Saturday 21 August 2021

Afghanistan revisited: what should have happened

Much has already been said and written about the US and UK withdrawal from Afghanistan – and that country’s takeover by the Taliban.  That doesn’t mean however that we, the public, are well-informed: our journalists, pundits and politicians tend to utter the same platitudes, lazily following each other like sheep.  We’re left to row through oceans of inane phraseology, with nary an island of insight.  Yet the Afghanistan ‘story’ is full of meaning and pregnant with lessons for the future.

First things first: some of the ‘arguments’ used by politicians and political activists to justify, alleviate criticism and displace the blame are so dishonest, so blatantly hypocritical, that they should make us all gag.

Speaking in UK’s House of Commons, former British Prime Minister Theresa May claimed:

“What President Biden has done is to uphold a decision made by President Trump. It was a unilateral decision of President Trump to do a deal with the Taliban that led to this withdrawal.”

Now come oooon, Right Honourable May – who do you think you’re kidding?  As if undoing every “unilateral decision of President Trump” were not the Biden Administration’s #1 policy thrust!

No wonder that this ‘defence’ was delivered (with little conviction and a cracking voice) by a lame duck ‘former’; I bet no one else wanted that thankless job!  But even Theresa May's speech could not make the US Administration look more foolish than it already did.  Not after its top diplomats, assertive leaders and ‘intelligence’ tsars had assured us all that Taliban was utterly incapable of defeating the Afghan army.  And not after its ambassador to the ‘United’ Nations uttered the following memorable words:

“We have expressed in no uncertain terms here at the United Nations, through a very strongly-worded press statement from the Security Council, that we expect the Taliban to respect human rights, including the rights of women and girls; we have also indicated that they have to be respectful of humanitarian law…”

I leave it to you, dear reader, to determine whether, hit with such “strongly-worded press statement”, the Taliban leaders are currently a) cowering in fear; b) spending sleepless nights under the weight of such clearly-stated US expectations; or c) laughing their turbans off.

But, while the decision makers and their representatives covered themselves in abject ridicule, few of their critics came out smelling of roses, either.

Adjectives like ‘shameful’ and ‘chaotic’ are among the mildest used by such critics to characterise the withdrawal.  They are, no doubt, richly deserved.  Yet let us start with the more mildly worded – though no less incisive – comment posted on Twitter by Israeli journalist Haviv Rettig Gur:

"O America. It isn't the withdrawal itself that shocks. That makes some sense. But the speed, callousness and incompetence are harder to swallow, the human desperation you leave in your wake, the way 20 years of institution-building don't seem to have built any institutions."

It’s not that I argue with the disappointment (if not sheer pain) expressed by Rettig Gur – who grew up in America.  What I question is the underlying belief that this sort of withdrawal can be performed in some idealised, dignified manner.  A belief that is desperately, ludicrously naïve.  Find me – in the entire history of warfare – one example of unilateral withdrawal executed with the proper décor!  The British abandonment of the Palestine Mandate?  The French withdrawal from Algeria, the US departure from Vietnam, the Israeli retreat from South Lebanon, their ‘disengagement’ from Gaza?  They were all done with speed, callousness and – at least in the eyes of the bystanders – with incompetence.  Were all those military and civilian leaders truly incompetent?  Hardly: like kicking the stool at a hanging, the unilateral removal of armed forces simply cannot be done ‘sensitively’ and ‘at a measured pace’, no matter how ‘competent’ the executioner or the commanders in charge.

Former British Conservative Leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith echoed Rettig Gur’s idea, albeit in a less elegiac tone and, may I say, in a more hypocritical style:

“The chaotic, ghastly departure, the way that people were falling off aircraft in their determination to get away, and the helicopters shipping people out, say terrible things about the values that we hold and those we wish to protect. This is a shame on all of us, not just America, but also the whole of NATO and here for us in this House.”

Values, Sir Iain?  Valuuuues??  Let’s be just a little bit honest, for a change: neither the US, nor the UK, nor any of the other NATO allies that sent troops to Afghanistan did so to protect ‘values’; God knows they don’t intervene militarily whenever/wherever women and girls (or indeed men and non-binary human beings) endure abysmal oppression.  No, politicians like Sir Iain sent soldiers to Afghanistan to protect their own citizens and their own countries’ interests.  And now they’re withdrawing the military, because they judge – rightly or wrongly – that it’s in their interest to do so.  Nothing necessarily wrong with that; but please: don’t give me ‘values’!

Arguably the most frequently employed expression, during that entire pointless House of Commons ‘debate’ was “the Afghan people”.  It was uttered no less than 41 times – used and abused by every single speaker.  One would think that the Taliban is a band of Martians freshly descended from an alien spaceship – not an Islamist organisation reflecting the views of a sizable minority of that people!  And I employ the term ‘minority’ with a twinge: I may be too optimistic in using it!

