The new and improved Taliban: The parting US gift to Afghanistan

After promising democracy and delivering mayhem, the US leaves behind unshaven ‘Proud Boys’ to rule over Afghans.

Taliban fighters pose for a photograph in Kabul on August 19, 2021 [Rahmat Gul / AP]

The Taliban blitzkrieg that dismantled 20 years of neocon and liberal imperialism in Afghanistan has also marked an ignoble end to all manners of pretences.

Twenty years ago, the United States pretended it was going to Afghanistan to dismantle the Taliban, destroy al-Qaeda, and bring Afghans peace, prosperity, liberal democracy and rule of law. Above all, it acted as if it was invading Afghanistan to liberate Afghan women from their burqas and make them all look just like American women.

Predictably, it did not turn out that way. The US had no such intentions or capacities. Its intentions in Afghanistan, in fact, were purely military and strategic. It needed to flex its military, security and intelligence muscles near Russia, China, and Iran. For those purposes, the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has been a spectacular success. That it was a calamity for Afghanistan and its people is entirely irrelevant to American military strategists.

‘New and improved’ Taliban is back

Now, a “new and improved” Taliban is in power in Afghanistan. This is the US’s parting gift to all Afghans. The Americans, who have been negotiating with the Taliban in Doha for months, were undoubtedly fully aware that the group would take over the country as soon as they pulled their troops out. Everything went according to their plans – they only slightly mismanaged optics at the Kabul airport.

This new Taliban is markedly different from the Taliban of 20 years ago. This time around, its leaders want to be part of regional and global politics. It seems, during the Doha conferences, they realised that their resumption of power in Afghanistan now needs international recognition – they realised that to survive, they must rule, not terrorise.

Their first press conference clearly showed that the Taliban leaders had been watching quite a bit of BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera as they loitered in the lobbies and rooms of gaudy hotels in Doha. They can now schmooze and lie as skilfully as Barack Obama, and are far more believable than Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron put together.

Today, the US and European liberal media are terribly embarrassed by the Taliban’s rapid rise to power, and the evident (but misleading) futility of the US and its allies’ military adventure in Afghanistan. Their embarrassment is rooted in the fact that they helped George W Bush sell the lie that the US was in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and its Islamist ideology and bring peace and prosperity to Afghans. But their miserable embarrassment should not pre-empt a more realistic assessment of what the Taliban might do.

The Islamophobic boogie man the media had created of the Taliban after 9/11 does not allow the world a moment of peaceful reflection that perhaps the Afghans are better off with the Taliban, the devil they know, than they were with the US occupation – and the murder and mayhem it had occasioned.

The US accomplished its mission in Afghanistan – it funnelled money to its military-industry complex with a 20-year-long occupation, learned from the asymmetrical warfare that occupation occasioned and showed its capabilities to its rivals. So President Joe Biden pulled US forces out of Afghanistan without thinking for a second what will happen to some 40 million human beings the US treated like disposable herds in its military calculations.

The Taliban is now back, and it is free to do with their country as it pleases. But what exactly will the armed group do now that it has regained control of Afghanistan and ousted the puppets the US installed? This is yet to be seen. For now, what is necessary is a careful study of the trail of death, destruction and indignity the US leaves behind wherever it goes to advance its military power.

It is delusional to think the US military can be the source of anything other than terror and mayhem anywhere it goes. Those of us who lived through the banality of Bush’s “war on terror” and the rise of neo-conservative militancy remember only too well the crescendo of terrorising propaganda against Islam and Muslims during what was one of the darkest periods of Muslims’ lives in America.

The imperial politics of fear and loathing

In her pioneering study, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, Deepa Kumar mapped out in detail how the fear and loathing of Muslims was definitive to the imperial pedigree of the “war on terror” that commenced after 9/11 and syncopated with the war in Afghanistan.

In his American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear, Khaled Beydoun updated a critical assessment of that psychopathology of Muslim hatred. Between these two seminal books we have a solid record of what the Afghan war meant for the global rise of Muslim hatred.

