Author and professor Nazif Shahrani gives his unique perspective on the past and present of Afghanistan.
“My memory of early childhood was fear of the government,” said Nazif Shahrani, professor of political anthropology at Indiana University.
Author of Modern Afghanistan, Revolutions and Rebellions in Afghanistan: Anthropological Perspectives, and The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and War; Nazif Shahrani isn’t speaking about the United States or the decades-long war still plaguing a nation. He’s reflecting on growing up in Afghanistan during the 1950s and early 60s. “A period of no war. Not necessarily peace, but no war,” he said.
Even before the war saturated instability and turmoil across the country, fear sprawled over the land. As a child, Shahrani remembers the tense relationship between citizens and the autocratic, Pashtun government. Any non-Pashtuns were considered expendable, and Afghanistan felt like a prison for its people. Shahrani still recalls the stab of fear every time he saw a trail of well-defined thumbtack marks in the dirt left behind from the shoes of Pashtun tribal men or government officials.
When it comes to the complex issues of Afghanistan, its past decades of conflict, and even U.S. involvement; Shahrani has the unique perspective of both sides. He left Afghanistan to further his studies in the United States. Yet not long after did his anthropological work bring him right back to his mother country. Shahrani has had a front-row seat to the continued conflict in Afghanistan, watching it unfold across decades.
To understand the present, one must know the past. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union ruled Afghanistan, a communist regime offering them an unwanted paradise. The Mujaheddin, an Iranian political militant organization, fought against the Soviets during the 1980 and 90s. In response, Russians bombed the country “back to the Stone Age,” as Shahrani describes. Afghanistan drowned under its own rubble, its people in shambles, left with nothing.
Eventually, the Mujaheddin were militarily successful, but they failed at creating a political government. It was an internal power struggle, and one could agree on a central government. Their disputes left them vulnerable, opening the door of power for the Taliban.
It was 1994 when the Taliban first emerged in the southern province of Kandahār. They quickly overtook local warlords, promising to restore peace, security and enforce their version of Sharia, Islamic law. Initially, they were well-received and praised. Afghans were grateful for some stability after years of fearing what the next day would bring. But that did not last.
The Pakistanis turned the region into a war machine, encouraging the Taliban to secure the remaining country, leading to their eventual takeover of Herat and the bloodshed that followed. The tragic song of Afghanistan continued to play.
As red stained the streets of Kandahār and Kabul, the capital, the rest of the country was in relatively good shape. There was prosperity across other regions. Provinces created independent governments and education systems, and some even began printing new currency. Afghans were finally reclaiming their homeland until the harrowing September 11 attacks on the United States changed everything.
Al Qaeda orchestrated 9/11, but the Taliban was their ally. Ahmad Shah Massoud, the mujahideen commander and leader of the resistance against the Taliban, was assassinated by Taliban and Al-Qaeda just two days before their attack on the U.S. Massoud was instrumental in forcing Soviets out of Afghanistan and leading the resistance. Twenty years later, his son, 32-year-old Ahmad Massoud, follows in his father’s footsteps, leading the current opposition.
In 2001, when Massoud and the Twin Towers fell, the U.S. responded with no mercy. American airships overthrew the Taliban immediately, forcing them into hiding for almost five years. Yet, taking down the Taliban and Al Qaeda left Afghanistan and her people as collateral damage. While the U.S. dominated the air, Afghans were on the ground, men scattered across the country, fighting and dying in a war that was not theirs.
“What the Americans have done in the last 20 years is bombed Afghanistan forward to the Stone Age,” said Shahrani.
He uses the phrase “bombed forward” because the U.S. destroyed the infrastructure they rebuilt from when the Russians previously bombed the country. Roads, buildings, and schools were nothing more than the piles of rubble they were built upon, accompanied by a new wave of social upheaval.
Social distress brought political turmoil. The U.S. tried to create a government composed of technocrats and warlords, the same men who fought against the Soviet Union and Taliban. But they failed. “They created a government that was unreliable, selfish, and were only concerned with their own interest, not people’s interest,” said Shahrani. America made the same mistakes of regimes past, overlooking Afghani’s and their needs. Once again, people who didn’t truly care about the nation were in power.
