There’s no need for me to recount the events that have taken place in Kabul this past weekend. By now, the whole internet is splattered with them from end to end. Suffice it to say that the phrase “Saigon 2.0” neatly sums up what just happened – and what a lot of people knew in advance was going to happen – and what a few people knew for almost twenty whole years was going to happen.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, then you’ll probably have taken note of my intense disapproval of twentieth century America’s informal abandonment of representative democracy. My belief is basically that the regime has retained the outer appearance of the old ways, while changing its substance; in other words, elected offices like Congress and the Presidency continue to exist, but are reduced to mainly ceremonial roles, while the real decision-making is done elsewhere.
And if I believe that the loss of once-strong democratic institutions here in the United States was a disaster, then perhaps it follows that democracy, or voting, or popular consent, or something along those lines, is the test of a government’s legitimacy.
Except that it isn’t quite that simple. I do indeed like representative democracy. And I believe that in the Anglo-American culture that birthed it, and in other cultures where, from time to time, it has flourished, representative democracy has a good track record of producing governments that people can trust to defend their traditional rights and liberties.
Yet there is nothing magical about majorities that qualifies them to rule. If you went to some wild and barbarous nation with no experience of democracy, and told them that you were about to impose a great new system of government, and that the way this system worked was that the faction that got 51 percent of the votes could do whatever it wanted to do and the faction that got 49 percent just had to submit, what do you expect would happen? Well, anyone who was worried about not ending up on the side of the 51 percent would resist your imposition with weapon in hand.
Nevertheless, in some countries, democracy has a long history of working well, because in some countries, the 49 percent and the 51 percent have a lot ideas in common about what the rights and duties of a citizen are, and the factions trust each other to keep defending those ideas even when a new party comes to power. And that common basis of trust, combined with the accountability mechanism of regular elections, will often provide a country with the highest quality of government than can be achieved within the limits of human nature.
But that raises an important question – perhaps the most important question, as far as Afghanistan is concerned. What happens if the authorities that the people trust the most are not democratic?
What if, for example, the entity which the greatest part of a country’s inhabitants trust to stand up for their rights, and preserve their ancestral laws and customs, is a hereditary ruling house? We shouldn’t consider it strange if they do; after all, most of the societies in recorded history have thought that way.
What is the difference between a king and a tyrant? A monarch and a dictator? Surely, to be a tyrant, a ruler must act in such a way that his subjects feel tyrannized; at the very least he must give them reason to feel tyrannized. Yet most people who have lived under kings haven’t felt that way about their kings. In fact, they were usually quite eager to spill their blood in the service of their king – whenever a foreign king appeared on the horizon to challenge his power.
Tyrants and dictators exist, to be sure. We all know, for example, about Henry VIII, who forcibly converted his entire kingdom to a strange religion so that he could marry his mistress, and then beheaded her less than three years later. We know how he executed hundreds of recalcitrant Catholics for clinging to the faith of their fathers, and how he dissolved the monasteries that had been held sacred and inviolable since well before the Norman Conquest.
Indeed, not only Henry VIII but his entire family wielded so much erratic personal power that later historians have sometimes called their period “the Tudor Dictatorship.”
Yet on paper, Henry VIII’s power was no more or less absolute than that of Henry II, Edward I, Edward III, or any of his other highly-regarded predecessors. It was his immense egotism and his willingness to unilaterally uproot ancient laws and customs that earned him the reputation he now has. Henry II, Edward I, and Edward III didn’t behave this way; rather, when they sought to reform the laws of their kingdom, they earned their subjects’ respect through the use of power-sharing institutions like juries and parliaments.
Were these parliaments democratic by modern standards? Hardly. At first only the nobles and the clergy were represented. To someone like Edward I, a diehard pragmatist if there ever was one, this made a lot of sense – rebellions against the king only mattered when they were led by the nobles and the clergy; therefore, these were the people who needed to be given an alternative means of exerting their power.
Now all this political theorizing may seem like a very roundabout way to get to the topic of Afghanistan in 2021. But it really is important to realize that, as far as the vast majority of human cultures are concerned, a government’s legitimacy doesn’t come from having institutions that resemble what the United States has. Its legitimacy comes from the trust which its subjects place in it to deal out justice according to their own laws and customs, and to defend their traditional way of life.
Tell that to somebody from almost any camp within today’s American politics, and he or she will naturally get to thinking, “But what if their traditional laws and customs are bad?”
Which is a fair question, because the laws and customs which a government must defend in order to seem legitimate may well include things like racial segregation, witch-burning, or refusing to allow women to drive.
Which to you and me are obviously backwards and evil. Yet history is full of people who were willing to fight pretty hard to defend those customs. And the people who fought to defend segregation and witch-burning and the like felt just as righteous about their cause as you would feel if you were rebelling against a government that was trying to reinstate slavery, or restrict the franchise to people who make at least $100,000 per year, or do some other thing that strikes you as self-evidently awful.
The Americans who went to Afghanistan, being invaders, and being fairly open about their desire to turn that part of the world into something more like their own country, never could gain the respect and trust of the larger and more energetic portion of the Afghan population.
The Afghans knew that most Americans despised and looked down on their culture. They knew that, professions of benevolence aside, the military calculations of the occupying force gave a far cheaper weight to the lives of Afghan civilians than to the lives of American servicemen.
These people knew what it was like to be on the wrong end of an airstrike. They knew what it was like to have the deaths of their relatives written off as collateral damage. They knew what it was like to have their poppy fields burned in a program of economic warfare.
They knew that the new government that had been installed in 2002 was led by American puppets. And they knew that, to form this government and keep it in operation, the Americans had to ally themselves with some of the most corrupt people in the world. And I'm not just talking about bribery – how most of the monetary aid that the Americans provided was siphoned off by graftsmen to the point that US-loyal policemen often went months without getting paid.
