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Lessons from Afghanistan

By Peter Bowden - posted Thursday, 2 September 2021

The rapidity with which the Taliban overran Afghanistan bewildered us all. It was totally unexpected. That rapidity, along with the failure of the most powerful nation in the world, together with its allies, including Australia, to win that war after 20 years of fighting has lessons for all of us. This opinion piece is an attempt to identify those lessons. But the viewpoint of those who comment on this article is also sought, for the lessons are hazy, not cast in black and white.

First, why did the Afghan forces not fight harder to defend the cities of their country? Joe Biden claimed that they had more numbers and more equipment than the Taliban. The answer must be that the soldiers' commitment to Ashraf Ghani, the President, and to their country under him, was near zero. In 2015, a survey conducted by the Afghan news channel TOLO News showed that the popularity of Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan had fallen. Only 27.5% of the respondents claimed that they were satisfied with his leadership. Amin Saikal, Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at ANU, stated on ABC news (21/8/21) that the Ghani government was extraordinarily corrupt.

Ghani belongs to Afghanistan's majority Pashtun ethnicity like Hamid Karzai against whom he won in 2014. Russia's state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the Russian embassy in Kabul alleged that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled from Kabul with four cars and a helicopter full of cash.


A second lesson is that non democratic powers will support each other. International powers ready to accept the Taliban are Russia and China. This despite China's oppressed Uighur minority in China being essentially Muslim, located on the border with Afghanistan. The worrying extension of this lesson is that autocratic powers everywhere will support each other. China and Russia support each other. China and Russia support doubtful governments in the Philippines, Syria and other countries. China and Russia already support each other strongly with a 1997 "Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order" and 2001 "Treaty of Good Neighbourliness' and Friendly Cooperation." In 2010, China surpassed Germany to become Russia's largest single trading partner.

Afghanistan is now on its way to become another autocratic government.

The third lesson is that Afghanistan will become another anti-western, anti-democratic country, and a source of Islamic militancy, similar to Al Qaida. The country would now be the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. This is the name the country was given during the previous control by the Taliban, before they were ousted in late 2001 by US-led forces following the World Trade Centre attack, which were masterminded from the country by Islamist fundamentalist group Al Qaida, led by Osama Bin Laden.

The fourth lesson is that Islam has not lost its militancy. The Council of American Islamic Relations, that a broad Islamic concept of militancy, or jihad, includes the struggle to improve the quality of life in society, the struggle in the battlefield for self-defence or the fight against tyranny. Examples are drawn from the Muslim holy books Include:

When you meet the disbelievers, smite their necks till you have fully subdued them. Surah 47.4

When the sacred months are past, slay the polytheists (al-mushrikiin - "the associaters") wherever you find them. Surah 9.5

Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress proper limits, verily Allah does not love such transgressors. Surah 2.190.

Averroes, an Islamic philosopher based at Cordoba in Muslim Spain in the twelfth century AD, in his major legal handbook Bidayat al-Mujtahid, described jihad as active warfare on behalf of Islam. He set out the conditions under which it should be waged, and the extent of the damage that could be inflicted on different enemies.


Islam was spread by warfare. With over 1.5 billion followers in the modern day, Islam is the second largest religion in the world behind Christianity. Conquest and the expansion of Muslim empires did play a major role in extending the borders of Islam. Conversion was not forced. On the contrary, foreign subjects converted willingly for a mix of social, economic and political reasons, as well as the spiritual allure of Islamic thought.

That allure is seen in the work of several Islamic scholars. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Head of the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam, in a 1992 speech available on its website, Al Islam summarises the rules that flow from the fundamentals in the Quran about government:

  • The numbers in brackets are references to the verses in the Quran
  • A government is duty-bound to protect the honour, life and property of its people [18].
  • A ruler must always act with justice, between individuals and between people [19].
  • National matters should be settled by consultation [20].
  • Government must arrange to fulfil the basic needs of man: provide him food, clothing and shelter [21].
  • People should be provided a peaceful and secure environment, and their lives, property and honour protected [22].
  • The economic system should be equitable and orderly [22].
  • Health care should be organised [22].
  • There should prevail total religious freedom [23].
  • A vanquished people must be dealt with justly [24].
  • Prisoners of war should be treated with compassion [25].
  • Treaties and agreements must always be honoured [26].
  • Iniquitous agreements must not be forced upon the weak [26].
  • Muslim subjects are enjoined to obey the government in authority. The only exception to this rule is a case where the government blatantly opposes and prevents the carrying out of religious duties and obligations [27]
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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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