Afghanistan: What Went Wrong?

The seeds of Kabul's fall were sown many years ago.

Kabul has fallen, and the Taliban have declared the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Many people are likening what has been happening in Kabul over the last few days to Saigon in 1975, but there is a fundamental and all-important difference: the Communist invaders from North Vietnam were for the most part not beloved among the people of South Vietnam. In stark contrast, the German-language publication Exxpress noted Friday that “the fact that the Taliban conquered large areas of the country so quickly is not only due to the lack of belligerence or the intimidation of the Afghan police and military, whose apparatus has been rendered almost incapable of action by corruption and bad decisions by the government. Also, large parts of the rural population do not necessarily see the Taliban as enemies; in some provinces, they are even greeted with jubilation. Video shows how Afghan security forces surrender to the Taliban without a fight and hand over their equipment. They greet each other as friends with ‘Salam Alaikum.’”

This should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the history of the two-decade-long American debacle in Afghanistan. In our early years in the country, once the Taliban was toppled, we set about to engage in a massive project of nation-building, initially with an eye toward establishing a Western-style Constitutional republic in Afghanistan. But State Department foreign policy experts drastically underestimated the Afghan people’s attachment to Islamic law (Sharia), and disastrously discounted Sharia’s political aspects. They did this in the naïve belief, fueled by Islamic apologists in the US, that Islam was a religion of peace that was perfectly compatible with Western secular models of governance.

Given the foreign policy establishment’s naïve view of Sharia and indefatigable commitment to the Left’s multiculturalist fantasies, it was a foregone conclusion that the opposition to Sharia would give way to their desire to the desire to be culturally sensitive. The Melbourne Forum on Constitution-Building noted in 2018 that “most of the external actors, including the United States, American church groups and the United Nations, initially attempted to marginalise the role of Islam and Sharia in favor of liberal rights and freedoms. However, understanding that Islam and Sharia are entrenched parts of Afghan constitutional culture, foreign advisers such as Yash Ghai and Barnett Rubin, who were directly involved in the drafting process convinced external assistance providers to stand aside and leave Afghans to make choices on these sensitive constitutional questions.”

The Aghans made their choices. The Afghan Constitution that Afghanistan’s then-President Hamid Karzai formally ratified on January 26, 2004 begins “in the name of Allah, the Most Beneficient, the Most Merciful” and is written in the name of “We the people of Afghanistan, believing firmly in Almighty God, relying on His divine will and adhering to the Holy religion of Islam.” The Constitution notes its appreciation for the “jihad and just resistance of all the peoples of Afghanistan.” It declares that “Afghanistan shall be an Islamic Republic, independent, unitary and indivisible state,” and that “the sacred religion of Islam is the religion of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” The significance of this is spelled out explicitly: “No law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan.”

Only someone who is not familiar with the tenets of Sharia will not be aware that this ant that the Afghan Constitution institutionalized discrimination against women (as well as non-Muslims), and sharply restricted the parameters of this “democracy” to the constraints of Islamic law. Since both the Taliban and the U.S.-backed American government offered Sharia, there was very little difference between them; the government’s variety was just a bit less stringently enforced. The U.S. never offered refuge to non-Muslims or women who were being brutalized in accord with Sharia provisions, or anything else that would have given the Afghan people a real choice. So American troops just looked all the more like foreign invaders who were there for their own benefit, and who had nothing to offer to the Afghan people.

This is not to say that offering equality of rights to Afghan women and non-Muslims would have been a winning proposition, either. If the Americans had offered an alternative to Sharia, they would have alienated many Afghans who might otherwise have been willing to cooperate with them. However, Afghanistan was not the closed Sharia society it is now even as recently as the 1970s. The U.S. offered nothing to the Afghans who might recall those days fondly. Perhaps an effort to win them over would have been foredoomed, and could even conceivably have widened the conflict. Without any attempt to offer any genuine alternative to the society the Taliban envisioned, however, the American efforts were pointless and, after so many lives lost and trillions spent, tragically futile.

Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is author of 23 books including many bestsellers, such as The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades)The Truth About Muhammad and The History of Jihad. His latest book is Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins―Revised and Expanded Edition. Follow him on Twitter here. Like him on Facebook here.

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