Why Afghan Women Have Been Abandoned: The Power of Belief

by Theodore Dalrymple

A sentence in an editorial about Afghanistan in the French newspaper, Le Monde, made me sit up. Titled “The Cruel Abandonment of Afghan Women,” it said: “Their progress [that of the Taliban] since the United States completed its military withdrawal on July 3rd bewilders the experts.”

Really? Is anyone truly surprised—bewildered, indeed—by the progress of the Taliban? If this is true, so much for expertise, at least where Afghanistan is concerned. Surely only an expert could make so obvious a misjudgement.

My only visit to that country was over half a century ago, and fleeting; but while I admired the dignity and even nobility of the Afghan men, I never thought of them as potential liberal democrats, sitting down to a nice peaceful compromise about next year’s budget with members of a different clan.

The then-king, Zahir Shah, had kept a lid on simmering disputes, which his cousin lifted when he overthrew him. Never was a political blow more disastrous in its consequences: it deserves to be counted alongside the assassination of Alexander II, the Tsar-Liberator of Russia.

Why is the progress of the Taliban in the face of the government forces, many of whom are reported to have surrendered without a fight, only too predictable? It is because they believe in something for which they are prepared to fight and die, albeit something which we find appalling and retrograde.

They are opposed by the forces of a government that is universally agreed to be corrupt, whose only source of legitimacy, that it was democratically elected, is tenuous to say the least. Who will go to his death willingly for such a cause? No amount of training and arming by foreigners will make up for this lack of belief in a cause.

It may well be that everyday life under an inefficient, corrupt, self-serving government with no ideal other than foreign bank accounts for its ministers and hangers-on is nevertheless better on the whole than that under a government that knows how everyone should live and seeks ruthlessly to impose its self-righteous ideology on a whole nation: but considerations of relative merit (as judged by the freedom or happiness of the population under their rule) do not, alas, weigh very heavily in the balance between contending parties in a civil war of this nature. Belief does.

The Duke of Wellington once said that the presence of Napoleon on a battlefield was worth 40,000 men. Belief and morale are not everything, of course: there have been several unsuccessful revolts in Africa in which the rebels were convinced that magic water had made them invulnerable to bullets.

Their morale was high and their belief was strong, but the bullets still found their mark and their revolts ending in failure and a lot of futile death. But when one contemplates the victory of Fidel Castro over Batista’s army, one realises how important a factor belief can be, when it is allied to an ability to organise—which the Taliban now certainly have.

It is equally obvious that a cause can triumph without being good: it has only to inspire the belief that it is good and is worth fighting for. Indeed, a cause can be profoundly evil and triumph, at least in part through the strength of belief in it.

The lengths to which people go to promote a cause are often held up as some kind of evidence of the value of that cause, but they are nothing of the kind. People may go to great lengths to promote good causes, but those lengths are not in themselves evidence of goodness. After all, even Nazism had its martyrs whose deaths were exhibited as proof of righteousness.

That is why, when political leaders call a terrorist attack cowardly, they are not only missing the point but inadvertently increasing the morale of terrorists: for what they say is a lie so obvious that it can arise only from fear. And this fear arises from a lack of self-confidence.

Terrorist attacks are not cowardly: they are almost always very brave. Indeed, they display much greater bravery than most of us ever display in our lives, with all our little moral compromises for the sake of convenience.

It takes great courage to place a bomb, even of the non-suicidal variety, or to hack people to death in a public place in the almost certain knowledge that one will be caught and punished, if not killed (the most likely outcome).

Though the Twin Towers were militarily undefended, the attack on them was not cowardly, nor would the attack have been one whit the less appalling if the towers have been defended and the odds against the terrorists reaching their target much greater.

Many crimes require considerable bravery. I remember as a child stealing a penny bar of chocolate: how fast my heart before I did so! It was a courageous thing for me to do (I was about nine at the time).

It might have required more courage of me to continue down this path than to desist from it: but I am glad that, before long, I valued honesty more than courage. In my time as a prison doctor, I met many courageous criminals, and even some who committed their criminal acts in order to prove their courage.

As we have seen, neither courage nor a cause, nor even both together, will infallibly lead to victory, but rarely is military competence alone sufficient either. The problem for American and allied forces in Afghanistan and the Middle East was that, while they might have been militarily competent and personally brave, they had no cause to fight for, self-preservation and military honour taking them only so far.

It would not have taken soldiers long to realise that, whatever else they were doing, they were not fighting for their countries’ interests or for the preservation of freedom in any recognizable sense, their own or anybody else’s. They were fighting a war in which victory itself was undefinable.

After the expenditure of $2,000,000,000,000, Afghan women have been abandoned. If only there had been no experts to be bewildered!

