Civilians pursue a US Air Force transport plane as it takes off, some cling to the fuselage
Artillery Row

Sticking plaster

We could never have achieved the laudable aims of a “New Afghanistan”

As I have seen social media transform into a hotbed of geopolitical experts on Afghanistan, specialists on power dynamics in Central Asia and the broader international system, and intellectuals on the global threat of Islamist extremism, I have spent some time clearing my thoughts on the unfolding situation in a country which is often referred to as the “graveyard of empires”. 

We have been told by some that events in the last ten days or so, have overturned two decades of remarkable progress — but the cynic in me would say that if “progress” over such a long period of time can unravel so quickly, perhaps it wasn’t especially meaningful. However much the intervening external forces sought to win the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan, they were ultimately foreign military occupiers in a land where prevailing religio-cultural norms run counter to conventional Western liberal democratic principles. 

While the US withdrawal screams of reckless incompetence, its departure was inevitable

A 2013 Pew Research Center report — 12 years into the war in Afghanistan — provided a stark image of the socio-cultural attitudes of the country’s citizens on matters of social relations, governance, and law and order. The proportion of Muslims in Azerbaijan who reported that they want sharia to be “the official law of the land” was eight per cent — with this rising to near unanimity in Afghanistan (99 per cent). An overwhelming majority — 94 per cent — of Afghan Muslims in the study, agreed with the view that a wife is “always obliged to obey her husband” and around 85 per cent of Muslims in Afghanistan favoured stoning as a punishment for unfaithful spouses. Around eight in ten Afghan Muslims supported the death penalty for those who leave Islam, and nearly four in ten said that suicide bombings and other forms of violence can be justified in the name of their religion. Over a decade of Western-led occupation and the promotion of “nation-building” through a liberal-democratic prism, and this was the socio-political environment in Afghanistan: a resolutely Islamist society which comprehensively supported patriarchal social arrangements and brutal forms of punishment for adultery and apostasy.

There also must be an acknowledgement of the rampant institutional corruption following the removal of the Taliban. This may well have contributed towards the sheer speed of the Taliban advance and eventual takeover, following the recent withdrawal of Western military personnel. The Afghan national army was well-funded, equipped, and supposedly received considerable amounts of military training from foreign forces. Countless American and British military generals had claimed to have created a powerful and capable Afghan army. On paper, this should have provided a highly-skilled and well-equipped military which was prepared to defend the Afghan state with all its might — but the reality was rather different. The Afghan army — and police forces — had a troubled history of failed recruitment methods, high casualties, desertions, and top-level corruption. A number of unscrupulous commanders pocketed the salaries of troops who did not even exist — so-called “ghost soldiers”. And in spite of the deeply clan-like nature of the population, Afghan soldiers were sent to areas where they had little to no tribal connections. Hardly a sound arrangement in the event of a Taliban onslaught.

After ten years of occupation, Afghans still thought the judiciary was the most corrupt organ of government

After well over a decade of Western-led occupation, six in ten Afghans believed that the judiciary — blighted by industrial-scale bribery — was the most corrupt organ of government. When all of these factors are collectively considered, perhaps it is not much of a surprise that the Taliban faced little resistance as provincial capitals — and lastly Kabul — fell to them like dominoes. What kind of state were Afghans being asked to defend against the Taliban exactly?

I do — to a slight degree — sympathise with the arguments for continued Western military presence in Afghanistan. The current operational cost for the United States was low; women’s rights had improved in recent decades following the overthrowing of the Taliban; destabilisation risks a major refugee inflow into Europe that could undermine social cohesion, heighten religious extremism, and generate a far-right backlash; a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan could become an international Islamist terror-training hub. 

These are all valid arguments — but they ignore the reality that Western-led “nation-building” project in Afghanistan was very much a failure.  If the objective was to construct a “New Afghanistan” with robust and functional state systems, motivated and well-ordered military and law-enforcement institutions, and a society more supportive of liberal democratic values (and despite what Joe Biden is now claiming, that was the aim) the project has been an irrefutable disaster. This was an “unwinnable” endeavour — meaning that there would have to be a point that foreign military actors left Afghanistan. While the United States’ execution of its withdrawal from Afghanistan screams of reckless foreign-policy incompetence, its departure was inevitable. The American people have grown tired with costly, long-winded foreign wars which overstretch in terms of their ideological aims.

We champion women’s rights in Afghanistan but ignore misogynistic attitudes in our own minority communities

Many in the West will be bitterly disappointed and notably anxious over the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan — but they are perhaps better off focusing on matters closer to home. According to the 2020 National Resilience Index (NRI), both the United States and United Kingdom — among the proposed “D-10” group of democracies — have relatively low levels of public trust in the democratic system. Both countries are established international hotspots when it comes to family breakdown, and both countries suffer from racial identity politics (after it was aggressively imported into the UK) which has created a volatile culture of racial-grievance. A hypocritical band of western “feminists” seem to take a great interest in gender relations in Afghanistan, but dare not challenge misogynistic patriarchal attitudes which exist in domestic minority communities. And the US-UK “special relationship” hasn’t just made a hash of things abroad — neither country has covered itself in glory over its domestic management of the pandemic.

For those Americans and Britons that have an appetite for foreign “nation-building” exercises, they must learn from the failures of the “New Afghanistan” project. It is time to be humble and concentrate on working towards getting one’s own house in order before even thinking we can restore everyone else’s.

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