Afghanistan was never a democracy. It was barely even a state, after the destruction of the left-wing government in 1992. A government that showed persistence after the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops: but the USA showed no interest in signing it up.
The Afghan state died in 1992. It was followed by a squabble of greedy warlords, with the Taliban emerging from 1994 as a counter to the chaos. And the USA, having encouraged Islamic extremists like Bin Laden, then let the Afghans suffer.
The failure from 1992 led many to fear a repeat in 2021. There was no confident that you’d get a decent government with the US military gone.
The big errors were made in the 1990s, and through to 2003. Rather than help Afghanistan when help was needed, the USA inflicted vast sufferings on Iraq. They failed to see that Saddam Hussein was the only sort of leader who could actually impose Western values on a collection of former subjects of the Ottoman Empire.
Iraq’s state brutality and use of poison gas was not a problem when Iraq was needed in the Cold War. The West saved Saddam in 1987, when his war against Iran failed. But by 1990, the Soviet Union had lost Eastern Europe and the Cold War was over. The USA quietly undermined Mobutu in Zaire / Congo, Suharto in Indonesia, and Ceausescu in Romania. They went along with the European Union’s encouragement of the break-up of Former Yugoslavia. And there was a mysterious flood of evidence that destroyed Italy’s Christian Democrats. A general willingness to discard allies tolerated during the Cold War.
It was not a sudden determination to push democracy. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States were much more alien to Western values. But also useful in terms of power-politics, and never very serious in their nominal hostility to Israel.
The welfare of Afghans and Iraqis was ignored. This bred al-Qaeda, and it bred the Taliban. But these were two very different movements, not really friendly to each other.
After the attack on the Two Towers, the USA demanded that the Taliban hand over al-Qaeda. The Taliban, at that time getting close to official recognition, demanded that the case be proven under their system of Islamic justice. Why this was not done is unclear: had the Taliban courts ended up declaring them innocent then the Taliban would have looked very bad, and the US case would have been vastly stronger. But it seems that the USA at the time believed the popular nonsense of the End of History – that now everyone must accept the West’s version of Capitalism and Parliamentary Democracy.
A better understanding would have been to see Soviet Marxism, European Fascism and the New Deal / Keynesian system as variations on a theme, with most of the world’s cultures much more alien. The pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan was the best hope there, and people with similar values in Eastern Europe often became the best agents of US values in the 1990s. The biggest challengers have been dedicated right-wingers in Poland and Hungary.
Being over-confident fools, the West signed up a gaggle of mostly-northern warlords as ‘Democratic Afghanistan’, and drove out the Taliban. What has happened since has been a long slow process of converting the diverse peoples of the north to Taliban values.
But the real killer was the failure to make anything resembling a modern state:
“A consistent impediment to long-lasting prosperity came in the shape of entrenched corruption — fuelled by unaccountable dollar inflows and weak governance structures — and a free-for-all underground money and exchange business dedicated to lubricating the opium trade. The biggest blow in terms of financial confidence came in 2010 when the Kabul Bank, which was responsible for paying 80 per cent of government employees and part owned by one of then president Hamid Karzai’s brothers, almost collapsed after almost a billion dollars was pilfered from its asset base by connected Afghan elites.
“The fraud proved to be one of the world’s biggest bank failures and irretrievably broke down trust in the fledgling Afghan financial system, setting back the formal economy and forcing it ever more into the shadows. In hindsight, it was a crucial pivot point in Afghanistan’s fate.
“As the Washington Post explained in 2019, it was also embarrassing for the Americans because so much of the stolen money had originated from US-aid programmes:”[A]
The US seizure of Afghanistan in 2001 was followed by an invasion of Iraq in 2003. Each was to be an ideal Capitalist Democracy that would also be friendly to Israel. So they intentionally trashed a Baath state that could have been re-used for US aims. A contrast to how the state machines of West Germany, Italy and Japan were taken over after World War Two. Lightly reformed, they became successful Cold War allies.
Back then, New Deal / Keynesian values were the Received Wisdom. The wisdom of the New Right was that these were disastrous choices which only coincidentally gave the West its Cold War victory.[B] The geniuses of the New Right could do much better.
I might day-dream of infiltrating US think-tanks and tricking them into suicidal policies. But for both Afghanistan and Iraq, I failed to think of anything that was not actually done by right-wingers who seemed sincere. It is hard to imagine a genuine infiltrator suggesting a new Iraqi flag with two narrow crossbars that gave it an unfortunate similarity to the flag of Israel. And most of what they did would have worked, if the standard New Right vision had been anything like true. So though I’d be glad to set the beasts quarrelling, the foolish advice was probably well-meant folly.
‘Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas’ is an old rule for personal conduct. And for state-building, if you work just with those who’ll tell you what you want to hear. Who mostly believe nothing very much and just want those gigantic funds the USA kept dishing out.
