When working with refugees in the UK a decade ago, I was at the time fascinated by how the Hazaras and the Pashtuns would never share space together. One would wait in the corridor while the other chatted to the staff. Even though there was plenty of volunteer staff, in the end, you had to go out into the corridor to discuss whatever they needed. All they really needed what’s the basics but human survival. but tenacity, determination and humility was built into them, yet suspicion of each other prevailed.
Afghanistan is commonly called the graveyard of empires but in fact, it has never rarely been one country, and never a nation. The Taliban, a product of Saudi-funded Pakistani religious schools, are not just the Mujahideen who battled the Soviets. They are actually mostly Pashtun, and despised the multi-ethnic nature of the Mujahideen. It is these religious students cum-warriors who are now in sole charge of a multi-ethnic state.
Yet what seems like a collapse is in reality a slow-moving tragedy. The true crumbling began 3-4 years ago when the US and its allies in NATO started to draw down their presence, opening up space for the Taliban to fill. It was estimated that by 2018 the Taliban was openly-active in 70% of Afghanistan, so they simply waited their time, salami slicing the country. Amongst foriegn military commanders, the collapse was no surprise. For, the Afghan army is ⅛ the size of the US, yet has far more Generals; a sign of the competing ethnic groups, who have all sought recognition and their slice of the pie.
Biden will receive a lot of criticism for its sudden withdrawal a few weeks ago, and rightly so. But the truth is this interventionist error has been commonplace for the great powers for a long, long time from the Persians, Mongols to the Soviets. For the US, even going back to the Korean War, it took another 30 years before Korea became a democracy, and in that time the US was happy to support an autocrat. Vietnam of course is commonly known. In short, its values rarely cross the seas
The Iraq War in 1991 was ironically probably the smartest so far avoiding carving up a divided Iraq and merely bringing an autocratic Kuwaiti Royal Family back to power. It is the second Iraq war, the Invasion in 2003 which was not only a societal disaster, but also set the template for Afghanistan. You might remember the original invasion of Afghanistan was about capturing Osama bin Laden. After 9 years of searching, Osama was then not surprisingly finally found where?… in Pakistan. In the meantime the US attempted to reshape Afghanistan, pouring money into institutions and ineffective systems in a country that has never been systematic, had always had its warlords, and yet ironically, only now Afghanistan will become united and systematic under one central power: the Taliban.
In the end, the US wanted out of its war, depressingly called The War of Afghanistan rather than for it. While this defeat for the US and the liberal values is painful, I don’t expect them to learn much from it. It’s really a defeat for the hopes and future of the ordinary people in the towns and villages of Afghanistan.