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As the United States accepts unprecedented defeat in the 20-year struggle to “liberate” Afghanistan from the Taliban, many wonder: What will happen now?
Few historians were surprised when the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August of this year. The nation—or, more accurately, the area that has sometimes comprised a nation but has often been a region of warring tribes or part of another empire—has been a thorn in the side of foreign invaders for many centuries.
As headline after headline proclaimed the “fall” of Afghanistan, some wondered about the clumsiness and danger of the United States’ hasty withdrawal, which gave a former enemy access to valuable military equipment and technology while risking the lives not just of Westerners in the country, but also Afghans who had supported the U.S. presence. Others wondered about U.S. relations with NATO allies and others left vulnerable by the sudden retreat. Still others wondered whether China, seeking to expand its Belt and Road Initiative, might now find a way to make Afghanistan’s Muslims their allies even while persecuting their own Muslim Uyghurs.
Only a few, however, have been able to look at the situation through the eyes of biblical prophecy. While many lament the fall of Kabul, what can Bible students learn from the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan?
Even before the current conflict, which cost more than 150,000 Afghan lives as well as the lives of thousands of Western soldiers and contractors, Afghanistan has not had a history of long-lasting and stable governments. For centuries, the region was not even a sovereign nation, home to an array of tribes without great affinity for one another, including the Aimaq, Baloch, Hazara, Kyrgyz, Nuristani, Pashtun, Sadat, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek. Some tribes profess the Sunni variety of Islam; others are Shi’ite. Some have closer ties to countries beyond Afghanistan than to their fellow Afghans. Of these tribes, the Pashtun to the south is the largest. Significantly, the Pashtun are tribally related to much of neighboring Pakistan, which has consistently supported the Taliban in fighting Western encroachment.
These ethnic divisions were key to the initial success of the American-led invasion in 2001. Western forces gained their foothold by allying with northern tribes that had historically been at odds with the Pashtuns who comprised the core of the Taliban. Ironically, as the Taliban learned the Western lesson of “identity politics,” they began to make deliberate outreach efforts to members of the northern tribes, including them in leadership and development initiatives and offering them economic assistance—stressing the point that, despite some differences, the contending tribes had much more in common with each other than with the decadent Western invaders.
Jesus Christ’s end-time prophecy in this regard should readily come to mind: “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Matthew 24:7). Significantly, the Greek word translated here as “nation” is ethnos—which more precisely means “ethnicity” or “tribe.” Devastating war has certainly brought pestilence to Afghanistan, and there has been an ongoing struggle between ethnos and ethnos—peoples against peoples.
One might wonder whether Western military leaders who decided to invade Afghanistan were ignorant of the nation’s history, or whether they knew it but chose to ignore it. For several centuries, Western invaders have repeatedly tried and failed to maintain a permanent foothold in the troubled region. Were America’s post-9/11 troops hoping to do what no Western aggressor had done before?
Even without considering the British Empire’s experience in centuries past, Western strategists’ memories should have been fresh regarding the Soviet Union’s trouble in the region. After a communist government took hold of Afghanistan in 1978, Soviet troops entered the nation, battling Afghan freedom fighters seeking to topple the communists. Many analysts consider the costly Afghanistan campaign a major factor in the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.
The Soviets, in turn, could have taken a lesson from the British Empire. The British lasted for just four years in Kabul after an 1828 invasion and did not regain influence there until 1879. Despite nominal British control, Afghanistan remained neutral in World War I, then declared independence from Great Britain in 1919 under King Amanullah Khan, who sought to bring Western reforms to his independent Afghanistan. Khan’s attempt was short-lived, and Muslim traditionalists forced him to abdicate in 1929.
Now, the United States finds itself in the same position of failure so familiar to Great Britain and Russia. Great Britain’s troubles in Afghanistan began while there was still a powerful British Empire, and ended during the years when the Empire had started to wane. What does the rise of the Taliban tell us about America’s future?
Americans were shocked this past August when victorious Taliban soldiers staged a photo commemorating the capture of Kabul, striking a pose that emulated—or perhaps was meant to mock—the U.S.’ famous Iwo Jima monument commemorating a vital World War II victory. Such victories are, for the U.S., increasingly distant memories. While many analysts marvel at the change in America’s standing as a world power, Bible students are not surprised. Long ago, God warned the ancestors of the modern British and American peoples that a time would come when they would fall from power on the world stage: “Those who hate you shall reign over you, and you shall flee when no one pursues you…. I will break the pride of your power” (Leviticus 26:17–19).
And what did this Afghan failure cost the U.S.? Forbes magazine calculated that the war in Afghanistan, lasting for two decades, cost more than $2 trillion—amounting to $300 million per day—with some costs not yet accounted for (“The War In Afghanistan Cost America $300 Million Per Day For 20 Years, With Big Bills Yet To Come,” August 16, 2021). Compare that to the $150 billion—around $800 billion in today’s dollars—the U.S. spent on the Vietnam War. The war did not only cost the U.S. a great deal of money; the nation has paid a tremendous price in international respect. Some Europeans even accused the U.S. of violating treaty agreements by rushing U.S. forces out of Afghanistan without coordinating with or even informing NATO allies.
