[News] Afghanistan: The End of the Occupation

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Sun Aug 22 18:42:24 EDT 2021


  Afghanistan: The End of the Occupation

August 17, 2021

*Nancy Lindisfarne* and *Jonathan Neale* write: A lot of nonsense about 
Afghanistan is being written in Britain and the United States. Most of 
this nonsense hides a number of important truths.

First, the Taliban have defeated the United States.

Second, the Taliban have won because they have more popular support.

Third, this is not because most Afghans love the Taliban. It is because 
the American occupation has been unbearably cruel and corrupt.

Fourth, the War on Terror has also been politically defeated in the 
United States. The majority of Americans are now in favor of withdrawal 
from Afghanistan and against any more foreign wars.

Fifth, this is a turning point in world history. The greatest military 
power in the world has been defeated by the people of a small, 
desperately poor country. This will weaken the power of the American 
empire all over the world.

Sixth, the rhetoric of saving Afghan women has been widely used to 
justify the occupation, and many feminists in Afghanistan have chosen 
the side of the occupation. The result is a tragedy for feminism.

This article explains these points. Because this a short piece, we 
assert more than we prove. But we have written a great deal about 
gender, politics and war in Afghanistan since we did fieldwork there as 
anthropologists almost fifty years ago. We give links to much of this 
work at the end of this article, so you can explore our arguments in 
more detail.[1]

*A military victory*

This is a military and political victory for the Taliban. It is a 
military victory because the Taliban have won the war. For at least two 
years the Afghan government forces – the national army and the police – 
have been losing more people dead and wounded each month than they are 
recruiting. So those forces are shrinking.

Over the last ten years the Taliban have been taking control of more and 
more villages and some towns. In the last twelve days they have taken 
all the cities.

This was not a lightning advance through the cities and then on to 
Kabul. The people who took each city had long been in the vicinity, in 
the villages, waiting for the moment. Crucially, across the north the 
Taliban had been steadily recruiting Tajiks, Uzbeks and Arabs.

This is also a political victory for the Taliban. No guerilla insurgency 
on earth can win such victories without popular support.

But perhaps support is not the right word. It is more that Afghans have 
had to choose sides. And more of the Afghan people have chosen to side 
with the Taliban than have chosen the American occupiers. Not all of 
them, just more of them.

More Afghans have also chosen to side with the Taliban than with the 
Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani. Again, not all of them, but 
more than support Ghani. And more Afghans have chosen to side with the 
Taliban than with the old warlords. The defeat of Dostum in Sheberghan 
and Ismail Khan in Herat is stunning evidence of that.

The Taliban of 2001 were overwhelmingly Pushtuns, and their politics was 
Pushtun chauvinist. In 2021 Taliban fighters of many ethnicities have 
taken power in Uzbek and Tajik dominated areas.

The important exception is the Hazara dominated areas in the central 
mountains. We come back to this exception.

Of course, not all Afghans have chosen to side with the Taliban. This is 
a war against foreign invaders, but it is also a civil war. Many have 
fought for the Americans, the government or the warlords. Many more have 
made compromises with both sides to survive. And many others were not 
sure which side to take and are waiting with different mixtures of fear 
and hope to see what will happen.

Because this is a military defeat for American power, calls for Biden to 
do this or that are simply silly. If American troops had remained in 
Afghanistan, they would have had to surrender or die. This would be a 
even worse humiliation for American power than the current debacle. 
Biden, like Trump before him, was out of options.

*Why so many Afghans chose the Taliban*

The fact that more people have chosen the Taliban does not mean that 
most Afghans necessarily support the Taliban. It means that given the 
limited choices available, that is the choice they have made. Why?

The short answer is that the Taliban are the only important political 
organization fighting the American occupation, and most Afghans have 
come to hate that occupation.

It was not always thus. The US first sent bomber planes and a few troops 
to Afghanistan a month after 9/11. The US was supported by the forces of 
the Northern Alliance, a coalition of non-Pushtun warlords in the north 
of the country. But the soldiers and leaders of the Alliance were not 
actually prepared to fight alongside the Americans. Given the long 
history of Afghan resistance to foreign invasion, most recently to the 
Russian occupation from 1980 to 1987, that would just be too shameful.

On the other side, though, almost no one was prepared to fight to defend 
the Taliban government then in power. The troops of the Northern 
Alliance and the Taliban faced each other in a phony war. Then the US, 
the British and their foreign allies began to bomb.

The Pakistani military and intelligence services negotiated an end to 
the stalemate. The United States would be allowed to take power in Kabul 
and install a president of their choice. In return, the Taliban leaders 
and rank and file would be allowed to go home to their villages or into 
exile across the border in Pakistan.

This settlement was not widely publicized in the US and Europe at the 
time, for obvious reasons, but we reported on it, and it was widely 
understood in Afghanistan.

For best evidence for this negotiated settlement is what happened next. 
For two years there was no resistance to the American occupation. None, 
in any village. Many thousands of former Taliban remained in those villages.

This is an extraordinary fact. Think of the contrast with Iraq, where 
resistance was widespread from Day One of the occupation in 2003. Or 
think of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, met with the same 
wall of anger.

