Why did the United States fail to change hearts and minds in Afghanistan?  Why, after 20 years of war, did the country promptly return to Taliban control?  By a study of neighboring Pakistan, we may appreciate how intertwined the destinies of these two countries are.  Pakistan is populous and comparatively rich (247 million people, GDP $1.26 trillion), and its neighbor Afghanistan more mountainous and poor (39 million people, GDP $60 Billion.)  Both are overwhelmingly Sunni and afflicted by a none-too-democratic understanding of Islam.  Benazir Bhutto once offered a glimpse of a more democratic Muslim ideal.  One might say of her that she had the right message, but was she the right messenger?  All conflicts are resolved by words and swords; preferably by words.  When they fail to convince, swords are invariably drawn.  A study of the failure to convert Afghanistan must lead us to understand its neighbor Pakistan.  All Americans should feel concerned that the 20-year legacy of war following 9/11 in many ways is still unresolved. 

This is a grave matter.  Nearly 2500 U.S. soldiers, dedicated U.S. citizens in uniform, were killed in Afghanistan, along with almost 4000 other contractors, close to 2000 allied forces, and well over 100,000 Afghans.  Yet after all that blood and sweat, at the end of August 2021, the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, marking the end of a two decades of war.  Our troops, highly competent in field of battle, were not assisted by an equal victory in the war of words.  In our absence, the Taliban moved right back in.  The right hearts and minds were not open to an alternative belief in a more democratic and progressive conception of Islam; so the Taliban triumphed.  Of course, the Taliban also possessed guns, and that always intimidates those armed only with words. 

How did this failure come to pass?  To diagnose this, we must inquire as to the origins of the Taliban.  This pushes us back in history, and to the neighboring countries of India and Pakistan.  The Taliban have drawn their Deobandi-based Islamic views from madrassas (Islamic schools) that were founded in the 19th century on Indian soil, in Uttar Pradesh, and which later flourished under Islamist Pakistani leaders like the military dictator Zia ul-Huq, who ruled Pakistan from the late 1970s until his death in 1988.  In fact, Zia pushed for the radical Islamization of Pakistan, abandoning any pretense of democracy, and embracing a vision of autocratic Islamic theocracy.  Was this what Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wished? 

No.  After the partition of India, Muhammad Ali Jinnah had intended Pakistan to be a sanctuary state for Muslims, not necessarily an “Islamic Democracy.”  Jinnah had said so, addressing the Pakistani people: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan.  You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”  (emphasis added)  Not long after the independence and partition of India, however, Jinnah died on September 11, 1948, ironically 53 years to the day before the event which would send U.S. forces to that region.  When Jinnah died, Liaquat Ali Khan became Prime Minister and veered Pakistan off on a different course.  Instead of Jinnah’s culturally Islamic but politically secular vision of Pakistan, Khan declared that “the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance, and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed.” (emphasis added).  Furthermore, Khan declared: “The State will create such conditions as are conducive to the building up of a truly Islamic society, which means that the State will have to play a positive part in this effort.”  Had Jinnah survived to exert some of his own political will on Pakistan, it might have taken another course.  As it was, Pakistan was headed for trouble. 

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Pakistani Peoples Party Prime Minister in the 70s, and his daughter Benazir offered a different vision.  Zulfikar was removed from office by the notorious Zia al-Huq and hanged on April 4, 1979.  His daughter Benazir, who also served as Prime Minister twice, gave a passionate plea that Islam and Western Democracy can be reconciled.  In her book Reconciliation she wrote that “Democracy removes the oxygen from the air of the extremists.  They understand that better than anyone else and deliberately target democratic forces throughout the Islamic world.”  She further contended “I will argue that the fundamentals of democratic governance are part of the Islamic value system and debunk the myth that Islam and democracy are mutually exclusive.  I know from my own experience that democracy is an integral part of Islam.”  Her wisdom and her words are right, but was she the right person to put them into effect? 

Benazir Bhutto had the right message, but unfortunately her words were not so persuasive.  Benazir’s own niece Fatima Bhutto was deeply critical of her aunt’s integrity, as revealed in her book Songs of Blood and Sword.  Were Fatima’s allegations true?  We may never know, because truth rapidly perishes when we turn away from democracy.  Benazir herself was assassinated in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007.  She was unable to reverse the course of Islamization and autocracy that had been put in place by Zia al-Huq.  And Zia’s rule was perhaps most pivotal in the war between openness and autocracy in Pakistan, from 1979 to 1988.  The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, challenged by U.S. support of the Afghan mujahideen freedom fighters.   U.S. funds flowed through the Islamic government of Zia al-Huq and to the Afghans.  In the aftermath of the war the Taliban were ascendant, promoting a narrow-viewed Islamic theocracy bolstered by a Deobandism which,  instead of embracing Benazir’s more democratic vision, embraced a retrogressive theocracy.  They might have learned another message from their more powerful neighbor Pakistan, but did not.   

The United States has engaged in the war of swords but has failed in a war of words in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and this war dates back 45 years.  The sword drawn does not always prevail, the word written does not always convince.  But until an “Islamic Realism” prevails in the spirit and people of the Afghan and Pakistani region, one which embraces the idea of democracy, and the rights and freedoms of people to interpret Islam for themselves, the war of words will continue, and the Taliban will intimidate those with better ideas.  This author has not lost faith in the people of Afghanistan, nor of Pakistan, but has this final lesson to impart:  truth is often the first casualty under dictatorship and in the war of ideas.  When people stop believing in a genuine truth apart from the pursuit of power, they invariably turn to perverse ends.  Let us try to aid the cause of truth further by recognizing that drawn swords cannot secure a peace where better words have yet to prevail.