While a young university lecturer in London in the 90s, I taught many students from influential families across the world. Salman (a pseudonym), came from an affluent Saudi family. He once told me about a maternal uncle, Osama bin Laden, who had become the black sheep of the family. Their grandfather had emigrated from Yemen and his good fortune had led him into favour with the wise old King Faisal. The king gave the Bin Ladens the biggest construction contracts in Saudi Arabia, bringing them untold wealth. Theirs was a gilded and gentrified world. Osama was expelled from the Kingdom for leading a plot to bring down the House of Saud. He later joined the Mujaheddin who were fighting the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan. Most of it didn’t make much sense to me until the tragedy of 9/11 which made Osama bin Laden a household across the world.
Another young student that I took under my wings was Princess Alia (again, a pseudonym), granddaughter of the deposed king of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah (1914-2007). Alia was a beautiful and sensitive young woman. The royal household fled to Italy, where Princess Alia was born. She was always proud to be Afghan, a country I knew close to nothing about. After the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001, Afghanistan was a country I could no longer ignore.
Afghanistan is a central Asian country with a predominantly mountainous landmass of 652,864 km2 and a population of 32.9 million. It shares borders with Iran on the West, Pakistan on the east and south, and by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan on the north; with the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China on the north east. Afghanistan is a poor country with a GDP of $21.7 billion and a per capita income of $493. It is largely a Muslim country, with some 99.7% as adherents of that faith. Contrary to what many believe, it is a heterogeneous country. There are 14 ethnic communities — Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Balochis, Turkmens, Nooristanis, Pamiris, Arabs, Gujars, Brahuis, Qizilbash, Aimaq and Pashai. While a majority are Sunni Muslims, there are also sizeable communities of Sufi and Shiite Muslim adherents.
In pursuit of its so-called “War on Terror”, America invaded Afghanistan and drove away the Taliban from power. For 18 years, America fought the Taliban on land and from the air. Americans were to discover that the Taliban are tenacious fighters for whom warfare has become a way of life. The heaviest aerial bombardments could not “smoke them” from the treacherous mountains, caves and ravines that dominate the Afghan landscape. The United States has lost more than 2,300 of its military personnel, with more than 20,000 others wounded. It has been estimated that more than 500,000 Afghans have perished in this cauldron – government military forces, Taliban fighters and ordinary civilians — have been killed or wounded. America has spent more than a $1 trillion on the Afghan war.
Ever since 2001, succeeding American Presidents had looked to the day when the Afghan government in Kabul would be strong enough to stand on its two feet and to allow Washington to withdraw its forces. It was therefore a great shock that after the American withdrawal last month, the Afghan government collapsed precipitately. The President, Ashraf Ghani, fled to Dubai, allegedly with a humongous fortune, while the military capitulated without firing a shot. He had even co-authored a book with a British political scientist, on state building, aptly entitled, (Ashraf Ghani & Clare Lockhart, “Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World,” Oxford University Press, 2009). Ashraf Ghani was a well-educated and highly westernised technocrat with a doctorate in Anthropology from Columbia University. He was a tenured professor at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He later worked for the United Nations and served as a consultant for the World Bank.
But something always warned me that this man is a wimp. Under him, the country was blighted by corruption and the drugs business. The institutions of state remained weak. The greatest sages have warned that a prophet unarmed is a dead one. Governing a stiff-necked people such as the Afghans requires both enlightenment and superior force. He should never have allowed the so-called “repentant Taliban” to be enrolled in the regular army; a mistake we are already making with Boko Haram in Nigeria. The so-called “repentant Taliban” benefitted not only from better training with the regular army; but also as insiders who under-studied the weakness of the regular army, the better to defeat it. And now they will inherit the massive arsenals left behind by the fleeing Americans.
There are many who dismiss the American effort as a disaster. Lest we forget, America’s hegemonic power was central to the post-war recovery of Europe. Through the Marshall Plan, America shored up the war-torn nations of Western Europe; helping them to recover economically while building viable democratic states that could withstand the onslaught of communism. America helped in rebuilding Japan after 1945, including the drafting of a new Japanese constitution that outlawed war itself. After the Korean War (1950-1953), the US again played a crucial role in South Korea’s post-war economic recovery and in laying the institutions of a strong and effective state that restored hope to a fractured nation.
The current failures accompanying American state-building enterprises are a relatively recent phenomenon. American intervention has left disastrous outcomes in Iraq, Libya and now, in Afghanistan today. It is a result of a tragic cognitive dissonance between understanding and the realities on the ground; between ambition and hubris. The West have never really understood the Muslim world, least of all Afghans; a people who value their extremist ideologies more than life itself; and who are prepared to wage a war for entire century to achieve their ambitions.
In the words of the distinguished LSE Arabist, Elie Kedourie, “Be it sufficient for the present to record that these things are evil. That persecutors and persecuted, hunters and hunted are in the grip of the powers of darkness. It is enough to elucidate how this came to pass, for the story can at least have this moral, that the consequences of action are incalculable, and that out of the desire to do good, good may not in fact ensue.”
With the benefit of hindsight, the Afghan war was perhaps unwinnable from Day One. The country has been the graveyard of ambitious military commanders and adventurers from the Mughal Emperors of India to Ghengis Khan, Timur and the Soviets of the 20th century. Geopolitically, Afghanistan stands at the strategic crossroads between Central Asia and South Asia. Any world power that controls that treacherous landmass is likely to have mastery over much of Asia.
The return of the Taliban today is bad news for the Afghan people and bad news for the rest of the world. In killing Osama bin Laden in May 2011, America only cut the tail of the serpent while the head and body have been left intact. The New Taliban are going to be stronger and more confident than the old. They have already announced their intention to govern with a more rabid form of Sharia law. They have already ordered women to leave the universities, colleges and schools. They are systematically decimating Christians and adherents of other faiths. They have sent strong warnings that they will join their brethren in Nigeria to enforce Sharia throughout our country and the rest of our glorious continent. We must sharpen our swords and wait for them.
The German sociologist, Max Weber, anticipated such dark times when he had his bleak prophecies long ago: “Ahead of us is not the bloom of summer, but, rather, a polar night of icy darkness and hardness, no matter which group may triumph externally now”. Weber went ahead to warn that what we must not do is capitulate through a “dumb acceptance” of the world and our place in it. Our lives, our liberties and our land are our most sacred possessions. Those who want to dispossess us of these must be regarded as enemies forever. If they are prepared to fight for a century, we at the receiving must arm ourselves and our children to fight them for a thousand years. America must also quarantine them back into the Stone Age.