The reason was not simply that the Taliban were not fighting. It was 
that ordinary people, even in the Taliban heartland in the south, dared 
to hope that the American occupation would bring Afghanistan peace and 
develop the economy to end the terrible poverty.

Peace was crucial. By 2001 Afghans had been trapped in war for 
twenty-three years, first a civil war between communists and Islamists, 
then a war between Islamists and Soviet invaders, then a war between 
Islamist warlords, and then a war in the north of the country between 
Islamist warlords and the Taliban.

Twenty-three years of war meant death, maiming, exile and refugee camps, 
poverty, so many kinds of grief, and endless fear and anxiety. Perhaps 
the best book about what that felt like is Klaits and Gulmanadova 
Klaits, /Love and War in Afghanistan/ (2005). People were desperate for 
peace. By 2001 even Taliban supporters felt a bad peace was better than 
a good war.

Also, the United States was fabulously rich. Afghans believed the 
occupation could lead to development that would rescue them from poverty.

*Afghans waited. The US delivered war, not peace.*

The US and UK military occupied bases throughout the villages and small 
towns of the Taliban heartland, the mainly Pushtun areas of the south 
and east. These units were never told of the informal settlement 
negotiated between the Americans and the Taliban. They could not be 
told, because that would shame the government of President Bush. So the 
US units saw it as their mission to root out the remaining “bad guys”, 
who were obviously still there.

Night raids crashed through doors, humiliating and terrifying families, 
taking men away to be tortured for info about the other bad guys. It was 
here, and in black sites all over the world, that the American military 
and intelligence developed the new styles of torture that the world 
would briefly glimpse from Abu Ghraib, the American prison in Iraq.

Some of the men detained were Taliban who had not been fighting. Some 
were just people betrayed to the Americans by local enemies who coveted 
their land or held a grudge.

The American soldier Johnny Rico’s memoir /Blood Makes the Grass Grow 
Green/ provides a useful account of what then happened next. Outraged 
relatives and villagers took a few potshots at the Americans in the 
dark. The American military kicked in more doors and tortured more men. 
The villagers took more potshots. The Americans called in airstrikes and 
their bombs killed family after family.

War returned across the south and east of the country.

*Inequality and corruption spiraled.*

Afghans had hoped for development that could lift both the rich and the 
poor. It seemed like such an obvious, and such an easy thing to do. But 
they did not understand American policy abroad. And they did not 
understand the deep dedication of the 1% in the United States to 
spiraling inequality in their own country.

So American money poured into Afghanistan. But it went the people in the 
new government headed by Hamid Karzai. It went to the people working 
with the Americans and the occupying troops of other nations. And it 
went to the warlords and their entourages who were deeply involved in 
the international opium and heroin trade facilitated by the CIA and the 
Pakistani military. It went to the people lucky enough to own luxury, 
well-defended homes in Kabul they could rent out to expatriate staff. It 
went to the men and women who worked in foreign-funded NGOs.

Of course people in these groups all overlapped.

Afghans had long been used to corruption. They both expected it and 
hated it. But this time the scale was unprecedented. And in the eyes of 
the poor and middle income people, all the obscene new wealth, no matter 
how garnered, seemed to be corruption.

Over the last decade the Taliban have offered two things across the 
country. The first is that they are not corrupt, as they were also not 
corrupt in office before 2001. They are the only political force in the 
country this has ever been true of.

Critically, the Taliban have run an honest judicial system in the rural 
areas they have controlled. Their reputation is so high that many people 
involved in civil lawsuits in the cities have agreed that both parties 
will go to Taliban judges in the countryside. This allows them swift, 
cheap and fair justice without massive bribes. Because the justice was 
fair, both parties can live with it.

For people in Taliban-controlled areas, fair justice was also a 
protection against inequality. When the rich can bribe the judges, they 
can do anything they want to the poor. Land was the crucial thing. Rich 
and powerful men, warlords and government officials could seize or steal 
or cheat their way into control of the land of small farmers, and 
oppress the even poorer sharecroppers. But Taliban judges, everyone 
understood, were willing to rule for the poor.

Hatred of corruption, of inequality, and of the occupation merged together.

*20 Years On*

2001, when the Taliban fell to the Americans after 9/11, is twenty years 
ago now. Enormous changes happen to political mass movements over twenty 
years of war and crisis. The Taliban have learned and changed. How could 
it be otherwise. Many Afghans, and many foreign experts, have commented 
on this. Giustozzi has used the useful phrase neo-Taliban.[2]

This change, as publicly presented, has several aspects. The Taliban 
have realized that Pushtun chauvinism was a great weakness. They now 
emphasize that they are Muslims, brothers to all other Muslims, and that 
they want and have the support of Muslims of many ethnic groups.

But there has been a bitter split in Taliban forces over the last few 
years. A minority of Taliban fighters and supporters have allied 
themselves with Islamic State. The difference is that Islamic State 
launch terror attacks on Shias, Sikhs and Christians. The Taliban in 
Pakistan do the same, and so dp the small Haqqani network sponsored by 
Pakistani intelligence. But the Taliban majority have been reliable in 
condemning all such attacks.

