistakes and excesses made when they were in power in much of the country during the second half of the the ’90s. Apart from that the Taliban are part of the country’s social reality. They definitely operate networks transgressing Afghanistan’s borders, and the psychological impact of their presence goes far beyond the Afghan context. But that the Taliban mainly consist of ‘foreigners’ – that is, Arabs and military intelligence officers from Pakistan – is a myth, just like the statement that their fighters are mainly paupers who joined the insurgents for ten dollars a day and stakes in the drug traffic.
This bring us to another lesson from this chapter of history: contrary to what is often thought, not everything runs according financial gain or illicit interests. There is indeed frustration that can be politically mobilized. There is also indignation at the grassroots level at the real and perceived nature and intentions of the foreign intervention and the government. Part of this has to do with the unrealistic and inflated popular expectations from ten years ago. And much has to do with the strong feeling that the country and its society have been paying the price for external ambitions and agendas for too long. Shocking as it may still sound in some of the salons, there may be something worse than a return of the Taliban. What is it? …That Afghanistan, as in the first half of the ’90s, becomes a space for a plethora of warlords (whether supported externally or not), and shatters into a range of domains and fiefdoms where local potentates conduct a predatory rule with total absence of any rule of law. This was actually the situation in much of the south before the Taliban took power. Because of the memories of pre-Taliban times, the associations with the Islamic emirate of the Taliban of the ‘90s are not unanimously negative in the region. Though this sentiment does not translate into warm sympathy for the Taliban, it does exist.
Assuming that a fully-fledged takeover of the country by the Taliban eventually does not materialize, what alternatives are imagineable for Afghanistan? According to the idea of ‘one country, two democracies’ that is popular in Belgium these days, two quasi-states within the contours of Afghanistan might emerge. One multi-ethnic entity under the national government, and in the south and parts of the southeast where the insurgents effectively have much of their social base and support, we might have another entity which bears much more of a Taliban stamp. The latter will probably get economically and sociogeographically more interwoven with neighboring Pakistan, maybe to become part of a later entity that derives its legitimacy from a restored Caliphate. It is all possible. Whatever we get in the end, the way things evolve in Afghanistan will reflect the recoil of what former Chechen guerrilla fighter and neo-traditionalist thinker Khoj-Ahmet Nukhaev called 'the Closed Society'. This is not necessarily a society that shuns all contact with the outside world. It is a society that simply does not identify with the seemingly pretentious and superficial cosmopolitans who embody the open, modern society. In daily life, it rather functions on structures and institutions that withstood the test of time, such as the family, clan networks, and religion.
No longer in the realm of the unthinkable
Billions of dollars and the technological superiority of professional soldiers from stagnating Western societies failed to get a full grip on an opponent who does not only know the terrain well, but who is also ideologically driven and has a very different interpretation of life and death. The increasingly frequent derailments of ISAF soldiers such as shooting sprees, target bombings with civilian casualties, and Qur’an burnings, can be set and understood against the extreme stress, frustration and degeneration that come with an intervention in which the initiave seems lost and which is difficult to win since the populations one wants to ‘save’ and ‘enlighten’ are not necessarily craving to be saved and enlightened. An American sergeant in southern Afghanistan I spoke with a couple of years ago voiced this frankly. “We wanted to help these people”, he said. “We bring them stuff. But in reality, they help the Taliban, they don’t help us. So, me and my guys won’t die for this. Until the time we get out of here, we’ll do what we have to do to stay alive, even if it means that they are to be scared of us.”
For not a few, in Afghanistan as in the wider Islamic Ummah, the series of derailments are perceived as the true nature of the democracy and freedom that interventionists want to spread. This has tarred the legitimacy of the intervenion. A decade ago, it was inconceivable to say something like this aloud, let alone to write it down. Meanwhile, the so-called global War on Terror has been overshadowed by the global economic crisis which, by itself, is a symptom of the bankruptcy of neoliberalism and of the end of the world order that was perpetuated by the War on Terror, amongst others. What is now happening in Afghanistan seems less spectacular and more déjà vu than the so-called Arab Spring, but it is equally historic and far-reaching. Many things that seemed evident a few years ago stand in jeopardy. Neoliberalism and its actors and proponents had their heyday and could indulge their alleged supremacy after the disintegration of the Socialist bloc at the end of the ’80s. With Afghanistan and the Arab Spring, they will have to accept the reality of their own finitude.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.