If the Taliban are allowed to declare victory in Afghanistan, it means what? It means they beat the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United States and the United Nations in open warfare, and can boast about it. Well, that’s an outcome that’s not thinkable.
So said the late Christopher Hitchens in 2010, firmly reiterating why the United States and its NATO allies should stay the course in Afghanistan—and what the stakes were if the Taliban were allowed to reconquer Afghanistan and claim victory over a second superpower.
This is exactly what has just happened. After twenty years of war, Afghanistan is back in the hands of those Hitchens rightly described as “the scum of the earth.” In fact, the scum control more of the country than they ever did. The intervention and “nation building” project Hitchens supported in 2001 as one front in an existential struggle against Islamic jihadism has unravelled and been reduced to dust.
The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is a major political and ideological defeat for the United States, and especially for liberal interventionism. The United States will fully withdraw from Afghanistan in September 2021 without having eviscerated the Taliban, exported freedom and democracy or emancipated the women of Afghanistan—the main aims of liberal advocates of the war. The US was not defeated militarily, but the visceral reactions from sections of the pundit class to Biden’s withdrawal demonstrate the symbolic magnitude of this humiliation of American power. In the New York Times, Fred Kagan calls for the withdrawal to be delayed to push the Taliban back, while in the Atlantic Anne Applebaum restates the case for “fighting” for liberal democracy.
Among the more pragmatic justifications for western military intervention in Afghanistan was state failure. The absence of a centralised public authority in war-ravaged Afghanistan, the argument goes, provided fertile soil for Al-Qaeda to take root and launch terror attacks against the West. Therefore, the American-led intervention was necessary, as well as morally just, to transform Afghanistan from a failed state into at least a functioning state so as to prevent such a scenario from ever re-emerging.
The events we have witnessed over the last few weeks—the utter collapse of the apparently “well trained and equipped” Afghan army and government; the mayhem and frantic evacuations at Kabul airport; the Taliban conquest of entire provinces without a shot being fired—have exposed just how complete a failure this “nation building” project was. In exchange for twenty years of bloodshed and exorbitant investment, the US succeeded in replacing a failed state not with a functional Afghan national state, but with a dysfunctional, corrupt pseudo-state whose imaginary authority in Kabul fell woefully short of being able to assert its sovereignty across the country: a so-called state built like a house of cards, which collapsed at the first blow.
President Biden notoriously made the Afghans and their supposed lack of fortitude his scapegoat for the Taliban’s swift victory. No doubt, the ineptitude and gross corruption of the Afghan elite—composed mostly of émigrés and local potentates looking for a pay day but lacking any political constituency—did much to undermine the strategy of building a state that would outlast the NATO occupation.
Then, of course, there are the Taliban themselves. They were able to isolate a disorganised and demoralised Afghan army operationally, before going on to vanquish them on the battlefield — or, more frequently, inducing them to surrender. Since they began negotiating directly with the NATO powers over their withdrawal, the Taliban have shifted their strategy from one of indiscriminate, headline-grabbing suicide and IED attacks against western targets to one characterised by the discriminating use of assassinations against numerous civil society figures and key military personnel. Journalists, religious leaders, television presenters, pilots, civil servants—including, of course, any women in public roles—have been individually targeted by the Taliban for murder. This campaign of terror from the shadows was insidiously effective: it made a fiction of the government’s claimed ability to maintain order, hollowed out potential opposition, intimidated and demoralised Afghan civil society—and, in the case of the pilots, took out high-value individuals who were not easily replaceable.
Ultimately, however, it was the utter inadequacy of American policy and statecraft that was responsible for the failure of nation building in Afghanistan. The galère of liberal interventionists in the 2000s wished to use Afghanistan, and later Iraq, as projects in the exporting of democracy and other “western” values to the backward regions of the world, with the US anointed as the agent of this historical task. But those same factions failed to build anything that would redeem the mission. As we know, smashing up the old regime is the easy part; building a new, stable alternative—and, even more crucially, legitimising it in the eyes of its citizens—was another matter entirely.
