A Taliban victory wouldn't be an unmitigated disaster for Afghanistan - unless the West failed to support it

They were brutal and reductive, but they brought the country closer to peace than at any time before or since

Share

The release of Bowe Bergdahl, the only US soldier known to be held by the Taliban, in exchange for senior Taliban figures held at Guantanamo Bay, was originally seen by Washington as a ‘confidence-building measure’, a step towards a comprehensive peace deal which would bring Afghanistan’s elected government and the Taliban cosily together.

But the talks never got started, and this week’s simple prisoner swap reflects the drastically diminishing leverage of the US. As the Taliban like to say: “The US has the watch but we have the time.” Washington apparently saw that the Taliban’s secret offer of a swap – made last September after 18 months of silence – could be their last opportunity to rescue Bergdahl before the pull-out.

It was in March 2012 that the Taliban slammed the door on the wider deal America dreamed of, in which peace talks would culminate in the Taliban at least implicitly recognising the legitimacy of the Karzai government. If they had succeeded, America would then have been able to quit Afghanistan in the way the British left the partitioned subcontinent in 1947, with a constitutionally respectable deal in place, absolving them of blame for the mayhem that would likely follow.

But with the American clock ticking, the Taliban refused to play ball. The prospects of any such deal have been dead now for more than two years. 

Instead Afghanistan’s likely future is shaping up very much like its awful recent past. For all President Karzai’s anti-American rhetoric, his regime is the creation of the occupying army. How long can it survive once the US armed presence shrinks from 38,000 to 9,800 to nothing in the next two years? Not only the government but the whole expensive apparatus created by the west over the past 12 years risks falling apart in no time.

The worst future for Afghanistan would be a return to the civil wars that erupted after the departure of the Soviets, when rival warlords generously funded by outsiders blew the country to pieces – wars that only ended with the near-total victory of the Pakistan-backed Taliban.

America believed it had routed the Taliban within a few weeks of the start of the 2001 invasion, but seasoned Afghan observers warned that they had merely melted away. Today they are a more formidable force than ever. They have threatened to disrupt the run-off presidential election later this month, so expect more brutal news from the country shortly.

In the scale of awfulness, how would a new Taliban victory measure up?

Many would see it as an unmitigated disaster. A return to power by Mullah Omar and his comrades, the people who threw down the welcome mat to Osama bin Laden, would reduce the US’s post-9/11 strategy to a sick joke. For the westerners who have played a part in getting the nation’s girls out of burqas and into school, it would be immensely depressing.

But it would not necessarily be the very worst thing that could befall Afghanistan.

In the mid-1990s the Taliban’s rule was brutal and reductive to the point of self-parody. The banning of music, gambling, kite-flying and smooth chins, the public executions and amputations in the old football ground, the pervasive joylessness – these are the attributes of Taliban rule that stick in the memory.

Yet the Taliban brought Afghanistan closer to peace than at any time before or since. The only period during which it was safe to travel from Kabul to the Khyber Pass, for example, was when the Taliban were in charge.

It will be objected that the Taliban were the allies of al-Qaeda. But an army of national liberation – however rude its religious ideas – is different from an international terrorist organisation. The Taliban were never involved in committing terrorist acts outside their country. Only the traditional obligations of Pushtun hospitality masked their native antipathy towards Arabs, including Osama’s gang, seen as arrogant intruders.

If the Taliban succeed in overthrowing the Afghan government in the next five years – and there is little doubt that they will try – the government they will impose will very probably be joyless, incompetent, oppressive and dogmatically Islamic. It is unlikely to hesitate before abolishing the progressive reforms of the last dozen years. As in the past, their rule will be anathema to the west.

The west will therefore starve it of funds and democratic recognition and treat is as a diplomatic outcast, just as it treated the last Taliban government. 

And that would be a pity. What Afghanistan needs more than anything else – even more than an extension of women’s rights – is peace, a government which is not an army of plausible looters and freebooters, which can stand on its own two feet without massive western support and which can persuade the mass of Afghans that it is legitimate.

Are the Taliban capable of such a feat? Have their cultural attitudes evolved over the years of resistance? What of the fabled ‘moderate Taliban’ on whom so many hopes have been placed over the years? In their rustic simplicity, are they still as honest as they were reputed to be? Were they ever?

Whatever the answers to those questions, their ambition remains clear: to rid their country of meddling foreigners and bring peace and unity; to put in place the rudiments of a non-failed state. Such a project should command outside support: it’s what Afghanistan needs more than anything. But from the meddling world, it is very unlikely to get it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A press image from the company  

If men are so obsessed by their genitals, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities of sex?

Chloë Hamilton
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory