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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

MBDA UK Ltd: Electronic Sub-System Design Verification engineer

Flexible working, annual bonus, pension & more.: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the oppor...

MBDA UK Ltd: Test Systems Architect

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity? MBDA has e...

MBDA UK Ltd: Test Systems Design Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity?MBDA has en...

MBDA UK Ltd: PCB Technologies Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity?MBDA has en...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Lesley Roberts's benefits were stopped after she was erroneously declared fit for work by an Atos doctor  

I started receiving benefits after being given less than 3 years to live. And now the Government wants to make life even harder for people like me

Lesley Roberts
The Queen at Derby day during the Epsom Derby Festival, 2013  

As an MP, I shouldn't have to swear allegiance to the Queen – I serve my constituents, not her

Richard Burgon
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor