General Sir Nick Carter betrayed those who fought for freedom in Afghanistan when he recently said that the Taliban were ‘country boys, who live by a code of honour’, fighting for an ‘inclusive’ country.
Twenty-five years ago, when the Taliban took over Kabul, they declared that it was not going to take revenge, instead offering amnesty to anyone who had worked for the former government. The exact statement assured the population that the ‘Taliban will not take revenge, we have no personal rancour’.
Soon after that promise was made, the ousted president Mohammad Najibullah was castrated and strung up from a lamppost at the centre of Kabul. So maybe the reports in the last few days from Kabul may seem reassuring to those unfamiliar with the country’s history but it sure doesn’t convince those who know the country.
In the Taliban’s first ever press conference, they have said women can study and work and that they will guarantee human rights and freedom of expression, so long as they comply with sharia — which implies that they don’t believe that Afghans have been following it so far. And yes maybe the Taliban spokesperson consented to an interview with a female television presenter whose face was visible, but the Taliban own Afghanistan now. And it needs to avoid anything that resembles chaos, right?
They are calling for people to get back to work, including police formerly loyal to the previous government, ordering them to report to duty. Family and friends in Kabul are telling me that the Taliban are in the streets acting as ‘guarantors of public order’. This is exactly the message that Mullah Omar tried to impart in 1996, telling residents of Kabul to resist the temptation to flee and that the Taliban will keep them safe. Since the movement was founded, the Taliban have also operated in this way — by showing that when the country was beset by murderers, rapists, looters, the group won its followers by providing order when anarchy reigned.
But the Taliban have always returned to their core identity and beliefs. The Taliban are evil and cruel, but they are not fools, and trying to seem kinder and gentler now does not mean that they will be any less vengeful when foreign evacuation is complete and the world has officially left Afghanistan. Even today, outside of Kabul and away from the eyes of the world, there are already reports of executions and brutality.
Biden’s speech last week was noted for its lack of sentimentality about the thousands of Afghans left to the mercies of the Taliban. But its incoherence should be noted too. He claimed that the United States had no business trying to build a durable and democratic government; it sought only to keep the country terrorist-free. But Afghanistan’s availability as a sanctuary for terrorists is, to say the least, related to its status as a backward tribal-ridden wasteland. Turning Afghanistan into a healthy democracy required endurance — you can’t change a society overnight — and 20 years is nothing when it comes to nation-building.
Americans like to think that they have valiantly tried to bring democracy to Afghanistan. But, so the narrative goes, Afghanistan just wasn’t ready for it, or didn’t care enough about democracy to bother defending it. Or we’ll repeat the cliche that Afghans have always rejected foreign intervention; that Washington is just the latest in a long line. This is all wrong. The people of Afghanistan did not reject the international community’s efforts. They looked to you as exemplars of democracy and the rule of law.
Who is Biden trying to delude? The people didn’t kick you out, you chose to leave. And now the West is trying to justify its exit by convincing us the Taliban have changed.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan 20 years ago, it implemented a programme of startling simplicity: a law-and-order government according to an interpretation of Islamic law — relaxed and inclusive. But its actions suggest that nothing has really changed and the Taliban will turn Afghanistan into a place just as miserable for its people, and for the rest of the world, as it ever was. And the United States has all but announced that they are willing to let that happen.
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