For every misguided action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The news coming out of Afghanistan in recent weeks has troubled the world. It is 2021, and the revolution (for good or ill) will be live-streamed.
As bad as the violence has been on the ground in Afghanistan, the worst is far from over for the Afghan people. The Taliban, well-known for its brutality, isn’t even in full control of the country. ISIS-K and other fringe radical groups even more committed to bloodshed are also vying for control via their preferred method.
Which is terrorism.
While Afghanistan bleeds, and the U.S. licks its wounds foreign and domestic, it is worth examining what brought the Taliban to such prominence in the first place.
Why wasn’t 20 years of nation building and billions of dollars invested enough to stamp out the Taliban and other extremist groups?
What would have to take place in the U.S- for instance- for a fringe group of religious lunatics to gain enough traction to take over via military coup?
How do groups like the Taliban became so powerful?
For an answer, let’s look to the example of Iran.
Photos of Iran prior to the fall of the Shah in 1979 and the Islamist Revolution which has since plunged the country into over 40 years of misrule, poverty and death, show Iranians looking and acting very much like their European and American counterparts.
Photos from Iran in the 1950s and 1960s look like photos from South Florida from the same time period. Old-fashioned cars, hairdos, and clothes; women and men socializing together, studying together, eating together. Iran looked just like any other would-be modern nation waking from the slumber of medieval warfare and agriculture to join the global economy.
Most Iranians were lukewarm about the western-style modernization favored by the Shah. As in any other country, there were religious and social conservatives who balked at the changes, who wanted Iran to keep to the tenets of the past. There were also many wary of western influence.
But with most Iranians somewhat on board, even if only by a slight majority, the Shah and his family were determined to westernize- and they wanted it yesterday.
One thing in particular doomed the Shah and his family to exile; one thing changed Iran’s equivalent of the Westboro Baptist Church into the most powerful political and military force in the country.
The Shah banned the veil.
Prior to this, many women in Iran didn’t want to wear the veil- and they didn’t. But some certainly did, whether they wanted to don a headscarf or a full hijab.
Banning the veil swelled the ranks of the religious fundamentalists instantly.
Whereas before their unhinged rantings about the wrath of Allah and the evil influence of western powers sounded like the ravings of a lunatic, now they had an audience.
“No one’s way of life is under attack,” educated Iranian society contemporaries told the old doomsday prophets before the veil ban. “That’s absurd.”
Banning the veil won more people to the revolutionary cause than anything religious fundamentalists railing against foreign influences could have ever dreamed of doing.
It is what might happen to the ranks of the Westboro Baptist Church if the U.S. Government banned cross necklaces, or the Bible. Or churches. Faced with that sort of recruitment opportunity, Westboro Baptist Church leadership might elect to keep some of their more controversial, and violent, takes on the faith to themselves- for the time being- just as the Iranian Mullahs did.
After the Shah was deposed, the religious fundamentalists took over Iran and the ban on the veil was lifted, to say the least.
The people of Iran- and certainly the women who aided in efforts to oust the Shah and helped the Mullahs gain power- got more religious “protections” than they might have wanted, but going too far is the nature of religious fundamentalists and tyrants. They just can’t help themselves.
In Afghanistan, U.S.-led reconstruction efforts created the same deadly trap.
Installing a western-style democracy may have looked good in Washington. The reality in Afghanistan, as we now know and which historians on two continents will someday confirm, is that it was a doomed effort from the start.
Every push U.S. officials made in Afghanistan towards imparting more westernized ideals strengthened the siren song of religious fundamentalists who promised security and didn’t try to push a secular lifestyle on a religiously conservative population.
The U.S. should have found the organizations and groups within Afghanistan already trying to make it a peaceful, stable nation and helped them. Instead, it tried and failed to impose American ideals on a country 10,000 miles away from Washington D.C.
Instead of winning hearts and minds to democracy, doing so alienated many people in Afghanistan who would have otherwise been sympathetic to the over-arching western goals of economic and social stability. Force-feeding Afghanistan democracy drove people to the Taliban.
A monarchy would have probably been a better fit- but such an ideal wasn’t compatible with American ideas about successful nation building. Never mind that plenty of other peaceful, successful Middle Eastern Muslim-majority nations, even the extremely conservative ones, have functioning monarchies.
Meanwhile, the number of democracies in the Middle East is 1: Israel.
While classes of women’s studies students received a pained explanation of why an artist’s display of a porcelain urinal is considered an epiphany in conceptual art- a phenomenon which still stuns sensibilities all over the world, to say nothing of in religiously conservative Afghanistan- the Taliban was winning.
The U.S. educated a generation of young people who know about the patriarchy, but who didn’t know how to run a democracy without corruption destroying its viability. They obviously didn’t understand that what “The Patriarchy” meant for women in Afghanistan wasn’t what it meant for women in America.
In Afghanistan, The Patriarchy is The Taliban; not an abstract, not a social construct, not a form of systemic injustice but a well-armed militia of religious fundamentalists ready to enforce their version of morality at the very literal, very imminent point of a machine gun.
Rather than trying to the help the Afghan people on their own cultural terms, the U.S. tried to turn Afghanistan into itself.
That such a strategy failed so spectacularly isn’t surprising. What is surprising is our capacity to ignore the lessons of history.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)