The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has encouraged the Taliban to stake their future on the battlefield, Stanford scholar says
Stanford historian Robert Crews discusses the political challenges and precarities that remain in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdraws its troops following two decades of conflict.
As the U.S. withdraws its troops in Afghanistan, the question now is whether the Afghan government – or another international force – can stop a resurgent Taliban from using violence to seize power, says Stanford historian Robert Crews.
Here, Crews, whose research and teaching focuses on Afghanistan and global history, discusses what America’s end of its two-decades-long war on Aug. 31 means for the future of Afghanistan and its people at a time when the Taliban has expanded its reach across the country.
Crews is the author of Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation (Harvard University Press, 2015) and co-editor of Under the Drones: Modern Lives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Borderlands (Harvard University Press, 2012) and The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan (Harvard University Press, 2009). He is also editor in chief of Afghanistan, an academic journal that takes a cross-cultural, humanities-oriented approach to the study of Afghanistan and its surrounding regions. Crews is a professor of history in the School of Humanities and Sciences.
Can you describe what Afghanistan looks like today, after some two decades of war and conflict?
Afghans face the confluence of multiple crises just as President Biden withdraws American forces. Beyond the pandemic, drought and a dire economy, they confront a resurgent Taliban movement that now controls or contests more of the country’s territory than at any time since 2001. Afghan security personnel are struggling to hold territory, and the political elites have thus far been unable to unify against the common threat of the Taliban. Many Afghans are searching for alternatives to both the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani. Meanwhile, anti-Taliban militias are mobilizing, and reports of Taliban killings and abuse are rife. A number of Afghans fear they have no hope but to flee the country.
But the world has largely closed its doors to Afghans. Others are determined to fight to deny the Taliban an opportunity to reimpose their rule. Anxiety is palpable, particularly for Afghans who live in the cities, where many displaced Afghans have sought refuge. Activists, intellectuals, artists and writers are uncertain about their future in a country where the Taliban seek to reestablish their “Islamic Emirate.” Marginalized ethnic communities such as the Hazaras fear genocide. Perhaps most important, the position of Afghan girls and women is now in flux. Their access to schools, to work, to the ballot box, to their seats in parliament and the newsroom, even the possibility of leaving their homes without a male chaperone, is in question. Finally, amid all this anxiety and uncertainty, there is a profound sense of betrayal. Why did the Americans wage war in this country for two decades? The Taliban, of course, have their answer: They see in recent events the unfolding of a path toward victory and a return to power.
What do you think people most misunderstand about the war?
In the U.S., I think the greatest challenge is in acknowledging our responsibility for the outcome of the war. To be sure, we share this burden with Afghan elites – and the Taliban and other militants should be held accountable for their war crimes and human rights violations. But we need to come to terms with how the U.S. has over the past 20 years created conditions of generalized insecurity for so many Afghans. It’s tempting to see corruption, fraud and state violence as endemic to Afghan politics and culture – and many in Washington are repeating these talking points now – but American policies were at the root of many of these developments.
Some have made comparisons of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to the withdrawal in Vietnam – which President Biden refuted. What do think of that comparison? Is it a fair one?
It’s an interesting question, though perhaps too early to tell what such a comparison might offer us. There are numerous important differences, of course. Since 2001, American society, though largely detached from the war effort and its sacrifices on the whole, has been far more supportive of the war in Afghanistan than it was in Vietnam. Obviously, the military draft made an enormous difference. But one way to think about both wars in the same framework is to see them as drawing on ways of thinking inherited from colonialism. In both wars, American political elites dehumanized the populations where they sent U.S. soldiers to fight for what Washington defined as a “national interest.” They were racial and religious “others.” Such thinking fueled atrocities and war crimes, leaving traumatized survivors on all sides. For so many South Vietnamese, having to flee their country was an enormous tragedy. Yet four decades later, Vietnam enjoys a prosperity and stability that few non-communists would have imagined when the U.S. withdrew in defeat. Should the latest American defeat be followed by the restoration of Taliban rule across the country, it is difficult to imagine an analogous scenario in Afghanistan’s future.
