Afghanistan has revealed to us the emptiness and hypocrisy of many of our beliefs, and that we may be returning from there also haunted by Mujahideen ghosts, knowing that, underneath, we believe in nothing.
America and the coalition forces invaded Afghanistan not just to find those behind the attacks on America, but also to transform Afghanistan into a modern democracy. It was a grand plan but the logic behind it was simple: if the innocent people of Afghanistan could be liberated from the evil forces that had terrorised them, then they would become free individuals. And out of that, a democracy, like those in the West, would grow naturally.
Tens of thousands of Americans and Europeans would pass through the country over the next ten years - soldiers, diplomats, experts, political advisers and journalists. All of them trying to build this new society. But few of them stopped to think whether what had happened to the Russians 20 years before might also happen to them. That, in a strange way, Afghanistan has revealed to us the emptiness and hypocrisy of many of our beliefs, and that we may be returning from there also haunted by Mujahideen ghosts, knowing that, underneath, we believe in nothing.
After the shock of the attacks in September 2001, the greatest fear was that the American economy might collapse as well. In response, the politicians, advised by their economic experts, cut interest rates to almost zero. This allowed cheap money to flood through the system and avoid disaster. The banks lent money to anyone and everyone. It was the politicians looking to the financial system to stabilise the country.
At the same time, thousands of experts and advisers flooded into Afghanistan. Their aim was to transform the country into a modern Democracy. This optimistic vision of a future Afghanistan was celebrated in the Kabul Stadium. It was the same stadium where the Russians had celebrated their new model for Afghanistan 20 years before.
All kinds of groups came to Kabul to help the project. It was like a snapshot of what those in power in America and Britain believed made democracy work. Underlying it all, was a belief that the battle was to create a good society, one that would be strong enough to stand against the bad, anti-democratic forces that had overwhelmed Afghanistan.
But then, it began to get confusing. The Americans discovered that was it was very difficult to know exactly who was good and who was bad. When they had invaded, they had been helped by Afghans who were already fighting the Taliban. The Americans had assumed they would help to create the new democracy, and appointed many of them to run the country. But now it turned out that many of them were actually the very same corrupt and violent warlords who the Taliban had overthrown, and they were using their new power to terrorise the country all over again.
Gul Agha Sherzai had been made Governor of Kandahar. But he was also alleged to be making a million dollars a week from running the opium trade, while at the same time siphoning off millions from the Americans in inflated contracts. When President Karzai was persuaded to remove Sherzai, he simply made him governor of another province. But he was not alone.
Throughout much of Afghanistan, the warlords had returned to power. But this time it was worse. The massive influx of American money allowed them to extend their networks of bribery and corruption to every corner of Afghan society. But the money was not just corrupting individuals. It was undermining the whole structure of society, above all the police. Rather than enforcing the law, the police had become transformed into violent militias who worked for the warlords. They organised a massive expansion of the drug trade and they also terrorised the local people. Ordinary Afghans came to hate the police and they saw them as the enemy.
And the Americans also weren't as good as they appeared. Jack Idema had been portrayed as a hero, working with the US Special Forces to hunt down bin Laden. He had arrived in Kabul three years before and become a legendary figure. CBS television had made an hour-long special about the secret world of terror that Idema had discovered in the mountains. It showed a tape that he said he had found of the Al-Qaeda group training. But then Idema was arrested. The Americans said that he was a fake. He had nothing to do with them, and had conned CBS. They alleged that Idema had a dungeon, hidden underneath his house in Kabul, where he tortured innocent Afghans. Idema was put on trial in Kabul. He insisted, though, that he had been working with the highest levels of the US military and government. Jack Idema was found guilty and sent to jail. But then it got even more confusing because reports emerged that the real American military had been doing exactly the same as Jack Idema. They had set up a special torture centre in an old Soviet hangar at Bagram Air Base. Ordinary Afghans were shackled to the ceiling and subjected to all kinds of violent abuse. But they went further than Jack Idema. The reports said that two of the victims had been tortured to death.
