By Robert Park
First, the crumbling British empire and its competitors divided up South Asia into manageable post-colonial client states like Pakistan, East Pakistan, India, Kashmir, Burma, Afghanistan, Iran, etc., choosing boundaries accordingly. In Afghanistan, like the rest, they left state power in the hands of competing fiefdoms and warlords, former enemies and new friends. Formerly sustainable societies, deformed by global multi-national colonialism, retained cultures with some attributes that fail by todays’ standards: tribal dominance, enforced class stratification, ethnic conflicts, religious mythologies and male supremacy. The mistreatment of women has been a robust feature, prevailing over centuries: denial of education, arranged (child) marriage, prohibition of activities and freedoms routinely afforded men. As the Taliban establish the new normal in Afghanistan this is the future for women there. Before we get too self-righteously indignant, let’s remember that some of our (white) ancestors drowned witches (women who didn’t obey) in Salem Massachusetts. Somewhat earlier others of our ancestors (also of the Christian persuasion) burnt women at the stake. (Don’t forget Black women and the police in America, today.) The lesson here? Cultures can get better; they need help, not exploitation.
Let’s examine how the U.S. got into this latest quagmire where leaving is almost as bad as staying. In Afghanistan there have been progressive, successful movements promising a much better future. But colliding imperialisms dashed those hopes. An elected government with laudable ambitions made progress including secularized education for all children in the 1980s. The neighboring U.S.S.R saw an opening to counter U.S. hegemony in South Asia and offered assistance. Maybe the locals were too eager to take advantage or could have negotiated a more defensible relationship. When political intrigue and immature institutions resulted in a crisis in civilian authority, traditionalist forces and sponsors sprang into action trying to preserve the least desirable features of the Afghan past. Russia offered to defend the government while the cold war Democratic Party strategists in Washington saw an opportunity to advance ‘our’ vital interests. How did they do this? They created the Taliban. From a bunch of ragtag fundamentalist Islamic gangs, they synthesized a modern fighting force with generous financing and provision of modern weaponry. So many shoulder-launched missiles were provided to bring down Russian helicopters (Russia’s Vietnam) that later these weapons started showing up elsewhere on the black market: worrisome chickens coming home to roost. These policies were not original; that’s what the U.S. and Britain did in 1954 to remove a progressive, rogue, popularly elected (aristocratic!) leader in Iran (look up Mossadegh) and replace him with their guy, the “Shah of Iran.” At that time the crime of the Iranian government was claiming that Iranian oil actually belonged to the Iranians, not to British Petroleum or Royal Dutch Shell. When the western bullying became intense, Iran reached out to the U.S.S.R (not their favorite model of democracy) for help. Well, we know how that worked out: ramming global capitalist development down the throats of Iranians produced the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Another example of bad policies with really bad forever consequences. Sort of like decades of neoliberal policies in the U.S. by centrist Democrats (deregulation, privatization, anti-union, continuous war) creating an opening for fascist Trump.
As the U.S. and puppet allies leave Afghanistan their local collaborators are once again expecting to rely on the warlords to save their butts. It won’t work. The Taliban can deliver less corruption and more economic progress than the warlord amalgamation (a pretty low bar); and their retro social policies won’t be that different from what the warlords have to offer. What can countries that were part of the problem do to promote recovery in Taliban Afghanistan? Tie all foreign assistance, investment and trade agreements to enforceable goals. Of course, if they don’t apply the same rules to Saudi Arabia or Myanmar, that’s a problem. Provide examples in other societies where dramatic improvements in economic progress with human rights are achieved (not that easy in the current global system; Namibia comes to mind). Require all “progressive” countries to provide unconditional asylum to women and children fleeing the Taliban dystopia. Build friendly terminals for an underground railroad. This is another example of progress in really sad places requiring progress in lots of other places.