The world reads current reports from Afghanistan with revulsion: the Taliban’s revenge against supporters of the former government and Western forces, bloody chaos at the Kabul airport, and renewed repression of women.
Yet it is also plain that the victorious Islamists themselves are daunted by the challenge of assuming administrative responsibility for a nation that is bankrupt without Western financial support, shorn of most of its competent officials, and threatened with breakdown of its public services and utilities. Chatham House warns: “The Afghan economy is being brought to its knees by the closure of banks and offices receiving remittances, a collapse in the value of the currency, shortages of food and fuel in the cities, price inflation, the disruption of trade, and the inability to pay wages.”
History shows that one of the worst fates that can befall a modern country is to fall into the hands of rebels whose claim on power is merely that they have successfully fought for it. The skills that enable a guerrilla to use an AK-47 automatic rifle, to lay an improvised explosive that blows up foreign soldiers, to set an ambush to destroy a few Humvees, to endure privation and risk death — all become irrelevant once there is instead a country to be run.
Warriors struggle as the challenges become paying government servants, keeping the electricity working, securing water supplies, administering schools. As the Financial Times reports, officials at Afghanistan’s central bank last month “had to explain to a group of Talibs that the country’s $9 billion in foreign reserves was unavailable for inspection because it is held with the Federal Reserve Bank in New York — and anyway had been frozen by the U.S. government.”
Attending to such necessities is especially hard when most of those who lately fulfilled these tasks have fled, in terror of death at the hands of the new masters, for the crime of having served as instruments of the fallen regime.
These are issues that have beset conquerors throughout history. Rome was among the few empires of ancient times that could claim to improve the material condition of peoples it defeated. A legendary moment in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” comes when Reg (aka John Cleese), hero of the People’s Front of Judea, demands to know what the Romans have “ever given us?” After a chorus of grudging admissions, he concludes “apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a freshwater system and public health.” His interlocutor adds, “Brought peace,” causing Reg to say: “Oh. Peace? Shut up!”
It is unlikely that the Afghan people will find as much to applaud about the Taliban’s performance in government. A more relevant cinematic analogy is likely the scene in David Lean’s epic “Lawrence of Arabia,” after the guerrilla army that has fought its way to Damascus in 1918 takes control. The city promptly lapses into a chaos of factional feuding that leaves hospitals drowning in squalor, crowded with untended casualties whom the British Army is obliged care for.
What baffles many Westerners is not only why the people of ancient Palestine — and for that matter Britain, Gaul and much of the Mediterranean littoral — proved so ungrateful for Roman civilization, but how so many in today’s Afghanistan and Iraq could spurn the colossal material benefits of U.S. intervention and “nation-building.” A large part of the answer is that many peoples, both now and forever, value their own culture, together with freedom from perceived foreign servitude, above what the West calls civilization.
This was certainly the case with Vietnam half a century ago, a situation I covered at the time as a correspondent and more recently in a book. A fundamental cause of the defeat of the Saigon regime was its corruption, together with the unashamed bondage of its officers and public servants to the U.S.
Following the North Vietnamese victory in 1975, the country paid a terrible price for the imposition of communism. Tens of thousands of army officers and government servants were dispatched to re-education camps in which they languished for years, too often perishing of starvation or untreated disease. Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese fled the country as “boat people.” Vietnam, once the rice bowl of Southeast Asia, faced famines brought about by the institutionalized madnesses of Hanoi’s rulers and their apparatchiks.
None of this made America’s wars in the region seem well-advised, but it emphasized the unfitness of the victors to govern. By a historic irony, Hanoi discovered that once it had triumphed on the battlefield, its Soviet and Chinese sponsors largely lost interest in supporting their country, and in the latter case went to war against it in 1979.
In neighboring Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, who also became victors in 1975 with backing from Beijing, embarked on a genocide more terrible than anything the North Vietnamese did. The murder of two million people was Pol Pot’s great achievement. Once again, an armed revolutionary movement prevailed in battle, then proved catastrophically unfit to do anything else.
I am currently writing a book about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for which I have been studying Fidel Castro’s 1959 triumph. Here again, the story was the familiar one: romantic “barbudos” — bearded guerrillas — evicted the brutal and corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista in Havana, then showed themselves bereft of sensible notions of governance.
Some Americans, in the first weeks after Batista’s fall, cherished delusions that the 32-year-old Castro, a poster-boy revolutionary, would turn out to be their kind of guerrilla. He was introduced to them by TV’s greatest talent impresario: On Jan. 11, 1959, 50 million viewers tuned in for their weekly fix of variety from “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The host, who had sold Elvis to Middle America and would later do the same for the Beatles, now showed them their new Caribbean neighbor.