We return to this division later, as it has implications for what will 
happen next.

The new Taliban have also emphasized their concerns for the rights of 
women. They say they welcome music, and videos, and have moderated the 
fiercest and most puritanical sides of their former rule. And they are 
now saying over and over again that they want to rule in peace, without 
revenge on the people of the old order.

How much of this is propaganda, and how much is truth, is hard to tell. 
Moreover, what happens next is deeply dependent on what happens to the 
economy, and on the actions of foreign powers. Of that, more later. Our 
point here is that Afghans have reasons for choosing the Taliban over 
the Americans, the warlords and Ashraf Ghani’s government.

*What About Rescuing Afghan Women?*

Many readers will now be feeling, insistently, but what about Afghan 
women? The answer is not simple.

We have to start by going back to the 1970s. Around the world, 
particular systems of gendered inequality are entangled with a 
particular system of class inequality. Afghanistan was no different.

Nancy did anthropological fieldwork with Pushtun women and men in the 
north of the country in the early 1970s. They lived by farming and 
herding animals. Nancy’s subsequent book, /Bartered Brides: Politics and 
Marriage in a Tribal Society/, explains the connections between class, 
gender and ethnic divisions at that time. And if you want to know what 
those women themselves thought about their lives, troubles and joys, 
Nancy and her former partner Richard Tapper have recently published 
/Afghan Village Voices/, a translation of many of the tapes that women 
and men made for them in the field.

That reality was complex, bitter, oppressive and full of love. In that 
deep sense, it was no different from the complexities of sexism and 
class in the United States. But the tragedy of the next half century 
would change much of that. That long suffering produced the particular 
sexism of the Taliban, which is not an automatic product of Afghan 

The history of this new turn starts in 1978. Then civil war began 
between the communist government and the Islamist mujahedin resistance. 
The Islamists were winning, so the Soviet Union invaded late in 1979 to 
back up the Communist government. Seven years of brutal war between the 
Soviets and the mujahedin followed. In 1987 the Soviet troops left, 

When we lived in Afghanistan, in the early 1970s, the communists were 
among the best people. They were driven by three passions. They wanted 
to develop the country. They wanted to break the power of the big 
landowners and share out the land. And they wanted equality for women.

But in 1978 the communists had taken power in a military coup, led by 
progressive officers. They had not won the political support of the 
majority of villagers, in an overwhelming rural country. The result was 
that the only ways they could deal with the rural Islamist resistance 
were arrest, torture and bombing. The more the communist led army did 
such cruelties, the more the revolt grew.

Then the Soviet Union invaded to prop up the communists. Their main 
weapon was bombing from the air, and large parts of the country became 
free fire zones. Between half a million and a million Afghans were 
killed. At least another million were maimed for life. Between six and 
eight million were driven into exile in Iran and Pakistan, and millions 
more became internal refugees. All this in a country of only twenty-five 
million people.

When they came to power, the first thing the communists tried to do were 
land reform and legislation for the rights of women. When the Russians 
invaded, the majority of communists sided with them. Many of those 
communists were women. The result was to smear the name of feminism with 
support for torture and massacre.

Imagine that the United States was invaded by a foreign power who killed 
between twelve million and twenty-four million Americans, tortured 
people in every town, and drove 100 million Americans into exile. 
Imagine also that almost all feminists in the United States supported 
the invaders. After that experience, how do you think most Americans 
would feel about a second invasion by another foreign power, or about 

How do you think most Afghan women feel about another invasion, this 
time by the Americans, justified by the need to rescue Afghan women? 
Remember, those statistics about the dead, the maimed and the refugees 
under Soviet occupation were not abstract numbers. They were living 
women, and their sons and daughters, husbands, brothers and sisters, 
mothers and fathers.

So when the Soviet Union left, defeated, most people breathed a sigh of 
relief. But then the local leaders of the mujahedin resistance to the 
communists and the invaders became local warlords and fought each other 
for the spoils of victory. The majority of Afghans had supported the 
mujahedin, but now they were disgusted by the greed, the corruption and 
the endless useless war.

*The Class and Refugee Background of the Taliban*

In the autumn of 1994, the Taliban had arrived in Kandahar, a mostly 
Pashtun city and the largest in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban were 
like nothing before in Afghan history. They were products of two 
quintessentially twentieth century innovations, aerial bombing and the 
refugee camps in Pakistan. They belonged to a different social class 
from the elites who had governed Afghanistan.

The Communists had been the sons and daughters of the urban middle 
classes and the middle level farmers in the countryside with enough land 
to call their own. They had been led by people who attended the 
country’s sole university in Kabul. They wanted to break the power of 
the big landowners and modernize the country.

The Islamists who fought the Communists had been men of similar class 
backgrounds, and mostly former students at the same university. They too 
wanted to modernize the country, but in a different way. And they looked 
to the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Alzhar University in Cairo.

The word Taliban means students in an Islamic school, not a state school 
or a university. The fighters of the Taliban who entered Kandahar in 
1994 were young men who had studied in the free Islamic schools in the 
refugee camps in Pakistan. They had been children with nothing.