By 2006, the British and the Americans realised that their project to bring Democracy to Afghanistan was failing, and large parts of the country were descending into anarchy. In Helmand, in Southern Afghanistan, armed groups had risen up and there was constant fighting. The coalition were convinced that this was the return of the Taliban, and British troops were sent there to restore order and to help protect the regional government. But when the British commanders asked the Ministry of Defence for information about what was happening in Helmand, there was none. There weren't even any satellites looking at it. They had all been moved to look at Iraq. The one thing they did know was that they were going to the very heartland of the tribe that had decisively defeated the British 125 years before, at the Battle of Maiwand.
The British commander called a meeting with the local elders. He reassured them that the British were there to defeat the Taliban and support the regional government. But the elders thought that the British had completely misunderstood the problem. The real enemy was not the Taliban, but the corrupt and vicious government that President Karzai had installed in Helmand and was doing nothing to stop. Before they came to Helmand, the British had forced President Karzai to get rid of its governor. But they didn't realise that he had left behind him a completely corrupted society and nothing was what it seemed. When the British went into towns like Sangin, they tried to support the police, but the police were really the armed militia for the sacked governor. To the locals, this meant that the Western troops were supporting their oppressors. So they started to attack the British. The British thought that this must mean they were Taliban, so, in response, they dropped giant bombs on them.
But this then devastated the town centres, which made even more local people join in the attacks. Seeing their chance, the real ideological Taliban, who were now based in Pakistan, flooded back in and they started attacking the British, too. At the same time, the corrupt militias who worked for the local government also turned against the British. Faced by the chaos, the British still clung to their simple narrative of good and evil. They - the Western forces - were good and all the different groups who were attacking them were Taliban, and were bad.
But this extraordinary simplification had terrible consequences, because if you were an Afghan and wanted to kill a rival, all you had to do was go to the British and tell them that he was a Taliban and the British would obediently wipe him out. The British were being used. The terrible truth was that the British presence did not contain the war, it did the very opposite: it escalated it so much that it ran out of control. And the bodies - Afghan and British - piled up.
But then, the British and the Americans had to face up to the fact that they might not be as good and innocent as they thought they were. In 2009, the Presidential elections were held. Hamid Karzai stood and allied himself with some of the most powerful warlords. But there were allegations that the warlords rigged the vote on a massive scale. This was backed up with videos that seemed to show the warlords' followers stuffing the ballot boxes with hundreds of fake voting papers.
The coalition tried to rerun the election, but Karzai's main opponent refused because he said it would be even more corrupt. So, the British and Americans had no choice but to abandon their great dream of a real democracy in Afghanistan. They gave in and allowed Karzai to become president again.
And at the very same time, as their simple plan was falling apart in Afghanistan, the politicians had to face a crisis at home. They had given power to the banks because the bankers and the financial technocrats had promised that they could hold the economy stable. But in 2008, the whole intricate system of credit and loans that the banks had created, collapsed, and there was growing panic as giant financial institutions faced bankruptcy. The politicians in America and Britain stepped in and rescued the banks. As they did so, they began to discover that most of the major financial institutions were also riddled with corruption. But unlike President Roosevelt in the 1930s, they didn't then try and reform the system. Instead, they simply propped it up by literally pouring billions more pounds and dollars into the banks, hoping that this would somehow spread through the economies. They had no other idea.
And, faced by disaster in Afghanistan, the politicians did exactly the same there, too. The Americans knew that the idea of Democracy was failing. In desperation, they poured even more money into the Afghan economy. The idea was that this would somehow create a simpler, economic form of Democracy and that the free market would liberate people. They would become model consumers following their own rational self-interest, just like in the economies of the West. And in an odd way, it worked. Many of those in charge of the money did behave in their own rational self-interest. They simply stole the money, smuggled it out through Kabul Airport, and used it to buy luxury properties in Dubai. During this period, it was estimated that 10 million dollars a day was being taken out of Afghanistan this way.
The scandal seemed to confirm for many Afghans that the United States had not brought Democracy or free markets to their country, but instead, a corrupt Crony Capitalism that had taken over Afghanistan and its government, which was the very same allegation that was being made against politicians at home, in America and in Britain.