First published in the Epoch Times.


4 Responses

  1. This is a stunning failure of an article by an otherwise brilliant and insightful writer. I have five books on my reading desk, three of them were written by this author. Rarely have I seen such mistaken thinking as this anywhere: “Terrorist attacks are not cowardly: they are almost always very brave. Indeed, they display much greater bravery than most of us ever display in our lives, with all our little moral compromises for the sake of convenience.
    It takes great courage to place a bomb, even of the non-suicidal variety, or to hack people to death in a public place in the almost certain knowledge that one will be caught and punished, if not killed (the most likely outcome).” Is it brave, Dr Dalrymple, when a fanatic murders innocent children and innocent men and women going about their daily affairs? How is it brave? How is the destruction and murder of innocent unprotected people courageous? Do you consider terrorist bravery and courage the same sort of courage that American soldiers displayed fighting the Japanese on Iwo Jima, for example? Is the bravery of the fanatic suicidal killer of children the same as that of the soldiers of the Civil War defending Little Round Top, or attacking at Fredericksburg, or charging at Antietam? Where is the courage to plant a bomb knowing full well that innocent people will be killed and maimed by it? How is it courageous to plant a mass murder machine, then flee the scene or to attack people in broad daylight who are non-combatants in a war that exists only in the mind of the fanatic himself? Is the possibility of being caught the element that means that the irrational murderous immoral act is “brave?” How can such a moral confusion as to conflate bravery and courage with fanaticism, cruelty, and immorality occur in such an author of this stature? Is it not so that an innocent person under attack by the “brave” fanatic killer who defends himself and others shows far more courage than the cowardly killer himself? And this possibility is ignored by the author? It’s an astonishing article this, and creates a confusion and conundrum in the reader who knows his many works well. One rarely sees any author as prolific as this one and certainly it is true that constant output means that not all articles and essays will be successful or accurate or fully thought out. The assertion of the author that a fanatic killer’s grotesque, possibly suicidal, act of violence and cruelty was a brave and courageous one is an insult to the victims and their families. In numerous mass murder terror attacks the fanatic is motivated by an ideology in which death means eternal happiness and reward. The logic to them is that in dying in the course of committing their evil crimes the result for them will be greater happiness (and permanent happiness at that) than they could possibly have in their current earth-bound lives, their acts of murder and cruelty become then acts more of self-serving fanaticism than they do any sort of courage or bravery. I’m flabbergasted at this moral confusion and catastrophic failure on the part of Dalrymple. When reviewing this article for the second time, equally as appalled as I was in the first reading of it, it seems clear that the moral error is so egregious, the mistaken thinking so enormous as to make an erstwhile admirer wonder what the f**k must have happened for this usually great thinker and clear moralist to be so utterly wrong?

  2. @Lou …: Bullseye! Terrorizing is the fear-inducing, maiming, murdering of innocent others. It’s end is the escalation result of bullying. Foul/fool hardiness is the ossification of sociopathy, cruel and uncaring; it is not knavery as bravery. It is hatefulness aimed at a heavenly reward dispensed by a psychopathic god figure. The kneeling terrorist has no courage; he/she is filled with poison leaving no room for aught else. The terrorist relishes it’s own debasement as any masochist would, even if acting as a sadist. // Courage ? The terrorist only displays CurRage.

  3. I empathize with these criticisms but Dalrymple’s pushback is well timed.
    Just as we ought to be able to separate interests from genuine enmity from a clash of good and evil, and tackle any of them with due seriousness without mixing them up, as we so often do, so we should be able to understand that evil and cowardice are not always coincident, anymore than every bully is just a coward or a poor misguided seeker of friendship. It was always a stupid trope of the Bush Administration et al. to keep hammering home a schoolyard paradigm.
    Flying an airliner into a building full of innocents is many things, including profoundly cruel and evil, but it is not cowardly. One is still going knowingly to one’s death.
    No, it does not make them the equal of Allied soldiers in WW2, who fought [even Russia to a point] for better causes. It might not even make them the equal of German or Japanese soldiers in WW2, who did not. We do not need to call terrorists cowards to call them evil. I always thought the former more a cheap substitute for unwillingness to call them evil, or an appeal to the mentality of soccer moms who think every bully is afraid inside and teach their kids this.

  4. Bullying, by definition, is “seeking to harm, intimidate, or coerce (someone perceived as vulnerable) – ‘Oxford Languages’. The Islamist terrorist has nothing to fear; he knows his act is blessed/ordered by his god; his perpetual sensual reward is guaranteed in Paradise. This terrorist’s concern is only that he may not be allowed to complete his terrorist act. The bully attacks those believed to be weaker than he, and sneakily, the weak points of those believed to be, in open combat, stronger than he.

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