That’s not every pro-US person in Afghanistan. Obviously not. But most of the men with the power were just like that. The historic victims were Afghan women, given unrealistic hopes. The USA ought to take them in now, with their hopes being cut short. Sadly, most will be left with nowhere to go.
It had long been known that the vast sums given to build an Afghan police and army were largely siphoned off by corrupt officials.[C] Troops on the ground were badly paid and might even be short of ammunition. The USA sensibly decided it was a lost cause. Trump decided on the pull-out that Biden was left to implement.
A common US judgement was that the regime they left behind would last a year or two before collapsing. But regional Afghan forces made the same calculation. They crumbled quickly when the Taliban offered them decent terms for quitting.
Afghanistan under US control made no economic progress. It has enormous mineral wealth, but this has barely been touched. Without a strong state, nothing could happen. But the US policy was to distrust state action and hope it would all happen somehow.
Spontaneous self-organisation to something superior happens just as a very rare accident. The New Right are rooted in a belief that these rare accidents are normal, and that observable reality is a series of strange accidents. A view swallowed by New Labour, with Tony Blair guilty of the Afghan and Iraqi folly.
And then there’s democracy. Or rather, the parody of democracy that actually happened.
The just-vanished Afghan government did go through the rituals of open elections. But to call it democracy is to empty the word of all meaning. Democracy is rule by the people, and the people never ruled.
It was a government that hardly anyone cared to die for. Democracies have citizens who often think that life wouldn’t be worth living without the freedoms they have. But few Afghans felt like that: perhaps none.
It gets forgotten that Europe’s system of parliaments go back to mediaeval times, but were always for a rich minority. In Britain, a majority of adult males got the vote in the 1880s.[D] It stayed stable, because everyone was used to it.
Theoretical democracy need not translate into real People Power.
You can trick a population into voting for poverty and powerlessness: that happens repeatedly in Europe and the USA. But you should not expect them to be happy with it. Nor be surprised at repeated outbreaks of right-wing populism, most of it self-harming. And that is within long-evolved societies. Places where much is still solid after four decades of New Right abuse.
Afghanistan is one of many mountain regions where people dislike the very notion of modern government. Most of the local Modernism was bound up with the pro-Soviet government, and was damaged by the Soviet Union invading in a belief they could manage better. Destroyed when that regime fell, with nothing very much replacing it.
For Afghanistan, you needed someone like Saddam Hussein. But our leaders are still congratulating themselves on having removed him.
They have mostly learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.
It is of course possible that British Labour will remember that Corbyn was one of the minority that were solidly against the follies of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Taliban have been helped by the general Afghan dislike of government of any sort.
This makes it hard to actually become the new government. And certainly helped the USA overthrow them 20 years back.
The Taliban must know that much of the population does not share their hard-line Islamic views. They despised the old government, despite having nominally chosen it through a Western-style election. But in a state full of minorities and armed men, a guerrilla opposition could easily start. There are already claims.[E] These could be encouraged by US money.
Or even Chinese money, if the Taliban help the exiled Islamic extremists that the Chinese government suppressed in Xinjiang. Extremists whom the West pretended did not exist in their long campaign against efficient government action there.[F] The Western media remembered them when they got sudden hopes for something else to damage China’s steady rise.
China has sought a deal with the Taliban, and appeared to have one. But at the time of writing – 24th August – it seems that Taliban promises of a general amnesty are not being kept. Though this may be undisciplined local forces taking revenge.
It does not help that so many in the West think they can still coerce Afghanistan after the shallow pro-Western government had evaporated.
Everyone talks about controlling abuse by companies that are a mushroom growth within the new technology of the Internet.
Technology that flowered from free-spending government support for research that seemed to have no commercial prospects. The package-switching that made the internet cheap and easy began as a military project called ARPANET.[G] The advance to regular pages of data with simple links was made as a personal project at CERN: a centre for subatomic research that had no practical ends in view.[H]
Allowing the web to become capitalist speeded developments, because dozens of hopeful hard-working people covered all the possibilities, with just a few becoming hugely rich and powerful.
The West talks about control, but has mostly not managed it.
China, by contrast, is being serious. The intelligent fans of capitalism at The Economist are appalled, which is usually a good sign.[I]
And China also adds controls on popular culture:
“China to ban karaoke songs with ‘illegal content’
“In 2015, the ministry released a blacklist of 120 songs that ‘trumpeted obscenity, violence, crime or harmed social morality’.
“Songs like ‘Beijing Hooligans’, ‘Suicide Diary’ and ‘Don’t want to go to school’ were among those described as having ‘severely problematic content’, according to a report by state media outlet Global Times.
“According to one CNN report, a song called ‘Fart’ was also blacklisted. The lyrics of the song read: ‘There are some people in the world who like farting while doing nothing.’”[J]
This contrasts with the Western approach – moan at degrading and sometimes dangerous culture, but get hysterical when anyone does anything about it.
