18. aug, 2021

The withdrawal from Afghanistan: debt & penalty, or: just pay

Since the beginning of Dutch involvement in Afghanistan, a one-sided view of the Taliban has dominated. Despite extensive knowledge and journalistic attempts to chart the history of resistance against the bloody anarchy of warlords and drug traffickers, the image of an evil unipolar movement supposedly made up of medieval barbarians whose main goal is to make the lives of women as miserable as possible was endlessly repeated. 

How painful the thirst for revenge has been is amply described: the Afghan government, in whatever form, had to and would be subjugated. Peace proposals were turned down and talks with the Taliban were not allowed. The painful irony is that in the end the Americans did talk to the Taliban in order to create a way out for themselves, and hardly took the government seriously in the process. The Taliban, in whatever composition of splinter groups, have in common above all that they do not want any foreign interference in their own country. In this, the Afghan fighters are especially distinct from the other splinters such as the (), a Uyghur Muslim rebel group ETIM, the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, and other Central Asian militias such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Jamaat Ansarullah (Tajik Taliban). And on top of that, the Afghan Taliban are a product of the ambitions of foreigners who wanted to use Afghanistan for their own interests. From the British imperialists who wanted to secure trade routes to the Russian drive to control Afghan communist loyalties to the Pakistanis, who cynically needed Afghanistan as a controllable backyard for their conflict with India, to the U.S. invasion that was supposed to protect the West from Afghanistan as a "playground for terrorists": it was about everything, but never about the Afghan people themselves.

Under constant threat, there was only one way to organize resistance: Mullah Omar (leader of the Taliban) appealed to what different groups had in common: the combination of a strictly conservative religious view with the importance of codes of honor of the different minorities.
This was all known long before the post-9/11 invasion, and in the preparation of the Dutch ISAF mission, excellent studies were done in which the tribal struggles and the complexities of rival families were well sorted out. That didn't stop the Dutch, any more than the other participants in ISAF and the even more heinous Operation Enduring Freedom, from endangering - or ending - the lives of many Afghan civilians.
And now "the West" has had enough of the misery it largely caused itself, and is withdrawing troops. That in itself is fine, because they should never have been there - better late than never. Most arguments against withdrawal are therefore based on the new reality created by the presence of the troops themselves. 
Now that the rug is pulled away, the dirt comes out. It is not only the employees of the foreign military missions who say they are at risk. NGO employees are also trying to get a safe haven, or a visa for a foreign country. And don't get them wrong. In Afghanistan itself, things are bound to get worse before they ever get better. And the reluctance of visa providers will rest partly on an undesirable and painful part of reality that no one wants to hear. Just as the war in Afghanistan always looks very different when you zoom in, so too fear is often of a much more complicated reality than the black-and-white picture we have created.
Just as warning letters from 'the Taliban' nailed on the doors of health posts at night often turned out to be attempts to settle local quarrels; warnings about Taliban hideouts turned out afterwards to be clever tactics to obtain a long-disputed piece of land, so for the international civilian world (embassies, UN organizations, NGOs) it is not nice to have to admit that there have been stupid mistakes.

Local mores are strict, and both military and international civilians found their own ways of dealing with it. The gambling dens in Kabul, the brothels with North Korean prostitutes, the intimate relationships that enthusiastic aid workers entered into with women whose families could not accept it, the setting up of liquor distilleries and porn networks: everyone knew that these were challenges to the codes of honor. And this was not without its consequences, which were then attributed falsely to aggressive political Islam. And in all these activities local Afghan also played a role. The reckoning they often fear can take place within family circles - because any Afghan family capable of doing so has multiple loyalties - one brother in the police, one cousin in a militia, another in an NGO. The same connection may also protect - but who knows>

The only thing that might help is just paying up. Given the incredible sums of money the war has cost, and the sense of reality in Afghan families, you'd think this could be done. After all, of all the things that sound incredible, the fact that the international community has spent some 50,000 euros per Afghan in the last 20 years waging a pointless war is perhaps the most incomprehensible.

Willem van de Put
active in Afghanistan 1998-2017