On voting with your feet – Thomas Meaney in LRB:
“Unlike the Soviet departure from Afghanistan in 1988-89, no major power is elated by the American departure. In China, Schadenfreude on Weibo has given way to regret that the US will soon no longer be mired in a hopeless conflict. Fashionable commentary about possible links between the Taliban and the Uighur Muslims appears to be baseless: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the new leader of the Taliban, has all but offered to send the heads of China’s enemies to Beijing in a box, and dangled the prospect of copper mining and mineral extraction before its patron-in-waiting. In Tehran, Moscow, New Delhi and even Islamabad, governments are more worried about the further implosion of Afghanistan: as far as they’re concerned, it’s 1996 all over again. For Pakistan, the Taliban have long been an asset, promising ‘strategic depth’ against India, but they have also been a risk, as the violence of their homegrown offshoot threatens enrichment schemes dear to Pakistani elites, such as China’s Belt and Road project to connect Xinjiang province to Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea. Only Erdoğan’s Turkey, which can now amply grant at least one wish of its electorate – that Afghans be kept out – and which can increase its fee for keeping Europe Afghan-free, has more to gain than to lose.
American occupation has made the Taliban more disciplined fighters – with new elite battalions such as the Red Unit – and above all a more media-savvy organisation. Video footage from Kabul airport may dominate online, but a different set of images moved events. These were small videos, captured on phones earlier this summer in borderland provinces, showing Taliban forces taking over Afghan border posts, the soldiers calmly handing over their weapons without a fight. In the larger towns and provincial capitals where the Afghan army did not simply abandon its posts, the resistance evaporated after initial skirmishes and crossfire. The Sher Khan Bandar crossing fell on 22 June; Taloqan and Kunduz (for the second time) fell on 6 August; Puli Khumri fell on 10 August; Ghazni and Herat fell on 11 August; Kandahar on 12 August; Lashkargah on 13 August; Mazar-i-Sharif on 14 August and Jalalabad on 15 August. As the Afghanistan analyst Adam Weinstein put it, the Taliban effectively ‘weaponised the prisoner’s dilemma’. Few regular army units wanted to be singled out for vengeance as lone resisters.”
“European chancelleries have responded with horror to the apparent contraction of American resolve (the German tabloid Bild Zeitung ran a panicked headline claiming that the Taliban now has more weapons than a Nato state). But the reality may be more bleak. Although Biden played populist tribune for a day (a role he has been itching to perform for decades), dismissing the elite consensus about the war and ignoring the appetite of the military-industrial complex, his decision hardly signals the end of the forever wars. In 2009, when he dissented from Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan, it was less in the cause of devolving America’s global projection of force than of refining it. Biden wanted over-the-horizon capability then, and he wants something like it now. The killing of thirteen US Marines at Kabul airport has not diverted that desire: a reduced US troop presence will provide fewer targets for local militants, Biden has argued, and those militants will be ‘hunted’ for retribution by more remote means. Biden was even more sanguine than Obama about the promise of drones and special forces to fight America’s enemies. He isn’t so much the undertaker of the war on terror as its McKinsey consultant.”
“The departing president, Ashraf Ghani, who in the 2019 election won the vote of 2.5 per cent of the population, who wrote his dissertation at Columbia on state failure, and who fled Kabul in a chopper (according to some sources, with piles of cash onboard), has now joined the ranks of Washington’s failed proxies: Ngô Đình Diêm, Ahmed Chalabi, Nouri al-Maliki, Hamid Karzai. The corruption of the Afghan government is dwarfed only by that of the American operation itself, which constituted a massive wealth transfer to US defence industries.
Will the Taliban behave? They have entered a very different Kabul – one with beauty salons and shopping malls – from the one they left twenty years ago. In the interim, they have developed the ambition to run a state, which will require a basis of legitimacy outside their own constituency in the country, and international support of some kind. In the first days after they took Kabul, the Taliban made a show of paying respects to Shia Afghans on the holy day of Ashura, taking questions from female journalists at press conferences, relaying their offer of an amnesty to the opposition despite having apparently executed some Afghan soldiers earlier in August, and setting up checkpoints to counter spoiler attacks, which were not long in coming (IS and its local affiliate IS-K are major liabilities for the core of the Taliban leadership that wants to take the reins of what passes for the state). Meanwhile, several of the old players have resumed their original positions. Ahmad Massoud, son of the Lion of the Panjshir Valley, wants to reboot the Northern Alliance, but spent much of the week after the Taliban took Kabul posing for photos with Bernard-Henri Lévy. The ruthless Afghan Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum flew back from hospital in Istanbul to call for war on the Taliban. Navy Seals brandished copies of Clausewitz on Fox News, and Rory Stewart and George Packer wondered if America can still regain its soul. Afghan contractors and co-operators have been consigned the fate of the Hmong of Vietnam and the Harkis of Algeria. And, just as before, the women and girls of Afghanistan are foremost among the war lobby’s playing chips. They face violence from every quarter and their weaponisation by the West – as a post-hoc justification for invasion and now as an argument for continued occupation – only exposes how irrelevant the long-term future of Afghan women has been to the US project. The improvements in their health and education under the US occupation – as under the Soviet one – are incontrovertible. But to cheer on such progress in a Potemkin state is to lead people to the slaughter. There is talk of an effort on a par with that performed after the collapse of Saigon in 1975 to shelter refugees in coalition countries. But an exodus has been going on for years, and today taking in refugees isn’t the symbol of Western largesse that it was in the 1970s. ‘A simple way to take measure of a country,’ Tony Blair once said, ‘is to look at how many want in ... and how many want out.’ That verdict came some time ago in Afghanistan.”
Read the article here.
It’s a bit unfair to criticize Biden for being a McKinsey consultant to the war on terror.
He never said that he wanted to quit that war. Once again, it’s good to make a distinction between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. See here.
Karzai by the way made a nice comeback as in-between for the Taliban and let’s say the not-so-Taliban.
And yes, good that BHL has been mentioned. He is the intellectual who gave the photo-op a good name. He is beyond ridicule.
Most important: an exodus has been going on for years.
Life under Ghani was pretty miserable.
The big difference is that under Ghani the Westerners and its helpers could live and sometimes thrive in Afghanistan. I remember some fairly pleasant expat-cafes in Kabul.
Now they have to leave.
The NGO-industry and the NGO-economy have come to a standstill, for the moment. When the businessmen arrive to do business with the Taliban, the NGO-industry will follow soon.
Of course, unless there is going to be a bloody civil war in Afghanistan. Then it will take a few more years.
People vote with their feet. And they voted with their feet a long time already.