The leaders of the Taliban were village mullahs from Afghanistan. They 
did not have the elite connections of many of the imams of city mosques. 
Village mullahs could read, and they were held in some respect by other 
villagers. But their social status was well below that of a landlord, or 
a high school graduate in a government office.

The Taliban were led by a committee of twelve men. All twelve had lost a 
hand, a foot or an eye to Soviet bombs in the war. The Taliban were, 
among other things, the party of poor and middling Pushtun village men. [3]

Twenty years of war had left Kandahar lawless and at the mercy of 
warring militias. The turning point came when the Taliban went after a 
local commander who had raped a boy and two (possibly three) women. The 
Taliban caught and hung him. What made their intervention striking was 
not just their determination to put an end to the murderous infighting 
and restore people’s dignity and safety, but their disgust at the 
hypocrisy of the other Islamists.

 From the first the Taliban were funded by the Saudis, the Americans and 
the Pakistani military. Washington wanted a peaceful country that could 
house oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia. The Taliban stood out 
because they brooked no exceptions to the injunctions they sought to 
impose, and the severity with which they enforced the rules.

Many Afghans were grateful for the return of order and a modicum of 
security, but the Taliban were sectarian and unable to control the 
country, and, in 1996, the Americans withdrew their support. When they 
did so, they unleashed a new, and deadly, version of Islamophobia 
against the Taliban.

Almost overnight, Afghan women were deemed helpless and oppressed, while 
Afghan men – aka the Taliban – were execrated as fanatical savages, 
paedophiles and sadistic patriarchs, hardly people at all.

For four years before 9/11 the Taliban had been targeted by the 
Americans, while feminists and others clamored for the protection of 
Afghan women. By the time the American bombing started, everyone was 
meant to understand that the Afghan women needed help. What could 
possibly go wrong?

*9/11 and the American War*

The bombing began on October 7th. Within days, the Taliban had been 
forced into hiding – or were literally castrated – as a photograph on 
the front page of the /Daily Mail/ crowed. The published images of the 
war were truly shocking in the violence and sadism they portrayed. Many 
people in Europe were appalled by the scale of the bombing and the utter 
carelessness of Afghan lives.[4]

Yet in the United States that autumn, the mixture of vengeance and 
patriotism meant dissenting voices were rare and mostly inaudible. Ask 
yourself, as Saba Mahmood did at the time, ‘Why were conditions of war, 
(migration, militarization) and starvation (under the mujahideen) 
considered to be less injurious to women than the lack of education, 
employment and most notably, in the media campaign, western dress styles 
(under the Taliban)?’ [5]

Then ask again even more fiercely – how could you possibly ‘save Afghan 
women’ by bombing a civilian population that included, along with the 
women themselves, their children, their husbands, fathers and brothers? 
It should have been the question that ended the argument, but it was not.

The most egregious expression of feminist Islamophobia came little over 
a month into the war. A vastly unequal war of revenge doesn’t look very 
good in the eyes of the world, so better to be doing something that 
looks virtuous. In anticipation of the American Thanksgiving holiday, on 
the 17th of November 2001, Laura Bush, the President’s wife, loudly 
lamented the plight of the veiled Afghan women. Cherie Blair, the 
British Prime Minister’s wife echoed her sentiments a few days later. 
These wealthy war-mongers’ wives were using the full weight of the 
Orientalist paradigm to blame the victims and justify a war against some 
of the poorest people on earth. And ‘Saving Afghan Women’ became the 
persistent cry of many liberal feminists to justify the American war.[6]

With the election of Obama in 2008, the chorus of Islamophobia became 
hegemonic among American liberals. That year the American anti-war 
alliance effectively dissolved itself to aid Obama’s campaign. Democrats 
and those feminists who supported Obama’s war hawk Secretary of State, 
Hillary Clinton, could not accept the truth that Afghanistan and Iraq 
were both wars for oil.[7]

They had only one justification for the endless wars of oil – the 
sufferings of Afghan women. The feminist spin was a clever ploy. It 
precluded comparisons between the undoubted sexist rule of the Taliban 
and sexisms in the United States. Far more shocking, the feminist spin 
domesticated and effectively displaced the ugly truths about a grossly 
unequal war. And it separated those notional ‘women to be saved’ from 
the tens of thousands of actual Afghan women, and men and children 
killed, wounded, orphaned or made homeless and hungry by the American bombs.

Many of our friends and family members in America are feminists who 
believed with decent hearts much of this propaganda. But they were being 
asked to support was a web of lies, a perversion of feminism. It was the 
feminism of the invader and the corrupt governing elite. It was the 
feminism of the torturers and the drones.

We believe another feminism is possible.

But it remains true that the Taliban are deeply sexist. Misogyny has won 
a victory in Afghanistan. But it did not have to be that way.

The communists who sided with the cruelties of the Soviet invaders had 
discredited feminism in Afghanistan for at least a generation. But then 
the United States invaded, and a new generation of Afghan women 
professionals sided with the new invaders to try to win rights for 
women. Their dream too has ended in collaboration, shame and blood. Some 
were careerists, of course, mouthing platitudes in exchange for funding. 
But many others were motivated by an honest and selfless dream. Their 
failure is tragic.