The almost religious solemnity with which the MPs talked about “the Afghan people” was matched only by the enormity of that lie: because there simply is no such ‘people’.  The population of Afghanistan (yes, that’s a more honest way to put it) consists of a multitude of ethnic groups, themselves divided into numerous tribes and clans.  The largest of these groups – the Pashtuns – constitute anywhere between 38% and 48% of the population; they also make up the vast majority of Taliban cadre.  Even the term ‘Taliban’ comes from the Pashtu language: it means ‘students’ – presumably not of humanities, but of Islamic doctrine in their own extreme interpretation.

The old term ‘Afghanistan’ used to mean ‘land of the Pashtuns’.  But it was ‘borrowed’ by British colonialists to describe a much larger, artificial ‘country’ – one designed to serve as stage for the ‘Great Game’ between them and Russian interests.

Ethnic map of Afghanistan (CIA, 2005)

The second-largest ethnic group (the Tajiks) are the ones that constituted the Northern Alliance – the outfit supported by the US after their 2001 invasion.

True, both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance later tried – with only moderate success – to expand their influence beyond their ethnic fiefdom; but the various (and fickle) coalitions thus constituted do not change the general picture: this is an ethnic conflict – with superimposed ideological and religious issues.

While both Pashtuns and Tajiks are Sunni Muslims, the third-largest ethnic group (the Hazara) belong to the Shia branch of Islam.  Oppressed for centuries, they now constitute the ‘natural’ vehicle of influence for neighbouring Iran.  Many Hazara men were recruited to fight in Syria in the ranks of the so-called ‘pro-Iranian militias’.  That – the ayatollahs’ regime made clear to these men – was the price for their families being allowed to live in relative safety in Iran.  To each their own ‘asylum policy’, I guess!

It’s not that I ignore the ideological aspects of the conflict.  Taliban is one of the most extreme proponents of the (already extreme) Islamist ideology.  But it is the ethnic aspect that enables and enhances their thrust.  To many a Pashtun tribesman, Taliban aren’t just mujahideen, not just Muslim holy warriors; they are, primarily perhaps, defenders of the Pashtun way of life, perceived as threatened by internal and external foes.

Arguably (and rather incongruously) the one pundit who came close to understanding Afghanistan was Peter Beinart.  It seems that good ol’ Peter can actually employ reason – when he takes his mind away from his pathological antipathy for the Jewish state!  Unfortunately, even on those rare occasions, he ultimately does not allow reason to win: like the sea waves on a rocky shore, his bursts of rationality soon break upon rigid ideological walls.

At some point, Beinart comes close to delivering the one valid diagnosis for what happened in Afghanistan:

"[B]ecause the US underestimated nationalism’s power, it underestimated the Taliban, as it had once underestimated the Vietcong."

But the nationalism he sees is ‘Afghan’, rather than Pashtun: pseudo-liberals like Beinart simply cannot bring themselves to acknowledge (let alone accept) ethnic particularism – even when it stares them in the face or hits them on the head with a cudgel.

And then comes the hypocrisy – and the racism of low expectations: Beinart treats ‘Afghan nationalism’ with the mental shrug one reserves for immovable facts; even while he bashes ‘US nationalism’ as the cause of all evils.  Typical pseudo-liberal attitude: ‘Third World’ or ‘brown’ nationalism is OK, or at least it’s something we must accept as given; ‘Western’ or ‘white’ nationalism is always criminal.  This is most obvious in their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: for Beinart and his ilk, Palestinian nationalism is something we must tiptoe around, if not enthusiastically support, encourage and admire; Jewish nationalism (and especially its ultimate embodiment – the Jewish state) is by definition reprehensible.

The same weird 'logic' applies to Afghanistan: even though ‘nationalism’ is to be found on both sides, it is always one side that bears the blame; one side that should know better:

"The US invaded Afghanistan both because it was blinded by its own nationalism after September 11 and because it was blind to the nationalism of the people whose country it conquered. […]

Americans must learn that people in foreign countries are just as doggedly, fervently, and even self-destructively, nationalistic as we are ourselves."

Of course, Beinart’s Taliban/Vietcong parallel is hardly original: numerous pundits compared the US debacle in Afghanistan with that older one in Vietnam.  And as hinted before, there are other similar examples.  It would be easy to conclude, therefore, that military intervention in a foreign country is always doomed to failure; that it should never even be attempted.

But those who these days (hypocritically, in hindsight, and with a political agenda) push that conclusion willfully ignore another relatively recent (and successful) intervention: that in the former Yugoslavia.

