Waiting for Miss Kabul

I would not be surprised if in some year in the future, the west will be regaled with a new musical complete with the neon lights in Broadway and the West End in London screaming: Miss Kabul

Those of my age might recall a movie from 1963 – making it to Maltese cinema patrons some two years later, as was usual back then – called The Ugly American. Based on a political novel first published in 1958, the story depicts the failure of US diplomacy in a fictitious country in southeast Asia.

The story revolves round an American Ambassador – played by Marlon Brando – sent to the fictional country on a peacekeeping mission. Torn between two rival factions, this country is on the brink of civil war. The ambassador’s analysis views the political situation in a simplistic way: a struggle between two sides – then communism vs. democracy. By the time he realises that the political scenario is much more complicated, it was too late and his mission ends in failure.

When it was published, the book caused a sensation in diplomatic circles and it had major political implications.

This week’s Taliban sudden victory in Afghanistan seems to imply that the naïve scenario of ‘us vs. them’ – just as in any populist and popular Hollywood theme – has, over 60 years since the book was published, again led to a US colossal failure.

This time it is the West against international terrorism; a noble cause no doubt. But looking at Afghanistan as one uniform country that all it needed to be normalised was some basic training in democratic norms was, at best, as simplistic and naïve as the views of the ugly American in the story of that name.

Apart from the rugged terrain for which Afghanistan is well known, the country is an agglomeration of tribes that do not always even speak the same language. The basis of the country’s organisation seems to have always been that of a collection of tribes and the notion of a central government was often generally inexistent.

The Taliban knew this and worked through the bits and pieces with which they were familiar, rather than attacking some central core that was the heart of the Afghan state, as the US and its allies seemed to pretend.

The US and its allies focused on Afghanistan because it was obvious that Al Qaeda – of September 11 fame – was working under the aegis of the Taliban-led Afghanistan. The enemy was Al Qaeda. The Taliban became the enemy by proxy!

The original mission was to hound Al Qaeda out of their burrows in Afghanistan. This implied dismantling the Taliban-led political system that was giving Al Qaeda the perfect cover in Afghanistan’s terrain.

Dismantling the Taliban-led regime implied building another political system, that the US fashioned on the western liberal democracy model while hardly realising that one cannot switch a country from one old traditional tribal culture to a foreign inspired political culture that was as alien to the Afghans as chalk to cheese. Such a switch is practically impossible to impose. Not in twenty years – as the west has now discovered.

After twenty years, it dawned on the Americans that the war in Afghanistan was going to become yet another millstone hanging round their necks and it was time to end the war – which had long diverted from its original aim.

So, Trump decided to discuss the issue – first indirectly then directly – with the Taliban and committed the US to end its military presence in Afghanistan by end of May this year. After Trump signed the agreement with the Taliban, the US ‘allies’ agreed to follow.

Biden only extended the time from end of May to end of August, whatever his political adversaries claim.

The Taliban started taking over the parts of the country that were under the government’s apparent control, bit by bit to enter Kabul by the time the US and its allies had left Afghanistan.

On the other hand, US intelligence calculated that the state of Afghanistan (created by the US) could last for quite some time after the withdrawal of the US forces and their military allies.

This was again a gross miscalculation of US intelligence – the real villains of the piece.

Not just that. The Taliban did not waste their twenty years in the political desert. They reorganised and reconstituted themselves and announced that their strict religious impositions of the past were no more. Women – they said – will be educated and allowed to go to university. They even presented the western press with an English-speaking female member of their so-called High Council for National Reconciliation. In their first official news conference in Kabul on Tuesday they declared they wanted peaceful relations with all countries and would respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law, adding they did not have any internal or external enemies. The ‘peace loving’ Taliban outsmarted the US even in their PR!

Whether their word can be trusted is another issue, of course. Personally, I do not think that such promises are trustworthy. Only time will tell.

The speed with which the Taliban took over the country surprised and impressed everyone. The loyalty of the Afghan military forces to the artificial US-built Afghan state dissolved at the blink of an eyelid. The scenes at Kabul airport that we witnessed this week on our television screens shook the west.

It is obvious that western media had no idea what was happening behind the scenes in Afghanistan and that it was just being fed American fodder.

The stratospheric cost of the West’s military adventure in Afghanistan, that suited so much the US arms industry, will never be calculated. Much better had the money been spent on social issues. But that is beyond politics in the US.

The political cost of this fracas to the Biden administration has still to be calculated. Trump is already trying to score brownie political points from what happened this week.

Meanwhile, rest assured, the US will never learn.

The US tried its utmost to dismiss any comparisons between the dramatic end of the Vietnam war and the dramatic Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

I am sure the photo of hundreds of people crowded on a US Air Force C-17 aircraft will become as iconic as that of the last helicopter leaving the US embassy in Saigon. I am one of those who see more than a simple likeness. US intelligence, knowledge and capabilities were lacking in both cases.

I would not be surprised if in some year in the future, the west will be regaled with a new musical complete with the neon lights in Broadway and the West End in London screaming: Miss Kabul.

Of course, musicals romanticise all events – even military and political humiliations.