THE WEST HAS FAILED. It is unlikely that we shall ever again see North American, European and/or Australasian ground troops deployed “overseas”. Naval and air forces, yes, but not “boots on the ground”. The Western powers no longer possess the ruthless conviction necessary to impose their will on weaker nations face-to-face. From 15 kilometres offshore, or 30,000 feet above the target, the West may still make its mark. (Although, with cruise missiles and drones, distances hardly matter anymore.) But the brutal confidence that once allowed illiterate British Redcoats to make a gift of the world to their lords and masters. For better or for worse, those days are gone.
There is always an enthusiastic audience for tales of imperial ruin. The Western Left will have watched the helicopters circling the American Embassy in Kabul with the same grim satisfaction as it watched the Hueys taking-off from the US Embassy roof in Saigon forty-six years ago. Such is the fate of all empires, the wise old intellectuals will opine. The only lesson of history is that men never learn the lessons of history.
Before the Western Left breaks out the Champagne, however, it should pause for a few moments to consider what it has just witnessed in Afghanistan. For Afghan women, the withdrawal of United States and Nato ground forces represents an historic betrayal and abandonment. For 20 years, the emancipation of the women and girls of Afghanistan was held up to the world as the single greatest achievement of Western intervention. Like Saddam Hussein’s “human shields”, they were paraded before the world. “Look!” cried the Americans and the Europeans, the Australians and the New Zealanders. “This is why we are here. This is why we cannot leave.”
Billions of dollars were spent to lift Afghan women from sexual abjection to full personhood and independence. “Girls can do anything!” The hip slogan of western societies which had long ago enfranchised and liberated the female half of their populations, became in Afghanistan a revolutionary rallying cry against the brutal “medieval theocracy” (hat-tip to Helen Clark) that first the Soviets, and then the West, expended so much blood and treasure attempting to supplant.
And it worked. Women and girls were uplifted. They thrived in the classrooms, filled the lecture theatres, took charge in shops, offices and factories. Like proud parents, the Western Occupiers looked on. Here, they told themselves, was the proof of the West’s moral superiority. Here was the vindication of neoliberal modernity.
Almost – but not quite. Because if the West had truly been committed to sexual equality; if it had truly wanted a democratic and modern Afghanistan to emerge from the theocratic brutality of the Taliban; then it would have driven through the one truly revolutionary reform that might have made that possible: it would have inducted women into the Afghan Army.
Why is the Taliban in Kabul? The answer is brutally simple: because the men of the Afghan Army were given nothing to fight for. The president of their country was a corrupt crook and coward. The ministers and provincial governors of the Afghan regime took their lead from the President. The Army commanders stole their troops wages and sold their rations in the marketplace. For what, then, were the men of the Afghan Army being asked to lay down their lives? Democracy? There was none. Freedom? They had none. A better life? After 20 years – where was it? Who was to say their lives would not be better under the Taliban?
Only Afghanistan’s women had something to fight for – something to die for – and nobody from the armies of the West, let alone their own fathers, brothers and husbands, were willing to give them something to fight with – and teach them how to use it.
Had the West still possessed a skerrick of imperial statecraft, it would have recognised and armed the nation state of Kurdistan, and encouraged it to send its best female troops to teach the Afghan women how to fight. That it did none of these things proves that the billions it spent “liberating” the women of Afghanistan were drawn exclusively from the Public Relations Budget. Having decided it was time to leave Afghanistan, Donald Trump and Joe Biden simply turned their backs on the women and girls of that blood-stained country – and withdrew. The Taliban would look after them.
For more than two thousand years, the people of the West (among others) have built empires. Mysteriously, the more removed in time they became from the imperial powers of the past: Greece, Rome, Spain, France, Britain; the less adroit they became at holding on to their conquests.
The key objective of empire is not to occupy territory, but to prevent your enemies from occupying it. In other words, to make sure that, having conquered a people, you make it worth their while to stand with you, not against you. Peace, security and prosperity is what a clever imperial power offers: overseen and administered as far as possible by the locals themselves. (Or, at least, the local elites.) The British and the French got to be quite good at this. The Americans never got the hang of it.
Having been out-waited and out-fought in Afghanistan, the United States will now have to endure watching the Chinese play the role of the Afghan people’s new best friend. Aid will pour in from Beijing, infrastructure projects will proliferate, peace, security and prosperity will cement the new friendship in place. More to the point, not a single Chinese combat-boot will disturb the Afghan dust.
And the Uighurs languishing in concentration camps across the border in Xinjiang Province? Why, the Taliban will expend about as much energy on their behalf, as the Western Left will expend on helping the women and girls of Afghanistan.
Because it’s not just the statesmen, diplomats and generals of the West who have failed to live up to the achievements of their forebears; the aspirations and ideals of its revolutionaries have similarly dwindled. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels ended The Communist Manifesto with the ringing declaration: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” What would the Western Left cry today? “Persons of every identity (except White, Cis-Males) make full use of intersectional opportunities whenever practicable. Break free from all imposed moralities, but do not attempt to impose your personal notions of right and wrong on the rest of the world.”
Especially not in Afghanistan.