Milestones rehearse and punctuate our memories—but in the case of Afghanistan, history never had a chance to cool. Twenty years after 9/11, we are left wondering: Could we have made more of a difference? To what extent will Taliban rule oppress women and shelter future terrorists? Should we have even tried nation-building, or should we have paid more attention to Afghanistan’s nickname, the Graveyard of Empires?
To my untrained mind, the Taliban feel about as Other as you can get, extremist and remote and secretive. The world these bearded men are prepared to die for is one unlike anything in my experience. The many ethnic factions are dizzying. The rough terrain, steep mountain hideaways, and stretches of desert feel harsh and alien, and the religious tradition seems ancient and uncompromising.
Strip away the mystique, I remind myself impatiently. The Taliban is a modern creation, born in the ’90s of fighters the United States armed against the Soviets in the previous decade. For years we have heard the country’s name repeated as a hotbed of problems, but conflict in Afghanistan exists on two levels: disputes among its own ethnic groups, some of which are Sunni and some Shia, and comic-book-crude clashes between superpowers, zapping each other like Godzilla and King Kong above the mountain peaks. Those with a stake in the current chaos? Us, our allies, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan—and oh, yeah, Afghanistan. Whose problems are rarely confined to its boundaries.
As for the ancient, rigid religious principles I imagine animating the Taliban, they took this particular shape relatively recently, in the late nineteenth century. A group of Muslim scholars banded together in Deoband, India. Worried that British occupation was corrupting Islam and that British soldiers were targeting Muslims, they opened an Islamic seminary (madrassa) to teach the purest tenets of the faith. The Deobandists were fundamentalist, but they were not hostile to other religious traditions; they participated in debates with Christian and Hindu scholars, and they fought alongside non-Muslims to end the British rule.
Their dream became reality in the late 1940s, and after the 1947 partitioning of British India, many Deobandists moved to Pakistan. Their practice found adherents on both sides of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it was embraced by the Pashtuns, the ethnic group that tends to wind up ruling Afghanistan.
Now cut to Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world named for a family. The House of Saud united scattered, ever-shifting peoples into a kingdom by forging an alliance with another revivalist, fundamentalist movement: Wahhabism. Like the Deobandists, Wahhabists focused on stripping away cultural elaborations to return to Islam’s earliest teachings. But extremist Wahhabists were willing to use violence to restore a seventh-century world.
Resentful of the various ways Islam has been culturally influenced in diaspora, the Saudis see themselves as the keepers of the pure faith. In the ’70s, they began pouring money—and Wahhabist influence—into madrassas all over the world, including the Deoband schools that dot the borderline between Afghanistan and Pakistan. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, a resistance formed fast, with backing from the United States and from Saudi Arabia. And it was from those schools along the border that the mujahideen (“holy warriors”) pulled young Pashtuns to fight.
Krister Knapp, a teaching professor in history at Washington University who focuses on national security and foreign policy, wryly notes the global details: The weapons we sent “came from China and Egypt and were Soviet-made, so that the United States could not be accused of selling American weapons to the Soviet enemy. This was a covert mission—the Soviets were not supposed to know the Americans were using proxy forces to fight them.”
The CIA was in charge of Operation Cyclone, said to be one of the longest, most successful, and most costly covert operations it had ever run. Its risible, semi-tragic place in the Guinness Book of World Records lacks documentation, Knapp says; the CIA does not release its logbooks “and is rumored to have its own black budget.” But the larger point is that “the Afghans were pawns in a larger geopolitical struggle for power. The mujahideen cut their teeth in the Soviet-Afghanistan clash that became a holy war. In Afghanistan, it was seen as an invasion by a godless outside force that was threatening Islam. But for us, it was the Soviets versus the U.S.—and a great chance to kick the Soviets in the teeth by getting them bogged down in their own Vietnam. Remember, it’s the Cold War. So these are really superpower battles—and then microbattles on the ground.”
After driving out the Soviets, the mujahideen organized into the Taliban (the word means “students”) and won control of most of the country. Last month, a Taliban leader surprised us—and raised hope of a peaceful Afghanistan—by stating, “We don’t want Wahhabism in Afghanistan.” Analysts are still not sure what to make of this, given the extent to which Wahhabism influenced the Taliban’s beginnings. But the Taliban needs international relationships. Roughly half of the Afghan population lives near or below the poverty line. The country’s main industry is agriculture, yet there is little farmable land, leaving heroin as the main industry. We tried persuading Afghan farmers to trade poppies for cotton—which yielded less than a third of the revenue. Now, the Taliban is “inheriting a broken, bankrupt, empty country with no civil servants,” Knapp says. “Can they govern? They are going to need massive help right away. Enter Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, bad actors who have no interest in human rights.”
China wants the Taliban to control the Uyghurs in the northeast. “North Korea, my guess is they might help just to stick it to the West,” Knapp continues. “They don’t have a lot to spare right now, but they are known supplier of conventional weaponry to rogue states.” Russia wants a stable Afghanistan that does not create problems at its borders. The Shia Iranians? The Taliban, who are Sunni, “are their sworn enemies. But they might give a little bit of cover and support to the Taliban for now: ‘If you stop at the border, we won’t monkey with you.’”
As for the United States, the Taliban wants nothing from us except our absence, and we agree. “Despite their differences, there’s been constancy across the past three administrations,” Knapp says. “‘We need to shift to China. That’s where our concerns are. We need to be worried about cyber and AI and a rising China and a pesky Russia and a nuclear-armed North Korea. It’s time to exit and not look back.’ Which would be a huge mistake. I’ve spent a lot of time studying counterterrorism, and on all the encrypted platforms, most of the chatter is now, Hey, forget Syria, Syria’s frozen and locked up. Afghanistan is the place to go. I’ll meet you in Jalalabad. You will see thousands of militant Islamists flood into Afghanistan and try to set up shop. It has porous borders, and terrorism thrives in weak states.”
True, but it is the strong states that tug terrorism this way or that. Especially in Afghanistan, which has been forced to define itself in relation to the rest of us. More than a graveyard, it has been a crossroads, Knapp reminds me. “Every major empire—Moguls, Mongols, Turks, Persians, Greeks—has tried to occupy that region, subduing Afghanistan while they fight one another. In the end, they all have to leave.”
Thereby creating a vacuum for the next set of comic-book giants to do battle in the sky, high above the Afghan dead, while, the country’s own factions fight on the ground, and the terrorists gather.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.