*Stereotypes and Confusions*

Outside Afghanistan, there is a great deal of confusion about 
stereotypes of the Taliban elaborated over the last twenty-five years. 
But think carefully when you hear the stereotypes that they are feudal, 
brutal and primitive. These are people with laptops, who have been 
negotiating with the Americans in Qatar for the last fourteen years.

The Taliban are not the product of medieval times. They are the product 
of some of the worst times of the late twentieth century and early 
twenty-first century. If they look backward in some ways to an imagined 
better time, that is not surprising. But they have been moulded by life 
under aerial bombardment, refugee camps, communism, the War of Terror, 
enhanced interrogation, climate change, internet politics and the 
spiralling inequality of neoliberalism. They live, like everyone else, now.

Their roots in a tribal society can also be confusing. But as Richard 
Tapper has argued, tribes are not atavistic institutions. They are the 
way that peasants in this part of the world organise their entanglement 
with the state. And the history of Afghanistan has never been simply a 
matter of competing ethnic groups, but rather of complex alliances 
across groups and divisions within groups.[8]

There is a set of prejudices on the left which incline some people to 
ask how the Taliban could be on the side of the poor and 
anti-imperialist if they are not “progressive”. Leave aside for the 
moment that the word progressive means little. Of course the Taliban are 
hostile to socialism and communism. They themselves, or their parents or 
grandparents, were killed and tortured by socialists and communists. 
Moreover, any movement that has fought a twenty-year guerrilla war and 
defeated a great empire is anti-imperialist, or words have no meaning.

Reality is what it is. The Taliban are a movement of poor peasants, 
against an imperial occupation, deeply misogynist, supported by many 
women, sometimes racist and sectarian, and sometimes not. That’s a 
bundle of contradictions produced by history.

Another source of confusion is the class politics of the Taliban. How 
can they be on the side of the poor, as they obviously are, and yet so 
bitterly opposed to socialism? The answer is that the experience of the 
Russian occupation stripped away the possibility of socialist 
formulations about class. But it did not change the reality of class. No 
one has ever built a mass movement among poor peasants that took power 
without being seen as on the side of the poor.

The Taliban talk not in the language of class, but in the language of 
justice and corruption. Those words describe the same side.

None of this means that the Taliban will necessarily rule in the 
interests of the poor. We have seen enough peasant revolts come to power 
in the last century and more, only to become governments by urban 
elites. And none of this should distract from the truth that the Taliban 
intend to be dictators, not democrats.

*A Historic Change in America*

The fall of Kabul marks a decisive defeat for American power around the 
world. But it also marks, or makes clear, a deep turning away from the 
American empire among Americans.

One piece of evidence is the opinion polls. In 2001, right after 9/11, 
between 85% and 90% of Americans approved of the invasion of 
Afghanistan. The numbers have been dropping steadily. Last month, 62% of 
Americans approved of Biden’s plan for total withdrawal, and 29% were 

This rejection of the war is common on both the right and the left. The 
working class base of the Republican Party and Trump are against foreign 
wars. Many soldiers and military families come from the rural areas and 
the south where Trump is strong. They are against any more wars, for it 
is they and those they loved who served, died and were wounded.

Right wing patriotism in America now is pro-military, but that means 
pro-soldier, not pro-war. When they say ‘Make America Great Again’, they 
mean that America is not great now for Americans, not that the US should 
be more engaged in the world.

Among Democrats, too, the working class base is against the wars.

There are people who support further military intervention. They are the 
Obama democrats, the Romney republicans, the generals, many liberal and 
conservative professionals, and almost everyone in the Washington elite. 
But the American people as a whole, and especially the working class, 
black, brown and white, have turned against the American Empire.

After the fall of Saigon, the American government was unable to launch 
major military interventions for the next fifteen years. It may well be 
longer after the fall of Kabul.

*The International Consequences*

Since 1918, 103 years ago, the United States has been the most powerful 
nation in the world. There have been competing powers – first Germany, 
then the Soviet Union and now China. But the US has been dominant. That 
‘American Century’ is now coming to an end.

The long-term reason is the economic rise of China and the relative 
economic decline of the United States. But the covid pandemic and the 
Afghan defeat make the last two years a turning point.

The covid pandemic has revealed the institutional incompetence of the 
ruling class, and the government, of the United States. The system has 
failed to protect the people. This chaotic and shameful failure is 
obvious to people around the world.

Then there’s Afghanistan. If you judge by expenditure and hardware the 
United States is overwhelmingly the dominant military power globally. 
That power has been defeated by poor people in sandals in a small 
country who have nothing but endurance and courage.

The Taliban victory will also give heart to Islamists of many different 
sorts in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, 
Tajikistan and Mali. But it will be true more widely than that.

Both the covid failure and the Afghan defeat will reduce the soft power 
of the US. But Afghanistan is also a defeat for hard power. The strength 
of the informal empire of the United States has relied for a century on 
three different pillars. One is being the largest economy in the world, 
and domination of the global financial system. The second is a 
reputation in many quarters for democracy, competence and cultural 
leadership. The third was that if soft power failed, the United States 
would invade to support dictatorships and punish its enemies.

