Illustration: A figure drops her mask.

Kabul and the lessons to be learned

After the Western failure in Afghanistan, it is obvious that cultural foreign policy must either have a long-term commitment or state that assistance is temporary and fosters self-help and resilience. What else do we have to keep in mind for the future?

The images shocked the world. The scenes of chaos and desperation at Kabul International Airport were broadcast around the globe. Thousands of panicked Afghans trying to flee the country after the Taliban takeover. Throngs of people clinging to accelerating planes. US military pilots taking off, letting humans fall hundreds of metres to their death. Tens of thousands of people left behind. 

Pro Afghanistan Demonstration © Daniel Kubirski on Picture Alliance

In Europe, there was an immediate and understandable outcry: how could Europeans abandon members of civil society with whom they had worked for two decades to create a democratic Afghanistan? The events on the Hindu Kush are truly historical and world changing. Their dimension and consequences cannot yet be fully assessed. German political scientist Herfried Münkler sees a historical turning point: 'Since then nothing is like it was before'. 

What seems clear already is that the 'West' – including Europe – has suffered a considerable credibility loss on the global stage. Numerous voices in this so-called Western world likewise called into question the entire agenda in Afghanistan – not least the attempt to build an Afghan civil society on Western terms.

A bleak picture

The events in Afghanistan and the bleak picture evoked by Münkler, among others, clearly prompt a major interrogation of the terms of foreign cultural policy. In the last months, artists, media workers, teachers, activists have fled the country in fear of their life or gone into hiding. And these are only a few groups who were working with and partly trained by Western organisations. 

Why were their hopes raised over 20 years? Did it make sense to try to help civil society through external cultural policy measures, if everything that was built seems to collapse like a house of cards? Should there be a major reorientation of cultural foreign policy and assistance to civil society and, if so, in what direction? Were there also activities that changed Afghan society positively and will have an enduring impact?

There are no definitive answers, but there are some preliminary indications on lessons to be learned from the Taliban takeover in mid-August 2021, on the challenges that lie ahead and on what might be done to address them. The findings and proposals are based on an assessment of the relevant literature, close monitoring of current events in Afghanistan, and – most importantly – on around a dozen interviews with relevant Afghan and European actors, as well as the panel discussion 'Europe's debacle in Afghanistan', on November 21, 2021, by Élan – Ideas for Europe and ifa. The panelists were Jasamin Ulfat, lecturer for Postcolonial Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Rahmatullah Amiri, freelance consultant and Research Coordinator at The Liaison Office (TLO) and Tareq Sydiq, lecturer at the Center for Conflict Studies of Marburg University.

Afghan flag on a brick wall.
A full-scale state building on the model of Western democracy has failed. © iStock

One of the major preliminary lessons of Afghanistan is that full-scale state building on the model of Western democracy failed. One of the foremost reasons for this failure is that nearly all factions of the Taliban were excluded from the dialogue in Afghanistan for more than 20 years.

As the former president Hamid Karzai stated, they should on the contrary have been included at the Bonn Conference in 2001 where the future of Afghanistan was outlined. The Taliban, in a position of military weakness, showed a willingness to negotiate then. 

Experiences in other parts of the world have shown that excluding important actors and significant portions of the population from political and societal processes does not lead to conflict resolution. Here a fine line must be drawn. With some extremist groups like the IS, no negotiations are possible. A considerable number of extremist group members are ready to renounce violence however, even if they profess some non-negotiable, 'sacred' values.

One of the foremost reasons for this failure is that nearly all factions of the Taliban were excluded from the dialogue in Afghanistan for more than 20 years. 

Interviewees identified further reasons for the failure of more effective assistance to civil society, among them: 

  • the inability to understand that campaigns for women’s rights were perceived as Western propaganda because they were not framed in Islamic terms,
  • a bias toward urban elites versus efficient engagement with the countryside, 
  • and the 'monetisation' of projects creating an opportunistic relationship to generate income but no meaningful promotion of long-term self-reliance and self-empowerment. Projects stopped when the funding stopped. 

In retrospect, Afghans rightly doubted Europe’s long-term commitment and thus showed reluctance to engage for fear of Taliban reprisal once the Europeans left. 

