I shouted the text of my latest story about the invasion from a Palm Pilot into a balky Iridium satellite phone. It was at least my third attempt, and the battery was dying. A Village Voice employee assigned to take dictation on the other side of the world interrupted me.
“I don’t understand,” she said, irritated. “Why don’t you just go to Kinko’s and email it to us?”
I stood shin-deep in the pitch dark of a muddy rut in northeastern Afghanistan and scanned pockmarked mud-brick walls. I was on a street, but it was 2001, so there wasn’t any pavement. There were buildings but no lights because decades of civil war had left the nation without an electrical grid. There were no bridges that hadn’t been blown up, no phone lines, no sewers. There was no water.
Motorized transport belonged to the privileged: NGOs, warlords, invading armies and journalists like me. People wanted me to take their picture, not to be photographed but to see themselves in my camera’s viewfinder for their first time in their lives. There weren’t any mirrors.
Minus a central bank, rival warlords printed banknotes from identical plates with ink of varying color. Most people preferred barter.
Afghanistan during the U.S. invasion was the 14th century plus mines and AK-47s.
The land of the Taliban was bleak and desolate. After America bombed them out of Kabul after 9/11, they fled into the dusty countryside and rugged mountains that became staging grounds for attacks against U.S. and NATO forces for more than 18 years. Thousands of Americans and tens of Afghans lost their lives in a war that, in a poignant echo of Vietnam, lost its purpose. “What were we trying to do here?” Gen. Douglas Lute, who led U.S. forces under former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, recalled asking. “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
On Feb. 29 of this year, the U.S. tacitly conceded defeat. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar of the Taliban signed a deal as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo witnessed the ceremony in Doha.
They called it a peace agreement. But it didn’t guarantee that fighting would stop (and it hasn’t), only that the U.S. will withdraw within 14 months.
Under the Doha agreement, the Taliban will now negotiate terms with the Afghan government that the U.S. installed in early 2002. The expectation is that the Taliban will recognize the regime of President Ashraf Ghani and lay down their weapons. It’s far more likely that the group will wait for Ghani’s NATO protectors to leave. Vietnam again: This is “peace with honor.”
This fig leaf allows us to withdraw with our pride intact. And that’s fine. Fifty-eight percent of military veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan think the latter conflict was a waste. They’re right. We were never going to win. President Donald Trump gets credit for ending America’s longest war.
So what happens next?
The Taliban will grant us a grace period of relative calm while we turn our focus to other issues and places. Ultimately, they will seize power with surprising speed and ferocity. This, dating back to the First Afghan War against the British between 1839 to 1842, is the way of Afghan guerilla warfare: Wait. Observe. Probe. Swarm.
Then the Taliban will be back in Kabul.
But it won’t be the Taliban — not the Taliban with whom we went to war in 2001. The Ur Taliban are dead and gone.
The bearded fighters to whom the Trump administration has turned over the future of Afghanistan are not your father’s Taliban. South Asia experts call these fellows the “neo-Taliban.” Formerly based in the former tribal areas of Waziristan in western Pakistan along the Afghan border, Afghanistan’s neo-Taliban is a pastiche of radical volunteers and recruits from jihadi hot spots throughout Asia: Kashmir, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, eastern Iran and Pakistan proper. Many of these young men were orphans of the refugee camps and madrassas that sprung up around the Afghan diaspora of the 1990s and post-9/11 era. Modern and tech-savvy, they carry smartphones to coordinate attacks, often on motorcycles. They earn money from kidnapping and the drug trade.
The original Taliban who ruled 90% of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 were a simpler, indigenous, more homogenous breed. Veterans of the anti-Soviet resistance, they began as vigilantes against bandits and rapists. Befitting the devastated hellscape of the failed state they terrorized with the whip-wielding goons of the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, they were ascetic. When American soldiers entered the abandoned home of Mullah Mohammed Omar, they were surprised to discover that the Taliban head of state had lived modestly, even primitively.
The neo-Taliban are nominally religious, but their primary devotion is to leveraging their power into income. They are far more interested in making money than in policing women’s hijabs. They are not feminists. They would oppress women. But they wouldn’t be as thorough or ruthless as the Taliban of the 1990s.
I returned to Afghanistan nine years after I covered the war for the Voice. The difference was staggering. The U.S. and NATO occupation has radically modernized the nation’s infrastructure.
High-tension power lines run alongside smooth new highways. Conditions remain primitive in the countryside, but even smaller cities have electricity most of the day. Formerly ubiquitous donkey carts have been replaced by cars, wells by water pipes, empty skies by billboards advertising soft drinks and candidates for parliament. Stores bustle. Homes and big buildings are constantly going up. There are credit cards, banks and ATM machines, guarded by AK-toting private security guards in flak jackets. There are fewer dropped cellphone calls in Afghanistan than in Los Angeles.
If and when they take over, the neo-Taliban won’t want to destroy this nascent, violence-prone, bustling capitalist state. They will seek to control, protect and tax it.
Afghanistan under the neo-Taliban will look something like other Islamic developing nations in the region such as Pakistan or Bangladesh. Political and financial corruption will be endemic. Out in the sticks, away from the eyes of the few foreign journalists still in country, there will still be an occasional stoning. Overall, this new regime will be more modern, more corrupt and, to Western eyes, more tolerable than the Taliban who blew up the Buddha statues in Bamiyan.
There still aren’t any Fedex offices (formerly Kinko’s) in Afghanistan. But there are plenty of cybercafes — and there’s at least one for women only.