This week marked a year since the Taliban took the Afghan capital of Kabul after the United States completed its military withdrawal following nearly two decades of war. News from Afghanistan further illuminates America’s failed attempt at nation building.
Marking the anniversary, large numbers of Taliban jihadi militants shouted “Victory” and “Freedom” throughout Kabul, celebrating the Taliban’s return to power after two decades of war against the U.S. and the government it created. But Taliban militants weren’t alone in Monday’s celebrations. As the Washington Post reported, families piled in cars drove through the streets, honking their horns as individuals hung outside their vehicles to photograph the celebrations. Other bystanders recited various Āyah from the Quran.
Muhammad Zubair Shahab, a 22-year-old Taliban fighter who helped the jihadist group force its way into Kabul last August, told the Washington Post, “for us, this is a day of liberation.”
“By the grace of God in a single year, we have brought security to Kabul and eliminated corruption,” said the young Taliban fighter, who was just an infant when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
Afghanistan’s security position and economy nevertheless remain on precarious footing.
A suicide bomber detonated a device at Kabul’s Siddiquiya Mosque in the Kher Khanna neighborhood on Thursday during evening prayers. Khalid Zadran, the spokesman for Kabul’s Taliban police chief, told reporters that at least 21, including one prominent cleric, were killed in the blast, and more than 30 others were wounded. A different Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, condemned the attack and promised the “perpetrators of such crimes will soon be brought to justice and will be punished.”
Though no group has taken immediate responsibility for the attack on the Siddiquiya Mosque worshipers, many suspect the Islamic State’s local affiliate, which has increased its attacks on civilian and Taliban targets since the Taliban took Kabul last August. Last week, the Islamic State said it was responsible for killing another prominent cleric with Taliban ties in Kabul.
Further, the recent killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul by a U.S. drone strike risks the potential for engagement and cooperation with the U.S. and the West more broadly. Though the Taliban has denied any knowledge of Zawahiri's taking up residence in Kabul, the house in which he was killed is allegedly owned by an aide to senior Taliban official Sirajuddin Haqqani, who currently serves as the country’s de facto deputy head of state.
Part of the Doha Agreement signed between the Taliban and the United States, which set in motion the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, stipulated that Afghanistan would not become a safe haven for terrorists seeking to do the U.S. homeland harm. Zawahiri’s death in Kabul and reports that Al Qaeda and other jihadist fighters have made their way into Afghanistan over the past year risk not only potential further military action by the United States in Afghanistan via over-the-horizon capabilities, but could derail talks for aid to help stabilize the nation’s economy.
When the U.S. military left, billions of Western development dollars went with it. Though these development schemes were rife with corruption, they undeniably injected billions of dollars into the Afghan economy. And once the Taliban took control of Kabul, continued Western sanctions on Taliban leaders and the freezing of the country’s foreign-currency reserves only compounded the nation’s economic woes. Add on top of that a severe drought and global supply shocks arising from events like the Ukraine war, and you get a country in which nearly half of its population is suffering from acute food insecurity.
But the country’s compounding predicaments haven’t deterred Taliban fighters like Shahab or caused notable concern within Taliban ranks about its leadership's capacity to rule the country.
“When you are liberated, you must endure hardship,” Shahab told the Washington Post of the country’s current economic situation. Regardless, “the invaders were never going to improve the economy,” Shahab asserted. “They were just here for their own interests... We are here for the Afghan people.”
There’s plenty of reason to doubt that the Taliban are acting fully in service of the Afghan people. The regime rules with an iron fist based on the group’s interpretation of Islamic law. But, reflecting on the United States’s record in Afghanistan, it is hard to say that Shahab is completely off-base when it comes to the United States’ impact on the Afghan economy.
For example, when the United States first invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban had successfully clamped down on the country’s opium-poppy industry—which supplies most of the world’s poppy for drugs like heroin—to the tune of 90 percent. But once the U.S. invaded and the ban was effectively repealed, the amount of land used in opium cultivation returned to pre-ban levels by 2003. By the late 2010s, the Afghan opium industry had quadrupled in size compared to pre-ban levels. Certainly, the U.S. attempted to get opium cultivation under control by burning fields and such, but no U.S. policy was as effective as the Taliban’s policy of declaring the plant anti-Islamic.
The prevalence of opium poppy during America’s two-decade stay in Afghanistan had disastrous effects on not only Afghan society, with soaring substance-abuse levels and the rise of a brutal drug trade, but rippled beyond the nation's borders. A United Nations report from 2009 stated it plainly:
In NATO countries, the number of people who die of heroin overdoses every year (more than 10,000) is five times higher than the total number of NATO troops that have been killed in Afghanistan in the past eight years.
And 2009 wasn’t the worst of it. Removing other NATO countries and looking only at the U.S., heroin overdose deaths per year increased threefold from 2009 to 2016, though they have marginally declined since.
Beyond the opium-poppy industry, U.S. development dollars and funds for security forces were funneled to local warlords and their cronies. The Afghan Security Forces saw rampant enlistment fraud as officers and soldiers collected checks from non-existent enlistees. Stipends for widows of fallen Afghan soldiers were withheld in exchange for sexual favors. Some even took part in pedophilia via bacha bazi, the abuse of Afghan “dancing boys.”
Reflect on the United States’s plethora of failures in Afghanistan, and there's no wonder to Afghan sentiments that the U.S., despite its purported lofty ambitions for the country, was not there to protect the Afghan people’s interests. It’s not just Taliban militants who feel this way, either.
In the Pashtun-dominated neighborhood of Utkhel in northeast Kabul, some residents are reportedly pleased with the improvements since the Taliban took control of the nation’s capital city. “I am very happy they are here. Before they came people were selling drugs and stealing things. There were TV dramas that showed girls running away with boys. Now that has stopped,” a shopkeeper named Sanaullah told the Washington Post. “There was too much freedom. We are all Muslims, and now we are closer to Islam."
Other residents see the drop in street crime and other publicly flaunted immoral behavior since the Taliban moved in. “Yes, we are facing poverty now, but we have Islam with us and we need to be patient,” Sanaullah told the Washington Post.
It might be shocking to an American audience that a small-business owner would prefer life under the repressive Taliban to that of the U.S.-backed Afghan government that promised more rights for women and minorities. But given the Afghan population’s experience under two-decades of U.S. rule, it shouldn’t be.
Nor is that business owner's experience of lawlessness as foreign as one might think.
When rioting and looting rocked almost every major urban center in the United States in 2020, many small businesses’ doors shut permanently. Some of the nation’s most common franchises even moved out of these hotspots of social unrest. Anyone who wasn’t all-in on the agenda pushed by Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and other agents of chaos saw the lack of basic security in these communities as a real tragedy. What do you do when the options are security or anarchy?
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It is not an apples-to-apples comparison, and the options for Afghans and Americans aren’t the same, but it is a relatable conundrum.
Nevertheless, a year after the United States’ tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan, Western observers still find themselves guilty of embracing the erroneous assumption that underlies our failed nation-building projects. We continue to try and impose our political and cultural preferences and practices onto a country that has little to no experience with them, much less tolerance for them. And so, we continue to be at a loss when another country chooses the security provided by the Taliban over an ineffective U.S.-backed government that supports gender-studies programs.
Until we buck that instinct, we’ll continue not only to get our Afghanistan or Middle East policy wrong, but we'll fail to understand other countries on the Eurasian continent with cultures untouched by or disaffected with liberalism.