Afghanistan: the war on an Islamist-permissive culture
A bad outcome
The harrowing scenes of the West’s departure from Afghanistan provide the clearest demonstration of the failures of the coalition’s presence. Lacking any form of co-ordinated plan, bereft of sufficient local understanding to determine the potency of the Taliban, and completely lacking in any credible form of support from the institutions it sought to protect, the West showed how it does not, and can not, understand Afghanistan.
Compounding the feeling of helplessness is the fact that deep down we all know that the West reneging their agreement to withdraw would, at this point, add to the lack of direction and the chaos. If the West did not have a strategy when it committed to Afghanistan, and after a multitude of years was not able to read the situation on the ground with a credible degree of accuracy, how could it abruptly devise a coherent plan to stay in a country it had fully committed to leaving? The ship may have struck an iceberg, but it has been heading towards it for a long time. A late turn was not going to change the outcome; if anything, the resumption of war would only make things worse.
Right to Leave?
Any action by a sovereign state should have an objective. In the case of the war in Afghanistan, the objective was to remove the Islamist terrorist threat to the West. The obvious, easier first stage was to remove the Islamist ruling party (the Taliban) who had allowed al-Qa’ida to grow its operations within Afghanistan. The much more difficult, and much less discussed, second stage for achieving a successful occupation was to dismantle the cultural, social and political Islamic fundamentalist environment that was permissive to Islamist terrorist forces, or at least to provide a solid base for a more liberal ideology to grow from.
When phrased in this manner, it is easier to see how the West failed with the second stage, and how they were always going to fail (without remaining in the country for perhaps 100 years at least). Women’s education, increased trade, strong national healthcare and a military; these were all only objectives in that Western forces believed these institutions would ultimately, by inference, nudge the country’s citizens towards more liberal values and to turn away from allowing extremist political masters to assume control.
The West’s war in Afghanistan hit its natural socio-cultural/political barriers as soon as the first stage of the war was complete, after the Taliban was swiftly deposed by coalition forces in December 2001. The logic seemed to be that the Afghani people simply needed to see, and be told of, the benefits of a pluralistic, democratic society in order to turn away from providing fertile grounds for jihadi violence and terrorism. The West was waiting for a society to undergo a drastic shift meaning it had, broadly, two options: change from the top, or from the bottom (note: naturally a blend of these options were utilised, however I believe that highlighting these two choices helps to understsand the ultimate failure in Afghanistan).
Top Down Change
The first was to build societal change from the top down through the creation of civil society, a national police force, national army, representative politics, and other modern, nation-focused institutions. This method relies on co-opting the elite and creating a form of middle class in whose interests it is to maintain the system.
The cost of fast-forwarding such a change can only be astronomical. Where no intrinsic popular support for such institutions exist, because they are alien to a, in this instance tribal, population, or because the elite will always be tempted by other, stronger or more relevant forces such as their deeply-felt religion or differing social norms, the cost and impetus for implementing these structures rests on outside forces.
Beyond using pure force against innocents in order to get them to adhere to new rules, which clearly goes against the values the West was trying to inclucate, costs to enact change in this way include hard cash, loans, the transfer of experienced staff from abroad, military lives, turning a blind eye to corruption, working with people who simply don’t want change, and in the case of Afghanistan, working with corrupt local warlords and tribal militias. It relies on building a huge, self-reinforcing network of trust, which can only be built over time through situations where the respective institutions are tested and come out stronger. Not only does this take time, but it also cannot cover vast amounts of distance at pace; it is difficult enough to begin trusting your tribal rival over 5 or 10 years, let alone to trust people from a region a hundreds miles away to you which is alien to you, but is supposed to consist of your countrymen.
As we have seen through the rapid collapse, the creation of an institution such as a national military or police force takes a considerable amount of time to build legitimacy and resilience; 20 years of support resulted in minimal fightback when faced with the simple tools of bribery and physical force utilised by the Taliban.
