When the Americans overthrew the Taliban in 2001 the latter were given the same advice that was given to the Vietcong when the Americans sent their ‘advisors’ into Saigon in the early ’60’s. Stay militarily relevant and wait. Fifteen years in Vietnam, with no conceivable prospect of payoff. Twenty in Afghanistan with the same results. In the interim what was the lesson apparently unlearned? That you can’t win hearts and minds unless you have a better idea, which imposing a regime as brutal as the one you’ve removed is not.
Postwar Vietnam has proven an emerging economic success. Afghanistan will not. But the Taliban of the 2020’s will prove a vast improvement over their fathers a generation ago in the late ’90’s. For one thing, they all have smart phones, which are quaintly incompatible with 14th Century Islamic political theology. And so what will emerge will be something entirely quirky. Not much fun for women, I’m guessing, but excellent grist for BBC and Al Jazeera documentaries.
The Taliban were removed because they were providing a mustering point for resistance to quisling regimes throughout the Middle East. And the current worry is that Taliban 2.0 will be similarly accommodating. So we’re going back to square one.
But what was the alternative? There’ve been too many TV appeals for legless vets to sustain the requisite commitment. And too obvious a mismatch between the 350,000-strong quisling army and the 50,000 ragtag Taliban. Sometimes it’s hard not to cheer for the underdog, no matter how vile he might be.
That said, it appears that Biden’s pronouncement that “America is back!” is more ambiguous than inspiring. Back to what?