Many on the right, including former president George W. Bush, are warning that withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan is a terrible mistake. These critics have been emboldened by recent Taliban gains. In the northeast, an advance sent more than 1,000 Afghan troops fleeing to Tajikistan. And insurgents have claimed key districts in Badakhshan province, where local officials hastily boarded a plane to escape the besieged territory, evoking the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the haunting specter of the U.S. failure in Vietnam.
Taliban videos, narrated by breathless foot-soldiers, have featured the surrender of government forces and the capture of arms and vehicles that the United States had hoped would enable the Kabul government to maintain power following the U.S. departure. Meanwhile, in the capital, vast crowds queuing desperately at passport offices project widespread anxiety about the country’s future.
These events have also evoked comparisons to Afghanistan in 1989, when another global power, the Soviet Union, withdrew its military forces. Soviet allies managed to hold onto power until 1992, when the mujahideen finally prevailed. They soon turned against one another in a fratricidal conflict that destroyed much of Kabul and terrorized Afghan civilians. This chaos paved the way for the Taliban to gain control and brutally rule the country from 1996 to 2001.
But the political situation and landscape today are quite different from the 1990s. Afghan society has changed, and its pluralism and civil infrastructure offer hope for a very different future.
When Soviet troops left Afghanistan, they left a disintegrating society in their wake. Soviet efforts to maintain control had displaced most educated Afghans, many of whom were assassinated, as several million people fled the country. Crucially, state institutions withered. For the jihadi leaders, maintaining their power at any cost became their central focus. For the general population, surviving a bloody civil war and its ensuing lawlessness was the main priority. In 1994, the Taliban entered the fray. They promised order and justice based upon their draconian understanding of Islam. Relying upon punitive measures that were rarely if ever applied in Afghan history, in 1996 the Taliban declared their “emirate” in Kabul.
Their grip on power proved fragile, however, and the U.S.-led intervention in 2001 sparked an important transformation. In dislodging the Taliban, American bombing, night raids and other abuses traumatized much of the population. At the same time, however, the end of the restrictive Taliban order proved beneficial. Additionally, the United Nations and United States rallied the international donor community to invest billions in nation-building and development in Afghanistan. This combination not only opened a space for many Afghans to reimagine their society, but also supported rebuilding it. Post 9/11, an estimated 70 percent of Afghanistan’s gross national income consisted of international development aid, with the United States as the largest donor.
Afghans utilized this aid to help construct a pluralistic civil society that values democracy, human rights and peace. Take for example the mediascape. Through new television, radio, Internet and social media platforms — as well as a burgeoning book industry — Afghans have found unprecedented avenues for political engagement and exchange. Depending on where they are in the country, Afghans can access anywhere from 30 to 100 free radio and television stations, a major change from life under the Taliban, which banned all independent media and tried to establish a monopoly for their Radio Shariah.
These outlets are a counterbalance to the government, warlords and foreign interests. They provide a vibrant public sphere hosting and nurturing important national debates about human rights, democracy, modernity and Islam. While Afghanistan remains dangerous for journalists and other media makers, this risk reflects the political importance of this new journalism. Reporters, activists and reformers have exerted considerable pressure on Afghan politicians, insisting on a kind of scrutiny to which Taliban leaders are unaccustomed. These outlets offer an opportunity to hold leaders accountable and make it much harder to stifle opposition than in the 1990s.
Further, Afghanistan has undergone a generational shift. Young Afghans born in the 1990s and early 2000s have grown up with different expectations. Thanks to exposure to this media, broader education and the promise of participatory politics, Afghan youths seek a voice in politics, even if they are not unanimous in their views on the future. While many are inclined toward secular democracy, others agitate for various forms of Islamist government.
Nonetheless, regardless of their own vision for the country, many young people seek a broadening and diversification of the Afghan political landscape. Through art, music, street protests, vigils and cross-country marches, Afghan men and women of different backgrounds have mobilized to protest violence, corruption and ethnic and gender discrimination. They are tired of the rule of kleptocrats and warlords and the sectarian killings they incite.
Maybe the most important part of this new pluralism is a multiethnic conception of citizenship, celebrated in social media campaigns. This understanding unifies and represents the country’s diversity, rather than different ethnic groups pushing for their own territories, as happened in the Balkans with devastating consequences.
This vision reflects a reimagined place for ethnicity in Afghan politics. While ethnic polarization can foster violence, activists representing a wide range of communities have instead advanced novel demands for recognition, inclusion and equality. For example, despite merciless Islamic State and Taliban terrorist attacks on maternity hospitals, girls’ schools and other sites in Hazara neighborhoods, Hazara activists (many of whom are Shiite) and their allies continue to demand equal access to education, resources and political representation.
Underlying these various demands for representation and accountability is an epic shift in gender politics. While Western rhetoric about aiding Afghan women was mostly propaganda, the post-2001 landscape has unsettled gender hierarchies and yielded opportunities for women and girls to pursue many of their aspirations. They have tasted the promise of self-expression, work, mobility, education, political participation and new forms of religiosity and irreligiosity.
These opportunities are fragile because of continued violence and poverty. Yet new institutions such as the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization and other civil society groups have emerged as formidable guardians of the rights of women and the marginalized. Women are active in every sector of society and make up 25 percent of the parliament.
But while civil society has evolved, the U.S. backed-government has proved less responsive to public opinion. The presidential system established in 2001 has largely excluded voices from a wider Afghan public, while restoring the influence of many mujahideen commanders displaced by the Taliban. Electoral fraud, corruption and the concentration of power in the government have alienated many Afghans.
Capitalizing on these failures and resentment over Western interventions, the Taliban brands the current government an illegitimate American puppet and has demanded the ouster of both the regime and Western forces. Yet while civil society activists and most Afghans share this disenchantment, for them, the Taliban is not the answer either. After two decades of fighting for their rights as citizens, they want no part of a one-party, autocratic state and warring mujahideen factions.
The new more globalized, cosmopolitan and complex Afghan society is looking for a new, more representative politics to match. And it’s in the interests of all domestic and international parties to work to deliver one. Such a politics could prevent further violence and end war and warlordism.
Peace is more likely to emerge out of more plural avenues for engagement than from the imposition of a singular, restrictive political order. If the United States and its allies press for accountability for American and Afghan elites and offer support for those Afghans who seek a voice in politics but who are targeted by militants and conservatives, it might forestall echoes of Vietnam or even the Afghanistan of the 1990s. Centering on the concerns of a wider public and the ideas of civil society activists, journalists and reformers offers the best solution for creating a more diverse, equitable and peaceful political order.