To understand Afghanistan, all you must do is watch “The Horseman,” the beyond-moving 1971 movie starring Omar Shariff and Jack Palance. I did when I first went to Kunduz in Afghanistan that same year, and little has changed since — nor has it for hundreds of years.
Afghanistan is one country to us in the West. But it is really nothing more than a collection of distinct feudal societies run by warlords. Not one singular language predominates, and the two main ones are mutually unintelligible Pashto and Dari, the latter a form of Farsi, the main language of Iran.
Corruption is beyond rampant, and you could say that its capital is Dubai where much of the money we give to Afghans is absconded.
The future of Afghanistan, I fear, will be like Yugoslavia when it fell apart after the death of Tito, its strongman. Civil war ensued and in the end seven countries came out of one. The same seems destined to happen in Afghanistan, with total chaos and the educated fleeing to wherever they can.
President Joe Biden wants us out of Afghanistan after being there for 20 years and logging 2,500 dead, 20,000 wounded, and the loss of much lost treasure. The whole logic was that Osama bin Laden set up shop there and developed the 9/11 attack on the U.S. But why? He hated that the U.S. had sent soldiers to Saudi Arabia.
Before Osama, the Taliban (“students” in Pashto) were our friends, invited to the U.S. and to Houston. Oil companies wanted to build a pipeline across Afghanistan. This headline appeared in a Houston newspaper on Dec. 14, 1997: “Oil barons court Taliban in Texas.”
The Taliban, Afghanistan's Islamic fundamentalist army, is about to sign a $12 billion contract with an American oil company to build a pipeline across the war-torn country.
The Taliban ministers and their advisers stayed in a five-star hotel and were chauffeured in a company minibus. Their only requests were to visit Houston's zoo, the NASA space center, and a Super Target discount store to buy stockings, toothpaste, combs, and soap.
The men, who are accustomed to life without heating, electricity, or running water, were amazed by the luxurious homes of Texan oil barons. Invited to dinner at the palatial home of Martin Miller, a vice president of Unocal, they marveled at his swimming pool, views of the golf course, and six bathrooms. After a meal of specially prepared halal meat, rice, and Coca-Cola, the hardline fundamentalists — who have banned women from working and girls from going to school — promised to start building the pipeline immediately, despite the region's instability.
There is fighting just 87 miles from the planned entry point of the pipeline in the northwest of the country. The Taliban has offered assurance that workers and the pipeline will be safe, but it cannot guarantee that it will not be attacked by opposition forces.
Celebrities like Jay Leno’s wife Mavis have opposed the U.S. doing anything with the Taliban. Thus, we joined forces with one feudal lord and ended up supporting, in essence, the mayor of Kabul. Now, Ashraf Ghani sort of runs the whole country as its president.
Billions of dollars and the best of our human lives went to this effort, hoping to make a feudal society into a modern democracy. Ashraf does all the right things to appease the Americans: educating women, giving glowing speeches in the U.S., and building schools and roads. He speaks wonderful English and Pashto (but not Dari), all in the hope others will catch the bug of democracy.
These days this is a typical headline from the Carnegie Institute: “The Kabul to Dubai pipeline: Lessons learned from the Kabul Bank scandal.”
For almost two decades now, billions of dollars in corruption proceeds have been funneled from Afghanistan, a country devastated by four decades of conflict, to Dubai. They have also largely negated the effects of huge sums of development aid and stabilization funds spent by the international community in Afghanistan.
The Taliban does have its followers, as they are not engaged in the levels of corruption you find in some levels of government. Forget geopolitics. Do we really want to spend any more time here when the British tried and failed, as did the Russians? You can’t make cats into dogs.
John Freivalds of Wayzata, Minnesota, is the author of six books and is the honorary consul of Latvia in Minnesota. His website is jfapress.com. He wrote this for the News Tribune.