Afghanistan is not the only place on the planet which makes a speciality of going backwards rather than forwards, but it is the most spectacular example.
As The New York Times reported this week, a group of high-ranking Taliban have been hanging about in Doha, Qatar, for more than two years, waiting for the Obama administration to make good on its offer of negotiations. These are not negligible people: the most senior is Tayeb Agha, chief of staff to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s founder, the one-eyed “Amir ul-Mu’minim” or “Commander of the Faithful”, the militia’s unchallenged leader. But back home in Afghanistan, the Taliban show little interest in pursuing the path of peace, the most vivid demonstration of that being the attack on a courthouse near the Iranian border the other day in which 46 people were killed, including judges, lawyers and all the assailants, during the course of an eight-hour blitz that left the complex in ruins.
How can anyone dream of negotiating with people whose comrades take such action against the West’s efforts to furnish Afghanistan with the rudimentary infrastructure of a state? Various Taliban have offered themselves as possible interlocutors, but “the Doha track” was said by an American diplomat to be “the most promising” of them. But for now that track’s going nowhere. “[The Taliban] are just living here, enjoying the air conditioning, driving luxury cars, eating and making babies,” according to an Afghan diplomat in the same city.
There is no talking to these people, not only because their brothers are committing mass murder a few hundred miles away, but because there is not, and never has been, anything to talk to them about. We continue to go through the motions of state building, propping up Karzai’s deeply corrupt regime, pouring money and training into the Afghan National Security Forces (whose uniforms the Taliban who destroyed the courthouse were wearing), making good on our promises to the country. But as the endgame draws closer, the fragility of what we have made is painful to behold.
The Taliban gained the respect, however grudging, of millions of Afghans precisely because they had not done dirty deals with the West; they were not venal, they were the devout, pure, simple products of madrassas. Often it was true. They had memorised the Koran, but otherwise their education was often pitiful: I remember waiting for an exit visa in the office of the Taliban minister responsible, the last time they ran the place. It took so long, I was whisperingly informed by an aide, because he was illiterate.
The Taliban years are remembered for the brutality against women, the banning of all forms of entertainment and diversion, the public executions of blasphemers. All true. But equally true was the absence of any urge towards the creation of a modern country. These tribesmen squatted the British and Soviet ruins of Kabul much as our remote ancestors must have camped amid the crumbling villas left behind by the Romans. The key to their failure to evolve lies in the figure of Mullah Omar himself. Ever since, in 1996, when he donned a cloak supposedly once worn by the Prophet, fulfilling the legend that he would become the Leader of the Faithful, the Taliban have been stuck in their fanatical groove.
Wherever Islam rose to great power in the faith’s early days, whether in Arabia or what is now Turkey, it was because the leader succeeded in subsuming both piety and tribalism to the requirements of building a functioning state. The Ottomans did it through the Janissaries: kidnapped Christian children from the Balkans raised to be slave-administrators, free from all tribal ties. Often they rose to high rank, but could be sacked or executed on the whim of the Sultan.
Since 2002, NATO forces and the flood of experts and NGOs working under their protection have played the part of the Janissaries, a modern equivalent of those military and bureaucratic slaves who had no ties of kinship to the countryside, and who could therefore be depended upon to build courthouses, schools, hospitals and all the rest. But soon they will be gone. And the Taliban couldn’t care less.