Pankaj Mishra: Imperial fantasies fueled the Afghan tragedy
A young generation today may have forgotten the grandiose plans Anglo-American leaders proclaimed in 2001.
The U.S. decision to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan, announced by Barack Obama in 2014, formalized by Donald Trump in 2019 and implemented by Joe Biden in 2021, has provoked a howl of anguish among political, security and media establishments across the Atlantic.
Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations summed up a broad swath of opinion among foreign policy elites by denouncing Biden as “calamitously, tragically, wrong.” Tony Blair termed the U.S. decision “imbecilic,” claiming that the Western troops sent to Afghanistan in late 2001 when he was prime minister of the United Kingdom should stay on to protect their “gains.”
Never mind that poverty and violence have ravaged Afghanistan at a steadily escalating rate for the last decade despite infusions of Western cash and troops — a situation so intolerable for the ruled, and so untenable for the rulers, that Islamic State found a stronghold and the Taliban were able to take over the entire country rapidly and seemingly effortlessly.
Indeed, the criticism of a long-inevitable U.S. retreat, as deluded as it is ferocious, suggests that the real threat to Western security and credibility comes not from what happens in the Pashtun countryside, or from any regrouping of al-Qaida, but from what has passed for thinking in much of the Beltway.
A young generation today may have forgotten the grandiose plans Anglo-American leaders proclaimed in 2001. Blair spoke of bringing salvation not only to Afghans but also “the starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza.” Boot argued in October 2001 that “Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.”
Reading these neo-imperialist fantasists back in 2001, the words of Hannah Arendt grew deafeningly loud in my head. The “white man’s burden,” she had written in the 1940s, was “either hypocrisy or racism” and those who shouldered it in earnest invariably exposed themselves as “the tragic and quixotic fools of imperialism.”
It seemed in 2001 that many Western elites had learned nothing at all from the past, neither of the disasters unleashed by self-confident Englishmen, nor of the malignant legacies they left behind.
Even the simplest lesson of decolonization — the central event of the 20th century — had passed them by: The non-white peoples of the Earth would no longer tolerate, no matter what happened in their countries, invasion and occupation by white men. This basic resolve was summed up by the least Taliban-like figure imaginable: Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi, who launched a campaign against Britain during the Second World War, urging them to leave India to god or “to anarchy.”
It turns out, in 2021, that some Western elites are not only wholly oblivious to their long past of inept rule and ignominious retreat in the non-West. Drunk on unaccountable power and untarnished reputation, they have learned nothing from the present, either: the series of calamitously failed military interventions in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Libya that helped spawn new monsters such as the Islamic State which made the Taliban look moderate by comparison.
They can’t see that, predictably chaotic and violent (though nothing on the scale of the murderous anarchy unleashed by the British departure from India), the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has a significance that no previous imperial disengagement has had.
Firstly, it is backed by popular will. Large majorities in the West long ago turned against their leaders’ catastrophically failed forever wars (Blair, for instance, cannot appear in public without risk of citizen’s arrest). In the U.S., an insurgent candidate rose disastrously to supreme power explicitly promising to end exorbitant foreign interventions initiated by feckless D.C. elites.
Another more sobering factor behind the U.S. withdrawal of troops is the changing nature of war. In his bracing new book “Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War,” the legal scholar Samuel Moyn demonstrates how, starting in the last years of the Bush administration, and accelerating during the Obama and Trump administrations, conventional military missions gave way to commando operations and drone and missile strikes.
In other words, the forever wars beloved of so many foreign policy elites are far from ending; they just have a different, less-visible methodology, and call for robots rather than boots on the ground, satellites rather than jodhpurs and pith helmets.
As for nation-building, no serious economist believes, after 20 years of consistent failure, that highly uneven flows of foreign aid that largely disappear into the pockets of urban-based military contractors and corrupt warlords can build a modern economy, let alone democracy.
“Give war a chance,” Thomas Friedman wrote in November 2001, as the U.S. military pounded Afghanistan. But the neo-imperialist wars and humanitarian crusades of the early 2000s were grotesquely ill-timed. For the racial hierarchy and military technologies of the 19th century can’t and won’t be re-created in the 21st. It was a truly extraordinary folly to invest U.S. prestige, security and credibility in such patently doomed projects.
The reappearance of the brutal Taliban will no doubt rekindle a macho fantasy of the West’s righteous battle to reform violently backward natives. But the West, no less than Afghanistan, needs to be saved from the quixotic fools of imperialism.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”