Over the month of August 2021, thousands of Taliban soldiers surged into Kabul in a jubilant military victory. Immediately thereafter, tens of thousands of Americans and their Afghan allies surged to the airport to get out of the country at any cost or sacrifice.
By September, all Americans who wanted to leave Afghanistan will be gone. More than 100,000 Afghan refugees will also be gone, but many more people that want to leave will be left behind.
All through the “retrograde” exit of American military, diplomatic and civilian personnel, the American media has been shedding crocodile tears while feasting on the chaos and mass tragedies of helpless people running for their lives.
Almost every TV broadcast also contains a comparison of America’s exit from Afghanistan with that of the U.S. exit from Vietnam in 1975. We are all very familiar with the video clips of lines of South Vietnamese people desperately clamoring to rooftops to be airlifted to safety by American military helicopters. Similar scenes of thousands of Afghans jamming the gates at the Kabul airport are looped over and over again. Tragedy is in nearly every scene, from insanely frightened people hanging onto the undercarriage of an American C-17 cargo plane trying to take off to body parts of American soldiers and Afghan civilians splattered all over an airport gate entrance by an ISIS suicide bomber.
After the last Americans are gone, the Taliban will be free to form their long sought after “Islamic Emirate.” Many broadcast reports decry how much more chaotic the American exit from Afghanistan and the rapid take over by the Taliban was than the previous exit from Vietnam. This perspective ignores the historical record.
The ARVN army collapsed just as rapidly in the last days of the Vietnam War. They threw down their rifles and tore off their uniforms. The North Vietnamese forces also captured massive amounts of advanced American military equipment and supplies. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese allies were left behind and ended up being killed or confined in “re-education camps” for years.
The North Vietnamese leadership and the Taliban face similar challenges. How does a society and economy that has been at war for decades convert to peace time? How are huge armies deactivated and soldiers retrained to become civilian workers? How is national investment restructured after military spending no longer bleeds the economy dry? How does an orthodox socialist Marxist-Leninist leadership (North Vietnam) or an orthodox Islamic leadership (Afghanistan) enter the global economy? How is the economy re-built in such a way to ensure short-term self-sufficiency, especially for staple foods, while planning for long-term economic growth? How is national income distributed? Does corruption and inequality survive regime change? Do urban dwellers still live much better than folks out in the hinterlands?
Most importantly, how does a newly independent nation deal with the constant turmoil and challenges of surviving in the global economy? How is hard currency generated for goods (e.g., hi-tech global infrastructure products or basic food staples) that are not produced in adequate quantities, or not at all, within the newly independent economy?
In Afghanistan, where heroin trafficking and “protection” rackets provided the Taliban with hard cash for so long, how can more conventional resources, like mineral extraction or low-cost labor, substitute for previous illicit income streams, especially in the short run?.
How is the national infrastructure re-built after the Taliban has spent so many years destroying it? Where will the money come from for such massive re-building? Who removes the minefields and unexploded bombs? How does a former Taliban army composed of uneducated peasant troops manage modern electricity, water and telecommunications systems? Where will air controllers and aircraft maintenance workers come from? How will healthcare systems be maintained and expanded? How will the Taliban deal with COVID? Where are they going to get vaccines? Will the Taliban be able to revive agriculture and feed the nation from internal resources? What happens if there are food shortages? Where will food relief supplies come from? Will global NGOs help or refuse food and humanitarian assistance?
Many of the answers to these questions will be determined by the policies that the Taliban institutes immediately after liberation. Will they flash scenes of beheading of “enemies” across global media? Will human rights be trampled for modern Afghan women and for young girls? Will the Taliban kidnap young girls and reward loyal soldiers with virgin brides? Will women be re-confined to the interior walls of homes? What happens to a widowed mother with children from a former Afghan government soldier? Will women have to dress in outfits that enshroud them thoroughly?
Will the Taliban follow the example of the Khmer Rouge? Will they try to form an Islamic “pure” society through authoritarian edicts and religious police? Will resistors be killed or persecuted for years in “re-education” camps or in dank prisons? Will new mass “Killing Fields” appear in Afghanistan? Will the Taliban try to return the country to a “golden age” before the intrusion of European colonialism? Will the Taliban be satisfied with building an agrarian subsistence society or, will they try to participate in the global capitalist economy like other Islamic countries?
Will the new “Emirate” strive for a flat income distribution? Or will the leadership succumb to the pleasures of unlimited power? Who will live in the mansions of former Afghan government officials – homeless people or Taliban officials? Will the Taliban de-construct the previous capitalist consumer culture? Who will have Internet access? Will playing music and dancing be permanently banned?
Will the Taliban try to form a sealed Khmer Rouge style Islamic utopia? Will the borders be closed to prevent foreigners from entering and Afghan residents from leaving? Will women be beaten for having a Western fashion magazine in their possession? Will the Taliban ignore world public opinion, especially regarding human rights, and will the Taliban cleanse their new society of all non-Islamic cultural contamination?