True, the NATO intervention in that Balkanic country was plagued by hiccups and blunders: some 500 civilians were inadvertently killed in aerial bombardments; tens of thousands of homes were destroyed, alongside schools and cultural monuments.  US bombs even hit China’s embassy in Belgrade, killing 3 Chinese journalists and bringing the two world powers to the brink of war.  And NATO ‘boots on the ground’ failed to prevent massacres such as the one in Srebrenica.

Yet in the big picture, that military intervention was a success (if not an unmitigated one): it ultimately was key to ending the civil war, the killing, the rapes, the massacres.  It helped deliver sustainable peace.  Just 17 years after Srebrenica, Serbia applied to join the European Union – a project signifying the end of any irredentist aspirations.

There are similarities between Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.  For starters, the latter was also inhabited by a number of ethnic groups.  Like in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the ethnic divide was exacerbated (and perhaps even born of) religious rifts.  I say ‘rifts’ advisedly: these were not just doctrinal differences, but deep resentments rooted in centuries of conflict involving Serbs (Eastern Orthodox Christians), Croats (Romano-Catholic Christians), Bosniaks and Kosova Albanians (both Muslim).

Ethnic map of Yugoslavia

Yet ‘Yugoslavia’ is at peace and moving steadily towards freedom, while Afghanistan is headed in the opposite direction.  Why?

The hint is in the question: ‘Yugoslavia’ is no more.  That artificial country split into nation states.  Tall fences make good neighbours: Western interventionists understood that fences (or borders) were needed to deliver peace and progress to the battered people of ‘multi-ethnic’, ‘multi-faith’ Yugoslavia; they helped erect those fences.  In Afghanistan (as in Iraq, Syria, Libya, etc.) they did the exact opposite: they allied themselves with those who – for very ignoble reasons – wanted to forcibly keep different ethnic groups ‘together,’ within the irrelevant and oppressive borders of a false state.

‘Nation building’ isn’t the same as building cars: it’s not a mass manufacturing process, but one that occurs spontaneously (when it occurs at all), over centuries.  And that’s true not just in Afghanistan and not just among ‘brown people’.  These days, one may move freely between the Nertherlands and Germany.  But, 64 years after the formation of the European Community and almost 3 decades after it morphed into a ‘Union’, the Dutch still see themselves different from the Deutsch.  For most of them, those two letters (the ‘e’ and the ‘s’) matter considerably more than the other two – the ones in ‘EU’.

Yugoslavia is no more.  Nor are Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union or the Ottoman Empire.  But Afghanistan is still there; as are (in theory at least) Iraq, Syria, Libya, etc.  They are there because foreign interests and their local allies willed it – not because the people wanted it.  And there is nothing peaceful, or liberal, or benevolent, or positive in that.  People should be allowed (nay, they should be encouraged) to live within borders that they draw themselves; within borders that reflect their ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural identities.

Human beings are not herd animals – they are social ones.  What makes human beings into mankind is the delicate balance of individualism and social behaviour, of competition and cooperation, of particularism and universalism.  Which is why extreme ethnic particularism (xenophobia, racism, hatred of ‘the Other’) are to be unreservedly condemned.  But so should be extreme universalism (which I call uniformism) of the type that attempts to iron out or subvert identity.

Nations and nation states are expressions of that fine balance.  They are the optimal vehicles for competition and cooperation.  They afford a global metastable equilibrium, a potential of relative peace vastly superior to the alternatives: tribal societies on one side, global empires on the other…

Crucially, they enable not ‘just’ peace and stability, but human development and progress: fuelled by the same two engines (cooperation and competition) and blooming in the myriad of flavours we call ‘cultures’.

Successful countries are invariably nation states: neither ‘ethnically pure’ nor ‘multicultural,’ but endowed with character; far from monochromatic, but homogeneous enough to engender the social cohesion and communal solidarity we call ‘identity’; open and tolerant, but espousing a specific cultural flavour, a unique contribution to humanity.

When the likes of Peter Beinart (or, indeed, the likes of Bernie Sanders) rant against ‘nationalism’, they also reject what I call patriotism: the ‘nationalism’ that has nothing to do with hatred of the Other and everything to do with love of one’s own; the ‘nationalism’ that produces not wars, but peaceful, creative competition; that does not destroy, but builds one-of-a-kind tiles in the colourful mosaic we call ‘mankind’.

One of the paradoxes of pseudo-liberals’ vision is that they worship diversity in theory – but seek to destroy it in practice.  There is nothing liberal in an ideology that oppresses identity.  There never was.

Peter Beinart often claims that his views are informed by ‘Jewish values’.  Perhaps they are; but, it seems to me, he owes those values to Herod, not to Hillel.


  1. Noru, your considered insight and understanding, and ability to explain provides for interesting journalism. Thank you