Full-scale nation-building

Organized files in a drawer.
Afghans rightly doubted Europe’s long-term commitment. © Olivier Le Moal on iStock

Generally, cultural foreign policy and the assistance of liberal democracies towards civil society needs to have clear objectives and scope according to their political priorities and the security environment. Cultural foreign policy must either have a clear long-term commitment or explicitly state that assistance is temporary and only there to foster the capacity for self-help and resilience.


The initial aims in Afghanistan were not clear and subsequently evolved into ambitious full-scale nation-building. Herfried Münkler’s pessimistic assessment that 'Afghanistan is the beginning of the end of a Western global idea of a world order that can be described as based on 'values and the orientation of norms'' seems more applicable to the imposed method of state- or nation-building.

That does not mean, however, that cultural foreign policy based on these values and norms should be reduced or that these set of values are irrelevant. It should simply operate with a theory of change of more modest aims. Namely, gradual improvement in the main areas where civil society around the world seems to share basic objectives:  

  • the rule of law,  
  • a certain degree of social justice and government accountability,  
  • forms of public participation,  
  • education,  
  • and different degrees of self-expression and accordingly of resilience and self-empowerment in challenging environments.  

The predominantly urban civil society is probably one of the biggest challenges to Taliban rule. Around a million Afghan students attended universities. Women in the still highly patriarchal society had access to education and were present in all professional fields.

It is also anything but certain that 20 years of assistance to Afghan society was in vain. On the contrary, there are fundamentals to be built on. Afghanistan is not the country it was 20 years ago before the Western intervention and associated cultural foreign policy evolved civil society. The predominantly urban civil society is probably one of the biggest challenges to Taliban rule. Around a million Afghan students attended universities. Women in the still highly patriarchal society had access to education and were present in all professional fields. Courageous women-led protests have already shown that Afghan society has resolutely changed. 

As one of our panellists stressed, 'the Taliban already experienced in the '90s that it is difficult to govern without women as civil servants'. Today, they need women even more in view of the spectacular population growth. Though exact figures are extremely difficult to obtain, the population of the country almost doubled from 20 million in 2001 to nearly 40 million in 2021. According to this same panellist, there will consequently need to be some kind of 'trade-off' between ideological convictions and effective governance, even if this leads to internal tension among different factions of the movement.

Foto of four afghan women are sitting at desks and looking at screens.
Courageous women-led protests have already shown that Afghan society has resolutely changed.  © pixabay

As another speaker underlined, the training of journalists and media development still bear fruit under very difficult circumstances: ‘Citizen journalism, citizens doing ground reporting even without institutional support’. Afghanistan is in the digital age, with 'private people doing great work on blogs or on YouTube'.  

Photo of a smart phone. The screen is showing a list of social media apps.
Social media gives a voice the afghan civil society.© Nathan Dumlaou on unsplash

Likewise, the public voicing of dissent still seems possible: university professor Faizullah Jalal, who has for years criticised Afghan governments during debates on Afghanistan’s most popular television, did not spare the Taliban. On Tolo News, he severely criticised the Taliban regarding the country’s security and economic situation. He even went so far as to calling the Taliban spokesman present a 'calf', an Afghan expression for stupid. The clip went viral on social networks. So far, there have not been any acts of retribution against the professor. 

The Taliban are dependent on well-trained Afghan women and men to run the country, if they want to avoid a humanitarian disaster and not increase poverty even further. Civil society maintains some bargaining power. Just how much remains to be seen.

If Afghanistan is to avoid a renewal of civil war, it is clear that there is no viable alternative to Taliban rule and Taliban dialogue. Engagement with the Taliban in terms of urgently needed humanitarian aid is the entry point to open venues for cooperation in the field of cultural foreign policy and civil society support. 

Education is definitely the field that opens doors to renewed assistance in terms of cultural foreign policy. Yet, before discussing these opportunities in more detail with the Taliban, red lines need to be drawn regarding their compliance with human rights and especially women's rights. The Taliban themselves feel that they have evolved since their last period of rule 20 years ago. When pressed too hard on the core of their belief system, they might close the door to dialogue. This could entail a return to the harsh and austere way of life that they themselves have been used to over two decades of fighting. They would then possibly impose this way of life on the rest of the Afghan people. According to their core belief system, this might then simply be God’s will.  