That military power is gone now. No government will believe that the US 
can rescue them from a foreign invader, or from their own people. Drone 
killings will continue and cause great suffering. But nowhere will 
drones on their own be militarily decisive.

This is the beginning of the end of the American century.

*What Happens Now?*

No one knows what will happen in Afghanistan in the next few years. But 
we can identify some of the pressures.

First, and most hopeful, is the deep longing for peace in the hearts of 
Afghans. They have now lived through forty-three years of war. Think how 
only five or ten years of civil war and invasion have scarred so many 
countries. Now think of forty-three years.

Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar, the three most important cities, have all 
fallen without any violence. This is because the Taliban, as they keep 
saying, want a country at peace, and they do not want revenge. But it is 
also because the people who do not support, indeed those who hate the 
Taliban, also chose not to fight.

The Taliban leaders are clearly aware they must deliver peace.

For that it is also essential that the Taliban continue to deliver fair 
justice. Their record is good. But the temptations and pressures of 
government have corrupted many social movements in many countries before 

Economic collapse is also quite possible. Afghanistan is a poor and arid 
country, where less than 5% of the land can be farmed. In the last 
twenty years the cities have swelled immensely. That growth has been 
dependent on money flowing from the occupation, and to a lesser extent 
money from growing opium. Without very substantial foreign aid from 
somewhere, economic collapse will threaten.

Because the Taliban know this, they have been explicitly offering the 
United States a deal. The Americans will give aid, and in return the 
Taliban will not provide a home for terrorists who could launch attacks 
like 9/11. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have accepted this 
deal. But it is not at all clear that the US will keep that promise.

Indeed, something worse is entirely possible. Previous US 
administrations have punished Iraq, Iran, Cuba and Vietnam for their 
defiance with long running and destructive economic sanctions. There 
will be many voices raised in the US for such sanctions, to starve 
Afghan children in the name of human rights.

Then there is the threat of international meddling, of different powers 
supporting different political or ethnic forces inside Afghanistan. The 
United States, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, Russia and 
Uzbekistan will all be tempted. It has happened before, and in a 
situation of economic collapse it could provoke proxy wars.

For the moment, though, the governments of Iran, Russia and Pakistan 
clearly want peace in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have also promised not to rule with cruelty. That is easier 
said than done. Confronted with families who have amassed great fortunes 
through corruption and crime, what do you think the poor soldiers from 
the villages will want to do?

And then there is climate. In 1971 a drought and famine across the north 
and center devastated flocks, crops and lives. It was the first sign of 
the effects of climate change on the region, which has brought further 
droughts over the last fifty years. Over the medium and long term, 
farming and herding will become more precarious.[9]

All these dangers are real. But the often insightful security expert 
Antonio Giustozzi is in touch with the thinking among both the Taliban 
and foreign governments and the Taliban. His article in /The Guardian/ 
on August 16 was hopeful. He ended it:

/Since most of the neighbouring countries want stability in Afghanistan, 
at least for the time being any fissures in the new coalition government 
are unlikely to be exploited by external actors to create rifts. 
Similarly, the 2021 losers will struggle to find anybody willing or able 
to support them in starting some kind of resistance. As long as the new 
coalition government includes key allies of its neighbours, this is the 
beginning of a new phase in the history of Afghanistan.*[10]*/

*What Can You Do? Welcome Refugees*.

Many people in the West now are asking, “What can we do to help Afghan 
women?” Sometimes this question assumes that most Afghan women oppose 
the Taliban, and most Afghan men support them. This is nonsense. It is 
almost impossible to imagine the kind of society in which that would be 

But there is a narrower question here. Specifically, how can they help 
Afghan feminists?

This is a valid and decent question. The answer is to organize to buy 
them airplane tickets and give them refuge in Europe and North America.

But it is not just feminists who will need asylum. Tens of thousands of 
people who worked for the occupation are desperate for asylum, with 
their families. So are larger numbers of people who worked for the 
Afghan government.

Some of these people are admirable, some are corrupt monsters, many lie 
in between, and many are just children. But there is a moral imperative 
here. The United States and the NATO countries have created immense 
suffering for twenty years. The least, the very least, they should do it 
rescue the people whose lives they have wrecked.

There is another moral issue here too. What many Afghans have learned in 
the last forty years has also been clear in the last decade of the 
torment of Syria. It is all too easy to understand the accidents of 
background and personal history which lead people to do the things they 
do. Humility compels us to look at the young communist woman, the 
educated feminist working for an NGO, the suicide bomber, the American 
marine, the village mullah, the Taliban fighter, the bereaved mother of 
a child killed by American bombs, the Sikh money changer, the policeman, 
the poor farmer growing opium, and to say, there but for the grace of 
God go I.

The failure of the American and British governments to rescue the people 
who worked for them has been both shameful and revealing. It is not 
really a failure, but a choice. Racism against immigration has weighed 
more strongly with Johnson and Biden than the debts of humanity.

Campaigns to welcome Afghans are still possible. Of course such a strong 
moral argument will come up against racism and Islamophobia at every 
turn. But in the last week the governments of Germany and Netherlands 
have both suspended any deportations of Afghans.