What are some of the challenges to achieving peace in the country?
The challenges are primarily political in nature. The Taliban want to return to power, and the support of Pakistan remains an enormous asset in their favor. Meanwhile, the system of government established largely by the Bush administration in 2001 for a post-Taliban Afghanistan has proved incapable of fulfilling the aspirations of the dynamic society that has emerged in the country in the last two decades. It is a tightly centralized political system. The president enjoys autocratic powers. To simplify, it is a “winner take all” scenario that offers few avenues for political engagement or contestation. Meanwhile, elections, a relatively free and pluralistic mediascape, the expansion of education and the entry of more and more women and representatives of diverse ethnic communities into nearly all aspects of public life have produced a society whose expectations are at odds with both political scenarios. Beyond the presidential palace, the Afghan political landscape offers a wide range of views, ideologies and voices clamoring for inclusion.
However, the American withdrawal has encouraged the Taliban to stake their future on the battlefield, not at the negotiating table or ballot box. The question now is whether the Afghan government – or perhaps some other international force – can prevent the Taliban from using violence to monopolize power.
As a historian, how do you think people will write about and remember the war in Afghanistan?
Sometimes historians are better at asking questions than actually coming up with answers. I am still reeling, as are so many people in Afghanistan, at the way the U.S. has simply walked away. The U.S. has still not achieved the goals outlined by the George W. Bush administration in 2001. In the process, the intervention has destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians and made refugees of millions more. To be sure, many Afghans achieved their aspirations under the post-2001 U.S.-backed Afghan governments under the American security umbrella. For all their shortcomings, a vibrant civil society emerged, even despite corruption, poverty and insecurity. All of this is now hanging by a thread. Afghan society has changed. But the Taliban remain committed to re-imposing something very close to the system that they brutally employed to control the country from 1996 to 2001. And their allies in the Pakistani security establishment are continuing to press their same goals; namely, seeking influence in Afghan politics to give Islamabad a stronger position against India. Future historians may be reduced to asking, “What was the point of it all?” Afghans are likely going to ask why it was they who had to suffer for America’s misguided war of revenge. I hope we’ll agree that military intervention, especially when animated by colonial thinking about the Global South, has left us with an enduring legacy of violence and chaos with no end in sight.
As a historian, are they any lessons from the past that help us understand the country’s present and perhaps its future?
It’s remarkable to see people continue to repeat the clichés about Afghanistan as a hopeless “graveyard of empires” stuck in some distant, benighted past. This is a zombie narrative. It’s being revived now to deflect criticism of Biden and the U.S. military. The claim is that Afghanistan was never going to change, so the whole American project there was – by no fault of our own – impossible. To suggest that any place was “always” a particular way is misleading – and is invariably used to deflect attention and to undermine calls for accountability and justice.
Going beyond such uninformed, dehumanizing and racist metaphors, more recent scholarship, including by a number of outstanding young Afghan scholars, has brought to light cultural and intellectual currents that are cosmopolitan, subversive, feminist and secular, among other directions. The Afghan past is far from monolithic or static. The pluralism, dynamism and cosmopolitanism that we can identify at key moments in the Afghan past are all resources that Afghan men and women can draw on today in shaping a political future that may help them realize their aspirations for a more just and peaceful society.
How do you teach the war in Afghanistan to your students, many of whom have lived their entire lives with the U.S. involved in combat in the country?
I encourage them to question the dominant narratives about Afghanistan. Instead of seeing a supposedly “medieval,” violent and inward-looking place inhabited by fanatical warriors, we explore the country as an epicenter of global politics. Afghan lives are connected in innumerable ways with our own. We share a common, intertwined history. And because there are so many brilliant Afghan artists, writers, musicians and thinkers, we draw on art, literature and film to try to understand the humanity that we share with them. Studying Afghanistan is also an opportunity to question the uses of American power around the world and to ask, “What do we owe societies that we transform through military violence?”