'Every village wants a school'

Spiegel reporter Christoph Reuter toured numerous Afghan provinces after the Taliban confirmed the value of education including for girls: 'every village wants a school'. One former director of a German foundation in Afghanistan also stressed that the country especially needs increased basic education: 'more people who know how to read and write and those who can read need more stimulus and materials to do so'. 

Even in rural areas, Afghans seem ready to confront the Taliban on the education issue and thus prove that some form of civil society exists all over the country. One of our panellists told: 'there is a graduation ceremony in a smaller village: girls are speaking up wanting to make a stand on education, which is prevented by a Taliban official who was there. Then a man stands up. A poet that supports the girls, [...] the man is arrested, but the village does not accept this. They say he did not do anything wrong. Everything that he said is also completely Islamic [...] the Taliban finally release the poet and even excuse themselves for having escalated the situation'. 

Photo of a group of children who are sitting on the floor. They have books in front of them and a listening.
Afghanistan needs to increase its basic education. © pixabay

As a member of civil society stressed, the Taliban are not ready to accept political activities. But so far they seem result-oriented in what concerns practical improvements for the Afghan population. Under seemingly non-political activities, for example, competitions about daily life concerns like waste or water management, independent thinking, and the respect of human rights can still be fostered.

Generally, activities should be promoted with Afghan and Islamic references that are acceptable to the Taliban mindset. Fostering women's rights, for example, can be done by giving the examples of the wives of the prophet Mohammed and of the relative freedoms of women in Saudi Arabia and Iran. They have more rights than women under the previous Taliban regime. As one participant states 'the only progressive ideas which can be ingrained in Afghan society need to be somehow referring to internal cultural heritage Afghan and/or Islamic'.

In this context, many venues can be explored. Herat, for example was a major cultural centre over the centuries. Afghans also know very little about the significance of historically important Islamic cities like Bukhara or Samarkand in neighbouring Uzbekistan, despite the fact that a sizable proportion of the Afghan population are Uzbek. Even more significant is the fact that Afghans who are very attached to their religion know very little of the achievements of the golden age Arabo-Islamic culture in sciences like mathematics, geography, astronomy, medicine and architecture, and in literature. 

Working with the Taliban

There are also classical art forms where we can engage with the Taliban, like poetry, or contemporary forms of expression like comedy where critical voices may be accepted. The interplay of new and traditional media provides unique opportunities in terms of education but also for human rights. Here Deutsche Welle TV, radio and internet can play an important role. Independent initiatives should also be promoted. These can network regional civil society actors, which one of the interviewees considers one of the most effective ways of engagement, if 'feminist groups of neighbouring countries […] support feminist groups in Afghanistan'. The Taliban have also expressed interest in collaboration in higher education. The expansion of the programmes of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) goes in the right direction. 

Photo of Kabul covered in fog.
Kabul © Farid Ershad on unsplash

The diaspora can produce powerful mediators who can actively discuss topics that cannot be evoked in Afghanistan: activists, journalists and artists like musicians who the Afghan people adore and the Taliban loath. Yet the influence of the diaspora must be qualified, as one of the panellists underlines its diminished credibility through its cooperation with the corrupt ‘intervention regime’. 

In view of the increased engagement of non-democratic actors like China and Turkey, it is imperative to maintain and even enlarge European and German engagement in foreign cultural policy and aid to civil society. In this context, it is important to strengthen European Union cooperation in cultural foreign policy.

The question of security remains crucial. Rural areas in Afghanistan were also neglected for security reasons. By withdrawing their troops, the United States presented the Europeans with a 'fait accompli'. For Europe, strategic autonomy is one of the major political challenges of the future, including for cultural foreign policy. 

About the Author
Portrait of Asiem El Difraoui
Asiem El Difraoui
Political scientist, economist, and documentary director and producer

Dr Asiem El Difraoui is a political scientist and author of books and documentaries. His areas of expertise include prevention and deradicalisation issues. In 2019, he was head of a project for the BAMF to develop a qualification course and a non-fiction book on exit work from Islamic extremism. In 2021, his book "Die Hydra des Dschihadismus" was published by Suhrkamp. He is co-founder of the CANDID Foundation in Berlin and co-editor of Zenith magazine.

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