Every politician, anywhere, who speaks in support of Afghan women must 
be asked, again and again, to open the borders to all Afghans.

And then there is what might happen to the Hazaras. As we have said, the 
Taliban have stopped being simply a Pushtun movement and have gone 
national, recruiting many Tajiks and Uzbeks. And also, they say, some 
Hazaras. But not many.

The Hazaras are the people who traditionally lived in the central 
mountains. Many also migrated to cities like Mazar and Kabul, where they 
worked as porters and in other low paid jobs. They are about 15% of the 
Afghan population. The roots of enmity between Pushtuns and Hazaras lie 
partly in long standing disputes over land and rights to grazing.

But more recently it also matters a good deal that Hazaras are Shias, 
and almost all other Afghans are Sunnis.

The bitter conflicts between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq have led to a 
split in the militant Islamist tradition. This split is complicated, but 
important, and needs a bit of explanation.

In both Iraq and in Syria the Islamic State have committed massacres 
against Shias, just as Shia militias have massacred Sunnis in both 

The more traditional Al Qaeda networks have remained staunchly opposed 
to attacking Shias and argued for solidarity between Muslims. People 
often point out that Osama Bin Laden’s mother was herself a Shia – 
actually an Alawite from Syria. But the necessity of unity has been more 
important. This was the main issue in the split between Al Qaeda and the 
Islamic State.

In Afghanistan the Taliban have also argued strongly for Islamic unity. 
The sexual exploitation of women by Islamic State is also deeply 
repugnant to Taliban values, which are deeply sexist but puritanical and 
modest. For many years the Afghan Taliban have been consistent in their 
public condemnation of all terror attacks on Shias, Christians and Sikhs.

Yet those attacks happen. The ideas of Islamic State have had a 
particular influence on the Pakistani Taliban. The Afghan Taliban are an 
organization. The Pakistani Taliban are a looser network, not controlled 
by the Afghans. They have carried out repeated bombings against Shias 
and Christians in Pakistan.

It is Islamic State and the Haqqani network who have carried out the 
recent racist terror bombings of Hazaras and Sikhs in Kabul. The Taliban 
leadership have condemned all those attacks.

But the situation is in flux. Islamic State in Afghanistan is a minority 
breakaway from the Taliban, largely based in Ningrahar province in the 
east. They are bitterly anti-Shia. So are the Haqqani network, a 
long-standing mujahedin group largely controlled by Pakistani military 
intelligence. Yet in the present mix, the Haqqani network have been 
integrated into the Taliban organization, and their leader is one of the 
leaders of the Taliban.

But no one can be sure what the future holds. In 1995 an uprising of 
Hazara workers in Mazar prevented the Taliban gaining control of the 
north. But Hazara traditions of resistance go much deeper and further 
back than that.

Hazara refugees in neighboring countries may also be in danger now. The 
government of Iran are allying with the Taliban, and begging them to be 
peaceful. They are doing this because there are about three million 
Afghan refugees already in Iran. Most of them have been there for years, 
most are poor urban workers and their families, and the majority are 
Hazaras. Recently the Iranian government, in desperate economic 
straights themselves, have begun deporting Afghans back to Afghanistan.

There are about a million Hazara refugees in Pakistan too. In the region 
around Quetta more than 5,000 of them have been killed in sectarian 
assassinations and massacres in the last few years. The Pakistani police 
and army do nothing. Given the long support of the Pakistani army and 
intelligence for the Afghan Taliban, those people will be at greater 
risk right now.

What should you do, outside Afghanistan? Like most Afghans, pray for 
peace. And join protests for open borders.

We will leave the last word to Graham Knight. His son, Sergeant Ben 
Knight of the British Royal Air Force, was killed in Afghanistan in 
2006. This week Graham Knight told the Press Association the UK 
government should have moved quickly to rescue civilians:

  “/We’re not surprised that the Taliban have taken over because as soon 
as the Americans and the British said they were going to leave, we knew 
this was going to happen. The Taliban made their intent very clear that, 
as soon as we went out, they would move in./

/As for whether people’s lives were lost through a war that wasn’t 
winnable, I think they were. I think the problem was we were fighting 
people that were native to the country. We weren’t fighting terrorists, 
we were fighting people who actually lived there and didn’t like us 
being there.”/ [11]


Fluri, Jennifer L. and Rachel Lehr. 2017. /The Carpetbaggers of Kabul 
and Other American-Afghan Entanglements/. Athens OH: University of 
Georgia Press.

Giustozzi, Antonio. 2007. /Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The 
Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan/. London: Hurst.

—, ed. 2009. /Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field/. 
London: Hurst.

—, 2021. ‘The Taliban have retaken Afghanistan – this time, how will 
they rule it?’ /The Guardian/, August 16.

Gregory, Thomas. 2011. ‘Rescuing the Women of Afghanistan: Gender, 
Agency and the Politics of Intelligibility/./’University of Manchester 
PhD thesis.**

Hirschkind, Charles and Saba Mahmood. 2002. ‘Feminism, the Taliban and 
the Politics of Counterinsurgency.’ /Anthropological Quarterly/, 75(2): 

Hughes, Dana. 2012. ‘The First Ladies Club: Hillary Clinton and Laura 
Bush for the Women of Afghanistan.’ /ABC News/, March 21.

