Opinion: Our misunderstanding of Afghanistan led to the Taliban’s return

By James Snell

I cannot begin to count how many times, when talking to a policymaker, a journalist or an ordinary person in Britain, that they have tried to tell me that it’s pointless to oppose the Taliban in Afghanistan, because the Taliban are somehow ‘natural’ or ‘essential’ to the country. They believe that the Taliban are so innate to Afghanistan that they could never be beaten or marginalised.

Some have gone further: ‘all Afghans are potential Taliban’, I have been assured. ‘Deep down’, some insist, ‘Afghans are all alike’. It gets worse.

Others told me that Afghan traditions are essentially Taliban traditions. Afghan views of masculinity are essentially Taliban ideas of masculinity. A country ‘like Afghanistan’, it has been put to me, grows Taliban as freely as other countries grow grass. Rather than a single group, the Taliban personifies eternal Afghan truths. Fighting the Taliban, therefore, is like trying to fight the passage of time.

Just to be clear, none of these people overtly supported the Taliban. They did not agree with their religion or their politics. But they regretfully concluded that since the Taliban meant ‘Afghanistan’ to their minds, it was mistaken to try to keep them from taking power.

Foolish as this is, it gets even more destructive.

A British general – the then-chief of the defence staff Sir Nick Carter – said when the Taliban advanced on Kabul in 2021 that they were, in effect, ‘country boys’ with old fashioned manners who lived by a ‘code of honour’.

They weren’t, for example, a foreign-backed terrorist group.

The Taliban code of honour, Carter went on to say, disliked bad and corrupt governance. So those things would not be allowed when the Taliban took power. 

And in any case, the general airily said without evidence, the Taliban were moderating. They would be good boys and faithful partners.

He should have been instantaneously fired for giving that interview. But he was not. No one at the ministry of defence said anything.

But before the Taliban’s capturing of major cities in July 2021, Carter seemed to understand some of the complexities of Afghanistan and the Taliban’s place in it. He argued in a interview that the group’s ‘narrative does not resonate in arguably 80% of the population according to recent polling, particularly among the 60% who are not Pashtun.’

These statements are born of deep and uncritical ignorance. But they are widely believed. And unquestionably, these attitudes are a significant reason why the wider world – the NATO countries especially – were militarily defeated in Afghanistan and betrayed their friends and allies in Afghanistan as they fled.

Both before the September 11 attacks and in the decades since, Westerners have had chances to learn about Afghanistan. They could have learnt about its history, diversity, and the varied ambitions of its people.

If they had done so they might have discarded stereotypes. 

But very few did. And even those who thought they had learnt things did not. They preferred stereotypes and ignorance – because they made them feel better about their own failures and the failures of their countries.

Very few people in the West know that the Taliban is a relatively young organisation – barely older than I am. Even fewer understand that it was born of a particular set of circumstances after the ruinous Soviet invasion was finally defeated. 

Instead, many policymakers, journalists, and more describe the Taliban as an ‘ancient’ force which cannot be resisted, let alone by ‘modern’ ideas of women’s rights, political freedom and economic growth. 

‘Real Afghans’ don’t want women’s rights; I have been repeatedly told. Which would come as a surprise to the Afghan men protesting against women being banned from universities in recent days.

For most of this century, Westerners who have wanted to forget the rest of the world have done so largely through stereotyping. They called the Balkans, the Middle East and Asia places of ‘ancient hatreds’, where the influence of foreign countries could have little effect. 

In order to justify leaving the former Yugoslavia to genocide, Afghanistan to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Iraq to Saddam Hussein, Libya to Colonel Gaddafi, Syria to Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State, and so on, commentators had to paint each of these countries as barbarous places filled with savages whose lives could never change, no matter what actually happened there.

Many, including the American president – attempted to convince others of their intelligence by calling Afghanistan a metaphysical ‘graveyard of empires’. In effect, they pretended that the ancestors of the Taliban beat the British in the 1840s, and even fought off invaders in the time of Alexander the Great. Laugh all you like – but they really do believe it.

Many westerners truly believe that it was the Taliban who fought the Soviet invasion in 1979. They are shocked to hear that this is not true. 

They do not believe you – and respond belligerently – if you tell them that foreign countries could not have armed or funded the Taliban before 1989 because the Taliban did not exist.

If the Western countries understood that Afghanistan meant more than the Taliban, they would not have given Afghanistan over to the Taliban. But sadly, they did. 

And now the Taliban is in power, and finds governing increasingly difficult and even impossible, perhaps we may soon hear from the very same people that the Taliban is a modern imposition on Afghans, and the true, ancient essence of Afghanistan is best embodied by the Islamic State.

James Snell is a Senior Advisor for Special Initiatives at the New Lines Institute. He is writing a book on the war in AfghanistanHe tweets at @James_P_Snell.

Opinions reflect the views of authors, not KabulNow.