As the Biden administration debates what to do in Afghanistan, there is a great deal of talk about how the U.S. should not abandon the government there. Meanwhile, the Taliban has stuck to its pledge not to attack American troops for a year, and had promised that it would not allow terrorists a base in Afghanistan in the case of U.S. withdrawal.
Given these facts, supporters of continuing the war have come to realize that the national security case for staying is weaker than ever, and have centered their argument on moral appeals. What would happen to the Afghan government if the United States left?
But such arguments require that the Afghan government be morally superior to the Taliban and able to provide a better future for its people. In fact, there is little evidence to suggest that this is the case.
By all accounts, the Taliban is less corrupt than those the U.S. is defending. How could this be the case? The Afghan war has cost the U.S. over $2 trillion, which includes military spending on fighting the Taliban, aid to the Kabul government, and reconstruction projects. What is the Taliban spending on this war? There are no official numbers, but according to one report, they brought in $1.6 billion in the fiscal year that ended in March 2020. The Taliban can gain and hold territory in the face of overwhelming odds because they have better morale and more effective organization.
This has been admitted by officials of the Afghan government. According to Tooryalai Wesa, the former governor of Kandahar province, citizens told him that under Taliban rule “the money changers used to cover their money just under a sheet” as they went to pray because “people knew that law will be enforced.” Moreover, “when Taliban ordered to stop poppy cultivation, Mullah Omar could enforce it with his blind eye.” Under the U.S. occupation, drug production has been out of control, sometimes implicating Afghans at the top levels of government.
Taliban competence compared to government corruption is still a recurring theme of reporting on the conflict. A driver delivering a cargo of potatoes on Highway 1 recently reported that while he needed to pay the Taliban a one-time toll of the equivalent of $75, the government was worse, with 12 different checkpoints on the same road, each demanding up to $37, while providing inferior levels of security.
According to the New York Times, from the beginning of the American invasion, “the insurgents seized on the corruption and abuses of the Afghan government put in place by the United States, and cast themselves as arbiters of justice and Afghan tradition — a powerful part of their continued appeal with many rural Afghans in particular.”
While the West rightly criticizes the Taliban for its human rights abuses, the Afghan government also has blood on its hands. Secret units have carried out summary executions on flimsy grounds, including against children. And while the Taliban has been suspected of being behind an ongoing assassination campaign against civil society figures, recently credible reports have emerged that the Afghan government is secretly killing individuals advocating for reconciliation and the end of war.
The practice of bacha bazi, an Afghan custom in which a young boy dances for and is sexually abused by older men, made a comeback in Afghanistan during the war. It was the Taliban that originally made the practice illegal for being inconsistent with Sharia law. In 2015, it was apparently common practice among Afghan military and police, and American soldiers were told to ignore it. The Afghan government did not move to ban the custom until 2017. Revulsion over the practice was reported to be key to Mullah Omar’s rise to power, with locals in the south of the country objecting to warlords raping their young boys and throwing their support behind the Taliban and its effective, if harsh, form of justice.