The Complex Crisis in Afghanistan: What Were They Thinking?

The Taliban’s effortless takeover of Afghanistan evokes obvious parallels to similar historic events. For example: the disintegration of the French army against the Germans in 1940, the defeat of the Arab coalition in the Six Day War against Israel, India’s lightning fast win over Pakistan in 1971, and, of course, the fall of Saigon after the withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam.

The analogies are obvious, yet we cannot discern the meaning of recently transpired events through conventional militarily-political analysis. In the examples above, the combatants were standing armies with standard structures and weapons. In Afghanistan, a 300,000-member army with planes, artillery, armored units and all the rest of it, trained and outfitted by the United States for 20 years, melted away against a guerrilla operation of 60,000 to 70,000 men with AK47s, RPGs and jeeps.

Afghanistan Is Different – There Are No Obvious Answers

I have never been to Afghanistan. I visited and lived in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. I have been to India and China. I understand these countries and their societies enough to apply an analogy when it comes to Afghanistan; a method that is often used by my historian colleagues.

The answer to the question of what the hell happened must be sought at the deepest level, that of ideas about the world. Because what people imagine about the world motivates, directs and arranges their actions in it. Thus, the strategic question to ask is, who wanted what in making this mess. We must uncover the deepest, most sincerely held worldviews of those who participated in this. That, in turn, may explain everyone’s motivation.

Entering Afghanistan (and later – Iraq) the United States imagined the world as it always has. On one side, there was a shining beacon of freedom, inalienable rights, democracy and the rule of law. These are goals every human being on the planet wants to achieve. They are most fully realized in the United States, the “shining city upon a hill.” On the other side, the dark side, there is oppression, arbitrariness, lawlessness and power wielded at the barrel of a gun. Nobody wants that; people prefer their own version of the shining city on a hill.

President Joe Biden summarized this American thinking when he served as vice president in the Obama administration: “We Americans think, in every country in transition, there’s a Thomas Jefferson hiding behind some rock or a James Madison beyond one sand dune,” he said.

This worldview allowed the United States to expect that, as a representative of that shining city, it could enter a land of darkness and its population would immediately overthrow its tyrants, and with American help, and begin a journey to its own version of America.

One can see this worldview taken to a delusional level in the 1994 Kurt Russell film “Stargate.” The plot is this: due to a bug in the space-time continuum, a handful of American soldiers find themselves on a planet full of slaves tormented by sadistic masters. The Americans shout, “Freedom! Down with tyranny,” the slaves shout “Hurrah!” then discard their picks and shovels, seize and bind their masters, and kill the biggest, baddest guy. The movie ends soon after that, and the implication is that, after the American soldiers leave (they find a way back home), the local population organizes itself and votes for a parliament, creates a constitution, and becomes a representative democracy.

How does this play out in a real world situation? This is how.

People used to living their own lives are digging for something. Shockingly out of nowhere, foreigners appear and begin to shout about overthrowing the existing social order. The local population expects the foreigners to return sooner or later to nothing, leaving the native population who remain to bear the consequences of the foreigners’ actions. The locals discard their picks and shovels, seize and bind the foreigners, and present them to their masters with the hope that they will be rewarded for their vigilance with a bigger serving of rice for that day. And, of course, the locals hope that doing this will keep them free from whatever dangerous mess the foreigners were concocting.

This is the reality: If you begin to agitate people who do not understand you or your ideas they will immediately hand you over to their masters.

Many Bulgarian freedom fighters against the Ottoman occupation lived this truth, especially during the late 19th century. The Karadja leader, for example, was betrayed by his compatriot Bulgarians at every step of his journey. This same reality has periodically affected Americans since the 1950s, with the last example being Afghanistan.

Why is it that in places like Afghanistan, the people do not react like they did in “Stargate,” but rather as they did with the Karadja leader? Why do they reject an unknown individual who offers them a shining city upon a hill?

“Stargate” only works if there is a crucial existing condition; that when someone offers people a shining city, they must already see themselves as free thinkers, and not as interchangeable faceless cogs in a collective entity. Furthermore, they must believe that they are not simple beings, but Kantian individuals – unique and free, equal, with a sense of solidarity regardless of their tribes.

Historically, this awareness has not developed anywhere outside of Europe or the cultures and nations that derive their culture from Europe.

Outside of the European model, the understanding of what it means to be a human being, of what a human being must do, is quite different.

Let me tell you how the people of Uzbekistan vote in their elections. The following is even truer of the people of Turkmenistan. They both have a Central Election Commission and regional election commissions, privacy-conscious polling places free of prying eyes and interference, all attributes of democracies populated by Kantian individuals. Yet, a big man with a bulging backpack enters the polling place. He has been sent by the elders of his village, and carries all the identification documents of the people in his village. In the next several hours, he will vote on behalf of his entire community.

When asked by a foreign election observer why he votes on behalf of others and why the others are not present, he ask incredulously why everyone should waste their time, and responds that the elders have decided whom the village will support. This decision disregards the individual because the subject, the actor with agency in this system, is the collective body, the elders, not any single individual.

This creates difficulty because there are many collective bodies that form incredibly complicated and constantly shifting relationships with each other. There are different levels of collective bodies: family, house, tribe, village, clan and ethnicity. Turkmenistan, for example, is organized by five clans (their emblems are on the state flag), Uzbekistan through seven. Group decisions are made at every level, from family and above, but the clan deliberates and decides the big issues. Anyone who wants to govern must, at all times, have the support of the majority of the clans – three in Turkmenistan and four (more often five) in Uzbekistan. Power flows through a majority of clans, not through the majority of constituents.