Jalalzai, Zubeda and David Jefferess, eds. 2011. /Globalizing 
Afghanistan: Terrorism, War, and the Rhetoric of Nation Building/. 
Durham: Duke University Press.

Klaits, A. & G. Gulmanadova-Klaits. 2005. /Love and War in Afghanistan/, 
New York: Seven Stories.

Kolhatkar, Sonali and James Ingalls. 200. /Bleeding Afghanistan/: 
/Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence/. New York: Seven 

Lindisfarne, Nancy. 2002a. ‘Gendering the Afghan War.’ /Eclipse: The 
Anti-War Review/, 4: 2-3.

—. 2002b. ‘Starting from Below: Fieldwork. Gender and Imperialism Now.’ 
Critique of Anthropology, 22(4): 403-423, and in Armbruster and Laerke, 

—. 2012. ‘Exceptional Pashtuns?’ Class Politics, Imperialism and 
Historiography.’ In Marsden and Hopkins.

Lindisfarne, Nancy and Jonathan Neale, 2015./‘/Oil Empires and 
Resistance in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.’ /Anne Bonny Pirate/.

—. 2019. ‘Oil, Heat and Climate Jobs in the MENA Region.’ In 
/Environmental Challenges in the MENA Region: The Long Road from 
Conflict to Cooperation/, edited by Hamid Pouran and Hassan Hakimian, 
72-94. London: Ginko.

Manchanda, Nivi. 2020. /Imagining Afghanistan: The History and Politics 
of Imperial Knowledge/. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marsden, Magnus and Benjamin Hopkins, eds. 2012. /Beyond Swat: History, 
Society and Economy along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontier/. London: Hurst.

Mihailovič, Konstantin. 1975. /Memoirs of a Janissary/. Ann Arbor: 
University of Michigan Press. **

Mount, Ferdinand. 2008. /Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes/. 
London: Bloomsbury.

Mousavi, Sayed Askar, 1998. /The Hazaras of Afghanistan: An Historical, 
Cultural, Economic and Political Study/. London: Curzon.

Neale, Jonathan. 1981. ‘The Afghan Tragedy.’ /International Socialism/, 
12: 1-32. *//*

—. 1988. ‘Afghanistan: The Horse Changes Riders,’ /Capital and Class/, 
35: 34-48.

—. 2002. ‘The Long Torment of Afghanistan.’ /International 
Socialism/ 93: 31-59.

—. 2008. ‘Afghanistan: The Case Against “the Good War”.’ /International 
Socialism/, 120: 31-60.

Nojumi, Neamatollah. 2002. /The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan/. New 
York: Palgrave.

Rico, Johnny. 2007. /Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green: A Year in the 
Desert with Team America/. New York: Presidio.

Tapper (Lindisfarne), Nancy. 1991. /Bartered Brides: Politics, Gender 
and Marriage in an Afghan Tribal Society/. Cambridge: Cambridge 
University Press.

Tapper, Richard, ed. 1983. /The Conflict of Tribe and State in Iran and 
Afghanistan/. London: Croom Helm.

Tapper, Richard, with Nancy Lindisfarne. 2020. /Afghan Village Voices: 
Stories from a Tribal Community/. London: I.B. Tauris.

The Guardian, 2021. ‘Afghanistan Live News.’ August 16.

Ward, Lucy, 2001. ‘Leader’s Wives Join Propaganda War.’ /The Guardian,/ 
Nov 17.

Zaeef, Abdul, 2010. /My Life with the Taliban/. London: Hirst.

Zilizer, Barbie. 2005. ‘Death in Wartime: Photographs and the ‘Other 
War’ in Afghanistan.’ /The Harvard International Journal of 
Press/Politics/, 10(3): 26-55.


[1] See especially Nancy Tapper (Lindisfarne), 1991; Lindisfarne, 2002a, 
2002b and 2012; Lindisfarne and Neale, 2015; Neale, 1981, 1988, 2002 and 
2008; Richard Tapper with Lindisfarne, 2020.

[2] Giustozzi, 2007 and 2009 are especially useful.

[3] On the class basis of the Taliban, see Lindisfarne, 2012, and many 
chapters by other authors in Marsden and Hopkins, 2012. And see 
Moussavi, 1998; Nojumi, 2002; Giustozzi, 2008 and 2009; Zareef, 2010.

[4] Zilizer, 2005.

[5] There is a vast literature on saving Afghan women. See Gregory, 
2011; Lindisfarne, 2002a; Hirschkind and Mahmood, 2002; Kolhatkar and 
Ingalls, 2006; Jalalzai and Jefferess,2011; Fluri and Lehr, 2017; 
Manchanda, 2020.

[6] Ward, 2001.

[7] Lindisfarne and Neale, 2015

[8] Richard Tapper, 1983.

[9] For the drought in 1971, see Tapper and Lindisfarne, 2020. For more 
recent climate change, see Lindisfarne and Neale, 2019.

[10] Giustozzi, 2021.

[11] The Guardian, 2021.

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