So what was it all about?
So, after nearly 20 years, Afghanistan has turned a full circle. 20 years of a deeply troubled history end in turmoil and personal danger for many. It is just 13 days to the 20th anniversary of the attacks on America which began that latest phase in the country’s history.
20 years ago America was still in turmoil too. George W Bush had been elected by a narrow, dubious majority. It all depended on which imperfectly-punched ballot papers could be counted, and the election process had continued for weeks. Nobody could really be certain who had won and the legitimacy of the President was seriously weakened by the confusion.
On 11th September that all changed. In one respect, the events of that awful day were a gift for the President. He could be the defender of his nation against a heinous external threat. In a huge wave of shock and patriotic outrage, Americans forgot their questions about whether they should support their leader. Suddenly, he became their patriotic hero leading them on to victory against a monstrous enemy — “Terror”.
Except, many thinking people around the world observed, rather than reducing terror, war was likely to increase it. The terror might not come from the same source if that were neutralised, but the destabilised world would surely be a more terrifying place than it had previously been.
Stopping to consider the issues it was prudent to ask “What was Al Quaeda hoping to achieve?” In the eyes of victims that might be seen as signalling their power and the helplessness of decent people to resist them, just throwing their weight about but, of course, that was naïve. Revolutionary groups of all kinds are much more strategic than that. The attacks on America were a provocation. They were intended to provoke a reaction, and if that is true we needed to ask; “What kind of reaction are they hoping for?” Therein lies the clue. It should have been obvious to all they wanted America to start throwing its weight around in a manner which many would see, and others could be led to see, as overbearing, dictatorial, and intolerant. The Islamists could portray themselves as victims of an indescriminate militarised persecution. They could portray America and its allies as bullies. They could recruit sympathetic people to join their fight, and sympathetic business leaders to support them financially. There would be victims caught in the crossfire who might also be recruited. There would be increased confusion around the world which they could exploit. Most of all, they would provoke Western nations to abandon their values in defence of those same values. For the response of most of America’s allies was to tighten security and reduce freedom and increase surveillance. Citizens became a little less free. The Rule of Law and the notion of a suspect being innocent until proved otherwise also went, as drones targetted suspects and people were detained with no prospect of a trial. There is nothing a revolutionary likes more than to delegitimise the forces of order by bringing them down to their own level, so it was no doubt music to the ears of the terrorists to hear bombs falling on Afghanistan and know their enemies looked just as much like indiscriminate killers as they did themselves.
Trying to impose a new democratic system on a country which has never known it is fraught with problems, not least the natural tendency of people used to needing to look after their own interests to misuse democratic structures to that end. Corruption becomes rife. Imposing democracy is a bit like making freedom compulsory: it has an oxymoronic quality. Democracy has to be desired. People have to make it themselves. There’s no universally accepted definition. Every country needs its own constitution, devised by its own people to suit their own needs and values. An attempt by an outsider to decide what is good for people will at best provide them a system they do not own and will exploit, and at worst just fail completely.
That said, it’s probably not true that Afghans prefer the Taliban either. They are also largely imposed from outside, funded and armed by sympathisers in other more prosperous nations, but they are what they are and there’s no point trying to change something that isn’t our business to change. Surely, foreign powers, including those who’ve funded the Taliban, have messed Afghanistan up enough.
Our democracy took a thousand years to evolve. Others are founded in revolutions and consciously-devised constitutions which act as the founding law from which all others derive their authority. The processes are different, and so are the results. Societies develop an equilibrium between powers within them. That balance will shift a little as different forces come to bear. Written constitutions can prove too rigid. They cement the values of one age into a permanent structure which can impede progress. The Americans are stuck with their gun culture because it is a constitutional right for an American to have one unless there’s a very good reason to refuse. Most other countries (very sensibly) put that test the other way round; it is assumed the average citizen has no right to own a gun unless there’s a good reason for them to have it. The result is a safer, less violent society, where views can be debated without the fear Americans seem to take for granted, and it can make politics less angry, because the issues, rather than the lives of the debaters, are what’s at stake.
So what next for the Taliban in Afghanistan? Well, to start with there will be carnage and terrible injustice, as people who’ve done nothing more than try to serve their country and fellow people are mercilessly rounded up and tortured or killed. Then there will be tyranny as the Taliban seek to consolidate their hold on power. People will be rigorously controlled and life will be bleak for many, especially women, although in rural parts that has probably been true throughout anyway. Over the decades the oppression will wax and wane as different groups struggle for power. Eventually, over decades or centuries, it will evolve into whatever suits the Afghan people, for eventually, the Afghan people will enter and be integrated with their ruling elite and bend it to their understanding of what it should be. That is, unless foreigners continue to interfere, of course.