Lessons of Afghanistan

A US soldier speaks with local elders about issues concerning the Now Zad area during a shura at the district center in Now Zad, Afghanistan.

Don Flynn on the folly of foreign intervention

To many on the left, the US-led intervention in Afghanistan was never anything more than imperial pique at having been dealt the blow of the 9/11 attacks. Other countries across the world might be expected to take massive loss of life in their stride if delivered from the bomb hatch of an American B-52, but the US itself has exceptional rights when it comes to avenging national grief.

The emblematic attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were provoked by a grievance that had more to do the grievances felt by a fraction of Saudi Arabians over the presence of infidel military forces in their own holy land, but any reprisal directed against Riyadh would have conflicted with the larger plan for US domination of the oil-rich kingdom. So, the alternative was to search for culprits in the more easily targeted land of the Afghans, where the dissident Saudi group had established its base.  

The complaint against the Taliban government of the day was that it had ‘tolerated’ the presence of terrorist conspirators in its domain. This is true, but it misses the point that they were there because they had fought as a significant component of the mujahedeen movement that had resisted the Soviet-backed regime that had clung on to power in the country’s cities in the 1980s. Back in those days, the then largely unknown Osama bin-Laden had the advantage of a CIA paycheque for the role he was playing as a hero of the Islamic resistance.

Enter Tony Blair

Having been securely lodged in the bosom of the Afghan opposition and approved for being there by the US security state, the task of dislodging the Al-Qaeda network was conceived as a military initiative requiring overwhelming force that would entirely reconstruct Afghan society. Would the rest of the world be on board for this if presented in these stark terms? The early signs of dissent from the prospect of decades of nation-building were stifled by the intervention of Tony Blair and the British Labour government, which proclaimed the doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’. It was never hard to convince liberal opinion that the lot of the ordinary Afghans would be improved by some investment in the education of girls and the integration of women into the public life of the country. The long-standing problem, and one experienced with great bitterness by both the liberal pre-Soviet government led by Mohammad Daoud Khan and the cadres of the succeeding People’s Democratic Party regime, was that support for progressive reforms was limited to the small, educated elite in Kabul and a few other large cities. In the countryside, where the great mass of the population lived, the measures were seen as conflicting with the conservative interpretation of Islamic codes by which most people abided.

On issues like this there is considerable convergence between the boundlessly optimistic outlooks of liberals and Stalinised communism: given the chance to enjoy the versions of liberation thrust upon them, the masses would come to accept progress and sing its praises. Maybe, but this never took any account of the ways in which the tangible benefits of progress seem to be syphoned away from the people, to collect in abundance for the urbanites, state bureaucrats and their hangers-on. Discontent against this outcome sustained the agitation of the Talib fighters who were able to maintain a narrative of the corruption of fundamental Islamic values by the forces behind the foreign intervention.

As Afghan society begins to brace itself for regime change that will doubtless exact a severe price from supporters of reform, with women and girls particularly exposed to the loss of rights, it is important to understand the forces in play. What is happening today is the inevitable victory of the countryside over the city when the social, cultural and economic gulf between the two has attained the heights of a nation like Afghanistan. The effect of efforts to modernise over the past fifty years by way of both Soviet and pro-Western interventions has been entirely counterproductive. Any trend towards the internal differentiation of rural society into currents favouring reform and those of conservative outlook providing the basis for progressive change being led by the countryside, has been suppressed by the logic of imperial policies which demand the peasants collectively bow the knee to whatever is demanded from them by the urban elites.

The post-9/11 intervention in Afghanistan was as gross a mistake as what is now universally accepted as the one that took place with the invasion of Iraq. To make amends for the prolonging of the suffering of the Afghan people, which is a consequence of the failed policies of the US-led alliance, the governments of the West must make use of whatever they have in the way of diplomatic resources to reduce the surge of vengeance on the part of groups affiliated to the new government. Above all, they need to put in place a refugee policy that can be depended on to provide safe havens for all those who were induced to follow the unwise strategic line being dictated by Washington’s aspirants to global empire. 

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