The West Lives On in the Taliban’s Afghanistan
The Taliban has succeeded in reconquering Afghanistan. But while the U.S. may be gone, the new regime faces increasing Westernization among its subjects—and its own fighters.
Throughout the 20th century, any country that fought a war against the U.S. articulated a vision of the world that meant rejecting America in its most essential form. Japan, Germany, and states sponsored by the Soviet Union like Vietnam articulated civilizational visions that were totally at odds with bourgeois capitalism and liberal democracy in theory and practice. But look at any of these countries today and one can find a total transformation of that way of life. Both in victory and defeat, the power of U.S. culture to transform a receptive population seems to entail a “cultural victory” no matter what the political-military situation on the ground is like. And after a recent visit to the hermit kingdom of Afghanistan, Palladium correspondent David Oks has reported that something similar is under way even in this isolated corner of the world.
Firstly, David reports that our perception of Afghanistan as a backward, violent holdout of theocratic reaction does not hold up to reality. The streets of Kabul, which used to host many addicts to methamphetamine, have mostly been cleaned up. One feels safe walking around at night, and although women and non-Taliban are shut out of power, in day-to-day life there is little attempt by the authorities to enforce Sharia law—one can walk around clean-shaven without harassment, and if anything the patrolling mujahideen enforcers are curious to hear about what life abroad is like.
While this might be a relief for the visitor, it also indicates that the Taliban have not done much with their mandate to transform the country:
Thus the Taliban has cemented its place in Afghan history. By dissolving the patchwork of warlord fiefdoms that made up the previous regime and uniting the country under one government, the Taliban had—for all its backward-looking inclinations—already done much to modernize a still-archaic country. Theirs was a golden opportunity: if anyone could transform a country so impervious to intervention from above or outside, it was them.
And yet I could not help but detect a surprising fragility to Taliban rule. The Taliban had intrigued me because they, alone among the regimes of the global periphery, seemed capable of articulating an alternative civilizational vision, one that was not merely an antithesis or restatement of Western modernity. I had come to Afghanistan because I wanted to see something truly different from the West. But even in the Islamic Emirate, I could sense a creeping Westernization.
I saw it, above all else, in many local Afghans whom I met and befriended. These were not Western liberals: they had friends among the Taliban, and were quick to defend regime decisions I found abhorrent, like the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. But these subjects of the Islamic Emirate could not be kept from watching Stranger Things or Game of Thrones or Japanese anime; they had a better knowledge of Breaking Bad than I did. On Twitter—they, like so many Afghans, were avid users—shared soyjack memes and called themselves “sigma males.” They talked about feminism, “LGBTQ,” and pronouns—strange things to complain about in a country where women can’t go to school. They were becoming Westerners: culture war, America’s most successful soft-power export, was their induction. The younger members of the Taliban, online enough to follow Andrew Tate, were not immune.
And while these young men were still a tiny minority, they were also the bleeding edge. Social modernity is not kept out by the barrel of a gun: the internet is the ultimate vector of Westernization. Status flows downward, and ostentatiously so in a country as peripheral as Afghanistan. The U.S. was gone, but American culture was still the thing to imitate. In “the best steakhouse in Kabul,” the chef mimicked Salt Bae, and my friends joked with me about whether I could be in Manhattan. In the cafés, we could play Mortal Kombat while drinking coffee and listening to Western music. On Valentine’s Day—the celebration of which is forbidden in Islam—peddlers in the streets of Kabul were selling heart-shaped balloons. It wasn’t America, but it was trying.
The Taliban won the war; but in the long run, the social modernity they so bitterly resisted is on its way. Even as my Afghan friends professed their conservatism and religiosity, they were yet to get married or have children—at ages long past when their parents were doing so. The direction of things to come seemed obvious. For decades, the age of first marriage has been inching upward, particularly in the cities; since the late 1990s the fertility rate has fallen drastically. The literacy rate among young women, just 11 percent in 1979, had grown to 42 percent by 2021.
The fact that young elites in in a country where shootouts are not unheard of and women cannot go to school listen to anti-feminist masculinity gurus like Andrew Tate tells us this: culture war does not need to reflect any reality on the ground; people’s internalization of that discourse is simply a byproduct of consuming American culture. These Afghan elites may still endorse a conservative position, but what are the long-term implications of speaking English, watching American T.V. shows, and thinking in terms of memes cooked up by the Anglophone internet? A culture can’t be ideologically sovereign if its ways of thinking about the world are imported.
This phenomenon is still in its infancy. For now, old-school mujahideen still run the show. But David’s interview with a few suicide bombers left him feeling that it was something like meeting old cowboys after the Wild West had been tamed:
Thus, these men were among the Emirate’s warrior elect: one was missing a leg, sacrificed in a skirmish in which five Americans had died. They hailed from the southeastern province of Ghazni, an area known for producing suicide bombers; accordingly, they had all signed up to detonate themselves during the war. Now they were all bureaucrats in the interior ministry, which had been granted to Sirajuddin Haqqani’s men. A solitary Dell computer sat in the corner of their room like an heirloom. It did not look like they had much use for it.
What was it like, I asked, to make the transition from mujahid to bureaucrat? The one who spoke the best English—he had given himself the moniker “Mr. Young”—responded quickly. “Very boring,” he said. “We are happy for peace, yes, but we miss the thrill of fighting. The feeling of the ambush, the moment of waiting for the American convoy, the excitement of the battle. We miss it.”
I asked if he wanted to go back to fighting. “Yes,” Mr. Young said, “the moment we get the opportunity. We still want to martyr ourselves, and we would do it at this very moment if we could!” Now he was getting excited. “Martyrdom,” he said, “would make me much happier than being a bureaucrat and working in the ministry. On the word of Sirajuddin Haqqani, we would happily blow ourselves up tomorrow!”
Hearing his words, it was hard not to feel the sense that something had passed away. It was like listening to a cowboy reminiscence about the closing of the frontier. The Taliban had won their revolution, and had everything they’d ever wanted. But now they confronted the truth that all successful revolutions face: winning a state is a lot more glorious than managing one. To their new world—a world of responsibility, a world that demanded a different sort of synthesis—they seemed to have little in the way of an answer.
It’s a story as old as time. Those with the ability to fight for the creation for a new order are rarely the same type capable of building a legacy that will last more than a few generations. The question for Afghanistan moving forward is whether the mujahideen, after fifty years of constant war, can turn their swords to plowshares in a way that will guarantee peace past their own lifetime.
Thanks for reading The Palladium Letter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our work.
Here’s what’s been on the front page lately:
The West Lives On in the Taliban’s Afghanistan by David Oks. The Taliban has succeeded in reconquering Afghanistan. But while the U.S. may be gone, the new regime faces increasing Westernization among its subjects—and its own fighters.
Germany Is Losing the Electric Vehicle Transition by Evan Zimmerman. Germany is renowned for its automotive engineering. But its historic car industry is getting left behind in the electric vehicle transition, calling the country’s entire economic model into question.
Yamagami Tetsuya’s Revenge by Dylan Levi King. In 2022, Yamagami Tetsuya assassinated Japan’s former leader in revenge for his ties to the Unification Church. But Japan’s cults look to become more powerful as its social order decays.
The Censor Who Ended the Soviet Union by Alexander Gelland. After learning the truth about Stalin in 1956, Soviet propagandist Alexander Yakovlev became disillusioned with the communist project. Decades later, he helped end it.
How America Lost the Atomic Age by Benjamin Leopardo. Seventy years ago, nuclear power was poised to launch us into an energy-rich future. Why didn’t that happen?
That’s all for now.