“China’s Xi calls for wealth redistribution and clampdown on high incomes
“Chinese tech tycoons have been under pressure since Jack Ma’s Ant Group IPO was cancelled last year
“President Xi Jinping has called for stronger ‘regulation of high incomes’ in the latest sign that a 10-month campaign targeting China’s largest technology companies is rapidly expanding to encompass broader social goals.
“State media reported that a meeting of the Chinese Communist party’s Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission on Tuesday, chaired by Xi, had emphasised the need to ‘regulate excessively high incomes and encourage high-income groups and enterprises to return more to society’.
“The committee added that while the party had allowed some people and regions to ‘get rich first’ in the early decades of China’s reform and opening period, it was now prioritising ‘common prosperity for all’.
“China’s richest entrepreneurs have been under increasing pressure since November, when the planned $37bn initial public offering of Jack Ma’s Ant Group, which would have been the largest ever, was cancelled after the internet tycoon criticised the country’s financial regulators.”[K]
How serious this will be, remains to be seen. Inequality grew in the post-Mao era, but there was also very fast growth, so most people were content. Now there is discontent – but what it will come to remains to be seen.
There is certainly popular leftism:
“Chairman Mao is making a comeback among China’s Generation Z. The Communist Party’s supreme leader, whose decades of nonstop political campaigns cost millions of lives, is inspiring and comforting disaffected people born long after his death in 1976. To them, Mao Zedong is a hero who speaks to their despair as struggling nobodies.
“In a modern China grappling with widening social inequality, Mao’s words provide justification for the anger many young people feel toward a business class they see as exploitative. They want to follow in his footsteps and change Chinese society — and some have even talked about violence against the capitalist class if necessary.”[L]
And that was before the pathetic and tragic end to the USA’s effort to build a modern society in Afghanistan.
I said at the time that the US ‘trade war’ against China would not go far. They depend on Chinese production for many of their ordinary household goods. And China holds vast stocks of US bonds and could create a global financial collapse by selling them cheap.
And it seems I was right:
“Huawei woes hide ‘toothless’ US export controls against Chinese tech…
“Policy experts caution that the US is in no position to declare victory in its “technology war” with China. In fact, among hundreds of Chinese technology companies which the US Department of Commerce has targeted with sanctions, Huawei is the only one fighting for its life.
“Washington has used its most potent weapon — barring access to semiconductors via the US-made machinery and software tools needed to manufacture them — against Huawei only.
“Washington faces a dilemma in its attempt to rejig export controls: For American chip equipment makers and producers of the software tools used to design chips, China has become the biggest and fastest-growing market.”[M]
Huawei was doing brilliantly with smart phones, which were a special issue. The USA want the spying functions of smart phones to be under US control. But even that is not succeeding in much of the world.
In Poland, the ruling party gets classed as right-wing, but it has insisted on good social welfare. And while West European politicians mostly accept that Freedom is Obedience to the USA, Poland has a will if its own.-
“Poland’s lower house of parliament has passed a controversial bill that could force a US media group to sell its controlling stake in Poland’s main independent broadcaster, drawing censure from Washington.
“The bill, put forward by MPs from the conservative nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS), would prevent companies from outside the European Economic Area from owning a majority in Polish media companies.
“The legislation is widely seen as an attack on TVN, a broadcaster owned by the US media conglomerate Discovery, which provides often critical coverage of the government…
“Since coming to power in 2015, PiS has reduced the public broadcaster to a claque, used a state-owned oil group to buy up a swath of local media outlets and funnelled advertising from state-owned companies to supportive media groups…
“During the same sitting on Wednesday night, Poland’s parliament also passed a bill that will reduce the scope for property restitution claims, which had also drawn criticism from the US and Israel.”[N]
And not sharing the US and West European terror of nuclear power:
“On the edge of a lake near the Baltic coast, half-flooded and overgrown with fir trees and shrubs, lie the remains of Poland’s last attempt to build a nuclear power plant. Begun in 1982, the project in Zarnowiec was abandoned after years of protests, and its half-finished concrete shell was left to the elements.
“Four decades on, Poland is trying again. Last year, the government signed off on a plan to build the country’s first nuclear plant by 2033. Five more are due to follow by 2043 as part of a broader effort to wean Poland’s economy off its increasingly uneconomic dependence on coal…
“By 2040, Poland’s new nuclear plants are projected to account for 16 per cent of Polish electricity production, playing a key role in guaranteeing the stability of the system.”[O]
Part of the global failure of New Right values. And the greedy left-liberals who threw away notions of social care, imagining that the public would remain obedient.
I dislike many of the results. But I have no doubt about whose failure it is.
Old newsnotes at the magazine websites. I also write regular blogs – https://www.quora.com/q/mrgwydionmwilliams