In this complicated web of collective identities everything, absolutely everything, is a question of constant, daily negotiation and renegotiation. There are no written rules, politicians have no authority to act within a period of time, there are no democratic mandates. War is also negotiated among families, houses, tribes, villages, and clans – a fact that anyone knows who has read enough memoirs (which number in the hundreds) by American and British participants on the war in Afghanistan.

Today, for example, the elders of a village may support the United States. Tomorrow, the elders may learn the Americans have caught an Islamist prisoner, the son-in-law of one of the village elders. There are negotiations with the Americans. The U.S. Army may not release the prisoner because the law applies equally to everyone. The elders may not understand this concept at all, and leave their alliance with the Americans to join the Taliban.

This is what war looks like when the only loyalty one has is loyalty to one’s village or clan; this is war when loyalty to a bigger ideal does not exist. For example, Talib may call his brother-in-law Mahmoud, who is a commander of an army battalion under the control of the central government. “Mahmoud,” he says, “Your friends the Americans are leaving. Let’s not embarrass our tribe. Please surrender and we will let you go, no harm no foul.”

The imaginary Mahmoud cannot counter such an inquiry. “I will fight in the name of democratic Afghanistan; I don’t care that we are members of the same tribe and that you are my brother-in-law,” he might respond. There is no reason for hostilities to damage two respected clans. Mahmoud is not even remotely able to give such an answer because only autonomous individuals can fight for a democratic homeland, and Mahmoud is not such an individual. And let us remember that Abdul, a Taliban, has clarity and purpose on his side: Islam, as in religion, that does not require its devotees to be autonomous individuals who can freely decide their own fate, but calls for a religious flock that will “give” themselves to Allah and follow His command.

A regime of constant renegotiation of already agreed-upon deals overwhelms Westerners and leaves them in an impossible bind. This is exactly what happened to the Americans when they announced their final date of departure from Afghanistan. The Taliban abandoned the terms of the Doha agreement with the United States and attacked vast swaths of territories throughout Afghanistan.

It has been said that the rapid abandonment of settled commitments by Taliban leaders means that it is impossible to believe them. Are they liars without honor or dignity? Is dialogue with them a waste of time? I am not an expert, but my suspicion is that “honor” and “dignity” have a different meaning in a culture where the subject is the group (Afghanistan) than where the subject is the individual (the United States).

In Uzbekistan, for example, when a bruised and weak opposition asks the government for “justice,” it is asking for something very different than what we might imagine. It is asking for an end to persecution and an opportunity to participate in the political process (with the distant possibility of having political power in the future). In this case “justice“ is different: the opposition is asking for a chance to be heard, an opportunity to be paid attention to, and to not be insulted and by the government.

In China, when the middle class wants to vote, it does not seek to vote for candidates outside of the Communist Party. It just wants to be allowed to vote in accordance with the principle of “one man one vote,” a principle which is not employed in China (as opposed to countries like Uzbekistan). These Chinese voters want to participate in elections so that they can exert leverage over the winning (Communist) candidate.

In Turkmenistan, there is no societal consciousness that allows for political parties. “Why should we divide ourselves,” the people ask. “If we have a problem we will bring it to the elders and they will resolve it.”

Turkmenistanis are happy with their system, a system that is better than the system of their Soviet past, when the Communist Party rendered their elders impotent and powerless, an insult to their entire nation.

In short, before you attempt a hard sell of the “shining city,” you would do well to ask the locals exactly what it is they desire. At the beginning of the American invasion of Afghanistan, the locals, tired of the Taliban terror, were happy. A CNN reporter asked about the future the locals wished to achieve. The answer was clear (and similar to the answer of the Turkmenistan people): “We want to eliminate the power of the current warlords, and return agency to our elders.”

The United States military, in need of allies on the battlefield, did the opposite; they made deals with the warlords. It is exactly these types of deals that fell apart during the last few years. The local warlords simply made new deals with the Taliban.

The local population did not achieve political representation through their elders as they had hoped. Instead they were handed Western-style Democracy, a system most did not care for.

This is why during the last presidential election in Afghanistan, (won by a candidate who was the first to flee Kabul when the Taliban took over), only 1.6 million votes were cast in a country of 9.7 million eligible voters.

Common words have uncommon meaning to disparate cultures. “Agreement,” “justice” and “representation” are not the same in Washington, Kandahar, Ashgabat or Tashkent. The difference stems from the fact that these words are concepts. Unlike simple words (like “chicken”) they do not represent something that is obviously indisputable everywhere in the world. Instead, they express something invisible, something connected to a unique individual understanding of the world.

Most people in the world want to live within a system that gives them some form of agency in relation to their government. In Europe, this has existed for centuries, even before the current system of constitutional democracy was adopted. Some believe that representative governance is synonymous with American democracy. Others prefer governance through their elders, clans and tribes. We must understand every nuance, and decipher every worldview and desire, before decisive action is ever taken.

In the end, attempting to impose Western-style democracy in Afghanistan was like trying to impose Afghanistan-style rule-by-elders upon the United States. A shame, really, as now the people of Afghanistan will probably have neither.

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