We might have been able to save Afghanistan from the Taliban, but we can't save it from the Afghans.
Pedophilia, forced marriages, blasphemy trials and drug dealing. That is the real Afghanistan. The one that lingers on even when the Taliban are chased into the hills. That cannot be changed by American intervention because this is who its people are.
We might have been able to save Afghanistan from the Taliban, but we can't save it from the Afghans. From the quarreling clans and warlords, the age old customs and the Islamic mores. Beyond a sliver of Western educated men and women in Kabul lies a land of a thousand cruelties and a million knives. With a vendetta around every corner and murder in every heart.
There is no Afghanistan, only a thousand divisions. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that replaced the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is an internationally funded mirage. A multi-billion dollar fund with its own flag and its own mercenaries. And because these mercenaries won't fight, our soldiers go out to fight and die in their place.
Beneath that flag there is no unity. There are only divisions. Sunnis and Shiites. Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras. Men and women. Groups with nothing in common except the Koran and the knife.
Last month's New York Times chronicled one such collision of coexistence as a secret relationship between Tajik and Hazara teenagers led to rioting and the detention of the couple. A group of men spotted the couple riding together in a car, which they stopped to interrogate the couple. Soon a crowd had gathered to try to stone or hang them for adultery. When police rescued the couple, an outbreak of mob violence occurred which left one man dead, cars on fire, and the teenagers in jail.
The girl’s uncle promised to kill her when she was released for shaming the family. “Blood was perhaps the only way out," the girl's father said. "What we would ask is that the government should kill both of them."
Afghan jails are filled with women fleeing abusive marriages. Fleeing home carries with it a ten year jail sentence. The analogy to escaped slaves is as obvious and inescapable as a Muslim marriage. Adultery is the catch-all charge that can be leveled at a woman at any time, married or unmarried, a young girl or an elderly woman.
The Afghan man has three tools of power. Zan, Zar and Zamin. Women, gold and land. A man with many women will be able to breed many sons and expand his own clan. A man with a great deal of gold will be able to buy weapons and take his share of the drug and human trafficking networks. And a man with much land will have his own kingdom.
This elemental tribal power defines Afghanistan. Women are at the bottom of this pyramid. But so are minority ethnic groups. The father's cruelty in the New York Times story is about more than honor, it is about population retention in the internal power struggle. A Hazara daughter who marries a Tajik enlists on the other side of one of Afghanistan's numberless micro-conflicts. Those conflicts are not always violent, but they are very real.
And on top of the bubbling kettle is Islam. No religion would be quite as fit for this backward tribalism as a religion that began as a warlord's cult. Islam does not unify Afghanistan. For all that the Islamists imagine a Caliphate, Islam adds only another layer of division. Ethnic divisions in Afghanistan are also religious divisions. And Islam adds religious sanction to the oppression of women and the massacres of rivals.
Almost any other religion would have had a civilizing influence on Afghanistan. But Islam's influence has only embedded the savagery deeper beneath its dusty skin. Everything that is bad in Afghanistan has its supporting verse in the Koran. The culture of the tribal raid, its emphasis on victory as proof of divine sanction and its contempt for women-- finds its echo in the Koran. Tribal cruelty becomes the will of Allah.
But Islam added another facet to the Afghan nightmare, its doctrines elevating local conflicts above tribal raids. In United in Hate, Jamie Glazov wrote, "This is where the Western Left and militant Islam intersect: human life must be sacrificed for the sake of the idea."
The tribal raider is unable to imagine any higher idea than the honor of his family. But Islam adds the idea of the meta-tribal identity. The Islamic Ummah as the ultimate tribe. It is an idea that allowed Mohammed and his successors to loot and pillage their way across much of the world. And the world is bleeding from a million wounds, stabbed, cut and pierced by the followers of that idea.
The things that the tribesman loots for in this world are given to him twice over in paradise if he dies in battle. And if he suspects that the paradise overflowing with virgins, gold jewelry and pungent wines is a lie that the elders and clerics tell to get him to risk his life while they remain behind with their share of the virgins, gold and wine in this world-- to say so openly would be blasphemy.
It is no wonder that the Taliban found its perfect breeding ground in Afghanistan. Just as variants like Al-Shabaab found theirs in equally backward places such as Somalia. The purity that the Wahhabis seek is really barbarism. And it is most easily found in the most backward places. The least civilized countries.
The Taliban may have repressed Afghanistan, but they did not add very much that was not already there. Afghanistan is not Persia, a place that Afghans looking for freedom and opportunity flee to today. Their edicts and brutality made Afghanistan worse, but the difference was most notable in Kabul, and far less so in more backward provinces. As the Taliban return, so does a surge of brutality. But it is a surge that adds to the existing brutality in the official and unofficial systems.
Will the Taliban rule in Afghanistan? In a sense they always have. Long before the Taliban existed, the gleeful cruelty, the dogmatic brutalization and the culture of fear reigned in Afghanistan. The Taliban contribution was the linkup through Pakistan and now Iran with a global Jihad. The local raid giving way to the global raid. The persecution of Christians in Afghanistan giving way to September 11. Exploding Buddhas transitioning to falling skyscrapers.
The terrible genius of Islam is that it took the violence of the tribe and the clan and sanctified it. Islam elevated the vendetta to the highest form of religious service. The one that is above all others.
20th century Islamists took the ugly tribal feud and globalized it. They took backward places like Afghanistan and turned them into platforms for a global war. We may be able to save ourselves from the puppet masters behind this shadow war, but we cannot save the Afghans from themselves.