The rapid collapse of the Afghanistan government before a rag tag army of poorly trained, poorly armed, poorly resourced and poorly commanded Taliban, who did not even have a big power bankrolling them, marks the defeat of one of the most disastrous experiments in international relations – liberal imperialism!
By liberal imperialism I mean the attempt by the West to remodel other nations in its own image ie to make them liberal democracies. The west tries this through diplomatic pressure (hectoring and threatening), economic blackmail (cutting aid) and in some radical cases (such as Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan etc) through the barrel of the gun.
Liberal imperialism is a mutilation of the original (or classical) liberal idea, which I think is an inspiring idea. Classical liberalism believes that human beings have different views and values; therefore we cannot agree even on basic principles. The best way to live together is to respect and tolerate diversity.
Domestically classical liberalism allowed a diversity of ideologies, beliefs, religions etc. that is to say it was l particularistic. At the international level, classical liberalism believes every society should have a form of government it’s people choose. It does not have the missionary creed to spread itself as a universal value to every part of the world precisely because it was based on the principle of tolerance of diversity.
Liberal imperialism, on the other hand, is universalist. It believes that liberalism must be spread around the globe to every society like a religion; that every nation regardless of circumstances, should become liberal or face sanctions or even war. It is, therefore, intolerant of diversity. It seeks to promote uniformity.
It is the desire to spread it internationally that makes liberal imperialism a dictatorial and intolerant creed. It is also the reason it has faced disaster after disaster in the last 30 years wherever it has been tried – most especially and explicitly in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. Why? Because its international match seeking to impose itself on other society confronts an even more powerful ideology, nationalism.
So let us return to the collapse of the US supported government in Kabul – in what has been a record few days. America’s liberal imperial project has been defeated by the forces of nationalism. The major source of this failure is not that the US intervened and removed the Taliban and occupied the country. The occupation was derivative. The primary problem is that America sought to reshape Afghanistan in its own image ie make it a liberal democracy.
Although America’s aim in Afghanistan was to fight terrorism, the occupation was driven by the belief that to make that country inhospitable for terrorism requires a broad nation building project by turning it into a liberal democracy. It is this attempt to reshape Afghan society into a mirror image of America that led to disaster.
Many Americans believe that legitimate government is one where the leaders are elected through free and fair competitive elections in which multiple political parties and candidates compete freely; where there is separation of powers between different arms of government (the executive, judiciary and legislature), where there are checks and balances, a free press and where the government delivers public goods and services to all citizens through impersonal institutions.
But this is a very western conception of governmental legitimacy. To believe that an ordinary Pashtun peasant in a village in Afghanistan holds such a belief is delusional and silly. This belief has evolved in the west over centuries of structural change and political struggle. A few elites in Kabul, educated in western philosophy, may hold these beliefs and espouse such ideas but only artificially. For most Afghans, the source of legitimacy are based on their inherited traditions and values, not western conceptions.
The American supported government in Kabul was seen by many afghans for what it really was – a puppet administration. Here liberalism collided with nationalism and nationalism won. There was also a religious dimension to this: Americans were seen as infidels in this deeply religious Muslim society. Attempts to promote gender rights and other associated changes in Afghan society were seen as external impositions, however morally appealing they may appear in the eyes and minds of western educated elites.
This is the context in which America has been defeated and humiliated. By 2010, America had 100,000 troops, its NATO allies about 36,000. They financed a government that was elected democratically, provided public goods and services and promoted a regime of political and social rights on the lines of Denmark. They also trained, armed and equipped 300,000 Afghanistan national army troops. This phalanx of steel with the most advanced attack planes, drones, helicopters, artillery and mortars faced off a Taliban insurgency of not more 75,000 poorly trained and equipped and not paid at all – and lost. Why?
The belief that elections bring legitimacy under all circumstances is misguided. For as long as the government in Kabul was foreign sponsored, promoting foreign ideas and creeds, it was bound never to find support among ordinary Afghans. And this is what defines the Taliban.
Who is the Taliban? He is a vendor in the street, a farmer in a garden, a trader in a market, a businessman in a shop, a civil servant in a government ministry, a priest in a mosque, a teacher in a school, a nurse in a hospital, a tribal chief in a village, a waiter in a restaurant, a policeman on guard, and yes, a soldier in the Afghanistan national army. To fight the Taliban was to fight Afghan society; and in that fight America had no chance.
Finally the western mindset cannot overcome its false assumptions. For example many are claiming that the Afghanistan government lacked legitimacy because it was corrupt. But there are many extremely corrupt governments around that world that have enjoyed long and stable careers – precisely because they were corrupt. In fact the most enduring “regimes” I know have been equally the most corrupt.
America’s imperial project in Afghanistan failed because it was essentially an attempt to turn Afghanistan into America. Afghans, a proud people, could not accept that.
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