In the year 2000, nobody elsewhere cared what happened in Afghanistan. Its Taliban rulers were angry rural fanatics who tormented the local people with their demented rules for proper ‘Islamic’ behaviour, but it was not a military or diplomatic priority for anybody.
It is about to return to that isolated and isolationist existence, for the Taliban neither have nor even want a foreign policy. They are more like a franchise operation whose various elements share certain basic principles – e.g. foreigners, women and democracy are bad – but whose members are primarily focused on local issues and personal ambitions.
The Russians and the Americans share the blame for this catastrophe, for their twin invasions eliminated the possibility that Afghanistan might peacefully evolve into a prosperous democratic society with equal rights for all.
Maybe that prospect was always pretty unlikely, but just such a locally-led modernisation process began with the overthrow of the king and the proclamation of an Afghan republic in 1973. Unfortunately, the Afghan attempt did not prosper.
Violent resistance by traditional social and religious groups started at once, and the new republican regime was overthrown in 1978 by a bloody military coup. The young officers who seized power were Marxists who imposed a radical reform program.
They gave women equal access to education, carried out land reforms, and even attacked the role of religion. By 1979, the Marxist regime was facing a massive revolt in conservative rural areas, and one faction asked for Soviet military help.
The moribund Communist leadership in Moscow agreed, and 100,000 Soviet troops entered the country. Former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski saw a chance to inflict a Vietnam-style war on the Russians, and immediately started sending money and weapons to the rural rebels who later became the Taliban.
It took ten years, $40 billion of clandestine US military aid, and around a million Afghan dead, but by 1989 the Taliban and their various Islamist rivals forced the Russians to pull out. Shortly afterwards the Soviet Union collapsed, and Brzezinski arrogantly but implausibly claimed credit for it.
“What is most important to the history of the world?” he asked. “The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?” But in reality the ‘stirred-up Moslems’ turned out to be a fairly large problem.
The Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996 after a long war between the various Islamist groups, and ruled most of the country badly and brutally for five years. Then an Arab Islamist called Osama bin Laden, granted shelter in Afghanistan by the Taliban, launched the 9/11 attacks against the United States in 2001.
An American invasion was inevitable after 9/11 because some spectacular retaliation was politically necessary. That led to another twenty years of Taliban war against foreigners who understood little about the country’ recent history and why it made Afghans mistrust them.
Even now Americans don’t realize how closely they have recapitulated the Soviet experience in the country. The ending that is now unfolding was foreordained from the start, although it has taken twice as long to arrive because the United States is much richer than Russia. Nevertheless, the aftermath will also be the same.
The various factions of the Taliban will split, and another civil war of uncertain length will follow. The winners will be as cruel and arbitrary as ever. And the rest of the world will rapidly lose interest, because Afghanistan won’t pose a serious threat to anywhere else.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.