Americans hear, from time to time, about how sex between men and boys is rampant in Afghanistan. Most Americans, not bothering to read too deeply into the matter, probably end up thinking that the Taliban (being evil and all that) is responsible. As it turns out, that isn’t the case. Bacha bazi, or “boy play” as it is casually referred to, is the norm among the forces loyal to the Karzai/Ghani government and the US-aligned warlords. American soldiers are sternly instructed to turn a blind eye to it, even when it happens on an army base.
In Taliban-held regions, bacha bazi is punishable by death. Does that make the Taliban the good guys? Certainly not from an American’s perspective. After all, these people will bomb schools in order to keep the lid down on girls’ literacy.
But consider how you would see the situation if you were an ordinary Afghan, with ordinary Afghan beliefs – that is to say, you were indifferent about whether or not your daughter ever learned to read, but as for those policemen who sodomized your son, you wished for nothing more than to see their heads on a bunch of pikes.
And that is why, after twenty years of wasted blood and treasure, America’s attempt to transplant its own culture and its own style of government into the Graveyard of Empires has been a failure, just like the Soviet attempt that began 41 years ago.
Could America’s ruling class have seen this coming? Hardly. As those people see it, their own ideologies, and theirs alone, are good and sweet and true, and trying to impose “American Values” by force has nothing at all in common with what Brezhnev did.
But to an Afghan, it’s all the same. Communism or liberalism, Brezhnev, Bush, or Biden, foreign oppression is foreign oppression, and Allah will smile upon his servants as they tear down foreign oppression and stomp it into the mud.
And in the end, the Taliban will win, because their enemies have nothing with which to match the religious zeal which has inspired them to keep on spilling their blood for the last forty years. Their enemies will buckle and yield, and retreat homeward on a trail of broken promises, leaving their horrified Afghan auxiliaries swarming behind them in a desperate attempt to flee from the wrath to come, only to decide, in the final moment, that falling out of the wheel well of a C-17 is as good a way to die as any other.
Did America have the right to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban on account of their complicity in 9/11? I say yes. There is certainly a middle ground between isolationism and nation-building.
When the Loya Jirga was summoned to set up a transitional government in 2002, Zahir Shah, the last King of Afghanistan, whose overthrow in a 1973 army coup had set his country on the road to so many evils, was easily the most popular and most trusted man in Afghanistan. A great number of Afghans wanted to return him to power, but after a bit of American arm-twisting, they ended up with Hamid Karzai instead – a man whom they generally viewed as Washington’s puppet.
Had the Americans stepped back and let Zahir Shah lead his own country, and never attempted anything so ambitious as nation-building – perhaps providing the new regime with arms and training but never getting involved with any enterprise where Afghans themselves weren’t making most of the decisions and doing most of the work – the new government might have lasted. And if it fell anyway, a lot less blood and treasure would have been wasted in the attempt.
Sometimes, it’s in one nation’s interest to support regime change in another nation. But it rarely works out in the long term unless the main impetus for the regime change comes from within. France could intervene successfully in the American Revolution because everyone knew that the Americans were still doing the majority of the fighting, and still taking orders from their own Continental Congress, which wasn’t being bossed by Louis XVI.
At this point, in Afghanistan, it’s too late for that sort of thing. It might have already been too late in 2002. In the old Afghanistan of kite running and rubab music, there were many factions vying for power – royalists and westernizers and socialists and a plethora of more or less traditional Islamic movements. Now there’s just the Taliban – none of the more moderate, less bloody-minded factions made it through the horrors of the three coups in the 1970s, the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, the civil war in the 1990s, the first Taliban government, and the present war and occupation.
What will the future look like? Well, in the short term, the Taliban will rule as they please. Already they are rebuilding their “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” They’ve decided not to repeat the “go-it-alone” strategy they tried last time, and their diplomats are doing their best to seek international recognition. They’re well on their way to a deal with China – normal diplomatic and trade relations and a piece of the New Silk Road, in exchange for a promise not to harbor anybody involved with the insurgency in Xinjiang.
The Chinese are pragmatists – they know what the future will look like, and their plans reflect that knowledge. In the past, I noticed China’s total aloofness from these Middle-Eastern wars and concluded that China must not be interested in projecting power the way that the United States, Russia, and Britain are. But it could just be that China knew the value of that tried-and-true maxim, ‘Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake.’
If Afghanistan doesn’t get invaded again, I expect the Taliban to run the country by their present ethic of dreary fundamentalism for at least the next few decades. Eventually, as popular passions cool, power will consolidate in the hands of some sort of de facto monarch, and then things will moderate.
Music and dancing will return. Women might not have to cover their faces anymore. This is what usually happens to theocratic regimes during the third generation – the leadership moderates, the original zeal subsides, and the walls that have been raised against secular influences become porous. It’s what happened in Hasmonean Judea, in the Umayyad Caliphate, in Puritan New England, and in Brigham Young’s Utah. And it will keep on happening as long as there are theocratic regimes for it to happen to.
Nevertheless, by the time that Afghanistan is ripe for such a change, America’s hegemonial power will have long since disintegrated. One way or another, the American people, right here in America, will have a bill to pay for the way that their empire has been behaving.
The time of troubles is coming. How will it start? How bad will it get? Right now, no one can tell.
But if we have anything to learn from the experience of those Afghans who were young back in 1973 when the monarchy fell, and who are now old and loaded down with more than the usual burden of years, it is that the collapse of a nation is a long and slow and wretchedly unpleasant business, and the challenge of living through it is not for the faint of heart.