Gut-wrenching images and stories have flooded the media sphere over the last few days. Hundreds flocking to the airport, clinging to the undercarriage of aircraft in desperation, journalists in hiding or seeking visas to leave, people in streets and in camps fleeing the violence that has preceded the fall of province after province to the Taliban.
The rapidity with which the Taliban have been able to take control over the entire country has surprised everyone including the Taliban themselves. However, while the speed may not have been foreseen, the collapse of the government had seemed inevitable for some time, especially after the steps taken by the US in rapid succession since the Doha deal they struck with the Taliban in 2020.
Ironically called the ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’, the deal ensured the unconditional withdrawal of American troops. Desperate to leave, the US administration acceded to the Taliban insistence of talks without the presence of the elected Afghan government — thus de-legitimising the leadership that President Joe Biden is today blaming for the collapse of the government.
So what of the 20 years of international support? The entire nation-building project led by the Americans, regardless of what President Joe Biden now says, was based on an American view of what a liberated Afghanistan and Afghans should look and sound like, often with little understanding of the ground reality.
Nepal and the Taliban’s second coming, Kanak Mani Dixit
Unfortunately, American military and financial power outstripped that of other nations several times over and coupled with the belief in American Exceptionalism this ensured their overweening dominance. More nuanced approaches were run rough-shod and complex perspectives that could address the complicated realities were jettisoned in favour of the black-and-white you ‘are with us or against us’ approach.
While there is much to blame on the Afghan government and the leaders, it is worth looking at how the security paradigm and the political leadership were instituted. In the initial period following the 2001 invasion, the US prevented the expansion of NATO in order to keep complete control of the security sphere, and subsequently blocked all attempts at allowing even the negotiated surrender of the Taliban leadership, thus driving them underground.
Over the years, international forces killed a large number of civilians, an unacceptably high rate of ‘collateral damage’ that turned a significant portion of the Afghan population against them as well as against the Afghan government they were supporting. While ‘introducing democracy’ to Afghans, the US railroaded Afghans into accepting a governance structure that concentrated all powers in the presidency — far more extreme than any presidential style of governance in existence — and also forced an electoral system that kept out political parties — the building blocks of any democratic polity.