You all know what I think about Afghanistan: that Taliban victory was inevitable, and US forces could delay it for as long as we felt like bearing the cost but never change the country's basic politics. The government we defended was never anything but a democratic facade over a cesspit of corruption, a monstrosity no Afghan would fight to defend. There was also the cost of the unending war, hundreds of deaths every year and great economic dislocation.
But I do recognize the tragedy unfolding. Consider just one example, the Afghan all- girls robotics team:
The Afghan Dreamers all-girls robotics team was supposed to embody a new vision of Afghanistan. The team was made up of teenagers who grew up in the post-Taliban era, and had access to cell phones, TV, and the Internet. The group, founded in 2017 by Roya Mahboob, Afghanistan’s first female tech CEO, was based in Afghanistan’s third largest city, Herat, and built a reputation for itself of being vibrant and resourceful.
The Afghan Dreamers competed internationally, and won. During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the team worked on a low-cost ventilator using parts from old Toyota cars. The team’s enthusiasm and success earned it support from the Afghan government, which agreed to help build The Dreamer Institute in Kabul to educate youth from across the country. Members of the team wanted to start their own companies, become engineers — even go to Mars.
Not that they were ever going to Mars, but where are they going now?
I understand, in the abstract, why many people around the world reject western capitalism with its consumerism, exploitation, and worship of shallow celebrities, all fueled by drugs legal or not. But is the only alternative repressive religious dictatorship? Why must the joy be drained out of life, the enthusiasm of girl robotocists demolished? Is it because the only other model we have is reactionary misery?
Could there be a world that is free without being disgusting? Or is repression the only way to fight grotesque inequality, rampant pornography, homeless camps in every city and ever spreading for-profit sleaze? So the only question is where to place your marker on an eternal sliding scale?
One of the pieces that makes up the modern, western, liberal outlook is pacifism. In the US this does not seem to be a crisis, and we still have plenty of soldiers. But would we if we ever got the kind of country American liberals want? In Afghanistan, the more people identified with the west, the less willing they were to fight for their vision of society. Was that just an Afghan problem, or was it something we should all ponder? The forces of reaction are not going away, and in many places they have guns.
I think the big mystery at this point is what the Taliban actually are. They seem to be many things. There's obviously an element of conservative, Salafist religion. But to what extent should we see that as potentially international and "Islamist," and to what extent is it a Pashtun ethnic sectarianism? And to what extent should we see them as a real, medieval throwback, since they seem to be very comfortable with social media?
In addition, there's an element that a lot of the young men in the ranks seem to be doing this as a form of work. It's a way to earn money for poor country-dwellers and refugees. But I'm sure that's not universal, and that doesn't prevent them from serving a more ideological agenda.
Others seem to have joined as part of a family bet-hedging strategy; one part of the family supports one side in the civil war, and one part supports the other. Negotiations between different sides of certain families seem to have been important in arranging some of the surrenders of the last month.
On another level, reports are that the opium business is a huge preoccupation. Are they basically a criminal gang? If so, what is a criminal gang?
And then there's the broader question: beyond the fact that they are clearly illiberal, to what extent as whole do they represent a real alternative to consumerist modernity? To the extent that one wants to make an analogy between the Taliban and Trumpism, it seems to me that the latter represents virtually no challenge in real principle to consumerist modernity. It's just another form of consumerism. Hence the apt designation of groups like the Proud Boys as basically LARPers. Are the Taliban in some sense "truly" anti-modern and anti-consumerist? I don't know.
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