America’s 20 years in Afghanistan interrupted an internal story already in progress, the latest of many such interruptions.
Before the Americans, there were the Soviets, before the Soviets, the British. And the ongoing story they keep interrupting was always the same: the cultural struggle between two ideas of Afghanistan: between inward-looking rural Afghanistan, the culture of the villages, and outward-facing urban Afghanistan embodied most importantly by Kabul.
When the Soviets attacked Afghanistan, they used Kabul as their base. What they did to rural Afghanistan throughout the 1980s was a crime of horrific and historic scale: it eviscerated virtually the entire countryside, it led to a ghastly civil war, and it drove over 7 million refugees, almost all of them women and children, into refugee camps.
The Taliban of today’s Afghanistan are the children of those camps, all grown up now. When they took over Afghanistan in 1996, they cast a pall of darkness over the land. Those were damaged men filled with rage. And when the U.S. and its allies drove those Taliban out, Kabul and its environs were euphoric. I know. I was there in 2002. I felt, as did everyone I met, that America had come to save Afghanistan, that the war was finally over.
Recently, I heard someone plaintively say, “America’s not the only bad guy here.” I submit that looking for “the bad guy here” is pointless now. Most of the Americans who got involved in the project to save Afghanistan were good guys; they tried to do good things there and did do good things—they built schools, they helped liberate and empower women, they restored Kabul, they put in vital infrastructure.
But all along, something was going wrong, and as the years went on, it went more and more wrong. Today, people are saying the withdrawal was botched, it should have been done differently. But differently how? The problem isn’t the withdrawal, it’s the 20 years that led to this withdrawal being the only option.
In 2002, America and its allies in the West came to Afghanistan with three assets: military power, flabbergasting amounts of money, and “a better culture.” I put that last in quotes because one is always on slippery ground when one says “my culture is better than your culture.” The Bush-Cheney crowd exploited the women’s issue cynically to rally the public to a war fought for other and meaner reasons. By going to war with that banner they locked themselves into “Changing Afghan Culture” as their cause. And many Afghans, including me, wanted to see the changes America wanted to bring.
In order for a culture to change, however, the culture must want to change. The instruments the Western powers brought to bear for “fixing” Afghan culture were mainly guns and dollars. Unfortunately, guns and dollars aren’t very good instruments for changing a culture. The mechanisms dropped onto Afghanistan by the West after 2002, the democratic apparatus, the civil institutions, the new rules and regulations, inspired people who already wanted those changes—the people of my Afghanistan, progressive urban Afghanistan. But they alienated and estranged people who weren’t already wanting those changes.
Over the last 20 years, Kabul, Herat and the largest northern cities moved forward socially; the rest of the country moved the other way, I fear. Especially given the influx of Islamist radicals from outside the country who met the Western narrative —“democracy! elections! women’s rights! secular schooling!”—bwith a counter-narrative of their own, which was more instantly recognizable and resonant to most Afghans outside the cities: “Home! family! tribe! Islam! Quran! our land! Afghan pride!”
When the Trump administration started negotiating with the Taliban in Qatar but pointedly left the Kabul government out of the talks, most Afghans understood that the fix was in: America was throwing Kabul to the wolves. With that gesture, the Trump administration was blatantly saying, forget that government in Kabul, that’s not the real government, let’s stop pretending. At that moment, the Trump administration’s line exactly echoed what the Taliban had been saying all along: there is no Afghan government in Kabul, those are just a bunch of puppets shilling for the Americans.
How could the Kabul government exercise any credible authority after that betrayal?
The official reports claimed that the U.S. and NATO had helped the Afghan government in Kabul build a mighty army, but they were merely counting the number of men in uniform, the number of guns those men had, and the amount of expert training they had received in using that military machinery. Were those really fighters, or were they just guys collecting paychecks for a day job?
A real army is the fighting force of a culture. A culture is an interconnectivity among people that enables a sense of identity among them, a sense of peoplehood. The American intervention had produced a government in Kabul that many Afghans, even in Kabul, didn’t emotionally recognize as their own; elections had not stoked an emotional connection of that sort. The army that the U.S. and NATO intervention brought into being didn’t have anyone to fight for.
Red flags were already in evidence when I visited Afghanistan in 2012. That year saw a worrisome rise in the phenomenon termed “green-on-blue killings.” In that period, from time to time and with increasing frequency, soldiers in the Afghan army would suddenly turn their guns on their officers or trainers. Apparently, some 14% of the casualties suffered by the International Security Assistance Forces in 2012 resulted from green-on-blue attacks.
That year, on the way into Kabul, I met some young men — urban fellows all — who told me there was no such thing as the Taliban. “All the sabotage you hear about? It’s really the Americans setting off those bombs. They blow something up and say ‘the Taliban did it,’ and use that as an excuse to send their troops in. Slowly, slowly, they’re moving their troops in everywhere.”
I knew this to be untrue; but if this was what city people were saying, what were people saying out in the rural areas, where the Islamist insurgency was gathering strength?
In Kabul that year, I also met a police officer who showed me the American-made gun he’d been issued. It was made of some lightweight synthetic material he found suspicious. He told me he was pretty sure it was built to stop working when the Americans invaded Afghanistan directly. This was a catastrophe he actually believed was coming.
The Afghan national government supposedly numbered over 200,000 troops at this point, but I had to wonder: If they were all like that policeman, whose army was it, really? Maybe the national government didn’t really have any army at all.
When I visited Afghanistan right after the fall of the Taliban in 2002, the physical devastation I saw was flabbergasting: at least a third of Kabul had been reduced to rubble by the civil wars that followed the Soviet withdrawal. That year, when I visited the neighborhood of my childhood, I couldn’t tell which pile of rubble had been my house.
Yet somehow the culture was still alive — some feeling I got of an Afghan soul. I’m a secular guy, so I don’t want to gush about this, and culture is too subtle to be communicated in a few sentences. So I will only report the experience I had of arriving in Kabul, that visceral feeling of a social atmosphere that permeated every conversation I entered into. There was something I recognized here from decades ago: something that still felt like home.
When I went back 10 years later, the city had been rebuilt, the physical reconstruction was flabbergasting, but that visceral sense of an Afghan culture? That was eerily absent.
Today, we grieve the disaster unfolding in the wake of the U.S. and NATO military withdrawal, but we shouldn’t dismiss and forget the 20 years that led to this. Somehow, during that time, even as schools were built, women empowered, elections held, infrastructure restored, something ugly was growing and gaining power in that other Afghanistan, the one I wasn’t born into.
Why did the countryside remain so recalcitrant? Why were they not happy with the brave new Afghanistan that we of the West were building? I think it’s because they did not recognize themselves in it. It was somebody else’s Afghanistan, not theirs.
And that’s the tragedy, because I have to believe that, deep down, rural and urban Afghanistan are not two different entities, this is one family at war with itself. This war cannot really end, I fear, until we find each other and become one family again, find a way to come together as Afghans, one and indivisible.
Tamim Ansary is a San Francisco Afghan American author whose books include “Games Without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan.” His latest work, “The Invention of Yesterday,” explores world history as an interaction among global narratives.