Here's What Makes Modernizing Afghanistan Impossible

The current difficulties in Afghanistan have structural causes that are more serious than cyclical ones such as sanctions.  The recent measures taken by the United Nations at the suggestion of the Biden administration may not be enough for a country that has been dependent on foreign aid for decades.

Since the Taliban took control of Kabul last August, their regime has reduced the already limited freedoms available to Afghan citizens.  On December 26, the Taliban's Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice declared that women could not travel more than 45 miles without being accompanied by a male relative.  Along with the restrictions, the state of the economy, which was already very bad despite international aid, has worsened, especially because Washington has frozen nearly $9.5 billion from the Afghan Central Bank and the World Bank has suspended aid.

On December 22, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution proposed by the United States to facilitate humanitarian aid in a country where food prices have risen sharply.  Two weeks earlier, the World Bank had announced $280 million in humanitarian aid to be disbursed by UNICEF and the World Food Programme to Afghanistan.

This collapse is due to more than the sanctions.  The causes are fundamental and linked to a social organization and a culture that have made it difficult to truly modernize Afghanistan's structures for decades.  In fact, the country has never been able to develop without international aid since the Second World War.  These structural and cultural problems have partly made the victory of the Taliban possible.  The country's history during the 20th century and its mentality should have made Westerners very cautious.

A Pew Research Center poll published on April 30, 2013 revealed that 79 percent of Afghans believed that those who left Islam should be killed in application of sharia, the Islamic law, and that 61 percent of the population believed that all inhabitants should be subject to sharia.  These figures show the illusion of building a modern democracy on the Western model, where the rights of religious minorities are recognized.

In March 2015, a mob lynched Farkhunda Malikzhada, an Islamic studies graduate, because people were falsely convinced she had burned the Quran.  The mob hit her with sticks and stones while shouting anti-American and anti-democracy slogans, and then a car ran over her.  When the police tried to evacuate her, she refused on the grounds that a female police officer had to accompany her.

An ABC News poll released on December 7, 2005 showed that only 42 percent of residents strongly supported a woman working outside the home, and 38 percent supported a woman working in government.  Less than half of the women strongly supported it.

This worldview was dominant outside the capital.  The photo from 1972 of three women in miniskirts in Kabul is a gross misrepresentation of reality, as explained by the Swiss photographer Laurence Brun, who took it: "They could get acid on their legs."  Donald Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, lobbied the then-president with this picture to convince him that Afghanistan could become a modern country again.  In reality, few women were not veiled in the capital, and even fewer in the rest of the country.  Before the Taliban regime, Commander Massoud's wife did not wear the veil in Kabul, but she wore it when she was in Panjshir province.  And although women could vote since 1964, in reality, they were dominated by men.

History shows that building a strong Afghan state based on the Western model is impossible.  Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld relied on warlords for ground combat.  However, James Dobbins, who served as acting United States ambassador to Afghanistan, has pointed out that Donald Rumsfeld opposed nation-building and the expansion of the international force, unlike secretary of state Colin Powell, whose position finally prevailed.

Because Afghanistan is not a nation-state, but a country with multiple ethnic groups and ethnicities split into localities that sometimes matter more than ethnicity, President Hamid Karzai ruled through corruption and nepotism.  This system of government has prevented the modernization of the country, despite the $145 billion spent by the USA to build a strong and self-sustaining economy and state.

Aid from 60 other countries has been similarly unsuccessful, in part because of a lack of coordination, especially in urban reconstruction.

The Afghanistan papers of the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction revealed two years ago the difference between the reality and the public statements of politicians.  While officially talking about progress, they privately recognized motivation problems of Afghan security forces, corruption, and misuse of American money by Afghan commanders.  Corruption already existed when the Northern Alliance was fighting the Taliban before 2001, when warlords levied illegal taxes.  Moreover, the Northern Alliance refined opium into heroin before overthrowing the Taliban.

No unity, no Western modernity despite more than 60 years of aid

History has shown the difficulties of modernizing Afghanistan.  King Amanullah Khan had tried to reform it, to give rights to women, before he had to flee in 1929.

Between 1953 and 1963, Washington and Moscow offered economic and military assistance to Afghanistan at the request of Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan.  The U.S. provided 30% of the aid to the country between 1950 and 1970, the USSR 50% during this period.  Daoud believed that without rapid growth, Afghanistan would become severely politically fragmented.

From 1950 to 1970, the USSR invested $638 million (donations and credits) in the country, the United States gave $406 million, and the others gave $148 million.  Americans built Kandahar International Airport.  In 1970, the businessman Abdul Majid Zabuli denounced in the Afghan press "the anarchy, indiscipline and weakness of the administration."  In 1979, after the assassination of the pro-USSR president, Nur Muhammad Taraki, the Red Army invaded the country, but could not rely on the Afghan forces it had equipped.  Forty percent of the Afghan soldiers had deserted within a few days after the Marxist coup in 1978 — similar to last summer.

Between 1992 and 1996, after the defeat of the USSR, the warlords in Kabul were unable to get along with each other, and the capital became a theater of war.  Commander Massoud, who had been able to unite them militarily against the Soviets, could not unite them politically.  This is how the Taliban defeated them in 1996.

The president of the Middle East Forum, Daniel Pipes, points out that unlike Germany or Japan, which were rebuilt after a long war that brought them down, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were short, and these populations did not accept foreign orders, for they were not so badly affected, in contrast to the countries defeated in World War II.  Moreover, he notes, "Afghans and Iraqis intensely reject rule by non-Muslims, an attitude embedded in the very nature of Islam, the most political of religions."

The first problem is probably the impossibility of understanding Afghanistan with a Western vision.  In the same way that trust in a multicultural society is a prominent issue, perhaps the West should have looked first at cultural differences with Afghanistan and not have believed that money would be enough.

Image via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

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