Comparative Reflections on the Fall of KabulRoundup
tags: Afghanistan, Taliban, Cambodia, Khmer Rouge
Ben Kiernan is the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale University, and has served as Chair of the Council on Southeast Asia Studies and as Founding Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale. He is the author of Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present (Oxford, 2017), How Pol Pot Came to Power (Yale, 2004), The Pol Pot Regime (Yale, 1996), Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (Yale, 2007), and Genocide and Resistance in Southeast Asia (2008).
Many commentators are likening the recent Taliban seizure of Kabul to a “repeat” of the 1975 “fall of Saigon”.
But the Taliban less closely resemble Vietnamese communists than they do Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. More than two decades ago, when the Taliban, a Sunni Islamist group, held power in Afghanistan, they massacred members of their country’s Shia Muslim minority and others. In the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge had committed genocide against Cambodia’s Cham Muslim minority and others. In March 2001, the Taliban deployed dynamite to blow up their country’s monumental 6th-7th century stone sculptures, the Bamyan Buddhas, part of Afghanistan’s historic heritage. That act of vandalism resembled the Khmer Rouge’s demolition of Phnom Penh’s Catholic Cathedral, stone by stone, and their repression of Cambodia’s Buddhist religion.
Ashley Jackson writes: “Many Afghans I’ve spoken with in cities now fear the worst, recalling what life was like under Taliban rule before 2001. The urban areas arguably suffered worst, as they represented moral danger and corruption to the Taliban.” (New York Times, Aug. 17, 2021) Does the Taliban’s anti-urban thinking recall the Khmer Rouge and their forced evacuation of Phnom Penh and Cambodia’s other cities in 1975 ?
It remains to be seen whether the now reinstalled Taliban regime will launch a new campaign of Islamist fundamentalist repression. Statements from female Afghan journalists that “We see silence filled with fear” (London Guardian, Aug. 16), and reports of terror in some rural towns, are not encouraging. Nor is the news that in Bamyan province, the Taliban have blown up the statue of a Shia leader whom they killed in 1996.
Another parallel between Cambodia and Afghanistan is the way, since 2005, the Taliban recruited and rebuilt the armed following that has swept them back to power in recent weeks. The brutal prosecution of a war may damage moderate forces and help generate the ascendancy of a hardline or even genocidal insurgent group. This happened in Cambodia in the early 1970s, when the spread of the Vietnam War there facilitated the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot.