When the West invaded Afghanistan some two decades ago, their cheerleaders in the media earnestly claimed the regime change would bring with it liberal progress.
Now that war has ended—and its inevitable, catastrophic consequences play out—that claim is back.
Once again, there’s an effort to prettify the 20 year occupation, and shift the weight of the blame for its awful reality onto Afghan people.
“Will the Taliban take Afghanistan back to the past,” wonders the BBC’s world affairs editor John Simpson as he lays it on thick.
He recounts how he and his colleagues “marched into Kabul” in November 2001, “battling our way through the joyful crowds” who shout at them “thanks to god you are come.”
Now, Simpson is impressed to find more cars in Kabul than there were 20 years ago, and “there are new buildings everywhere.”
The “commercial life” of Afghan cities is evidence, for him, that “living standards have shot up.”
The truth is that, by some measures, up to 47 percent of people in Afghanistan live below the poverty line. And most of them don’t live in the cities—some 73 percent of Afghanistan’s population is rural.
The level of inequality in Afghanistan is at least as bad as it was twenty years ago.
The richest 10 percent of people in Afghanistan earn 43 percent of all incomes in Afghanistan. The poorest 50 percent earn just 16 percent.
That’s the legacy of the US-backed governments since 2001.
True to form, the US imposed a regime that left services, jobs and pay open to privatisation, the market and NGOs.
They were the sort of governments that might also measure their success in buildings, cars and commerce, and where pockets of wealth grow amid poverty—and rampant corruption.
Corruption at least partly explains the total collapse of the Afghan army in the face of the Taliban’s assault.
The Associated Press reported in May that Afghanistan’s military is “rife with corruption.”
Its official count of 300,000 soldiers is exaggerated by the number of “ghost soldiers”—where officers list non-existent fighters to collect their wages. The actual soldiers were badly equipped and demoralised.
That touches on to the other legacy of the occupation—its rule of violence and brutality.
Human Rights Watch reported in 2019 how the Afghan army and paramilitary groups killed civilians in routine “night raids” of villages.
In that sense, they were just carrying on the job of the Western soldiers they were being trained to replace—as atrocities by US, British and Australian soldiers show.
They were backed by indiscriminate airstrikes, in which the US has never bothered to count properly the number of civilians killed.
All of that offers some explanation for how the Taliban has survived 20 years as an insurgent armed opposition, which the US and its puppet government never managed to crush.
Some reports say the Taliban has as many as 100,000 fighters. They’ve been recruited in rural areas impoverished and terrorised by Afghan and occupation soldiers, and in the Afghan refugee camps across the southern border in Pakistan.
To those Afghans at least, the Taliban looked like an alternative, or a chance to hit back.
When the Taliban was founded in the 1990s, its strict conservative version of Islam was presented as a conscious alternative to the chaos of an Afghanistan divided between Western-backed warlords.
Now it plays the same role, as an alternative to the corruption of the regime imposed by the US.
As one Taliban military commander told the New York Times recently, “Our problem isn’t with their flesh and bones. It is with the system.”
The return of the Taliban to government is bleak. But it’s the direct consequence of decades of US intervention.