Photographs like this are now being posted all over Facebook.
Whether by intent or through naivity we are invited to contrast this happy scene – no, I’m not being sardonic – with the “grim” news that the West is ending its twenty year occupation of the land those women, now in their early seventies if they still draw breath, were born into.
Here’s my perspective, a more specific take on my oft-made observation that the Western woke are being duped into acting as apologists for war criminals.
Back in ’74 I too saw women like these three, though only in the wealthiest suburbs of Kabul. In no other part of the country, and not even in most of the capital, did I see women unveiled and dressed like this.
Even before ‘we’ backed the ‘gallant Mujahadeen’ this was a deeply conservative culture. When I crossed the border from the Shah’s Iran – its countryside dirt poor but its cities comparable to Europe’s – my eyes were out on stalks at what I saw. Had I journeyed back in time to the world of Geoffrey Chaucer?
By the time I reached Kabul and, on a blazing hot day – mad dogs and Englishmen! – hiked up one of its daunting hills to see how the elite lived, I’d gotten used to the medieval. Encountering Afghan women in Western attire, with attitudes to match, 1 had my eyes again out on stalks, but for the opposite reason. Had my time machine now gone into reverse?
The president then was Daud Khan. The year before he’d ousted Zahir, the last king, to make the country a republic. Later that decade the US were undermining Khan’s own ouster, Muhammad Takiri, 2 whose government oversaw gains for a wider set of women than that represented in the photo. Takiri also instituted mass literacy programmes and nationalised irrigation projects (ensuring the enmity of water-owning equivalents of feudal Europe’s land owners, including the higher clerics) and made other reforms all progressives would welcome.
The CIA worked hard to set what Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, would boast of as his “Afghan Trap” for the Soviet Union. In December 1979, with Takiri tottering and the USA stepping up the use of jihadists as its Foreign Legion, Brezhnev’s Politbureau took the bait. It had little choice and did so with great reluctance. The Red Army entered Afghanistan, in the dying days of the decade, with far more justification even in purely geographical terms than the USA and its junior partners would have in 2001.
Be that as it may, 1980 is when the dollars poured into Afghanistan, funding the Mujahadeen, 3 4 while the same media which now bewail the victory of the Taliban (and peddle to the credulous 5 a contradictory narrative on Xinjiang’s Uighurs) cheered them on as plucky freedom fighters.
And now? I am cautiously optimistic. Beijing will want the Taliban to desist from cross border meddling in Xinjiang, as will Moscow vis a vis the ‘Stans’ of Central Asia, and far off Chechnya. (Quite the opposite of what the Americans would be after.) For its part a beholden Taliban will be inclined to comply. Its aims have never been expansionist.6
That’s hardly likely to change given all that Beijing can offer. Afghanistan’s signing up for Belt and Road can give the east-west New Silk Road a southbound spur: a direct route through this landlocked country before crossing the narrow strip of south-east Iran to reach the warm water port of Gwadar, west of Karachi on the Persian Gulf. That promises an economic uplift which 20 years of US occupation, for all those trillions of corrupt dollars, never even tried to deliver.
I am not blind to the suffering of women in Afghanistan – or Gaza or Saudi Arabia. Nor should anyone be blind to the truth that other than for their hideous PR machine, such suffering counts for nothing with Washington, Paris, London etc. Their record of dealing with the Devil himself if it advances the investor classes who rule shows that, so long as it can be kept at arm’s length to minimise blow-back, no barbarity in the global south has ever been too morally repugnant.
Will the Taliban return to hanging adulterers in football stadiums? Lashing women for teaching their sisters to read? They might. But the West has neither the power nor the moral authority to stop them. And given its bloody failures – I’m being kind here – I’ve more faith in realpolitik and the moderating influences of China than I ever will in either the covert US forces we can be sure remain in the country, or the know-nothing angst of lifestyle columnists in the West.