Will the lives of peasants in the countryside be any different? Will taxes remain as burdensome while the recipients only change? Will drudgery afflict the peasants indefinitely? Will the peasants receive assistance in improving agricultural productivity and be able to enjoy some of that increase in production? Will the children of peasants lead lives any different than that of their parents?
The North Vietnamese leadership faced many of these same problems when they came to full control of their country. A fundamental problem was could they integrate two different societies where one had developed in the North under an orthodox Marxist-Leninist Soviet-style regime and the other under a crony capitalism society flush with American war money and hooked on Western consumer culture. In the North, Vietnamese people had survived under very austere living conditions for decades. The income distribution was very flat, except for senior communist party officials and, even then, their consumption was only a fraction of comparable officials in the South. It took almost a century for French colonialism and American imperialism to have foreigners thrown out and national independence secured.
In the South, corruption permeated almost every government and commercial transaction. Income disparities between the cities and the countryside were extreme. Many government officials, military leaders and merchants accumulated vast wealth and often shipped their loot out the country to numbered accounts in foreign banks. Chronic corruption only bought loyalty as long as payments continued. Dictatorship and political instability were rampant both nationally and at the local level.
When the North Vietnamese conquered the South they faced many of the same problems that the Taliban now face. How to deal with former enemies – kill them, “re-educate” them, or reconcile grievances through commissions like the South Africans and Ugandans have used to re-unite a war-torn society of sworn enemies. How to survive economically, especially in the short run. How to turn young men who have only known warfare to live and work as citizens in a new society? How are soldiers retrained to become productive workers? How to transform a Taliban leadership that only has experience in military command structures to function in a partially pluralistic society.
In the long-term, does the newly independent Taliban country participate in the global capitalist economy, or not? How does the country compete with other countries with similar natural resource and human capital deficiencies but who have had many years to experiment and find semi-successful strategies? How are new diplomatic relations established, especially if heads are chopped off for all the world to see? Do old enemies become new friends in the shifting political landscape?
A Taliban Afghanistan has many Islamic national models to choose from in determining their future economic and cultural policies. The most immediate and closest model is Pakistan, their long-time ally in their war of independence. Pakistan has over five times the population (the fifth largest country in the world) and more than 70 years of independence. Their society is dominated by a military-political clique that adheres to orthodox Islamic culture. But, Pakistan is not a theocracy like Iran. They participate fully in the capitalist world order and are dependent upon exports, such as textiles, for hard currency. Their military is one of the most modern in the world, thanks to decades of American military assistance. They are one of the few countries in the world to possess a nuclear stockpile and they have means to deliver those weapons, particularly to Hindu India. Income distribution in Pakistan conforms to the common urban-rural divide. In a “best case” scenario, the Taliban may aspire to be a “junior Pakistan” where minimal human rights and Islamic rule of law co-exist precariously.
The Taliban have many other countries to model themselves on, including Indonesia, Bangladesh, Iran, or even Singapore. But they don’t have oil resources like Saudi Arabia or Iraq or Iran. And, unlike the Saudis who are ruled by a hereditary kleptocracy, the Taliban are ruled by Islamic ideologues. The natural resources of Afghanistan will require many years of development before they pay off, even if the Chinese flood into the country after independence with lucrative offers. Like any other prospective investment opportunity, the Taliban would have to offer the Chinese a stable, peaceful society with the rule of international law covering transactions with foreigners to attract the massive investments required to convert the country’s economic potential into practical reality.
The world will know within only a few months which model the Taliban chooses. Key indicators will include how they treat former enemies; how they treat foreigners in the country after the Americans leave; how they treat women and girls; whether re-education is draconian or reconciling; and what type of economy they institute. They can isolate themselves like the Khmer Rouge or enter the world economy like neighboring Islamic countries. If the Taliban exercise mass retribution, their short-term options in the global community will be very limited. Any country that supports them during such punitive campaigns will be smeared with the same human rights offenses as the Taliban themselves.
Future diplomatic relations will be especially dependent upon their treatment of former enemies. Pakistan and other Islamic countries may cheer them on in punitive campaigns as just another step in Islam’s triumphal reconquering of the world from infidels. Other counties that are anti-U. S such as China, Russia or North Korea, will also probably support them no matter what they do, but the rest of the world may treat the Taliban as human rights pariahs only separated from the Khmer Rouge in ideology and time, not in the human consequences of their policies.
If the Taliban “moderate” the enforcement of Islamic law, like most of their neighbors, then they might be able to form bridges with Western countries and NGOs from those countries. Much will also depend upon how the Taliban relate to groups that the world identifies as terrorists. If terrorists take refuge in Taliban Afghanistan and are successful in carrying out attacks around the world, then the Taliban will be effectively isolated while the rest of the world goes on with global economic development.
Even the United States may extend diplomatic relations after a few years, just like they did with the Vietnamese. But this recognition can only happen if the rest of the exit goes relatively smoothly without any more tragedies. And, if the Taliban are not punitive in dealing with representatives of the former regime after the Americans leave.
The Taliban coin has been tossed up and it’s still in the air. But we will all know very shortly which side of the coin turns up.
Featured Image: Taliban fighters in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 17 2021, Wikimedia Commons