What did Afghanistan itself achieve under US occupation? A comprador  class of political elite totally alienated from its own people, beholden to the false promises of the US military and political hegemony. Afghans are now back to their own devices. Whatever happens to them is better than the indignity of 20 years of military occupation that had created a comprador  class of politicians who crumbled like a hollow sandcastle as the Taliban spread its military might.

The Taliban fighters are Afghans, too. They did not come from the moon. This is their country and they are not any more fanatical and conspiracy driven than those tens of millions of Trump supporters, the QAnon believers, anti-vaxxers, Proud Boys, and the rest of them. If people are scared of Taliban leaders Haibatullah Akhunzada, Mohammad Yaqoob, Sirajuddin Haqqani, or Abdul Ghani Baradar, they have not been paying attention to Marjorie Taylor Greene, Marine Le Pen, Stephen Miller, Geert Wilders or Steve Bannon. Same level of sugar density, different bucket.

The overwhelming majority of Afghans have had no choice but to live with the Taliban. Just like Iranians, the Saudis, the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Egyptians have to deal with their criminal ruling regimes. They all deserve much better than the fate has assigned to them. Fanatical, reactionary, retrograde, or not, the Taliban is at home in the region.

What did two decades of American military occupation bring the Afghans?  Peace, prosperity, democracy? Are Americans capable of any such gift to any country on this Earth – least of all “democracy”? Can the country of Donald Trump and the home of the Republican Party even fathom to procure democracy for their own country, let alone gift it to another?

As soon as the US census data came out and racist white Republicans realised their numbers are thinning they launched a systematic attack redistricting the country in a way that dismantles even a pretence of democracy.

What exactly is it that this country wishes to give to the rest of the world?  Afghan versions of Dick Cheney, Ronald Rumsfeld, Sarah Palin, Marco Rubio, Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy? The Afghans have their own version of all these fraternity club brothers of unshaven “Proud Boys”- they need not import them from the US.

The Taliban in the crucible

What did Afghans gain after 20 years of US occupation? Did they prosper, did they have a day of peace? What can the Taliban do to Afghanistan that it and the US and their European allies have already not done to it? How many precious Afghans – men, women and children – have been lost to the combined militant thuggery of the US and the Taliban?

They finally sat together in Doha and arranged for a handover of Afghanistan back to the Taliban from the US military and the pathetic Afghan leaders like Ashraf Ghani and Hamid Karzai were not even part of the negotiations. What self-respect could Ghani have after that? Of course, he ran away to the nearest US military base he was allowed to enter.

As for Afghan women and girls, they are far better off fighting the fanaticism and stupidity of the Taliban on their own and not under the shadow of US military barracks. Iranian, Pakistani, Turkish and Arab women have been fighting similar, if not identical, patriarchal thuggery right in their neighbourhood, so will Afghan women. Have Indian women not been revolting against a whole culture of rape in their homeland? So will Afghan women fight against the Taliban.

Is the US – a country where the reproductive rights of women are at the mercy of a Supreme Court with a Christian fundamentalist like Amy Coney Barrett on the bench – in any position to preach women’s rights in Afghanistan?

Thanks to America, a “new and improved” Taliban is now in power in Afghanistan. Like all other power-mongers, they want to remain in power. To do so, they will soon demand to come to the United Nations, or other gatherings of the global community, to show how civilised they have become.

If Afghans who think and believe and act differently than the Taliban do stay put in their homeland and fight fanaticism one day at a time, Afghanistan can eventually become something like Iran, or Pakistan, or India or even Turkey. If they stay and resist, without the weight of an occupying power, the Taliban will face the peaceful nobility of a dignified ancient nation that has civilised barbarians far worse than this murderous gang of fanatical power mongers – and it will crumble.

Afghanistan is the land that gave the world Rumi, the Herat school of art and architecture, countless other poets, philosophers, mystics, historians and scientists. It can handle a gang of “Proud Boys” in Pashtun gear too.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.