It seems that the long-running 20 year military campaign in Afghanistan has come to an abrupt end, creating huge apprehension for what might come next. Those in Afghanistan who have been active in supporting the US/UK backed governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani fear for the future of the country. Some fear for their lives under the new Taliban regime.
My first visit to Kabul was in 1999 and the city was a miserable place. It was greatly depopulated and economically depressed following years of war. At the time there were two million refugees in Pakistan and a further one million in Iran. Kabul was unlike any other capital city I had visited. There was no music, no sports, and Taliban police with sticks were very much in evidence. Men (mostly) and women were on the streets for shopping and essential business only. They stopped to talk on street corners as most of the cafes were shut.
The Taliban came to power in 1996 having proven themselves to be an effective fighting force. For many the Taliban provided a welcome period of stability largely bringing an end to civil war that had plagued the county for decades. Three years on, there was still some fighting taking place in a few areas. For international staff in the aid agency for which I worked at the time, security was the number one priority as we travelled into rural areas. Our educated Afghan women staff, including doctors and other health professionals, wore the Burqa in Kabul although not necessarily in towns and villages outside. Outside of Kabul there was great poverty but more stability than had there had been for many years.
I returned to Kabul in 2003 after the US had deposed the Taliban and the contrast in the city could not have been greater. The traffic jams were now terrible but were a visible sign of what might pass for a new normality. Hundreds of thousands of residents had returned bringing with them their skills and money to support a thriving community. The streets were full of life and children were flying kites again.
But to understand Afghanistan you have to appreciate the contrast between the urban centres and the rest of the country. On this visit we travelled to a rural province in the centre of the country. (In later years, as security deteriorated further, such areas would become off-limits to international NGO staff unless travelling with the army.) We talked with a District Administrator where our agency was managing a UN World Food Programme relief initiative. The district had 20 schools of which only one admitted girls. This was not the result of Taliban polices but was a feature of the traditional conservative attitudes inherent in the area for decades. It was also due to the reality that it was extremely difficult to recruit teachers to work in such remote and depressed rural areas. With our support, the number of schools admitting girls would initially be increased from one to three (this would have been impossible under the Taliban regime two years earlier). This was a compromise worked out with the local education committee.
Governance in Afghanistan has always been devolved to the local level and if you cannot influence that, you cannot govern. Local politics involve recognised traditional leaders and also warlords who dominate the local economy through their business interests and can afford to employ small private armies.
In 2003 it was not obvious to me, or to other NGO staff, that the senior US/UK military officials with whom we liaised fully appreciated the complexity of the local politics that held sway outside of the towns. The United States government intervened militarily while simultaneously stating that it was not in the business of ‘nation-building’. The Bush administration acknowledged that nation-building was a task for Afghans themselves. But the one aspect of ‘nation-building’ that has been attempted by the US and UK is the building of a national military that is capable of imposing control. This has clearly failed as the Taliban has grown more adept at fighting a well-equipped national army.
We are now left debating whether the military intervention was worthwhile and at what point the Western-backed strategy went wrong. Much blame will be directed towards Presidents Trump and Biden for their abandonment of the Afghan people, when in reality it is the ‘top-down’ strategy behind foreign humanitarian and military intervention that needs to be questioned.
The worst of all scenarios for the future of Afghanistan would be a new civil conflict that would inevitably lead to further summary executions, fighting and widespread displacement. Sadly, the take-over by the Taliban will inevitably turn back the freedoms that people have experienced in recent years and inhibit the opportunities for women and girls. But it is now incumbent on the Taliban of 2021 to demonstrate that they are not the Taliban of 1999 who executed women and men in Ghazi Stadium in Kabul. They must be willing to work collaboratively with those with whom they do not agree if they are to get beyond ‘rule by the gun’. This is a tall order, and we pray for the many Afghans who fear the worst. We pray too for regional powers as well as governments of the UK, US and others who must try to achieve a united front to constrain the Taliban and encourage freedoms, stability and equality under law.
Our denominations have released statements and prayers on the situation in Afghanistan. You can read these here: