If Americans are worried about the return of violent Islamist extremists … Afghanistan is not the most important place they should watch. Philip Zelikow, former Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission.
To begin – and end – our analysis of the Afghanistan War as a war of detainder, let’s ask ourselves only two questions:
Suppose you were an Afghani woman born between 1956 and 2003, what would you think of the American invasion and occupation?
Suppose you were the new Taliban government in Kabul in 2021. How would you govern?
I chose the dates 1956 and 2003 because women born between 1956 and 1978 would already have graduated at least from high school by the time the Taliban, in 1996, began to enforce its strict version of Islam. That policy prevented, among other things, girls from being educated beyond the eighth grade.
In addition, women born during the early part of that period and who had graduated from high school or university would not yet have retired by the time the Taliban took over in 1996.
Finally, girls born in the early twenty-first century would have had the opportunity to graduate from high school – and, in some cases, from college – during the American occupation, before the Taliban returned.
Those women – millions of them – lived rich lives, the lives of educated people who were able to imagine and pursue worthwhile lives according to their own preferences. It’s true that, between 1996 and 2001 those lives began to be seriously constrained by the Taliban, and of course the Taliban have now returned to power with who-knows-what consequences (but see below).
But let’s ask these accomplished women which they would prefer:
(1) To live in a reasonably open society that valued women as professional people until 1996, and then live in the austere, constrained world of the Taliban for the rest of their lives.
(2) To live in a reasonably open society that valued women as professional people until 1996, then live in the austere, constrained world of the Taliban for five years, then live in an open society again for twenty years, then go back to the Taliban world again.
Neither of these circumstances is ideal, to be sure, but (2) is one hell of a lot better than (1). Between 2001 and 2021 the US spent almost $1 billion directly on activities that advanced the cause of women, encouraging thousands to become doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers, and so on. Unsurprisingly, Afghani women, especially those in the larger cities, are the biggest fans of the American invasion. Critics of the war sitting in their air conditioned offices and homes along the American east coast might give this some thought.
How will the Taliban govern?
The Taliban may hold extreme religious views, but they’re not stupid. They have, for example, bested the Americans and retaken control of Afghanistan. And they have surely learned from the sorry experience of being soundly defeated and expelled from the country in 2001.
We could probably write a book about all the things the Taliban did wrong between 1996 and 2001, but two mistakes doomed them utterly: they fell under the spell of Osama Bin Laden’s delusional ideologies, and they completely botched the Afghani economy.
In the balance of this week’s essay, we’ll focus on how the Taliban are likely to interact with groups the West views as terrorists.
As noted earlier in this series, the Taliban – like many extremist groups in the Middle East – bought into the Al Qaeda view of the world: that a major attack on the US would completely intimidate the West and allow groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban to push the Western infidels out of the Middle East for good. (To say nothing of destroying Israel.)
Quite the opposite happened – the West was enraged and was determined to punish not just Al Qaeda but any group that offered help or sanctuary to the group. Moreover, the great bulk of the population of the Middle East was nearly as horrified by 9/11 as was the West. You would have to be a very stupid Taliban leader not to have internalized the hard messages of these events.
Notwithstanding the expressed concerns of people like CIA Director William Burns and FBI Director Christopher Wray that the new Taliban government would coddle terrorists, the odds are against it, for these reasons:
(1) The last time the Taliban harbored terrorists Afghanistan became a pariah state and the Taliban’s brief stint in charge of the country came to a swift and crushing end. The Taliban won’t make that mistake again.
(2) The Al Qaeda of 2021 isn’t the Al Qaeda of 2001. Bin Laden is dead, the Middle East didn’t rise up in support of Al Qaeda, and therefore Al Qaeda’s new (post-Bin Laden) leadership has moved on. It’s certainly true that the Taliban and the current Al Qaeda leadership are mostly allied, but Al Qaeda’s ambitions toward the West are, these days, much-reduced. Indeed, as Islamic radical elements go, Al Qaeda is now more of a centrist group. Even if the Taliban harbor Al Qaeda, as they likely will, the danger to the West is likely to be small.
(3) The real radicals among the fundamentalists are associated with ISIS, especially ISIS-K, the Afghani affiliate of ISIS. But the Taliban hate ISIS-K more than they hate the Americans, and already open warfare exists between the two fundamentalist groups. ISIS and ISIS-K are certainly threats to the West (though not in the immediate future), but they have no chance of being protected by the Taliban – quite the opposite.
(4) The Taliban desperately need the help of countries like China, Russia, and Iran, given that most countries want nothing to do with them. But all three of those countries are extremely worried about terrorism and won’t tolerate the Taliban acting as a terrorist sanctuary.
In other words, one major mistake the Taliban made between 1996 and 2001 – offering safe harbor to terrorists who were a major threat to the West – simply isn’t likely to happen this time around.
Next up: A Positive Take (You Heard that Right) on Afghanistan, Part 4
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