This has always been the Achilles’ heel of liberal interventionism. For all its grandiloquent rhetoric and moral fervour, for all its energetic building and funding of institutions, it has always lacked political legitimacy. In the case of Afghanistan, the authority of the insubstantial government barely extended beyond Kabul and other cities. It had almost no legitimacy in rural areas, where relationships between local power brokers and traditional tribal leaders took precedence over what we would recognise as national authorities.
There have been improvements during the NATO occupation. Afghanistan is more urbanised than it was before. Women’s participation in society has improved markedly. Most Afghans now have mobile phones and access to telecommunications. There are now some railways linking Afghanistan with neighbouring countries—though nothing like a national rail network. And several natural gas pipelines were under construction for a while. Nevertheless, these improvements were never enough to break the chronic cycle of underdevelopment and the iron grip of local potentates and village patriarchs in the countryside. Afghanistan fundamentally remains a very poor country focused on low-level agriculture and lacking any national industry. It has a very fragile political structure and is dependent on donor aid, while formal property rights remain very weak. The material basis and political legitimacy of a successful modern state are still severely lacking.
Ultimately, Afghanistan became the arena in which liberal interventionism collided with its own contradictions. Its ambition was to erect durable institutions that would one day be fully independent, sovereign and democratic, and thus no longer in need of western “protection”; but it expected these institutions to be slavishly pro-western, instead of responding in a properly democratic way to the demands and priorities of Afghan citizens. Moreover, liberal interventionism always conceived of its supposed beneficiaries, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as victims in need of help. Clearly, the Afghan people have long been victimised and oppressed. But the priority of also recognising them as rational social agents capable of transforming their own society ultimately proved beyond the imaginative and institutional resources of western proconsuls.
If the liberal interventionists were drunk on their own magnificent delusions, their foes in the anti-war camp were no less so. In some quarters of the proud anti-imperialist left, the alternative to American-directed “forever wars” is, as Tariq Ali recently put in New Left Review, the suzerainty of “key players” China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran—working together towards “securing some fragile peace for the citizens of this traumatised country, aided by continuing Russian influence in the north.” This sentiment has been echoed by Aaron Bastani of Novara Media, who tweeted that the idea of “not work[ing] with the Russians, Chinese or Iranians (all regimes we would also like to change)” was “childishly delusional.”
If it is “delusional” to expect western forces to occupy Afghanistan indefinitely, then it is also delusional to imagine that guarantors of peace and stability are to be found among the despots in Moscow and Beijing and the mullahs in Tehran—not to mention the volatile ISI in Islamabad, which has a history of backing Islamist groups, including the Taliban when it came to power in 1996. One must be sporting quite powerful ideological blinkers to imagine that these regimes have no predatory plans of their own for Afghanistan.
If anything, this reveals the peculiarly conservative thinking that has colonised the mentalité of those who see themselves as leftists or even communists — luxury or otherwise — dedicated to revolution and international solidarity. Because the western left has no serious emancipatory political and economic project that can overcome liberal-democratic capitalism and American hegemony, many of its thinkers can only retreat into a reactive and politically thin anti-imperialism that is really a voguish pseudo-socialist “realism.” Pessimism and frustration at the unchecked hubris of American interventionism have led them to flirt with the idea of a multipolarism in which Iran and Russia are understood as counterweights and restraints against gung-ho liberal interventionism.
The tragedy of the decline of the left in the twentieth century and the so-called “end of history” is that liberal intervention seems to have become the only means of spreading social transformation to poor countries—boldly asserting the virtues of freedom, democracy, social progress, universalism and modernism against rising global forces of reaction. The liberal interventionism of the cruise missile has been a comprehensive disaster, as the examples of Afghanistan and Iraq show us.
But the struggle against dictatorship and religious barbarism is ongoing, and must be fought with clarity and vigour. This task cannot be dodged or defined away. As a universalist, I believe Afghans are just as entitled as anyone else to live in a homeland that is free, democratic and sovereign, and to enjoy all the fruits of modernity and social progress. How Afghanistan might reach this goal remains in question. But my solidarity is with those Afghans who are fighting for this future against the nightmare of fundamentalism, kleptocracy and imperialism to which they have so long been subjected.