Americans Never Understood Afghanistan Like the Taliban Did

In the end, few Afghans believed in a central government that they never felt was theirs.

Boy selling balloons in Kabul in the early 1990's.
Thomas Dworzak / Magnum

About the author: Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a founding editor of Wisdom of Crowds. He is the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World and Temptations of Power.

The United States never understood Afghanistan. American planners thought they knew what the country needed, which was not quite the same as what its people wanted. American policy was guided by fantasies; chief among them was the idea that the Taliban could be eliminated and that an entire culture could be transformed in the process.

In an ideal world, the Taliban wouldn’t exist. But it does exist, and it will exist. Western observers always struggle to understand how groups as ruthless as the Taliban gain legitimacy and popular support. Surely Afghans remember the terror of Taliban rule in the 1990s, when women were whipped if they ventured outside without a burka and adulterers were stoned to death in soccer stadiums. How could those dark days be forgotten?

America saw the Taliban as plainly evil. To deem a group evil is to cast it outside of time and history. But this is a privileged view. Living in a democracy with basic security allows citizens to set their sights higher. They will be disappointed with even a relatively good government precisely because they expect more from it. In failed states and in the midst of civil war, however, the fundamental questions are ones of order and disorder, and how to have more of the former and less of the latter.

The Taliban knew this. After its fall from power in 2001, the group was weak, reeling from devastating air strikes targeting its leaders. But in recent years, it has been gaining ground and establishing deeper roots in local communities. The Taliban was brutal. At the same time, it often provided better governance than the distant and corrupt Afghan central government. Doing a little went a long way.

Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government didn’t fail just because of the Taliban. It was hobbled from the start by America’s blind spots and biases. The United States saw a strong, centralized authority as the answer to Afghanistan’s problems and backed a constitution that invested the president with sweeping powers. That, along with a quirky and confusing electoral system, undermined the development of political parties and the Parliament. A strong state required formal legal institutions—and the United States dutifully supported courts, judges, and other such trappings. Meanwhile, it invited resentment by pushing programs that were meant to reengineer Afghan culture and gender norms.

All of these choices reflected the hubris of Western powers that saw Afghan traditions as an obstacle to be overcome when, it turns out, they were the lifeblood of the country’s political culture. In the end, few Afghans believed in a government that they never felt was theirs or wished to wade through its bureaucratic red tape. They kept turning to informal and community-driven dispute resolution, and local figures they trusted. And this left the door open for the slow return of the Taliban.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction oversaw how the U.S. disbursed reconstruction funds and assessed their effectiveness. Over the past year, two depressing SIGAR assessments were made available to the public.

One—grandiosely if obsoletely titled “What We Need to Learn: Lessons From Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction”—notes that the United States spent about $900 million helping Afghans develop a formal legal system. Unfortunately, Afghans do not seem to have been impressed.

One of the first things militant groups like the Taliban do when they enter new territory is provide “rough and ready” dispute resolution. Often, they outperform the local court system. As Vanda Felbab-Brown, Harold Trinkunas, and I noted in our 2017 book on rebel governance, “Afghans report a great degree of satisfaction with Taliban verdicts, unlike those from the official justice system, where petitioners for justice frequently have to pay considerable bribes.”

This is one major reason why religion—particularly Islam—matters. It provides an organizing framework for rough justice and a justification for its implementation, and is more likely to be perceived as legitimate by local communities. Secular groups and governments simply have a harder time providing this kind of justice. The Afghan government wasn’t necessarily secular, but it had received tens of billions of dollars from governments that certainly were. A Sharia-based, informal dispute system would almost certainly be frowned upon by those Western donors. How likely was it that an Afghan government headed by an Ivy League–educated technocrat could beat the Taliban at its own game?

As the SIGAR report noted archly, “The United States misjudged what would constitute an acceptable justice system from the perspective of many Afghans, which ultimately created an opportunity for the Taliban to exert influence.” Or, as a former USAID official put it, “We dismissed the traditional justice system because we thought it didn’t have any relevance for what we wanted to see in today’s Afghanistan.”

What, then, did the United States want to see in today’s Afghanistan?

