Americans Never Understood Afghanistan Like the Taliban DidBreaking News
tags: foreign policy, war on terror, Afghanistan, Taliban
Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a founding editor of Wisdom of Crowds. He is the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World and Temptations of Power.
The united states never understood Afghanistan. American planners thought they knew what the country needed, which was not quite the same as what its people wanted. American policy was guided by fantasies; chief among them was the idea that the Taliban could be eliminated and that an entire culture could be transformed in the process.
In an ideal world, the Taliban wouldn’t exist. But it does exist, and it will exist. Western observers always struggle to understand how groups as ruthless as the Taliban gain legitimacy and popular support. Surely Afghans remember the terror of Taliban rule in the 1990s, when women were whipped if they ventured outside without a burka and adulterers were stoned to death in soccer stadiums. How could those dark days be forgotten?
America saw the Taliban as plainly evil. To deem a group evil is to cast it outside of time and history. But this is a privileged view. Living in a democracy with basic security allows citizens to set their sights higher. They will be disappointed with even a relatively good government precisely because they expect more from it. In failed states and in the midst of civil war, however, the fundamental questions are ones of order and disorder, and how to have more of the former and less of the latter.
The Taliban knew this. After its fall from power in 2001, the group was weak, reeling from devastating air strikes targeting its leaders. But in recent years, it has been gaining ground and establishing deeper roots in local communities. The Taliban was brutal. At the same time, it often provided better governance than the distant and corrupt Afghan central government. Doing a little went a long way.
Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government didn’t fail just because of the Taliban. It was hobbled from the start by America’s blind spots and biases. The United States saw a strong, centralized authority as the answer to Afghanistan’s problems and backed a constitution that invested the president with sweeping powers. That, along with a quirky and confusing electoral system, undermined the development of political parties and the Parliament. A strong state required formal legal institutions—and the United States dutifully supported courts, judges, and other such trappings. Meanwhile, it invited resentment by pushing programs that were meant to reengineer Afghan culture and gender norms.
All of these choices reflected the hubris of Western powers that saw Afghan traditions as an obstacle to be overcome when, it turns out, they were the lifeblood of the country’s political culture. In the end, few Afghans believed in a government that they never felt was theirs or wished to wade through its bureaucratic red tape. They kept turning to informal and community-driven dispute resolution, and local figures they trusted. And this left the door open for the slow return of the Taliban.