Sullivan started in by telling the audience they were about to meet “a wonderful group of revolutionary youngsters.” Then he embraced Castro on camera, saying “You know this is a very fine young man and a very smart young man, and with the help of God and our prayers, and with the help of the American government, he will come up with the sort of democracy down there that America should have.” Plenty of others, from CBS’s Edward R. Murrow to Hollywood’s Errol Flynn, sang the same song.
In Castro’s first months of power there were no mass killings on the Khmer Rouge scale. But at least some hundreds and possibly thousands of alleged Batista supporters and secret policemen were executed.
Castro and his comrades had a good case for their seizure of the huge U.S. agricultural and industrial holdings on the island, because foreign owners had for centuries ruthlessly exploited the Cuban people. Thereafter, however, the revolutionaries proved ill-fitted to run things.
Fidel, like his brother Raul and comrade-in-arms Che Guevara, deluded himself that revolutionary zeal was the only necessary qualification to manage a sugar refinery, government department, university or cigar factory. They appointed to these roles young men whose only proven talent was for fighting, and the outcome was unsurprising.
Gennady Obaturov, a Soviet general, wrote contemptuously about Cuban posturing in his 1963 diary: “They know how to die, they are revolutionaries and heroes. But they have no idea how to build an economy. Last year we asked their delegation: ‘Do cows eat sugar cane?’ They didn’t know.”
During the first decade of the barbudos’ rule, they reduced the Cuban economy to ruins, so that only Soviet aid averted starvation. Perversely, the hostility of the U.S., and Cuba’s status as a heroically embattled socialist fortress against yanqui imperialism, sustained support for the revolutionary leadership. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled the island, including some of its ablest and best-educated people. Few who cherished property, or were branded members of an officially despised bourgeoisie, could find any reason to linger.
Cuba remains a showpiece of communist economic failure; the sufferings of its people are outdone only by those of Venezuelans and North Koreans. Castro was a towering figure among 20th-century revolutionaries, who achieved celebrity despite being leader of one of the least significant countries on the planet. Yet he was also an exemplar of the unfitness of a charismatic guerrilla to run a peacetime government. His accustomed garb of combat fatigues, boots and holstered pistol expressed his vision of himself as the perennial fighter, but contributed nothing to his understanding of public debt.
A few years ago, I interviewed in Hanoi the great Vietnamese novelist Bao Ninh, who penned perhaps the best published account of life in the communist wartime army, “The Sorrow of War.” (Unsurprisingly, it was banned by the Vietnamese regime.) He remarked on how fortunate British people were, that in 1945 we were able to evict from office through the ballot box our great war leader, Winston Churchill, in favor of a Labour Party more fit to address the challenges of peace. “Whereas in Vietnam,” he said regretfully, “the generals have clung to power.”
Victory in the unification war remains the only indisputable achievement of the Vietnamese Communist Party since 1956.
It has sufficed to enable its old men and women, and now their children and ideological successors, to monopolize power. Some reforms have been introduced to enable profit-making commercial activity, which have dramatically improved Vietnam’s economic performance. But the country remains shackled to a corrupt, though still nominally communist, template, sustaining desperate rural poverty among the country’s 96 million people.
In my researches I have met many Vietnamese who say, “If we had better known what communist rule would mean, we would have fought much harder to keep what we had.” If South Vietnam had been as fortunate geographically as South Korea — in possessing a short, defensible border — today the former might be as wonderfully prosperous as is the latter.
As it is, many repentant Vietnamese communists feel the same way as Nguyen Cong Hoan, an antiwar South Vietnamese citizen during the conflict, who later served two terms in the Vietnamese National Assembly before fleeing by boat into American exile in 1977:
“I am very regretful that I did not understand the communists before. They always speak in lofty terms that appeal to the better part of the people. Then they are used for a tragic end. I believed them; I was wrong.”
More than a few Afghans are likely to succumb to the same realization after experiencing the restoration of Taliban rule. Many people understand that what they had before was not so bad, only after this has been displaced by force of arms, often impelled by nationalism or religious fanaticism.
The mullahs and warriors who have today secured hegemony over Afghanistan are no more fit to guide their society in the 21st century than their contemporary counterparts in Iran. Once fortified with machinery of repression, however, such regimes become extraordinarily hard to dispossess — in the absence of foreign intervention.
This is not to advocate new Western invasions of Afghanistan, Iran or anywhere else. But it should cause us all to recognize that, while democracy seems in terrible shape, it still represents a better way to choose people to run your schools, law courts, hospitals and sewage plants than Mao Zedong’s method.
The Chinese tyrant may have been right that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” But the Kalashnikov, now as for the past 60 years the revolutionary’s weapon of choice, can contribute nothing to building a decent society, as Afghanistan’s people are already discovering.