The costs of the US intervention in Afghanistan, both human and financial, are enormous. Brown University’s Watson Institute reports 176,000 lives lost – more than 46,000 of them Afghan civilians – and $2.3 trillion spent between 2001 and 2022. Moreover, the outcome has been devastating: Afghanistan again came under Taliban control in August 2021, destabilizing the country further. Today, more than two years later, Afghanistan has descended into a dire humanitarian crisis with widespread famine on the horizon. The situation is further deteriorating with the brutal suppression of women’s groups, arrest and torture of journalists and civil society activists, and extrajudicial killings of former government officials.
Against the backdrop of international intervention and chaotic withdrawal, the discourse of tribalism, non-nation-ness, and Talibanism as a natural way of life for Afghans has found a renewed resonance among policymakers, particularly American foreign policy officials. This includes President Joe Biden himself, who deployed this discourse vis-à-vis the US withdrawal, commenting in 2021 that “no nation has ever unified Afghanistan…Empires have gone there and not done it.” In such discourse, Afghans are imagined through an Orientalist lens as unchanging tribespeople who lack the capacity for modernity and political maturity.
Yet the Taliban are ruling a country whose citizens were never unchanging and anti-“modern” and who have also transformed dramatically since the first emirate. Moreover, these citizens have much to say about the lessons learned from twenty years of international intervention.
In this roundtable, scholars from Afghanistan consider the 20-year period that began with the US presence, interrogating the dynamics that helped ensure the failure of the US project – purportedly a democratic, rights-based state. The contributors particularly examine how international actors and Afghan leaders ignored local culture and context to their ultimate detriment. The lack of attention paid to these elements, they argue, helped create an opportunity for the Taliban to take power again with little opposition once the United States departed the country. Several authors point to a disregard for the divisions and inequalities between Afghanistan’s urban and rural areas as a major contributor to the current circumstances.
Sayed Hassan Akhlaq (George Washington University) sets the scene by asserting that democratic change must relate to local culture for democracy and change to take hold. Akhlaq cites a number of areas where international actors and Afghan leaders and elites could have focused their efforts instead of trying to import Western values and traditions, including Islamic conceptualizations of democratic values. Communicating such information to the populace, he contends, would have eased the process of democratic nation-building. In the end, he argues, the process failed as “top-down international forces and liberal democracy descended on Afghanistan as ‘saviors,’ constituting a new Orientalist-imperialist approach.”
Homeira Qaderi (Yale University) also argues for the need to address the local, but in terms of the use of art in the service of women’s rights. She writes that from 2001 to 2021 Afghan leaders only paid lip service to women’s rights and that the superficiality of gender equality programs during the period of experimental democracy made it easy for the Taliban to seize power once again. If instead, she asserts, efforts had been made to educate people, particularly in rural areas and in local institutions such as mosques, through cultural and artistic expression promoting behavior patterns based on the equal treatment of men and women, the outcome could have been different.
Mustafa Saqib (Rutgers University) considers the centralization of power in Kabul during the two decades of international intervention and the lack of power sharing with more peripheral areas that have historically governed themselves. This pattern, Saqib argues, in which the country’s local political context was overlooked, directly contributed to the state’s collapse: “[It] resulted in widespread corruption, empowered insurgent groups, and persistently undermined state institutions, making the collapse of the state inevitable in the absence of external support,” he writes.
Omar Sadr’s (University of Pittsburgh) contribution provides a compelling complement to the others in that he argues that explaining away the Taliban’s treatment of women through cultural relativism – a trend he notes is currently found among some international actors – demonstrates the limits of the local. In other words, though local culture and religious practice are not unimportant in any given society, they must not be used to excuse or explain away the repression or oppression of groups – in this case, Afghan women.
- A Story of Failure: Ignoring the Local in Democratic Nation-Building in Afghanistan by Sayed Hassan Akhlaq
- The Alphabet of Freedom: How Art Could Liberate Afghan Women by Homeira Qaderi
- The Impact of Centralized State-Building on the Urban-Rural Divide in Afghanistan by Mustafa Saqib
- Gender Apartheid and Cultural Relativism under the Taliban and Iranian Regimes by Omar Sadr