Over the past twenty years, Afghanistan became a direct competition space between two universal political-economic theories: the revolutionary Euro-American ideal that democracy, individual human rights, and regulated capitalism yield the greatest benefit for the greatest number, and Islam, a revealed religion which subsumes a God-given legal and regulatory system that governs everyday life. For over two centuries, the Euro-American narrative has been ascendant across the globe. However, what we are witnessing in Afghanistan is the Euro-American narrative recoiling in decisive defeat.
Narratives are the stories we tell about ourselves and about our competitors, or in the case of the Taliban and its allies, our enemies. To succeed, these stories must be meaningful, culturally relevant, and formatted in a way that is familiar to the audience. The messengers who deliver these concepts must be credible, and actions that are taken – which are messengers in and of themselves – must be consistent with the overarching narratives.
In the past, the United States was largely successful at the narrative competition. We fought and won World War I to “make the world safe for democracy.” During World War II, we fought to “save the world from tyranny and to build a post-war world in which freedom can thrive,” and we won the Cold War behind a theme that democracy and human rights yield good governance and Capitalism produces prosperity. These narratives carried the day because we won on the battlefield and in the minds of our opponents.
Once the Bush Administration decided to pursue a reconstruction/nation-building project in Afghanistan, it told the world that we intended to build an independent, safe, secure, democratic, and economically prosperous society. Inclusive in that narrative was the intent to ensure that all Afghans enjoyed the freedoms promulgated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, most importantly, equal rights between men and women.
Unfortunately, we never framed these messages in ways that were culturally relevant, our messengers were rarely, if ever, credible, and our actions did not support our words. From the outset, the Bush Administration saw the nation-building effort as primarily a military campaign and subsequent administrations followed suit. Democracy and economic growth always played “second fiddle.”
The democracy established in Afghanistan was centralized and bureaucratic, despite the fact that Afghans have traditionally loathed and feared a powerful central government. Beginning with the 2002 Loya Jirga’s (traditional Afghan assembly of leaders) selection of Hamid Karzai, the Bush Administration’s preferred choice, as President, Afghanistan’s democracy struggled to gain legitimacy. Throughout the past 20 years, election outcomes were disputed and constitutional and legal processes to settle election disputes were disregarded in favor of ad hoc political solutions. Based on the evidence, Afghanistan never came close to turning the corner from a tribal, feudal society to a democracy.
Modern economies depend on electrical power to fuel economic growth, but after we destroyed nearly all electricity generation capacity in the country in the initial military campaign against the Taliban, we were incredibly slow to replace the wrecked power plants. Symbolically, the Kajaki Dam, constructed initially in the 1950’s to irrigate the Helmand River valley and adapted before the Soviet invasion by the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide electricity to Afghanistan’s southeastern provinces, became a central story about power and development. For over a decade, the coalition tried but failed to deliver generators and repairs to increase the dam’s power capacity. Ultimately, a Turkish company succeeded in 2019 to bring the dam to full production via direct negotiations with the Taliban that included paying them a proportion of the fees collected from power customers. Countrywide, after two decades of coalition efforts, only 35% of Afghans have access to electricity, and a substantial proportion of it was imported from neighboring countries, despite Afghanistan’s substantial hydropower potential.
At that rate of investment, Afghans quickly realized that waiting for economic opportunity was never going to maximize their own personal utility, and they quickly reverted to ancient patterns with many growing and exporting opium. The Taliban had aggressively suppressed opium production when they were in power, but after their expulsion from Kabul, the Taliban moved quickly to exploit the opium output explosion. Others did as well, and President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, allegedly became one of the largest opium and heroin producers in the country.
Corruption and the appearance of corruption dogged the Afghan government, further reducing confidence in it and the coalition mission. In the provinces, the people almost never sought to resolve disputes in government courts, which they perceived as “both corrupt and erratic.” Instead, they turned primarily to “… the traditional system of ‘jirgas,’ local councils of older men who would adjudicate disputes in an ad hoc manner …” based on local customary laws. As a second choice, they would turn to Taliban courts, because they were viewed as consistent, reliable, and dispensing justice based on Islam, a known and understood system of law.
We spent tens of billions of dollars on building the Afghan security forces and garrisoning the country with U.S. and NATO forces to support them, but the coalition never delivered safety and security to the Afghan people. Over 100,000 Afghans died over the two decades of conflict and by the end, the Taliban’s reach extended throughout the country.
In narrative competition, the messenger is as important as the message. For most of the coalition Afghan campaign, military personnel were the primary messengers to the Afghan people as well as our own. However, military personnel are killers and destroyers, not builders of economies, political systems, or judicial systems. Yet, military personnel led most coalition discussions about these topics with Afghans around the country. The clash between messenger and message damaged credibility.
On the other hand, the Taliban’s stories were steeped in 14 centuries of Afghanistan’s Islamic history and imbued with the authority of the Qur’an, Sunna, and Hadith. This is a language that everyone in Afghanistan could understand, because, like so many Muslims I encountered in five tours across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, they had committed much of the Qur’an and other relevant stories about their religion and culture to memory. It was an open field in which the Taliban could run, and over two decades, they became very good at information warfare.
It should be no surprise that opposition to the coalition Afghanistan campaign grew in the West. The obvious gap between narrative and outputs from the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on Afghanistan became readily apparent and easily exploitable by opponents, including the Taliban. As the credibility of the coalition narrative waned, that of the Taliban waxed, and it contributed substantially to the rapidity of the Taliban’s advance in the wake of America’s precipitous retreat. The majority of Afghanistan’s Muslim population were already prepared for a return to a well-known and fully understood system of governance.
This collapse in Afghanistan of the Western, or Euro-American revolutionary narrative of democracy, human rights, and economic prosperity will have global consequences. Throughout the Islamic world, advocates of political Islam will gain confidence that their message is gaining improved traction among their populations as well as among immigrant Muslim communities in the West. Competing Chinese and Russian narratives will also gain credence, even within Western countries.
For the United States, the recovery from the Afghan failure will be a challenge even larger than retreat from Vietnam. The decisions that led to the defeat in Afghanistan were bipartisan politically and included a bipartisan national security policy elite that benefited financially and reputationally from the conflict. Recovery begins with a ruthlessly honest assessment of decisions, policies, and the leaders involved. Accountability must follow, and all of this must take place while we try to remember who we are and rebuild shattered relationships with partners and allies.
Note: I served as Deputy Economic Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, 2006-2007, and made a number of small contributions to the national building effort for which I received awards and a promotion. I achieved results despite security requirements that severely limited my access to Afghans outside of government. For instance, I recall regularly meeting with only one Afghan who worked outside the Afghan government, a dynamic businesswoman whom I hope is currently safe. And as the State Department officer responsible for agricultural policy, I never visited an Afghan farm because of security concerns. Many of my colleagues had similar experiences. While locking diplomats up in the embassy saved lives, it cut us off from the Afghan people and denied our narrative campaigns the cultural context needed to succeed.