Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

Liberalism’s graveyard

Afghanistan is where ideologies go to die

Artillery Row

Gerard Araud, the outspoken former French ambassador recently tweeted that “Afghanistan will go back to its geopolitical destiny, being a buffer state and a marginal backwater. Any country which forgets it is doomed to fail.” That is almost certainly true; in foreign policy and military grand-strategy, geography is often destiny.

But this most recent Afghanistan war may also go down in history as one of the consequential ones. Quite possibly one of the most paradigm-shifting events this century. Because Afghanistan throws open many more questions about contemporary social science than it provides answers for. It is the graveyard not just of empires – a rhetorical cliché even a neoconservative should grasp – but rather the place and the idea of the place is the graveyard of ideologies.

Afghanistan proved to be the death of the (supposedly irreversible) global march of progress and enlightenment. It is the surest example that time can be turned back by sheer force, and that History, in the Hegelian sense, is not directional but cyclical. Evangelical Marxism failed in Afghanistan, as did evangelical liberalism. Prior to the Soviet intervention, despite reservations from the red army generals about the semi-feudal backwater of Afghanistan, the ideologues of the central committee, especially Mikhail Suslov and Boris Ponomarev, convinced Chairman Brezhnev (and I paraphrase) that there is no society on this planet that is not “ripe for the spread of the red banner”. The rest of the imperial overstretch was history. Forty years forward, the liberal ideologues suffered the same fate. Nemesis followed hubris.

Not just liberalism and Marxism. More than forty years of academic feminism died in the sands of Afghanistan. There were no Hollywood “I got this sis” girlboss videos, or “empowered” bands of amazons on daredevil missions to save women and children from those misogynist dinosaurs. The best we got was an open letter from Kate Winslet and Amanda Gorman, and a half-hearted Jacinda Ardern begging the Taliban to honour women’s rights, who now as the legitimate government of Afghanistan , in an ironic twist of liberal institutionalism, will have a seat on the UN Commission on the status of women. There should ideally be whole study groups at universities on this. Empowerment, it turns out, is only a corporate buzzword synonymous with protection, often by hard men with guns from another set of hard men with guns. A benevolent form of patriarchy defending against a malevolent form of patriarchy. Real power is power, it turns out. Or remains.

Practically all social science theories on counter-insurgency failed in Afghanistan. Twenty years of the military-NGO complex, panels after panels about the benefits of starting girls schools in Helmand, trillions of dollars in endowments, entire university departments, grants, scholarships, and several hundreds of theoretical papers later, it appears the only way to end an insurgency is not by winning hearts and minds, but by decimating the male population mercilessly and installing warlords; unless one is willing to occupy the land for over three hundred years in a hope of organic change from within that is, roughly the time it took from the last of the Greater Mughals to Nehru. There is something grimly comic in noting that the people who would have woke strokes just on hearing the Raj being praised are also, habitually, those keening at the West “abandoning” Afghanistan.

The Russians stabilised Chechnya, not by teaching Tolstoy but by killing Chechens and installing pro-Kremlin warlords. The Sri Lankans committed war crimes on a genocidal scale but managed to end the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) threat for good. One can debate the morality of these actions, or the fact that Afghanistan is at all strategically that important to us, the way Chechnya is to Russia, or Jaffna is to Sri Lanka. But the end result is in favour of amoral realpolitik. Speaking of Hannibal, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in The Prince that there were no dissensions within the multi-ethnic subjects manning his army. “This arose from nothing else than his inhuman cruelty, which, with his boundless valour, made him revered and terrible in the sight of his soldiers, but without that cruelty, his other virtues were not sufficient to produce this effect”. Observing the collapse of the Afghan army facing the Taliban, it was Machiavelli 1, Pentagon 0.

The Russians stabilised Chechnya, not by teaching Tolstoy but by killing Chechens and installing pro-Kremlin warlords

Tony Blair is bitter lamenting that the withdrawal from Afghanistan needn’t be. “We did it in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars'” he claims, adding that the Afghan war is worth continuing because of the “gains in living standards, education particularly of girls, gains in freedom”. Anne Applebaum channels her inner Trotsky, arguing that we might not be interested in “forever wars”, but “forever war” is interested in us. The wokest of American generals are weepy and emotional about this, as was the Pentagon bureaucracy, for whom the main reason to continue to be in Afghanistan was to “use the war to turn Afghanistan into a democracy” and “to transform Afghan culture and elevate women’s rights.”

“That could have been grounds to halt or reverse the American withdrawal. There was little political pressure within America to bring the war to a speedy conclusion,” argued The Economist, staying true to its roots. Just why should working-class men from either Kent or Kentucky continue to die in a bid to ensure a sexual revolution in Kandahar was never quite clear. As it turns out, the rank and file of those men, just as their normie brethren, are deeply opposed to any more of such misadventures simply because their supposed intellectual betters have utopian ideas about human nature, society, and history. To the continued disappointment of liberals and Marxists, the masses are almost always reactionary and realist.

Seen through this lens, it all makes sense. As we observe hundreds of military-age men flee Afghanistan instead of taking up arms, we also observe the end of faith in universalist liberalism, which disregards human nature, realism, prudence, restraint, and history.

While Afghanistan might have started as a war of vengeance by a wounded and humiliated hegemon, it quickly morphed into a deeply ideological (and in some ways, theological) project of social engineering and permanent revolution by the “international community”; a “just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values”, to use Tony Blair’s own catechism, a long term realignment of a section of the left (incidentally, noted by Peter Hitchens as early as in 2001) that wanted to use the martial prowess of NATO to promote a global revolution.

It dragged on, peculiarly based on lies of progress, despite evidence to the contrary, due to the very same reason. Theological conflicts are irrational by their very nature, and therefore are not allowed to end, because ending one would imply the end of faith. The real facts are never here and now, they’re always hereafter. In Afghanistan reality asserted itself, and it has buried more lies than we can count.

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