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A different Afghanistan, a different Taliban?
Remember Charlie Wilson’s War? Tom Hanks is playing the infamous Congressman who singlehandedly increased US funding for the Afghan mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviet Union. Apparently, Wilson increased it from $5 million to $500 million, with Saudi Arabia matching him dollar-to-dollar. Not bad.
The last scenes of the film are especially haunting. Charlie Wilson tries to raise funding for Afghan schools, but the Soviets are out, and Washington has absolutely no interest in spending any more money. They cut funding and forget about Afghanistan. The scenes foreshadow the Taliban regime that provided safe haven for the September 11 attacks on the United States.
The Soviets fought in Afghanistan from 1979 to early 1989. Mujahedeen victory paved the way for the collapse of the Berlin Wall in late 1989, which of course, marked the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. None of it brought stability and development to Afghanistan. The Taliban, as a Pashtun force using the language of Islamism, first rose to power in Afghanistan in 1996. Pakistan exporting its own Pashtuns out to Afghanistan played a major part in the development.
The Americans only started funding schools in Afghanistan after they invaded the country in 2001. It did not take long before they had removed the unpopular and sclerotic Taliban government. In 2001, secondary school enrollment was around 12 percent. In 2018, it had risen to around 55 percent. For girls, the numbers rose from zero to 40 percent. The Americans of course, are out again, and the Taliban back in, but for almost two decades, Afghans received what must have been a fairly secular education.
The currently provisional Taliban government does not seem to have a firm position on girls’ education. They have not been able to put together a decision on secondary schooling for girls. Girls are to stay home, at least until they can make up their minds. I think we all understand where that is heading.
Not everything has remained the same, however. Far from it. Subscriptions to mobile cellular networks, for example, have increased from zero in 2001 to 58 percent in 2018. There simply weren’t any mobile networks in the country at the time of the first Taliban regime. Now even the Taliban fighters are in social media, taking pictures and selfies left and right. Unlike China, their regime is not nearly sophisticated enough to control what they see online, so they are on the same social networks as the rest of us. All this means that Afghanistan is far better connected and a little better educated than it was in the 1990s. I believe that this makes a huge difference. What kind of a difference?
About a decade ago, I remember talking to a UN psychologist on my way to Kabul. She told me that she regularly visits UN compounds in areas where there are high security threats, as isolation brings in psychological problems in UN employees. “What about the Afghan population?” I said. She said that they didn’t have any problems with what we consider to be isolation because they more or less lived the way they had lived for centuries – without mass media, and for the most part, without much of an idea what life was like for the rest of the world.
Not anymore. We can be sure that Afghans now compare their own lives with those out in the developed world . This by itself is causing a great deal of pain. People will either want to improve life in Afghanistan, or they will want to leave it behind, risking everything in search of the life of opportunity they know they deserve just as much as anyone else.
The Taliban will have no choice but to change along with the country. I hope that they are better prepared for the challenge than they appear.