For twenty years, two dominant narratives have shaped our view of the illegal US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Neither would readily accept the use of such terms as "illegal", "invasion" and "occupation".
The framing of the US "military intervention" in Afghanistan, which started on 7 October 2001, as the official beginning of what was dubbed the global "war on terror", was left almost entirely to US government strategists. Former President George W. Bush, his Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and an army of spokespersons, neoconservative "intellectuals", journalists, and so on, championed the military option as a way to rid Afghanistan of its terrorists, make the world a safe place and, as a bonus, bring democracy to the Afghans while freeing their oppressed women.
For the neocons, the US war in a country already devastated and impoverished by war was a just cause. Violent, of course, but ultimately humanistic.
Another narrative, also from the West, challenged the gung-ho approach of the Bush administration and argued that democracy cannot be imposed by force. It reminded Washington of Bill Clinton's multilateral approach to international politics, warning against the "cut and run" style of foreign policymaking, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere.
Although both narratives may have seemed at odds with each other at times, they actually accepted the basic premise that the United States is capable of being a moral force in Afghanistan and anywhere else for that matter. Whether those who may refer to themselves as "anti-war" realise this or not, they, too, subscribe to the same notion of exceptionalism and "Manifest Destiny" that Washington continues to assign to itself.
The main difference between both of these narratives is that of methodology and approach and not whether the US has the right to "intervene" in the affairs of another country, either to "eradicate terrorism" or supposedly help a victim population, incapable of helping themselves and desperate for a Western saviour.
However, the humiliating defeat suffered by the US over the past few weeks should inspire a whole new way of thinking, one that challenges all Western narratives without exception, not only in Afghanistan.
Obviously, the US has failed in Afghanistan, not only militarily and politically, but also in terms of "state-building" and just about every other way. In fact, the US-Western narratives on Afghanistan were, in themselves, a failure. Mainstream media, which for two decades has reported on the country with a palpable sense of moral urgency, now seem befuddled. US "experts" are as confused as lay people regarding the hasty retreat from Kabul, the bloody mayhem at the airport and even why the US was in Afghanistan in the first place.
Meanwhile, the "humanistic interventionists" are more concerned with Washington's "betrayal" of the Afghan people, "leaving them to their fate". Are the Afghans irrational beings with no agency of their own? Did they call on the Americans to invade their country or "elect" American generals as their democratic representatives?
The US-Western propaganda, which has afflicted our collective understanding of Afghanistan for twenty years and counting, has been so overpowering that we are left without the slightest understanding of the dynamics that led to the Taliban's swift takeover of the country. The movement is presented in the media as if it is entirely alien to the socio-economic fabric of Afghanistan. This is why the Taliban's ultimate victory seemed not only shocking but also extremely confusing.
For two decades, the very little we know about the Taliban has been communicated to us through Western media and military intelligence. With the Taliban's perspective completely removed from any political discourse pertaining to Afghanistan, an alternative Afghan national narrative was carefully constructed by the US and its NATO partners. These were the "good Afghans", we were told; Afghans who dress in Western clothes, speak English, attend international conferences, and, supposedly, respect women. These were also the Afghans who welcomed the US occupation of their country, as they benefited greatly from Washington's generosity.
If those "good Afghans" truly represented Afghan society, though, why did their army of 300,000 men drop their weapons and flee, along with their president? And if the 75,000 poorly-armed and, at times, malnourished Taliban only represent themselves, how did they manage to defeat formidable enemies in a matter of days?
There can be no argument that an inferior military power like the Taliban could not have persisted, and ultimately won, such a brutal war over the course of many years, without substantial grassroots support from the Afghan people in large swathes of the country. The majority of the Taliban recruits who entered Kabul on 15 August were either children or were not even born when the US invaded their country all those years ago. What compelled them to carry arms? To fight a seemingly unwinnable war? To kill and be killed? And why did they not join the more lucrative business of working for the Americans, as many others did?
We are just beginning to understand the Taliban narrative, as their spokespersons are slowly communicating a political discourse that is almost entirely unfamiliar to most of us. A discourse that we were not allowed to hear, interact with, or understand.
Now that the US and its NATO allies are leaving Afghanistan, unable to justify or even explain why their supposed humanitarian mission led to such an embarrassing defeat, the Afghan people are left with the challenge of weaving their own national narrative, one that must transcend the Taliban and their enemies to include all Afghans, regardless of their politics or ideology.
Afghanistan is now in urgent need of a government that truly represents all of its people. It must grant rights to minorities and political dissidents, and provide education for everyone, at all levels, not simply to get a nod of approval from the West, but because the Afghan people deserve to be respected, cared for, and treated as equals. This is the true national narrative of Afghanistan that must be nurtured outside the confines of the self-serving Western mischaracterisation of the Afghans and their country. Forget propaganda and failed Western narratives; a new understanding of Afghanistan is a must.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.