What do the Taliban Really Want?
We need to remember what we were trying to achieve in Afghanistan: all the people we educated and all the things we did towards that goal, and not whisk the resultant human capital and embedded values and economic opportunities out of that country by the planeload, on wings of fear.
I predict that five or ten years from now, studies will be conducted, and books written about the Great American Afghanistan Hysteria of 2021.
How was it possible, we will ask in retrospect, that a superpower threw facts, reason, its own national interest, the pursuit of peace, geopolitical considerations, and simple common sense to the curb? And instead engaged in reckless, perfectly counterproductive actions while wallowing in panic and rumors.
As I write this, I am reading that “the Taliban are feeding women’s bodies to the dogs” and watching a video of a woman filming herself running from nothing in a deserted area while screaming “Afghan women are running for their lives.” I am reading that “the Taliban are shooting into the crowd.” Former President George W. Bush is on TV talking about rape. General David Petraeus, who failed to make a dent on the Taliban when he was in charge, is in the Wall Street Journal calling for the U.S. military to go back in. Reason has fled and facts don’t matter.
But let’s try. Let’s try to look at some facts.
In the past, as a matter of record, I was a determined opponent of the Taliban. And I’m not their fan club now. I’m reserving judgment—but judgment requires facts, and so far, the facts support their claim that they have changed. Here are a few facts, listed by topic of concern. All of it I have personally verified by speaking to the individuals affected, or from original source material.
The Taliban have said that everyone of a different religion will be able to practice it undisturbed. What have they done? According to Shi’a leaders, Shi’a local individuals, and the international Shi’a grapevine, they in fact made it possible for the Shi’a major religious holiday of Ashura to be celebrated safely, in Mazar-i-Sharif, with the participation of women, for the first time in many years. In the past, the Ghani government was unable to guarantee protection to the Shi’a and they were regularly attacked, with fatalities, by Sunni extremists or by ISIS.
Similarly, the Hindu minority has been visited and reassured by a Taliban delegation that they will be safe and should stay.
In this regard, we have had a number of main concerns: their right to education, their right to be in public and take part in public life, their right to work, and their protection against rape, forced marriage, and abuse. The Taliban are on record on some of these with statements, on others with their actions so far, and on some, it’s too soon to say. On education, they have specifically addressed female students and encouraged them to continue with their studies. On work, they have sent delegations to hospitals and met with female doctors and staff, praised them for their work, and asked them to continue. On public life, they have not interfered with female journalists including TV news anchors, who are on the air and reporting and interviewing Talibs. On forced marriage and rape, many of us have reached out to women’s groups in the country, and there is no substantiation for these stories. A friend of mine is associated with an organization that runs shelters for precisely such victims across the country—they have seen none. Forced marriage is strongly forbidden by the Quran, as is rape. Sexual misbehavior has been rigorously sanctioned by the Taliban in the past and there is no reason to believe that their views have changed. I would still be concerned about their views on adultery, which they previously punished as the Quran prescribes, i.e., by flogging in the case of the unmarried and death in the case of the married. It has not happened yet this time around, but it could. This, along with all the other things we are hoping to avert, is far more likely to happen if we lose our influence over them or if they conclude that it doesn’t matter if they play nice, because we will condemn them and make up stories about them anyway.
Last time around, the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas, one of Afghanistan’s and the world’s great and irreplaceable treasures. They marauded through art museums and film archives and burned music tapes and videos. I belong to an organization, ARCH International, which focuses on cultural heritage in war zones and post-conflict areas. We were in a state of high alarm about this repeating itself, so in November 2020 we sent a request to both sides in the then-peace talks in Doha, the Afghan government side and the Taliban, asking them to commit to the protection of historic and cultural heritage and explaining why that was the right thing to do and why these things were valuable for civilization and for their country. Somewhat to our surprise, the Taliban responded not just to us, but by sending an order to their commanders in the field to protect cultural heritage and archaeological sites and—more than we had asked for—to prevent looting. When the director of the Kabul Museum reached out in a worried panic about criminal looters, this gave us the impetus to return to our interlocutor and ask for help. Promptly, the Taliban dispatched four guards to the museum, connected the director with the nearby security station, and their new Minister of Culture, Mudshahid, personally visited to assure him of support.
Fear and panic
Everyone on the ground in Afghanistan has good reason to be very nervous. The Taliban have engaged in what the press is calling a “charm offensive” and have issued multiple reassuring statements. I put these last because they are just words, but I include them because so far, the Taliban have honored them. They asked all government bureaucrats to remain at work and promised there would be no reprisals against anyone who supported the former government or worked for the Ghani regime or the Americans. There are no credible reports of reprisals. They appealed to the mob of young men at the airport to go back home and stay and help build their country, instead of “begging to be loaded onto American airplanes like sheep” and propelling themselves to foreign lands. They set up a complaint number and process, which they broadcast on the streets and in the markets over loudspeakers, encouraging people to report any misbehavior by any Talib to receive assistance. This is designed to address two likely problems—undisciplined individual Talibs misbehaving and criminal impostors seizing the opportunities inherent in chaos. I know at least one women’s organization that successfully called the Taliban “hotline” when someone claiming to be Taliban demanded their vehicle. It’s true that many people report their cars being commandeered. The Taliban say it’s not them, because they have plenty of cars—and SUVs and tanks for that matter—from the fleeing Afghan army courtesy of the U.S. taxpayers.
Let’s take a step back and evaluate. We had put all of our cards on the Afghan government, whose elections we funded, curated, and organized. We built an expensive army and air force that turned and ran at the first challenge. We trained and educated and funded a network of civil society activists and “leaders” who turned out, like their army, to be runners, not even attempting to take a stand for their values and supposed missions but racing to the airport instead.
As the realization that our Afghan experiment was not going to succeed finally began to sink in, under the Trump administration, we made the decision to pull our troops out of this endless and fruitless war. We struck an agreement with the Taliban: we would withdraw, they would not interfere with that or attack us, and they would begin peace talks with the Afghan government to design a transitional new government in which they would be included, with elections for a permanent government to be held down the road. For two years, they honored their side of the deal. Not a single American was killed, not even once we were downsized and vulnerable. They drafted a series of technical proposals as starting points for discussion with their government counterparts, from whom nothing came in return. They consulted us and listened to our “red lines” regarding human rights, women’s rights, and other matters of concern to the international community. They were fully prepared to negotiate.
Who didn’t show up? The Ghani government. Ashraf Ghani believed that if he just remained intransigent, the United States would reverse course and agree to keep fighting. When that magic outcome did not materialize, he pinned his hopes on the U.S. elections, sure that Joe Biden would undo what Donald Trump had started and send the troops back in. When that did not happen either, he gave a series of fiery speeches on how he didn’t need the Americans because the Afghan army would make short shrift of the Taliban. Finally, as the Taliban swept across most of his country meeting zero resistance from said army, he agreed to a deal. They would refrain from entering Kabul, there would be a two-week ceasefire, during that time they would negotiate a power-sharing agreement with the government—though it would no longer be the 50/50 arrangement Kabul could have gotten two years prior—and in exchange Ghani would commit to resigning his office at the end of that period. Ghani agreed. Then he secretly packed up and fled in the night, scuppering Kabul’s and his government’s last chance at an orderly transition.