While the U.S. was gradually rebuilding Afghanistan, Pakistanis were restoring the Taliban, said Shahrani. “Pakistanis helped them reconstitute because the government that had been promised to Afghanistan had turned out to be a bunch of thieves, and the Taliban said look, “Is this what America has brought to us in the name of democracy?” The Taliban declared that America was not a credible ally with no interest for the Afghani people. They held onto that mantra for 16 years, slowly gaining support and momentum, leading up to the present.
On August 22, 2021, the Taliban retook control of Kabul, almost two decades after being driven out by U.S. troops, who were withdrawn just weeks before by President Biden. The world was experiencing déjà vu watching Afghanistan fall. The international community broke out in arguments, choosing sides and placing blame. Was it America’s fault for removing soldiers? Should U.S. troops have been there at all?
Shahrani says no. He agrees with Biden’s decision to remove U.S. troops but thinks it came 20 years too late. He believes America’s first mistake was immediately turning into a military campaign.
“Terrorism is not a security problem. It becomes a security problem, but fundamentally it’s a political problem, and that has not been addressed,” said Shahrani.
Afghanistan’s political instability is the source of its downfall. Its broken government and corrupt officials left the country vulnerable to the Soviets, America, and now the Taliban. Shahrani thinks Afghanistan needs political solutions, but instead, every regime, especially the U.S. uses the same tool: war. “We have had a war on crime, war on drugs, war on this, and war now on terrorism. All of them have failed because war is not the tool for these things.”
About two months ago, on August 16th, President Biden called Afghanistan a “graveyard of empires,” referring to the world’s superpowers that have failed to stabilize the country in previous years. Shahrani believes this phrase provides Afghans with a false perception of victory that they have driven out superpowers and created a graveyard of empires.
“Afghanistan is no graveyard of any empires. It’s a graveyard of Afghans,” he said. Afghanistan is a Proxy War, a nation used by other countries for battle while their homelands stay unscathed. More Afghans have died than any foreign soldiers, its grounds covered in deep scars of bombs past and present.
“Afghans are unfortunately taking pride in something they shouldn’t,” said Shahrani. They claimed victory for getting the Soviets and Americans out, yet their home was devastated, resources depleted, and loved one’s dead. “It’s a false pride. It’s a false deception, and unfortunately, that’s where we are, and that’s where the Taliban has brought the country.” Like Afghans, the Talibans have a blind pride in bringing security to a nation where they caused the initial insecurity.
Afghanistan, past and present, is a global debate. Who won? Who lost? Can anyone even be a winner? “The Afghans did not win. Americans won,” said Shahrani. According to Brown University’s “The Cost of War Project,” America has spent 2.6 trillion dollars on Afghanistan. But most of that money never left the United States and was instead fueled back into its economy.
Of those billions, 90% went to weapons producers and war machinery. Shahrani takes that as a win for the American economy. “They are saying all together maybe 800,000 American soldiers have been in Afghanistan, gaining on the ground military experience. That is a win. America has tested every weapon it has made in the last 20 years in Afghanistan. That is a win.”
From the Soviets to the Taliban to the U.S., and now the Taliban again, the country has never had true autonomy. So, where does the world go from here? “The Taliban are terrorists, and their regime is a terrorist one,” he says. “If they accept this as a government and recognize it, that would be a tragedy. A moral tragedy, an ethical tragedy on the world scale.”
Currently, 17 members of the Taliban’s new temporary government are on the UN blacklist as terrorists, including Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, one of the organization’s founding members. The Taliban say they are fighting for Islamic, the Quran, their guide, their law. But Shahrani believes they are turning the Quran into a weapon of control.
“Political politicians have turned this verse from the Quran into a means of control and abuse of their own people, their own Muslims,” he said. “We cannot expect this regime to do anything that would promote human rights, gender rights, minority rights.”
Shahrani thinks the world must shift focus to the suffering people and relieve them from poverty, hunger, and lack of healthcare. As for Americans, Shahrani believes they must hold their government accountable. “We need to, in fact, in the country encourage open discussion of our foreign policy, especially to wars in the Middle East.” Americans can no longer hide behind a blanket of ignorance and shield themselves from Afghanistan’s reality. “Let’s be patriots, not nationalists.”