When the Bush administration helped shape the post-Taliban Afghan government, it was still claiming that it had little interest in nation building. Pilfering from Afghanistan’s past constitutions was easier than proposing something more appropriate for what had become a very different country. The new constitution created a top-heavy system that gave the president “nearly the same powers that Afghan kings exercised,” as Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, a prominent Afghanistan scholar, has written.

Strong presidential systems are appealing because they offer the prospect of determined action. But the concentration of power inevitably alienates other stakeholders, particularly on the local and regional levels.

From the beginning, the Afghan Parliament suffered from a legitimacy deficit. Afghanistan used an electoral system known as single nontransferable vote (SNTV), one of the rarest in the world. There are reasons SNTV is sometimes used in local elections but almost never nationally: Among other things, it allocates votes in a way that depresses the development of political parties. If there’s anything Afghanistan needed, it was political parties—and a parliament—that could check the dominance of the president.

The risks of a presidential system are heightened in divided societies, and Afghanistan is divided along ethnic, religious, tribal, linguistic, and ideological lines—in almost every way possible. This raises the stakes of political competition, because what matters most is who ends up at the very top.

Finally, the system works only if the president is competent. The now-exiled president, Ashraf Ghani, managed to be all-powerful in theory but resolutely feckless in practice. Despite having been the chair of the Institute for State Effectiveness, his ineffectiveness—reflected in his mercurial style and penchant for micromanagement—infected the entire political system, and little could be done to reverse the trend as long as he remained in office.

In addition to fashioning new political institutions, America believed that it could transform the culture of a country. Naturally, most American politicians, nongovernmental organizations, and donors thought that the things that worked in advanced democracies would work in fragile would-be democracies. Liberal values were universal. And because they were universal, they would be, if not embraced, at least appreciated.

Somewhere close to $1 billion was spent on promoting gender equality. But such a focus was too often tantamount to social and cultural engineering in a conservative country that was still struggling to establish basic security. USAID’s Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy stated as one of its rather ambitious goals “working with men and boys, women and girls to bring about changes in attitudes, behaviors, roles and responsibilities.” This is a worthy objective, but the American approach was heavy-handed and at times counterproductive.

As the second SIGAR report, titled “Support for Gender Equality: Lessons From the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan,” concluded, U.S. officials need “a more nuanced understanding of gender roles and relations in the Afghan cultural context” and of “how to support women and girls without provoking backlash that might endanger them or stall progress.”

These efforts were well-intentioned, but they drew on assumptions about the arc of progress, and the belief that the United States would make progress happen even if Afghans themselves were less sanguine.

If the United States had made other choices, would the outcome have been different? I don’t know. Americans believe in certain things. Suspending those beliefs in the name of understanding another society can easily devolve into moral and cultural relativism that many, if not most Americans, would reject. Would a Republican—or, for that matter, a liberal suspicious of religion’s role in public life—have felt comfortable supporting programs in Afghanistan that involved the implementation of a version of Sharia, even if that version wasn’t the Taliban’s?

But the order and sequence in a transition matter. It’s clear now that we got that sequence wrong in Afghanistan, especially considering that women’s rights had long been one of the country’s most divisive issues. As the experts Rina Amiri, Swanee Hunt, and Jennifer Sova warned in 2004, when the Taliban seemed a relic of the past, “While the situation has markedly improved since the Taliban regime, the stage is set for a struggle between traditionalists and modernists; and once again women’s roles and religion are central to the conflict.”

Was it America’s place to change a culture? Did anyone really expect that the U.S. government would be good at it? If there is any change that should come from within, presumably it’s cultural change. But if there’s anything that’s universal—transcending culture and religion—it is the desire to have a say in one’s own government. Instead of telling Afghans how to live, we could have given them the space to make their own decisions about who they wanted to be.

With the Parliament weak, in part because of that bizarre electoral system, all attention was diverted to presidential contests, which were invariably acrimonious. The result was a winner-takes-all system in a country where the winners had long subjugated the losers, or worse. It is little surprise, then, that “every Afghan presidential election has been brokered or mediated by U.S. diplomats,” as Jarrett Blanc, one of those diplomats, put it. This was the democracy that America and its allies tried, for years, to build.

Many of the political institutions that America helped create have now been washed away. It is almost as if they never existed. By insisting on the primacy of culture over politics, the United States thought it could improve both. Might Afghanistan have been doomed regardless? Perhaps. Now we will never know.