Ground Up Change
The second option is to push cultural change from the ground up, by going directly to the people. Yet the difference between a citizen of the coalition and the Afghani tribesperson could not be more different. Put simply, the West’s insistence on its own social and cultural norms and values have limited room in Afghani tribal culture, no matter how idealistic our vision is. The scrap for survival in disparate, isolated mountain villages requires its own thought and values, and without huge national infrastructure investments to connect these regions and build a nation, or growth of GDP in multiples in order to create an attractive economy for people to aspire to work in and be a part of, this is unlikely to change.
This is why poorly governed, low income and isolated regions are easy pickings for an ultra-conservative group such as the Taliban, or any extremist group around the world— they lay down a law; a harsh one, but one where everyone knows the rules (familiar as they are through a blend of existing religious and social customs) and a very basic level of security, and social status, is guaranteed by the enforcement of these rules. While we know that entrusting the extremists for security will likely rapidly turn sour, we have to acknowledge that for many, religious extremists often initially appear as beacons of hope to broken and crippled communities. It is their firmness, deep-set belief, and their claims to abide by a set of culturally adapted rules that individuals respond to.
Even if the West decided to embark on the monumental task of enforcing its culture on the Afghani people in more overt ways, it would always remain vulnerable as the outside force looking in. This brought its own, major challenges, as in such circumstances it becomes incredibly easy for the local to dismiss the outsider as an invader.
Embedded religions and cultures do not change in 20 years, nor do they even change much in 100 years. Rarely are there forms of religion such as the current brand of fundamentalist Islam, which fuses the spiritual and the political. This only makes it even more difficult to shift the dial.
Furthermore, without local or regional support for cultural change, especially where it is deeply embedded by an institution such as religion, such input is incredibly unlikely to result in success. A major stumbling block proved to be Afghanistan’s most influential neighbour, Pakistan, which has somehow managed to both appease the West and fatally undermine it. Pakistan’s adherence to its own form of Islamic fundamentalism has not provided any breathing room for the West to make the type of progress in Afghanistan that would make such fundamentalism unappealing. Due to their advantage of social and cultural proximity, and therefore the stronger starting point, Pakistan was able to, at much less cost, ‘top up’ the values that it wished to promote by tapping in to existing networks. This was not a luxury afforded to the West.
Granted, the somewhat confused strategy was seemingly to provide some form of security and space for a different culture to develop. Half-heartedly, elements of both the bottom down, and more so the top-down strategies, were enforced. But without wholesale commitment (likely to the detriment of the citizens in coalition countries), and vastly greater cost, neither strategy was going to achieve the second objective of truly and sustainably changing nation-wide mindsets (beyond Kabul, certainly) within the next few decades.
The Taliban have now re-taken power. Only time will tell whether this is a different Taliban to that which was deposed in 2001. The signs indicate that the Taliban remains the same. Yet the military war was not lost; it was the political game which was lost. The Taliban knows too well the strength of the Western forces. Too well do they also note the threat coming from IS-KP. Their careful communications betray their sense of caution and desire to at least outwardly appease to the Western.
While women’s education and a true civil society will likely regress, it has been developed to a level that would have not been imaginable 21 years previously. The West now has a form of unexpected power and influence over a Taliban that is desperate for international credibility. The next twenty years will not be decided by the Taliban, but by how the people of Afghanistan, its neighbouring countries, and the West respond to the Taliban’s actions.
It was absolutely right to respond to the threat posed after 9/11. It was wrong to not dedicate a greater amount of resource in the early stages and truly commit to influencing the country and its neighbours. The actions, or lack of actions, over the last few years, and the near on impossibility of meeting the second objective of this war, however, have meant that it was broadly right to leave. Whilst it would likely have been desirable to maintain some form of minimal military peace-keeping presence, ultimately, it was clear that the appetite for Afghanistan, and thus a commitment to dedicate real resources for change, had disappeared in the voting populations of the coalition a long time ago.