While a 350,000 strong well-equipped Afghan National Army was disintegrating in the face of the Taliban offensive, a few brave Afghan girls stood firmly before the Taliban militia holding placards in front of Kabul University.
These girls – more powerful and braver – than the Afghan army on the run – gave hope that the young Afghan women would never submit to a medieval patriarchal rule in Afghanistan. These girls were protesting the closure of their university due to the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban, and they represented the aspirations of young Afghan women.
The protest by these girls signaled that it is not 1996 and that they will not let the Taliban restrict women from getting education or going out for employment. The girls stood firm on what the Americans failed to do even after spending $90 billion to raise, train and equip a strong army which collapsed like a pack of cards against the ill-equipped Taliban militia. Americans had claimed to spend some two trillion dollars to do in Afghanistan what they failed to do in the US – making democracy functional.
US President Joe Biden had to confess that the Americans had failed to achieve the strategic and political objectives in Afghanistan with a confusing narration that Americans were not in Afghanistan with a nation-building agenda. What on earth were the Americans in Afghanistan for then? Was the invasion only to raise an Afghan army? Wasn’t it about the Americans’ oft-repeated mantra of establishing a liberal democracy in Afghanistan? If the Americans were in Afghanistan for fun, then it was too costly for the poor people of Afghanistan. During the last 20 years of American occupation of Afghanistan, more than 150,000 Afghan citizens were killed; we were told that these sacrifices would help bring democracy to Afghanistan.
Many liberals may hate the sudden triumph of the Taliban in Afghanistan – mostly because this will lead to them establishing a regressive, obnoxious and patriarchal rule in the country. While it is true that the Taliban will never work for establishing an inclusive democratic dispensation in Afghanistan, those who stood by an installed puppet regime failed to read the endgame of puppetry. US imperialism has been defeated with the demise of the puppet government of Ashraf Ghani. The mess created from this defeat partly lends credence to the fact that the Americans did not invest in the industrialization and capital formation in Afghanistan.
Investment in industrialization and capital formation could create an indigenous class of capitalists along with an educated middle class that could work as bulwark against the rise of the Taliban to power. In the absence of a formidable democratic resistance against American imperialism, the accumulated public anger against the corrupt regime of Ashraf Ghani paved the way for the fall of Kabul despite the government having an unrestricted supply of resources and a standing army that was seven times bigger than Taliban fighters.
As the Taliban offensive intensified, the Americans wanted to pull out from Afghanistan as they were losing ground and public legitimacy. The Americans, however, believed that their installed regime would hold the ground at least for some months to save the face of the fugitive superpower but that did not happen. The so-called fortress of the nascent liberal democracy collapsed under its own weight of corruption, indecent power collusion and elite capture.
Barring a few, the imperialist embedded Western media and political leaders supported American-led acts of terrorism against the people of Afghanistan. The American-led forces in Afghanistan bombed funerals, weddings, religious places and whole villages, and defended the most obnoxious acts of day-to-day corruption of its puppet regime. The regime was bound to fail, and it failed ultimately without offering any resistance or popular support for its continuation. We may hate the Taliban but is there any choice for the people of Afghanistan in the absence of a democratic resistance against corruption, collusion and repression?
The pompous exotic civil society of international humanitarian assistance organizations collapsed without showing any semblance of resistance for upholding the liberal values. Foreign NGOs pocketed some $36 billion to finance the hefty salaries of their international staff and also to pay the rents of their head offices in Western capitals from money that was meant for the poverty reduction of the people of Afghanistan.
The visible opulence of NGOs’ international staff and their paraphernalia and protocols looked more like a colonial mission of the white man’s burden. The money which could have been spent to alleviate the poverty of the 49 percent population of Afghanistan was spent on managing poverty through highly paid and less effective development professionals. These development professionals, embodying a liberal outlook, thought that development was not a political matter, but a technical matter and they had the right tools to fix it for Afghan people.
It is obvious that, like the embedded media, the embedded international civil society also worked to hide the corruption of the regime of Ashraf Ghani. The educated middle class which could potentially resist the Taliban onslaught was co-opted by international NGOs where their political spirit was diluted to reduce them into politically inert technical professionals.
Despite allocating billions of dollars for the Afghan National Army, the money did not reach the poor soldiers who were fighting against the Taliban. These soldiers served for a few hundred dollars as most of the money was spent to finance the luxurious life of the ruling elite. Both the ruling elite and international NGOs paid the Taliban protection money to continue their operations rather than using the well-equipped Afghan army. The millions of dollars given out to the Taliban as protection money was prudently used by the Taliban to buy the loyalties of the soldiers of the Afghan army.
The protesting girls in front of the Kabul University were neither representatives of the civil society of international NGOs nor were they demanding a liberal dress code only; they were expressing genuine concerns for the resumption of their education. These Afghan girls risked persecution and even death at the hands of the Taliban but they sent a strong message of standing firm to protect their fundamental rights to the pseudo advocates of an inclusive and democratic Afghanistan who are on the run. A salute to Afghan girls for them to have a better Afghanistan amidst the horrific scenes of fleeing Afghan men and retreating well-equipped soldiers of the Afghan army.
The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.