What does this portend for Taiwan, the tiny island that has kept itself independent from mainland China since 1949? Watching Hong Kong fall more and more firmly under mainland China’s control, and seeing that the U.S. no longer has a reliable record as a protector of its allies, we should not forget that Afghanistan shares a 47-mile border with mainland China and has expressed interest in closer relations.
“China respects the right of the Afghan people to independently determine their own destiny, and stands ready to develop good-neighborly, friendly and cooperative relations with Afghanistan, and to play a constructive role in the peace and reconstruction of Afghanistan,” said Foreign Ministry representative Hua Chunying (“China says respects choices of Afghan people, calls for smooth transition,” Xinhaunet.com, August 16, 2021). Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen has welcomed China’s support and said the Taliban would “guarantee the safety of investors and workers” from China (“China a ‘welcome friend’ for reconstruction in Afghanistan: Taliban spokesman,” SCMP.com, July 9, 2021). With the prospect of expanding its Belt and Road Initiative through Kabul, China finds itself at a powerful and influential crossroads in international relations, with the U.S. essentially reduced to the role of onlooker.
Who would have foreseen a world in which the U.S. had lost not just its military superpower status but also its place as an exemplar of the highest values? You might be surprised to learn that Bible students familiar with end-time prophecy have known for some time that this was coming. We read, “All your lovers have forgotten you; they do not seek you; for I have wounded you with the wound of an enemy, with the chastisement of a cruel one, for the multitude of your iniquities, because your sins have increased” (Jeremiah 30:14). America’s “lovers”—its allies—have begun to lose their former feeling for the superpower that was once their trusted benefactor and protector. Even so, God would welcome back His wayward American and British-descended peoples upon their repentance, though they have “played the harlot” through their dubious dealings with many nations (3:1).
When the Taliban last held stable power, before U.S. forces attacked in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s assault on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, they had imposed on Afghanistan a strict form of Islamic law in the form of a moral code abhorrent to most secular people in the West—and many religious people as well.
Today, many Afghan women have grown used to the Westernized standards fostered by the deposed Afghan government, but within days of the August coup a shift toward the old norms became visible. Taliban leaders assured women that they would be required only to wear the hijab head covering, rather than the full-body burkha preferred by the most conservative. As for post-war retribution, the situation was murkier. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told BBC presenter Yalda Hakim, “We assure the people in Afghanistan, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe—there will be no revenge on anyone…. We are the servants of the people and of this country” (“Taliban spokesman tells BBC they are 'awaiting a peaceful transfer of power,'” August 15, 2021). But with house-to-house searches reported within days of the Taliban takeover, and with U.S. facial recognition software and biometric information falling into Taliban hands, some fear a wave of repression reminiscent of the worst extremes of the 1990s that for a time made many Afghans sympathetic to the Western forces fighting against the Taliban. To keep that sympathy, the Taliban must now defeat ISIS-K fighters hoping to bring Afghanistan under a more conservative variety of Islamic governance.
Some are hopeful, pointing to positive steps the Taliban were able to take during their last short rule after the fall of the Soviet Union. United Nations observers noted that heroin production in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was almost entirely eliminated by 2001—a significant worldwide development, as 90 percent of the world’s heroin comes from poppies grown in just a few Afghan provinces. Subsequently, after years of Western coalition military presence, heroin production reached an all-time high in 2017. Western forces took great pains to keep heroin profits out of Taliban hands—but those profits fell into others’ hands instead.
What Taliban fighters—and, now, Taliban rulers—have failed to understand is that no theocracy can succeed unless God is actually in charge of it. Today’s true Christians certainly strive to live godly lives, but they understand that it is not their duty to establish civil governance that, even at its best, could only be a pale and faulty imitation of the coming Kingdom of God.
Jesus Christ reminded His followers that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50). Rather, today’s faithful Christians will be born into that Kingdom at Christ’s return, to assist Him in His millennial rule (Revelation 20:4–6). No earthly military victory or policy platform can make this happen; only the returning Jesus Christ can and will do this when He returns (Revelation 1:7).
When one’s country is under siege by foreign aggressors, it may be tempting to think of picking up arms and joining in the fight. That’s what happened in Afghanistan, where eventually enough Afghans were willing to support the Taliban that the old secular government could not survive without being artificially propped up by U.S. force. But that is not the role a Christian is supposed to play. Christians already have their “citizenship” in heaven, in the coming Kingdom of God. Their job is to live in a foreign land, this Satan-scarred world, while obeying the laws of their soon-coming King, Jesus Christ.
And this is the most certain and best news of all: A time is soon coming when all tribes and nations will look to Jerusalem, to the throne of the King of kings, Jesus Christ, whose benevolent autocracy—the true theocracy our war-ravaged world needs—will expand its influence across all of planet Earth.