Postscript August 21. I just got round to reading a Tariq Ali piece, Debacle in Afghanistan, sent to me a few days ago by my good friend Jawed Siddiqi. Written on August 16 and appearing on different sites including Defend Democracy, it contains this:
The fact is that over twenty years, the US has failed to build anything that might redeem its mission. The brilliantly lit Green Zone was always surrounded by a darkness that the Zoners could not fathom. In one of the poorest countries of the world, billions were spent annually on air-conditioning the barracks that housed US soldiers and officers, while food and clothing were regularly flown in from bases in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It was hardly a surprise that a huge slum grew on the fringes of Kabul, as the poor assembled to search for pickings in dustbins. The low wages paid to Afghan security services could not convince them to fight against their countrymen. The army, built up over two decades, had been infiltrated at an early stage by Taliban supporters, who received free training in the use of modern military equipment and acted as spies for the Afghan resistance.
This was the miserable reality of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Though credit where credit is due: the country has witnessed a huge rise in exports. During the Taliban years, opium production was strictly monitored. Since the US invasion it has increased dramatically, and now accounts for 90% of the global heroin market – making one wonder whether this protracted conflict should be seen, partially at least, as a new opium war. Trillions have been made in profits and shared between the Afghan sectors that serviced the occupation. Western officers were handsomely paid off to enable the trade. One in ten young Afghans are now opium addicts. Figures for NATO forces are unavailable.
As for the status of women, nothing much has changed. There has been little social progress outside the NGO-infested Green Zone. One of the country’s leading feminists in exile remarked that Afghan women had three enemies: the Western occupation, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. With the departure of the United States, she said, they will have two. (At the time of writing this can perhaps be amended to one, as the Taliban’s advances in the north saw off key factions of the Alliance before Kabul was captured). Despite repeated requests from journalists and campaigners, no reliable figures have been released on the sex-work industry that grew to service the occupying armies. Nor are there credible rape statistics – although US soldiers frequently used sexual violence against ‘terror suspects’, raped Afghan civilians and green-lighted child abuse by allied militias. During the Yugoslav civil war, prostitution multiplied and the region became a centre for sex trafficking. UN involvement in this profitable business was well-documented. In Afghanistan, the full details are yet to emerge.
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- Though I say so myself as shouldn’t, I wasn’t too hard on the eye in those days. That hike up into the clean air above downtown Kabul was rewarded by a wolf whistle from just such a girl as those in the trio shown. Flattered? Naturally, though gob-smacked is nearer the mark.
- The first version of this post wrongly had Mohammed Najibullah as Khan’s successor. Najibullah was the last Soviet backed leader. In 1996, having been president for four years, he was tortured and killed by the Taliban, which had emerged victorious from the civil war following the Soviet withdrawal.
- On the account books of empire, see yesterday’s post.
- CIA bypassing of Congressional oversight to fund dark ops through narcotics, in Afghanistan as in Latin America, is too big a subject for now – sufficient unto the day and all that – but a little investigating will uncover screeds on the matter.
- Credulity on the Uighur issue takes various forms. I’ll single out two. One is failure to ask the cui bono? question. While its answer can never be proof that an allegation is ipso facto false, it should but seldom does caution us to look closely at the quality of evidence on offer. The other is that of generalising, by Westerners who personally know a few emigres from the lands where oppression is said to occur, from tiny and statistically skewed samples. For a tad more on this see footnote 4 of the already cited post on Xinjiang’s Uighurs.
- In having no expansionist aims the Taliban are as one with a long line of rulers. The one exception is the Pashtun Question, where since British Raj days Kabul has laid claim to a Pashtun dominated region, in today’s Pakistan, of the Hindu Kush. Since the Taliban is Pashtun dominated – Afghanistan’s Uzbek, Tajik and other minorities giving allegiance to the warlords of the US backed Northern Alliance – it remains to be seen whether they will pursue the matter or whether, as seems likely given both their complex relations with Islamabad, and bigger fish to fry with Beijing, pragmatism will win out. This is a big subject, one I am currently reading up on though it’s worth noting that the Northern Alliance, as Tariq implies, is no less fundamentalist than the Taliban. I mention this because you’d be hard put to glean it from the simplistic good v evil narratives of Western media – their ‘quality’ market segments included.